Sunday, December 7, 1997

Cape Ann

Written in 1997 for the New York Times Magazine

Anyone who lives on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and actually leaves from time to time, gets used to explaining the map and the world in this way: No, we’re the other cape. North of Boston. That’s right, the small one . . . . And after a few years (to those of us who aren’t natives) this becomes a method of assessing one’s allegiance, because everybody who lives here eventually realizes that we are really inhabiting an island, linked to the big mainland only on sufferance and by a couple of mere bridges which emphasize the disconnection each time they let us on and off.

Cape Ann is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on three sides and poked into by salt rivers on the fourth. It is a floating world complete unto itself. Though its corpus is all jagged granite, marsh, and moors, its psychology is that of an island drifting seaward, snagged only tenuously alongside the continent by steel and concrete, feeding for centuries off the fish of the sea. The people are islanders in mind and personality, insular through and through, with all the obsessions, satisfactions, faiths, frustrations, and pleasures of islanders. We know our cape in detail and claim you can never truly know more than a smidgin of it. We go to Boston, 38 miles away, as reluctantly as possible. We begrudgingly call ourselves the other cape, then snicker inwardly when strangers think they have misheard the name—and we are quietly relieved.

Socially, Cape Ann is two towns that are quite distinct; in shape it might be a liquefied clock by Dalí. Between five and seven there is Gloucester, once the busiest fishing port in the country, ever unsure how to deal with a depleted profession. Even today the small city mostly resembles the Edward Hopper paintings that caught its hilly, vagrant harbor light, its forlorn cemeteries and rail yard, its glowing clapboard-lined streets. It can still boast a fleet of lobstermen, and for half the year whale-watch boats go out to sport alongside the agile humpbacks, while at least one schooner under full sail plies the great embrace of Gloucester’s harbor.

Rockport, at two o’clock, is a strenuously picturesque boomtown, its summer streets lined with tourist flypaper and endless, self-parodying art galleries selling paintings of what you see when you turn around. Those streets in winter are barely recognizable, blocked with snow and devoid of human life, with a few boats rocking in a muttering and senile sea. This is maybe a Gloucesterite being envious of the town’s summer lucre: in fact Rockport has a superb setting, with grand oceanic vistas, seaside inns, Twin Lights (the only double lighthouses in the world), and the cunning to keep day tripper money visiting the motley shops year after year. If much of it seems immeasurably more bogus than when I was a kid—except for a wonderfully rickety art movie-house, upstairs in an old meeting hall—many of us are grateful that Rockport’s hullabaloo is confined to one season, and that its dread of liquor until very recently kept it a dry town which sent visitors to Gloucester restaurants in search of a drink.

There is more to Cape Ann than these rivals. There are the satellite communities of Magnolia, with its gray castle built in a Gothic-medieval hodgepodge by the millionaire inventor John Hammond; and of Essex, with a shipbuilding museum on the river by idyllic marshes where an industry once flourished, and a long honor-guard of clam shacks and antique shops, each waiting for its inventive millionaire. Both are “up the line” or “over the bridge”—meaning off-cape. Beaches of grandeur stretch within easy reach: Wingaersheek, Crane (in Ipswich), Singing Beach (in Manchester-by-the-Sea, formerly mere Manchester). Still, the only way to get to know Cape Ann is to drive all the way around it, on the shore road (127). This takes less than an hour.

You follow the coast through a litany of brief villages, and personalized coves which look as if the inflatable sea-monster that appears on 19th century maps has taken big bites out of the shore. Goose Cove, Bay View, Lobster Cove, the Mill, Halibut Point, Annisquam, Pigeon Cove, Riverdale, Plum Cove, Lanesville, Bass Rocks, Folly Cove: many have their own idiosyncratic beaches and perhaps a tiny post office, a softball field, a few old barns hidden in trees, a futuristic home dominating a point, a variety store amid a strip of stalwart houses huddled together, an art gallery shut tight, lanes heading down to the glittering water, offshoot roads leading you astray. Though these villages have no validity to the census takers, their limits and their personalities are quite real to their denizens.

One tributary of 127 worth pursuing is along Gloucester’s East Main Street to Rocky Neck. The Neck, which gazes out on wooden houses standing precariously above Smith’s Cove, can be a mini-Rockport in the summer, with waterside restaurant-bars where you can try the fried piece of cod which passeth all under-standing. But the view of fishing boats is an eternal image of the town, and the switchback lanes are shaded and lovely. From the Neck the road becomes Eastern Point Boulevard, and just past Niles Beach it leads down Eastern Point to the cape’s largest mansions and most majestic views. A little farther on is the so-called Back Shore, with its big fair-weather hotels gazing over the rocks, and eventually the stunning sweep of Good Harbor Beach.

Settled in 1623, Cape Ann was early on a fishing center, but in the last two centuries its other lifeblood was granite. (Stone for Union Station in Washington, D.C. came from here.) Today the abandoned rock quarries behind Lanesville and Rockport are fresh water swimming-canyons in the summer, access permitting. The huge stone walls that one sees everywhere belong to another age, as does a fishing fleet that historically numbered 350 boats and is now a few dozen and going down—the once-teeming banks overfished, the rooted way of life tottering. The lobstermen and clamdiggers will keep on, Gloucester’s frozen fish factories will survive on catch from all over the world, but whether fishing itself will be successfully replaced by light industry or, as a cynical friend says, by “cuteness and overdevelopment,” is an open question.

Visitors all see the harbor and the remnants of the fleet, and the famous fisherman’s statue along the boulevard—the man at the wheel staring out across the enormous arc of the harbor, past Ten Pound Island. (He was recently joined by a nearby statue of the fisherman’s wife.) Yet no site is more moving in this regard than the Gloucester City Hall, an 1870 Victorian edifice which resembles a French mairie. Within are vibrant WPA murals, a marble Winged Victory gracing the prow of a dory, a tin-roofed auditorium upstairs where Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum held forth. And, all around, reminders:

A Shipwrecked Sailor,
Buried on this coast,
Bids you set sail.
Full many a gallant ship,
When we were lost,
Weathered the gale.

So reads a carved wooden bas-relief of waves. Lining the walls of a dark staircase are more sobering plaques, the death toll of men who perished at sea from 1874 to 1978. (At the end of the 19th century, the fleet routinely lost fifteen boats and a hundred men a year.) The names make clear Gloucester’s immigrant influx. Largely Yankee and Irish before the Civil War, they were soon joined by Nova Scotians. Next came Portuguese, and Italians early in the 20th century; each successful generation whose sons could quit fishing thus made room for another immigrant group. The Italians helped bring in gas-powered boats that would gradually replace the large fleet of sailing schooners.

Much of Gloucester’s appeal lies in the fact that it has one of everything, in that small-town way which is in fact highly efficient. On two blocks of Main Street, for example, there is a school of art for children; a higgledy-piggledy antiques store whose treasures regularly surprise the proprietor; a bistro to equal any in the state; a thriving Mexican restaurant; fine vintage clothing, record, and photo shops; a health food emporium, an Army-Navy store, a barber shop with a whirling tricolor pole; several fishermen’s bars whose shadows remain a respite from the glare of daylight; and a genuine caffé whose pastries rival any in Sicily. There’s the added warmth of an unexpectedly superb local library, a bookstore defending its terrain against the internet, and one prodigal used bookshop. (A few miles away, little Lanesville has arguably the very best in the country specializing in nautical works.) There is also an active local symphony, a strong jazz scene built around the late, inspirational trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, and a busy repertory theater, the creation of Israel Horovitz—who often writes plays set here.

At Halloween one sees the mordant humor of the Gloucesterite writ large. For at least a month you find mock-corpses everywhere—lynched from tree limbs, upended in trash barrels, flung over hedges, pinioned on roofs. These murdered scarecrow dummies are more ghoulish than any pumpkin grin, with echoes of a pagan respect for and mockery of death. When the Vietnam Moving Memorial came to town a decade ago, half of Gloucester turned out to see it; the list of locals who gave their lives in that war was astonishingly long. This is not only a deep-bred patriotism. The equivalent toll of lost fishermen over the decades reminds you that people here are not afraid of punishing labor, nor are they afraid to die.

Every exceptional locale has its singular wisdom. I like to believe that T.S. Eliot, whose boyhood summers here were absorbed into his imagery, was invoking Cape Ann in Ash Wednesday:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks . . . .

The bestseller and film about a storm that swallowed one of Gloucester’s vessels a few years back generated nationwide interest in its fishing heritage and its bars. With luck this glimmering fame may provide something more lasting than a few perfect T-shirts. It would be providential if Gloucester could find more in the mythos of, say, Kipling’s Captains Courageous than just a name for a restaurant; if it could make more fitting use of its past. God knows the place has suffered enough.

Cape Ann has magnetized American painters for a hundred and fifty years. John Sloan complained to Van Wyck Brooks early in the century that “. . . there was an artist’s shadow beside every cow in Gloucester, and the cows themselves were dying from eating paint-rags.” Those today who turn the sausage-crank of harbor and seascapes are battening off a strong tradition of painters who saw more than the standard lighthouse, pier, fisherman’s shack. The list of regulars in the first half of this century includes Maxfield Parrish, Milton Avery, Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Maurice Prendergast. Unlike many scenic spots, Cape Ann drew them back steadily, season after season. The coast and the town views that so attracted them survive intact; streets whose charged geometries Hopper caught are still virtually identical except for the cars.

These modern luminaries were in turn feeding on the example of Winslow Homer, who visited twice and put his artistic blessing on the cape, and native son Fitz Henry Lane, now one of the most prized 19th century American painters. Beyond the precise realism and romantic hues of Lane’s wide-angle harbor views, his work is imbued with a deep mysticism, a reverential glow for the place that awakened him as an artist.

You can find work by most of them at the Cape Ann Historical Association, a Gloucester museum that is an ideal starting-point for any visitor. It has a diorama of the 19th century waterfront, with a fish packing house, schooners, piers, a smoke house, and a marine railway. There is also the boat of Howard Blackburn, the town’s most celebrated schooner captain. Blackburn managed two single-handed Atlantic crossings after having lost his fingers to frostbite in a shipwreck years before; no wonder Main Street’s largest tavern used to be named after him. (Winslow Homer stayed upstairs.) In 1901 Blackburn set the record for a solo crossing, 39 days Gloucester-Lisbon, in this actual “Gloucester sloop”—a standard turn-of-the-century vessel. A local fisherman, Alfred Johnson, had been the first to sail the Atlantic solo, in 1876.

Cape Ann has also drawn writers (this is a somewhat personal subject), who find it a good place to work with few distractions, no pretenses, an inspiring prospect of the sea, and rock slabs that conveniently turn into trampolines you can bounce ideas off. Kipling’s novel is the great evocation of local hard labor, which remains strangely absent from many painters’ work—though it is crucial to Horovitz’s plays. An ongoing poetic tradition includes Charles Olson (constructing a Cape Ann cosmology) and Eliot, who in The Dry Salvages speaks of Gloucester’s magnificent Portuguese church, Our Lady of Good Voyage:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish. . .
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning. . .
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus.

Naturally, many people move here to get away from the warp and woof of the world —not just the requisite artisans and backyard philosophers, but venture capitalists and commercial filmmakers too. They are often attracted not simply by the physical beauty, which has a distinct personality, but by the pagan sense of Cape Ann as a place of mysterious power generated somewhere deep in the earth. Outsiders dismiss this as island malarkey, and maybe it is—but then again, they don’t live here.

The source of this mysticism is not simply the ocean. Its geographical heart is the vast wooded area known as Dogtown, the cape’s central ice-age tract, crisscrossed with rocky foot (now mountain bike) trails. Dogtown is crucial to the psychology of the Cape Anner: it is our barbaric hinterland, our Amazon basin, on which all our houses are turning their backs to gaze seaward. Dogtown reminds us that an ancient untamed chaos—the wild, unknowable New England woods—is lurking right behind us.

Summer here is the season that brings the visitors. As a friend of mine puts it, “Cape Ann is ten weeks.” He means July through mid-September, because May and June can easily be dismal. Still, soon enough the magic begins, and there comes the steady clatter of shutters taken down, lawns mowed viciously, weekenders trundling about the back roads; the ceremony of unheated houses being opened and sailboats made ready and launched. For those freshly arrived there is sometimes a new bakery to try, and always the antique and junk shops to plunder—that stampede of white elephants. We year-rounders regard the summer residents with a fishy glance, but it is rejuvenating to have fresh faces to unsettle us, to shatter the claustrophobia of a long winter that was followed by bitter spring rains and mud.

Autumn is the happy reverse: the summer people are leaving and we’ll soon have the place to ourselves again. It is, we like to tell each other, the best time. This isn’t true, because the summers here are pure glory, with a thunderous beach light that invades our houses and drives out the grayness of the rocks and details the coast and brings out the excited blue of the sea. Yet the satisfaction of autumn is feeling the edge of a summer that will soon be imaginary linger, just before the sky turns to gunpowder and the leaves to sudden flame; of watching the year’s warmth hover in place for a few more weeks before it all changes.

Thursday, August 14, 1997

A Childhood in Nassau

Written in 1997 for Sky magazine

For a writer, childhood is the treasure chest; one has the rest of life to share out by the fistful the amazing, gleaming pirate’s hoard buried many layers deep in the imagination.

When I was a boy growing up in the Bahamas, I used to get up mornings at dawn and go out on our little second-story terrace to look over the jumbled town of Nassau and, beyond its quiet streets, the gradually awakening ocean. Nothing meant more to me then than the startling sight, two mornings a week, of the ocean liners from Miami edging over the horizon, plumed with pipe-swirls of smoke. I would watch each slow ship slip across the water towards me and make the prim turn into harbor and sound its horn, waking everyone on that side of the island. I learned to count on ships’ funnels; I learned geography from watching boats unload their different cargoes.

We didn’t live in Nassau year-round—that would’ve been too good to be true. My mother was a ballet teacher, a Londoner based improbably in Georgia; my father, an American journalist, was perpetually abroad. Soon after I was born in 1957 it made sense for my mother to escape Southern heat every year and assuage her homesickness by bringing us to a guest house in Nassau for the whole summer.

In those bright days Nassau was small, elegant, sophisticated, and intimate (we had the same taxi-driver year after year). Most shops closed Friday afternoons; there was only one casino, run like a private Mayfair gaming club. The town of uneven streets was suffused with the fragrance of oleander and poinciana. Even the architecture had a languor: low, balconied, pink, yellow and lavender buildings in wood or stucco, all shutters, jalousies, and fruit trees in high-walled gardens. Those walls’ modern counterparts, just coming in, were discreet “offshore” banks for the nervous big money of Europe, worried about tax laws and the nuclear threat. Nassau was inexorably British (the Bahamas remained a crown colony until 1973), in ways that are difficult to describe now without sounding like an exercise in nostalgia for Empire.

This was undoubtedly because I saw the place through my mother’s eyes—determined that I would not be brought up wholly American, and delighted at being able to get the latest English novels at the Island Bookshop, or pharmaceuticals and chocolates unavailable in the States, or catch up on London theater gossip in chance conversations on the beach.

Nassau was also very safe. At age five I was allowed to walk around by myself. I’d go down to the Prince George Wharf to gaze at boys my age diving for tossed shillings and the cruise ships disgorging passengers where the fringed horse-buggies awaited them patiently. Here, too, local sloops would be unloading fruit, vegetables and fish, while the mail-boats got ready to “tie loose” for the Out Islands. What is now the Straw Market was then the city marketplace for produce and fish; the straw work was done by Bahamian women sewing away outside under umbrellas (“Can I sell you something, darling?”). The “native” paintings and sculptures, often of real finesse, were mostly done by Haitians.

The only danger for a child alone was that I might get lost, in which case any Nassavian would’ve pointed me back to our guest house. Like my Bahamian playmates I’d mastered a greeting popular then among local men which I was sure would distinguish me from an average tourist brat. It was done by an upright forefinger held around eye-level, flipped forward in a brief gesture with a mix of studied casualness and a hint of the Bogartian toughness copied around the Caribbean then.

Our guest house, the Ocean Spray, was on Bay Street up from a cream-yellow queen called the British Colonial Hotel—ramparts on an imperial scale, flags of visitor countries, and the slowest service in the islands. The little Ocean Spray stood across from what was then a private beach owned by the hotel, a beach divided by a wall too high to see across. One side was for hotel guests, or anyone who paid a beach fee. The other side was public, for Bahamians—who from their side could come up the private side only as far as the tide-mark. This was not quite a color law; that would’ve been too precise for Nassau. It made for a curious counterpoint within my racial education, since in Georgia all my friends were white, and in Nassau they were all black.

I can still see that beach, its sugary expanse punctuated by two coconut palms growing from a common base. It looked across to the western tip of Paradise Island, with its lighthouse set like a candle marking the entrance to Nassau harbor. We’d spend most days there; occasionally there’d be a commotion, as when some Italian sailors caught a shark in the shallows and heroically hauled it in. At day’s end we had only to cross the street to be home. The guest house was run by a family of Syrian emigres called Moses. The daughter, my babysitter, ceaselessly gyrated and shrieked to Elvis Presley records; the mother made wonderful stuffed grape-leaves—they kept vines out back.

I had my own passions, of course. One was mangos, which I resisted trying (they looked too ugly) for years, until my mother persuaded me one hot July afternoon. A plot formed immediately; I feigned sleep that night, waited till she was in bed, then got up stealthily and in darkness assaulted the other mangos ripening on the table. My punishment was being sick for days—little boys shouldn’t consume three mangos singlehanded. Equally addictive were caneps, a sour fruit the size of a large marble that pops out of a green skin into your mouth and refreshes you instantly.

I learned to read there the summer I was four. My favorite haunt quickly became the library, a domed octagonal 18th century building in a little park just behind the main colonial square and post office. Originally the town prison, the bookshelves were in what had been the cells. This added greatly to the lurid allure of books about former Nassau colleagues like Blackbeard—any boy feels an instinctive kinship with pirates.

Another treat, high tea outdoors, often followed a library visit. Nearby soared one of the grandest hotels in the Caribbean, the Royal Victoria, a lovely balconied 19th century wooden manse like a tropical Tara, built for rum-runners and surrounded by glorious, cathedral-like botanical gardens. At the center was a huge banyan tree whose arms cradled a stage where a band played calypsos from tea-time on. Years later it closed, fell into ruin and was recently razed. It would’ve made a great movie set.

Nassau was a calypso town then. Today calypso seems, outside of Trinidad, like a nostalgia-ridden word, conjuring up a phony 1950s Caribbean with all the allure of stale suntan oil. But the music began as an authentic local expression of musicality and wit, and if the Bahamian version (“goombay”) was less sardonic and more melodic than those farther south, this is significant too. A look at a faded 1965 tourist guide reminds me that there were a good dozen fine calypso clubs in Nassau: Dirty Dick’s and Blackbeard’s, the Big Bamboo, the Drumbeat, the Junkanoo. Listen:

When Papa beats his Goombay Drum
From miles around the people come
To hear the rumble of his jungle drum . . .
He beats the rhythm that can give them heat
From swaying hips down to their dancing feet
Recreation, culmination, agitation, great sensation!
When Papa beats upon the Goombay drum . . . .

The greatest Bahamian drummer—he still has his own nightclub—was Peanuts Taylor. Singers? I remember mostly men: Vince Martin, Richie Delamore, and a Haitian, André Toussaint. My favorite was always a grinning toothless man named George Symonette, the tallest man in Nassau, now deceased, with the face of a walrus; he played piano in church on Sundays and calypso till all hours the other days. A few old recordings, long out-of-print, are around again on cassette, with his out-of-tune piano and that delicate croak of a voice. He used to plop me beside him on a piano bench and muse those gentle rhymes that were Nassau, like the one about the king who became Governor-General of the Bahamas:

It was love, love, love alone
Caused King Edward to leave the throne.

I glimpse it all with the vibrancy of a repeated dream, for it was in Nassau with my mother, in childhood, I first had that most adult of sensations—of knowing I was happy, knowing why, and storing it all up against a time when perhaps that would not be as inevitable. So that thirty years on, I have only to hum one of those calypsos, and there my Nassau is again. As she is, too.

Tuesday, August 12, 1997


Written, at bargain-basement rates, for a cruise-line magazine that got inserted in ships’ cabins for several months. They did their best not to pay me. Had they given me more space, my list would’ve been ten times as long.

The travel narrative is probably the oldest form of story-telling—dating back to some early hunter who persuaded his fellow men that over behind that weird rock there was something remarkable, well worth going to see or even to eat. The point of travel is to satisfy a hunger; and whether leaving home feeds the imagination or fills a more prosaic need, the person who brings back the news and views and perfumes of faraway lands is part of an honorable tradition.

A great travel book is an intimate encounter not only with foreign places but with a total stranger—the author. First, there's always the question of: How much is he making up? As a travel writer for magazines (and lately, of a book) for many years, I can vouch for the accuracy of most of my colleagues. The way all travel writers do lie is what they leave out: the days when nothing happened, or the trip to the bazaar that was a bore, or the conversations with foreigners who had nothing new to say.

A good travel book is partly a fib, because it gives to messy, sprawling reality the neat, compelling shape of a good novel—by leaving out the daily meaninglessness. Yet a great travel book doesn't make me want to go anywhere; instead it makes me feel I don't have to, because reading already took me there.

What makes a travel book great? It lets me not only see a place but also hear the way foreigners speak and grasp how they think. It surprises me on every other page. Such a book not only assesses the past of a place, but predicts the future as well.

The following five are among my favorites.

* * *


Back in 1867 the Grand Tour was Europe and the Holy Land, which for an American meant success and enlightenment. A young writer pseudonamed Twain was sent by his San Francisco newspaper on a Grand Tour package cruise for nearly a year. His serialized report still remains one of the funniest, most savage, and cleverest accounts of a journey—and fellow passengers—ever written.

Though the itinerary (New York-Spain-France-Italy-Greece-Constantinople-Jerusalem-Damascus-Egypt-Gibraltar-Bermuda-NY) and the price ($1250, all-inclusive) belong to another century, this is the first modern travel book. The ironic wit, the casual yet packed language, the sense of a frank narrator, and most of all the dialogue are closer in tone to, say, Paul Theroux than to any of Twain's erstwhile predecessors. Here he is on the delights and disappointments of Constantinople, before it became Istanbul:

"When I think how I have been swindled by books of Oriental travel, I want a tourist for breakfast. . . Mosques are plenty, churches are plenty, graveyards are plenty, but morals and whiskey are scarce. The Koran does not permit Mohammedans to drink. Their natural instincts do not permit them to be moral. They say the Sultan has eight hundred wives. This almost amounts to bigamy. It makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a thing permitted here in Turkey. We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however."


THE TRAVELLER'S TREE (Patrick Leigh Fermor)

The quarter-century following the Second World War were the boom years in the Caribbean, when the archipelago became chic and affordable for Americans and Europeans, when it changed the most, and when its hot style—from calypso to the ideal of a tropical beach— seemed to permeate popular culture. The finest travel book to deal with its motley history, moods, and peoples—for there are many Caribbeans—was written by a British high school dropout turned war hero, who had captured a German general in Greece behind enemy lines and turned to writing in peacetime.

Though Fermor's book appeared in 1950, and the islands it describes have altered irrevocably, anybody who visits Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and several others should know it. Fermor can range easily from the obscene lyrics of a popular song to a dense, allusive description of a voodoo rite or a rain forest, to citing a monk's 18th century journal, to simply sitting in a tiny harbor and setting down what happens. A century from now, this book will be the best record of what that flourishing, fervent Caribbean was, because Fermor stayed fascinated by it all, and especially by the unexpected encounter:

"A young Haitian of extraordinary beauty was standing at the bottom of my bed when I awoke. His shoulders and arms were draped with snake skins. Observing without a word that my eyes had opened, he spread all these treasures across the bedclothes and placed a little stuffed alligator on my breast. Many of the skins had beautiful markings, and one, which, judging by its breadth, must have sheathed an enormous brute, was over seven feet long. But our finances were in such a bad state that I had to refuse them."

ARABIAN SANDS (Wilfred Thesiger)

Wilfred Thesiger—the last British nomad, now nearly ninety—has enjoyed and endured one of the most extraordinary lives of our century, largely spent in difficult, beautiful terrain among little-known and often dangerous tribes. He has set a standard by which all other travelers and explorers can measure themselves. From Abyssinia to the Sudan, Kurdistan to Iraq, Chitral to Hunza, no man has dared more, seen more, or so completely opened himself to experiences outside his culture. What Thesiger saw was almost unknown before him and vanished afterward—like his years in the marshes of southern Iraq, recounted in The Marsh Arabs. His few books stand well outside and above the body of travel literature. They read as great creative journeys of the soul.

His masterpiece, Arabian Sands, details his years spent in the Empty Quarter, the vast desert within a desert spread across Oman and Saudi Arabia. It was then (post–WWII) known only to the bedu who chose to wander its unmappable dunes. No plane had ever flown over it; it could be traversed only by camel. Thesiger explored it for five years, taken in by a bedu tribe, and a decade later wrote a classic account of those years and journeys.

"Their bodies were lean and hard, tempered in the furnace of the desert and trained to unbelievable endurance," he says of his companions. "It was continuous thirst. Sometimes it was twelve days from one well to the next. Sometimes there was no food for several days. . . No man can live there and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him, weak or insistent according to his nature, the yearning to return. For that cruel land can cast a spell no temperate clime can match."


ON FIJI ISLANDS (Ronald Wright)

No region has spawned more books of travel than the South Pacific, going back to the voyages of Cook and continuing through the neglected Robert Dean Frisbie. In our own era the fashion has been for the foolhardy effort that tries to swallow the giant ocean and its many societies in one vast gulp; the result has been a lot of third-rate books. One master who knew better is Ronald Wright, author of Cut Stones and Crossroads, Time Among the Maya, and Stolen Continents (which traces the invasion of the New World from the viewpoints of several Native American cultures).

Paradise has a way of stifling, not igniting, even the best writers, but Wright is so knowledgeable and unpretentious, with so much humor and clear-eyed skepticism, and an effortless way of putting characters before the reader, that Fiji ceases to be merely another beautiful set of islands but instead emerges in many-minded depth. All Wright's astringent portraits of history, of island arguments and gossip and intramural warfare, of daring exploration in great sailing-canoes, and of cannibalism, emerge with a calm, deft touch and much perspective. As he puts it:

"More than one writer has used the metaphor of a leaky roof to characterize Fijian society under the assault of the modern world. . . Impending ruin has most often turned out to be change; and change has not yet proved ruinous. Bau, once the terror of the archipelago, is now the shrine of Fijian identity. If the shrine appears slightly neglected, it is worth remembering that the ancient Fijians often neglected the houses of their gods whenever they felt secure."


Every once in a while a book comes along which defines a genre. When Theroux's masterpiece appeared in 1975, subtitled By Train Through Asia, he was not quite 34, with ten books to his credit, most of them novels. His route, from London on the Orient Express through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and back on the Trans-Siberian Railway, played to his diverse strengths as a writer. ("All travel is circular," he remarks. "The Grand Tour is just the inspired man's way of heading home.")

His book is full of unforgettable character sketches, taut glimpses of landscape, and tart social observation; of personal opinion delivered with enormous humor, all in a prose at once musical, flexible, and full of great jokes. The passage of nearly a quarter-century has made the book seem even wiser than it did then, for most of Theroux's political predictions have come true, and he saw certain risky countries right after they opened up or right before they closed down. His writing is so superb it looks easy, but this book will not be bettered anytime soon—and I cannot think of any more fitting last words than Theroux's first:

"Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. . .Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues. . . I sought trains; I found passengers."