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The Domain of British Travel Writers

July 11, 1993|COLMAN ANDREWS

LONELINESS AND TIME: The Story of British Travel Writing by Mark Cocker (Pantheon, $23 hardcover).

The British, notoriously xenophobic and yet (or perhaps thus) creators of the most widespread empire in history, own travel writing. They didn't invent it (it's hard to say who did; Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Montaigne are certainly among the contenders) but at least since the time of Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, they have been the most enthusiastic and able exponents of this rich and seductive genre.

In this new study of the whys and whos of British travel writing, Cocker notes in passing that many writers more famous for work in other genres--among them W.H. Auden, Lawrence Durrell, William Golding, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, both Lawrences (T.E. and D.H.) and Evelyn Waugh--have penned travel books as well. Cocker borrowed his title from "Bitter Lemons," Durrell's superb book about Cyprus in which he writes of ". . . . loneliness and time--those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything." But, with the exception of T.E. Lawrence and Durrell, whom he treats in some detail, he is more concerned with those writers who "have achieved international reputations solely or largely as a result of their travel books."

These include such fascinating characters as Eric Bailey (who all but discovered Tibet for the English-speaking world), Sir Richard Burton, Bruce Chatwin, Norman Douglas, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis, Gavin Maxwell (best-known for "Ring of Bright Water"), Geoffrey Moorhouse, Harry St John Philby (the famed Arabist and father of spy Kim Philby), and Freya Stark, among others.

Cocker's own prose can be rather dry, and he has a weakness for the sententious commonplace (in the hands of certain writers, he suggests, "the travel book can be a journey not only to another place but another time")--but his subject matter is fascinating and his book is a splendid reminder of other books that probably ought to be read, and other authors who should be better known.

EUROPE THROUGH THE BACK DOOR, 11th edition, by Rick Steves (John Muir Publications, $17.95 paper); ASIA THROUGH THE BACK DOOR, fourth edition, by Rick Steves and Bob Effertz (John Muir Publications, $16.95 paper) and MONA WINKS: Self-Guided Tours of Europe's Top Museums, second edition, by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw (John Muir Publications, $16.95 paper).

Steves, host of the "Travels in Europe" series on PBS, author of a number of travel books and publisher of a travel newsletter, is obviously a very experienced traveler, and his gift is to be able to share the wealth of knowledge and insight he has accumulated without sounding condescending or bossy. His "Back Door" books are built around brief portraits of places (or aspects of places) that conventional guidebooks often avoid or dismiss with short shrift--for instance, the fishing villages that ring Venice, the surprising pleasures of Northern Ireland, the Indonesian island of Lombok ("Bali's quiet cousin"), the minshuku boarding houses of rural Japan and so on. He also, though, deals with every practical matter imaginable, from how to get a hot shower in a cheap hotel in Europe to how a woman can ward off harassment in Asia. The detail really is impressive--and if much of what he counsels is stuff that anyone who's ever been out of America probably knows already or can figure out with common sense, well, lots of people haven't been out of America, and will doubtless welcome his advice.

"Mona Winks" is a far more limited book, in which Steves and his co-author offer floor plans, background information and assessments of individual artworks in some 20 top European museums and related cultural sites. The art history here is of the pop variety, though not badly presented, and the concept of the book does pander a bit to those poor souls determined to experience "the best" when they travel--but this is undeniably a useful guide for the art novice confronted with an embarrassment of visual riches.

Quick trips:

MOROCCO: The Traveller's Companion by Margaret and Robin Bidwell (I.B. Tauris & Co./St. Martin's Press, $19.95 paper). Not a guidebook, but an intelligently chosen and illuminating anthology of writings about this fascinating North African nation, by authors as diverse as Daniel Defoe, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton and Morocco's own Sultan Muhammad V--plus a good many other lesser known but no less acute observers.

ROMA: The Smart Traveler's Guide to the Eternal City by Paul Hofmann (Henry Holt and Company, $22.50 hardcover). Unusual in that it's a more-or-less conventional (though nicely written) guidebook of the type that's nearly always published in paperback format. The author, former New York Times bureau chief in Rome, obviously knows the city intimately; equally detailed and authoritative guides to the city are, however, available for less.

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