BookMarks May 2022: 'The Englishman Abroad' by Hugh and Pauline MassinghamMay 16, 2022
'The Englishman Abroad' by Hugh and Pauline Massingham
by Craig Storti
This book is a delight from beginning to end. It is an anthology of mostly short excerpts from the works and the letters of every well-known British travel writer, explorer, and novelist you’ve ever heard of and also includes excerpts from the letters of numerous other famous Brits from all walks of life and occupations. These are the observations of traveling Brits as they encounter the world outside England; sometimes they like what they find; sometimes they do not. Sometimes they enjoy the company of fellow Brits; sometimes they are appalled at the behavior of their compatriots. The earliest examples date from the early 1700s.
There is hardly a single dimension of the cross-cultural experience that does not receive comment in these pages. Your Book Review editor has used excerpts from this anthology in almost every book I have written. It is a goldmine of shrewd, amusing, ironic, insightful, and beautifully written insights into the experience of encountering people unlike yourself—or at least the British version of that experience.
The book is divided into four parts: Opening Steps, The Grand Tour (closer European destinations), The Middle Distance (further afield but still mostly Europe), and Wider Horizons (everywhere else). There are some amusing drawings, and the whole thing begins with a brilliant introduction, including these wonderful observations:
- The ideal traveller, in fact, is not a man who goes out to teach, but a man who goes out to learn. He is a person who, in his most censorious moments, even as he wickedly observes the Italians juggling with spaghetti or listens to the tiresome yodelling of the Swiss, can look at himself and realize that he is equally funny–that his favorite dish is fish and chips, that his grey trousers and sports coat can make him seem inexpressibly comic to a Spaniard or an Arab.
- The born traveller–the man who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticize, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognizes that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance–has always been comparatively rare.
- We admire what we recognize and guffaw like a donkey at anything that would not happen in the cosy familiar whirl of Deal and Bournemouth and Blackpool. Because we drink beer, we mock at the Frenchman for his addiction to wine. And because we like a cut off the roast and two veg., we despise an Italian's love for what we regard as contemptible pap.
And these are just the insights of the compilers! Wait till you get to the actual excerpts.
Each excerpt has a title. Here are a few to give you a rough idea of the contents:
- Garlic Hopeless Vice
- An Absurd Practice Wretched Castratos
- Sensuality of a Swine Argument with A Baker
- Thackery and the Oysters Battle with Rats
- A Land of Mud Slime Pits of Genesis
- Albanian Robbers English Habits
- Misery African Insects
- Frightening People Weird Australia
And some excerpts
'I should say, looking back calmly upon the matter, that seventy-five percent of West African insects sting, five percent bite, and the rest are either prematurely or temporarily parasitic on the human race. And undoubtedly one of the worst things you can do in West Africa is to take any notice of an insect. If you see a thing that looks like a cross between a flying lobster and a figure of Abraxes on a Gnostic gem, do not pay it the least attention, never mind where it is; just keep quiet and hope it will go away—for that’s your best chance; you have none in a stand-up fight with a good, thorough-going African insect.' Mary Kingsley
'I shall stop as long as I can, and see all that can be grasped in the time, for I sincerely hope never to go abroad again. I never loved home so well as now I am away from it…. There is far too much of tumult in seeing the places one has read so much about all one's life to make it desirable for it to continue.' John Henry Newman
'Factories, smoke, innumerable Woolworths, mud–were these Japan? We were assured they were not. The ‘real' Japan (all countries have a 'real' self, which no stranger can ever hope to see) was something different, was somewhere else.' Aldous Huxley
'In travelling in Europe our confounded English pride only fortifies itself, and we feel that we are better than 'those foreigners' but it's worthwhile coming [to America] that we may think small beer of ourselves afterwards.' William Thackery
One caveat is that it may be hard to find this book. But it’s well worth the search.