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London - The boredom of travel is frequently understated by travel writers. They dwell on the exhilarating time spent on the Nile and the Grand Canal or seeing the wonders of Istanbul and Damascus rather than the hours of tedium in airport lounges and hotels bedrooms.
What is true for tourists is true for foreign correspondents. For many years, if somebody had given me a word association test and said “Tripoli” or “Colonel Gaddafi”, I would have responded Emma or “Mrs Bennet”. This was the result of visits to Libya in the 1980s and 1990s when I, along with many other journalists, had been called by the Libyan People’s Bureau in London and told that a half-forgotten request to interview “Brother Leader” had at last been granted.
The first time this happened to me, I was staying in a room the size of a coffin in the Libya Palace Hotel in Tripoli without much sign that the promised meeting with the colonel was going to happen any time soon, though I could not leave the hotel for long in case the promised call from his underlings finally came through. Other correspondents muttered and complained, but I lay on my bed happily engulfed by Jane Austen and the decorous gentry of early-19th-century England, confident that I had packed enough of her novels to keep me going until I went home.
The choice of books for travel is not easily made. It is important not to get overexcited and bring too many worthy books one has intended reading for years but somehow never got round to. I remember an American correspondent – I think it was Curtis Wilkie of The Boston Globe – telling me in Beirut, in about 1983, that he suspected one of his arms had grown longer than the other because for years he had been carrying in his case A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). He explained that he was always on the verge of getting stuck into it, but somehow the moment for the big Proust read never came.
Different books suit different countries. For instance, the world evoked by Shakespeare’s history plays was very similar to life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which swirled with intrigue, treachery, violence and war. Even after the fall of Saddam in 2003, a correspondent told me that she had just been to see on stage in London all three parts of Henry VI because the Wars of the Roses in late medieval England was so very like contemporary Iraq.
Saddam at bay after defeat in 1991 reminded me of Satan’s defiance when confined to hell in Paradise Lost. I still have a ragged paperback copy of the poem, with details of the world’s biggest mosque that Saddam was trying to build at the old Muthanna Airport in Baghdad scrawled on its last pages.
An engineering professor I knew was involved in constructing the mosque. He phoned me in my hotel room when I was reading the poem and revealed, as I hastily jotted down what he was saying, why Iraq did not have the materials to build this megalomaniac project.
Some books are worth carrying because they are so different from what one is writing about. Covering warfare in northern Iraq after the US invasion, I used to sit in my hotel room in Arbil reading Anthony Trollope, because the intrigues over preferment in the Anglican Church in the 19th century felt benign and calming compared with the sectarian and ethnic butchery all around me.
Travel books are often disappointing because the author simply does not know enough about the country in which he or she is travelling. Access by wandering travellers to many countries in the Middle East, West Asia and large parts of Africa has become more difficult over the past 40 years. I felt envy when I first read Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana as he travelled largely unhindered from Beirut to Jerusalem and on to Baghdad, Tehran and Afghanistan.
While travel books are often overrated, guidebooks are generally underpraised. Standards of accuracy are high and their authors do not obtrude like the swankier, if often mock-modest, professional travel writers.
Sadly, the internet’s up-to-the-minute information on hotels and restaurants means such guides are not the money-spinners they used to be. – The Independent on Sunday