The ultimate escape while you are cosy at home, sipping tea and perhaps indulging in a few of those holiday treats, is reading an adventurous travelogue to take you far away. My latest indulgence in armchair travel is a book by a well-known British author, Evelyn Waugh. The book, entitled Labels, was originally published in 1930, but my own copy is a 1974 reprint. As a bonus, the reprint contains an insightful Introduction by another British author, Kinsgley Amis. The book is the account of Waugh’s cruise of the Mediterranean in the spring of 1929.
By Evelyn Waugh
Introduction by Kingsley Amis
London: Duckworth & Co. 1974
Two remarks in the beginning of Labels immediately drew my attention. The first was Waugh’s rather droll insistence in the opening chapter that his destination was Russia – based on the assumption that if you say it enough times to as many people as possible, it might eventually become true. Certainly diverting and ultimately irrelevant as the travel described in this book comes no closer to Russia than Istanbul. The second was more relevant – Kingsley Amis’ analysis that Waugh was free of the “Mediterranean mystique” that tended to revere and glorify the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean. In fact, as Waugh explains, his title Labels is a reflection of those popular tourist destinations that have been indelibly labeled in people’s minds, stamped with pre-conceived notions of the past. Waugh takes a refreshing, contemporary and sometimes irreverent view of these well-trodden places.
At Monte Carlo, Waugh boarded the Norwegian registered Stella Polaris, a large cruise ship with the capacity for two hundred people. He is at length to distinguish most of his fellow passengers as a “new sort of tourist” bent on a relaxing pleasure cruise rather than earnest sighseeing. He proceeded to zig-zag (in this order) across the Mediterranean making landfall at Naples, Sicily, the Levantine coast then Egypt where Waugh, along with fellow passengers, the newlyweds Geoffrey and (the rather ill) Juliet, disembarked and spent a month in Port Said, visiting Cairo and Helwan. He later joined another ship, the Ranchi, and proceeded to Malta. From here, he hopped back on the Stella Polaris, which was on its second cruise out, first to Crete, then to Constantinople (Istanbul), Athens, Corfu, Venice, the Illyrian coast, Catalonia, Algiers, Southern Spain, Gibraltar and eventually Portugal. From there it was just a short hop back to London.
This mode of travel – the convenience of it and the constant change of scenery – enamoured Waugh. But, he does remark on one downside of cruising, namely the overcrowding upon disembarkment, partcularly if other cruise ships were in port. He even gives an example from a previous visit:
… but the spectacle … of five hundred tourists arriving by car to observe the solitude of a village in the Greek mountains is painful and ludicrous.
That story brought to mind my previous post Staged Authenticity, discussing the effect of the influx of coaches laden with sightseers overcrowding a small northern Greek town changing what would have been an authentic experience to something inauthentic or “staged”.
It is also interesting to note that in his 1960 travel book, A Tourist in Africa, Waugh refused to be labeled tourist in an oft quoted remark:
But we are travellers and cosmopolitans, the tourist is the other fellow.
Yet, here on this cruise he is the other fellow. For example, when the cruise docked at Naples, Waugh immediately regretted his choice on exploring independently, wishing that he had joined one of the larger guided parties where his lack of Italian wouldn’t have been a problem and everything ran smoothly. Instead his explorations to visit churches (which were all shut) took another turn, being assailed by an insistent pimp wishing to direct him to see Pompeian dances where “all-a-girls naked. Vair artistic, vair smutty, vair French”.
Tourists or sightseers often experience places on a surface level and interpret them based on a variety of personal factors – education, gender, age, etc. In addition, by directing the sightseers, guides and guidebooks also factor into what and how places are to be seen. Tourism researchers call this the “tourist gaze”. Waugh had a modern, urbane, witty and, on occasion, frivolous personality which naturally coloured his interpretations of the places he visited (where he usually ignored the guides). There are numerous descriptions of places scattered throughout the book. I mention only a few examples here. He describes the Great Sphinx at Giza as an ill-proportioned monument that has lost its appeal since it had been disinterred from the sands that had all but covered it. Although, he relents and indicates that the mutilations on its face gave it interest. His take on the prehistoric Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete is similar. He found the excavator’s (Arthur Evans’) reconstruction of Minos’s palace rather sinister, fearful and malignant with blind passages, disturbing inverted columns, sunless staircases and a squat little throne for an “ageing despot”. In Istanbul, the spectacular Hagia Sophia, originally constructed as a Byzantine cathedral in the 6th century and later (in 1453) converted into an Imperial mosque, was reduced in Waugh’s words to “a majestic shell full of vile Turkish fripperies”. In contrast, he practically gushes with admiration of the modern Gaudi architecture in Catalonia.
Descriptions of places, however, take second place to other observations. In fact, Waugh found the study of his fellow passengers vastly absorbing. It was as if he was collecting raw material for characters in his novels. Other than the usual bores and wags one might encounter anywhere, Waugh describes the earnest school girls travelling with their parents who are (supposedly) there to improve their minds and for which post-teatime lectures are laid on in the ship’s dining room. The reality was the girls’ earnestness was displayed in the enthusiastic playing of deck games and with conducting flirtations with the officers. Other types he mentions are the elderly – singularly or in couples – who now cruise during the colder months when they once, in previous decades, would travel to the warmer climes of Egypt or India and stay for the season. And, then there are the well off middle-aged widows who are beguiled by the tour operators’ slogans of “Mystery, History, Leisure, Pleasure” and ripe for onboard romances and extensive trinket buying.
Labels is classed as a non-fiction travel book, but it contains elements of fiction. I read an interesting online article by the novelist Nicolas Shakespeare on Waugh’s travel books where he reveals that Geoffrey and Juliet are in fact, Waugh and his wife who was also (confusingly) named Evelyn. Waugh, however, portrays the narrator (told in the first person, so one assumes it Waugh himself) as a carefree bachelor on the cruise – constituting another fictional character.
Although much of the book is taken up with amusing diversions into characters and situations, it is a book about the process of travel and the phenomenon of mass tourism or “collective tourism”, as it is sometimes (and more accurately and less judgementally) called. What it is not is an itinerary or diary of places seen. However, the odd glimpse of places visited are highly individual, free of the mystique as Kingsley Amis mentions in the Introduction. A diversonary and entertaining read while cosy in that armchair sipping tea and nibbling a biscotto or two.
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Note on Mediterranean Cruising Tours: Many more ships cruising the Mediterranean Sea in the late 19th to early 20th century specialised in trips to visit antiquities. For example, the Hellenic Travellers Club, which began in 1908, cruised to places of particular historic and archaeological interest on Easter tours around the Eastern Mediterranean up until WWII. These types of cruises tended to cater to people unlike Waugh, namely Hellenophiles – teachers, academics and educated amateurs. These were the precursors to such modern commercial cruises as Swan Hellenic Tours, complete with onboard lectures and expert guided tours. These tourists were undoubtedly enchanted by the “Mediterranean mystique”. This is a common perception among many tourists of the time, which makes Waugh’s individual and different views all the more interesting.