Simon Wilson: Travels with my armchair

If you can’t travel you might as well read about places you never could travel to anyway, right? Like Antarctica. Beryl Bainbridge’s short novel, The Birthday Boys, is the story of Scott’s fatal expedition, seen through the eyes of each of the men with him on the trip.

It’s horrifying, gripping, very sad and immensely insightful about British class, honour and emotional life. Portraits of a place that is not the one you’re in? They don’t come any more vivid than that.

Bainbridge draws freely on non-fiction classic The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of that same expedition who, lucky lad, was not chosen for the final push to the Pole. Cherry-Garrard’s worst journey is not Scott’s, but one that he made a few months earlier, with two colleagues, in the winter darkness and in temperatures of −40C. To find some penguin eggs. As you do.

Honestly, it’s better to stay home and read about it. In the same genre: Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Newby was a London tailor who decided one day to set off, in his ordinary street clothes, to climb the Himalayas.

An Englishman, in other words, blinded, like Scott, by his own certain sense he could do no wrong because isn’t that the point of being English? The things those public schools are responsible for . . . and to think they still produce prime ministers.

Newby, however, was also a gifted writer, so his foolishness becomes charming, his descriptive powers splendid, his imperial lack of self-awareness untroubling, and his devotion to the joys of travel in places where the unexpected will certainly happen stirs the imagination on every page.

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If you prefer tropical heat, try Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage, which will cure you forever of any desire you might have to live in the jungle, or during a war, for that matter. It’s a set in a fictionalised version of the freedom struggles of the people of Timor L’Este, a place of horror then but, I imagine, well worth visiting now, if ever the chance arises.

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