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  ‘To Travel or to Not Travel?’ that is the question

The Dance at Mociu by Peter Riley
Shearsman Books (in association with Gratton Street Irregulars), 2003, ISBN 0907562361, pbk, 119pp

I enjoy reading (and writing, myself) the wide-reaching genre of work that has come to be known as ‘Travel Writing’. I enjoy a good deal of it: both Travel Biography and Autobiography, Travel History and, also, some of the better journalistic end. There is also Travel Poetry, a sub-genre (if such a thing can be said to exist) commonly criticised for its ‘exoticised other’: its critics often arguing that poems about our own down-to-earth back yards would be preferable to poems about yet another illumination-seeking student trip to the Andes or the Far East. Whilst there is some truth in that, I also think a form of inverse snobbery is at work here and can’t go along with its arguments entirely. We should all fully acknowledge and aim to reduce the problems inherent in the colonialism of tourism ­ Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, highlights in exquisite poetic prose such problems in tourism to Antigua, and any would-be travel writer would be well advised to read it before setting off ­ but, if the writing itself is good in a travel poem, then there is no reason for it to be both aesthetically pleasing and politically engaged. Good writing should allow readers to enjoy poems about Madras as much as about Milton Keynes. To coin a phrase, it’s not what you write, it’s the way that you write it.

All of which is to say I felt naturally inclined towards Peter Riley’s new book of ‘stories and prose poems’, charting several of the author’s annual trips to Transylvania with his wife. Riley’s book highlights some of the above-mentioned pleasures and pitfalls of travel writing. On the one hand, here we have some delightful writing: humane, insightful observations written into genuinely pleasing moments of compelling short prose. When Riley writes well, he injects a poetic shimmer that lifts his prose away from its own grounded-ness:

              …Scrupulous diurnal discipline, standing alone in the church on the top of the
              mountain with a candle at night reading the frescoes, saying the words. Who are
              the visitors then? ­ foxes, concerned novices who hike up from Bistrita,
              buzzards, bears? Do bears amble along in the middle of the night and sniff at the
              closed gate?’

In ‘The Road’, Riley uses his poetic gifts to take us from the usual scene-setting of prose introductions (‘One-storey wooden houses with fences round them, strung out along either side of the road’); through poetic image (‘No trains this afternoon. Stork’s nests on telegraph posts. Children with blond hair’); straight back into memory (‘When I was an infant, in the industrial north of England, they brought babies…’). Riley uses the simple poetic image of the Stork to lead the reader back to childhood and metaphor. I find such writing easeful and accomplished in a direct way. I respect its honesty. It allows for poetic summations that are both metaphoric and factual descriptions at the same time: ‘You look at the valley and see a lot of distance, but really there is a lot of proximity’.

Yet on the other hand ­ and here’s the pity for this particular volume ­ there is also some tired, moralising travel writing here. I became progressively irritated by a lazy overuse of the very lazy verb ‘got’, that only serves to keep the prose stuck in the ‘diary mode’ it was obviously first penned in. There are also some all-too-obvious moralistic comparisons between our own ‘corrupt and contemptible’ culture (my quotes) and the obviously dignified and blemish-free ‘other’ that is Riley’s idealised Transylvania. ‘What’s it All About’ perhaps exemplifies this problem. With some good scene setting about the ‘selflessness’ of the Transylvanian peasants, Riley informs us of their generosity; these people who give freely without ‘…the faintest hint of wanting anything in return, of any material kind, of anything beyond acceptance and appreciation.’ Riley’s honesty and integrity in trying to convey something of the qualities of the people whom he has come to know and admire, is praiseworthy. But it is a commonplace and unsophisticated reaction to the ‘dignity’ of the peasant ‘other’ that belies the complexities of the individuals and cultures he is writing about. “‘How can we help these people?’ our generous peasant hosts cry out,” writes Riley. But the humanity of the sentiment is weakened by the over-simplicity of the cultural analysis which follows: on returning home, Riley is welcomed back by letters from his bank offering him ‘help’,

              …with your new baby / with your old house / with your car / with your
              marriage / with your business / with your holiday…

One sympathises with his irritation; however, Riley then goes on to write:

              I have been among “Let us help you” on the other side of Europe in places of
              direst poverty for two weeks. And now I get the same message from one of the
              richest concerns in the whole world.

It was at this point that I began to feel I was reading the work of a fledgling student who had just jotted their first tentative travel poems in their gap-year travelogue ­ surely this simplistic idealisation of the ‘noble peasant’ in the face of corrupt Western mercantilism wasn’t the work of the author I had come to respect for the sophistication of their poetry? There are, unfortunately, too many other examples of this kind of simplistic comparison, to gainsay that however. For example, ‘The Walk to Poeinile Izei’ leads to the simplistic conclusion that walking in the villages of Glod and Poienile Izei, with their freely-branching and multiplying paths through ‘grassy hummocks’ is good
; whilst walking in England, with its privatised fields and designated paths hampered by corrupt landowners is bad. Those beguiling ‘grassy hummocks’ are cloyingly over-romanticised… and as if ‘Old Europe’ had always been freed from the distasteful abuse of land rights! Strong personal feelings aside (I actually agree with Riley it is a nonsense we are not free to walk where we wish in our own county!) I do expect a degree more depth in the historic and cultural contextualisation.

But Riley has opted to write these pieces as ‘factual stories’ (from his Preface), rather than ‘travel writing’ as such. I take that, and a further comment on the pieces being ‘constructed’, to mean that he wishes these pieces to be read aesthetically, for their poetry
, before anything else. But how can aesthetics be divorced from social and cultural politics? The book’s Introduction deepens the problem in stating these pieces ‘owe more to affectionate comedy than classical anthropology’. If that is the case, I just wish we actually had a little more of the lucent moments of poetic prose, and of the affectionate comedy, and a little less of the casual philosophising. Riley is at his weakest with the latter, but on great form with the former, as this last example of poetic phrasing, unified with an honest empathy, demonstrates:

              Her intelligence, shorn of language, worked in the rhythms of her belonging, the
              flows and accessions of her participation in the ensemble of the household.

or the simple sensual richness of:

              These were the honey-makers. They had about a dozen hives in the garden and
              supplied the village. The constantly offered horinca was laced with honey, the
              bread was dipped in it, and when we left we took with us a former medicinal
              alcohol bottle full of the finest semi-liquid honey anyone has ever known.


                            © Andy Brown 2003