For thirty years Paul Theroux has been for me the master of travel writing. Vain, critical and humourless his writings have still been a must and far superior to his fiction. He has criticised New Zealand, slagged off the English, made me reappraise the worthiness of aid to Africa and fostered my desire to see foreign climes, preferably from the window of a long distance train.
Now thirty-three years after his first travel masterpiece, The Great Railway Bazaar, he has decided to retake the train journey from London via Turkey, India, S.E. Asia and Japan and back on the Trans-Siberian.
Some months ago I wrote how a similar book, Dreaming of Jupiter had its writer discontented over the way the world had developed and nostalgic for the past. Comparing the two works it soon becomes obvious that Theroux is a writer who travels, while Ted Simon is a much more common and less interesting figure: a traveller who thinks he can write a good book.
We discover a lot more about Theroux and the background to the original book. How his wife took up with another man in his absence and how unhappy he was on the journey, indeed how he threatened to kill her on his return.
This journey is a far more contemplative experience. On the plus side he meets people who remember him with pleasure from the first time and countries that he was unable to visit are now open to everyone. most people that he meets are kind and helpful. From the experience he gets the strength to face life and its challenges
Sadly though, oppression continues, megalomaniac dictators abound and there is the feeling of getting older. ‘Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost’
Yet the prose is as sharp and pertinent as ever. He has lost none of his power to enthrall and bring on itchy feet in his readers. He is also more optimistic and human than I’ve ever noticed before.The greatest difference was in me…I felt lucky, I felt grateful. I didn’t want any more than this in travel, clattering through the tunnel…I had a book to read, a book to write and enough solitude’. Most of all, someone missed me and was waiting for me, someone I loved’.
Now where did I put those train tickets?