Jill was away last weekend, so I was home alone. Well, with the dog and the Honey Dew list. The Dew I selected was construction (ongoing) of a rack on which to store the small boat fleet. 2 x 4s, construction screws, Miter saw, glue, you know the drill. Actually, I got the drill too.
At knockoff I drove to the market down the street. I was fortunate to arrive at that time dedicated to sweaty, smelly, dusty Aussies in overalls, working on their projects and so I had my pick of the five fully staffed checkout lanes, where there were no lines.
One of the reasons I loathe the self-checkout machines is not because I am Luddite, although when pushed I would admit to being keen. Rather I like my shopping to have the little sliver of remaining mano a mano, person-to-person exchange. I’d much rather talk with the checkout lady than be instructed by That Voice. My checkout line was manned, (OK, woman’d) by a young lady whose nametag read Violetta. Me being me, I mentioned to Violetta that I had not seen that name before. She smiled and in a non-American, non-Anglo Saxon accent replied, “It was my grandmother’s name.” A not uncommon phenomenon, I mused to myself.
Now I have an Anglo-Saxon accent, and it might be from any of half a dozen commonwealth countries, and so I am usually the one answering the question, “Where are you from?” So, I get a kind of kiddie at the ice cream stand excitement when I get to ask the question. “What is your accent?” I inquired. “Montenegro,” she replied.
Now, you all know that situation that happens in your brain sometimes when someone says something and half a dozen ideas thoughts, comments, questions all arrive at the part of your brain that controls speaking, all at once. Well, I manage to delete Bosnian War and James Bond movies before they escaped my mouth. I got away with a smile and some generic words like, “Wow, cool.” I had not much in my shopping bag and Violetta was very fast on the scanner, and her mate The Bagger, equally prompt, so with a smile and a “Thanks, ladies,” off I went.
Wandering out of the store, it occurred to me it is not a stretch to say that sailors are adventurous at heart. Just think about the first time you set foot on a boat and pushed off. All manner of thoughts whizzing through your brain, from “Wow!” to “Holy S***.” Accordingly, I have been drawn to books of adventure. The early pioneers of solo ocean sailing and others who wander without being lost. The word Montenegro dinged in my brain.
To the east. On the Adriatic. Humm, on the way to the Orient me thinks. Istanbul, Orient Express, Marco Polo, T.E. Lawrence, desert, Arabian nights, camels, magic lanterns, Bedouin tribesmen, Omar Sharif…adventure. The grand master of roaming the deserts might have been T.E. Lawrence but for Richard Francis Burton. Burton was one of many minor British aristocrats and another product of Oxford, fifty-odd years earlier than Lawrence, who wandered in the deserts. Burton reportedly antagonized his instructors, not by talking in class but by talking to said instructors in “formal” Latin, not the colloquial Latin used by British university Dons. He studied Falconry and Fencing but was given the boot, “Sent down,” for unpermitted absences – to a horse race.
Consequently, Burton joined the East India Company Army on the theory of “being for fit nothing but being shot at for sixpence a day.” Burton reportedly was fluent in about twenty-five languages including many of the Middle Eastern varieties. This facility came in handy when he penetrated Mecca in Arab dress, at risk of death, and well, lived to tell, and write, of it. Fitting this in between the other sixty or so books he wrote in his sixty-nine years on this Mortal Coil.
Years ago, before I found Burton, I read a book about a guy named Wilfred Thesiger. He was another one of those British characters who seem impervious to living rough. Thesiger was a civil servant in the British government and, probably because he was actually born and raised in Ethiopia where his father was the British Consul General, he spent his life roaming the deserts and writing about it. The pictures in his books are variations on “Me on my camel at Wadi brown water.”
One of my favorites is Fitzroy Maclean, another – were they not ALL Brits, (even Gertrude Bell; Oxford too) Scottish and lightly aristocratic too. The book of his that got me intrigued is Eastern Approaches. His day job was a diplomat. During a posting to Paris in the 1930s, he writes of being bored to tears and so applied for a transfer, granted, to Moscow and so became the British Consul to Moscow. During this posting, he describes taking off for long trips in and around Soviet central Asia. Westerners then being on very short leashes in the Soviet Union, he was trailed most of the time by the Russian Security services. He writes that he got to know the guys who trailed him, but they refused his offer to buy them a drink. He also managed to evade them pretty regularly too apparently, if memory serves. He would light off from Moscow by train and when he got to that station past which foreigners were not permitted, he talked his way through the frontier guards.
At the outbreak of World War Two, he was not permitted to join the army because he was a diplomat. So, he quit being a diplomat, walked down to the nearest recruiting office and joined the army as a private. He rose to the rank of Major General by 1947. He fought in the North African desert and, as a member of the recently formed SAS, managed to kidnap a high-ranking Persian general which led to the Germans abandoning parts of that neck of the woods.
Next stop the Balkans, (oh, Montenegro), where Churchill had told him not to worry about Tito’s politics but to find out how to help him and his partisans kill more Germans. MacLean being a British aristocrat and having seen Communism in the full bloom of Stalin was less than impressed, but he soldiered on. Post-war, he was awarded high honors from the UK, France, the USSR and Yugoslavia. I guess he was a good diplomat.
All of this reflection was fueled, after my return from the store, by another book. There is in London a firm called the Folio Society. They are a book club, like no other. They specialize in publishing really interesting books and in really high-quality manufacture. Thick covers, really nice paper, sleeves to store them in, and so on. One book of this publisher we have is called The Road to Oxiana.
This volume narrates the author’s, one Robert Byron, (Eton and Oxford and a distant relative of the poet with whom he shared a love of Greece) journey from England across the Near and Middle East into central Asia. Prominent as a travel writer certainly for his tales, but also for eschewing the then customary narrative form of such books. His style used close to literal transfer of his notes to his diary. The layout of the book is paragraphs, or three, headed by the day’s date, the city he was in, and the elevation. Following his travels from Venice to Kabul, and back, one gets a clear sense of the geography of this half of the world. Oxiana is the name for the region where the Oxus, now named the Amy Darya River, enters the Aral Sea from its headwaters in the high mountains of south-central Asia.
A squint at a map of this area is full of the names we were probably taught in grade school, maybe. More like if one studied geography or perhaps international relations at Uni. A study of history, as did Byron, would be a starter too. Or even better, a reading of the political state of affairs in central Asia today would give you all the names of the places he travelled to. Byron was a savant of architecture, and this book is full of his reviews of the buildings, styles, materials, structures and even the rubble of ancient buildings that fell under his gaze. The list of pictures in the book includes titles like: Shrine of the Imam Riza and the Mosque of Gohar Shad, Meshed, Persia, early 15th C., and Achaemenian tomb-house, Naksh-i-Rustam (the so called ‘tomb of Zoroaster’) Persia, 6th C.
His depiction of the colorful characters he encounters along the way is just fantastic. And in a nod to the future of Persia, aka Iran, he joins the locals in using a name, any name, other than Shah to refer to the king. Secret police being everywhere, even in 1937. Encounters with the ancestors of MI6’s Shahs, SAVAK would likely be one adventure too far.
Byron was regrettably killed during World War Two when the ship he was serving on was sunk by a U-boat. But we do have his pictures and writings to whet our whistle for adventure, even if we are merely going shopping. And you would NEVER get directed to such stories from a recorded voice telling you to scan your item. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.