On Strathcarron on Twain on the Levant

As part of my serendipitous reading saga, I am actively pursuing what might be called Levant studies, not least with the goal of a visit to Israel. I am hoovering up useful travel and history commentaries on the region, and am hugely glad to have come across the remarkable Ian Strathcarron’s valuable account of a journey he made in 2011 to recreate a journey made to The Holy Land by Mark Twain in 1867.

Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, Or the new Pilgrims’ Progress (1869, I think) seems to be a robust, larky, spikey, progressive, secular account of a journey made with some rich religiose American Protestants to what was then called the Holy Land. Their tour was in that part of the Ottoman Empire which included what we now call Lebanon, Syria, and Israel (whose parts we now think of as variously Israeli and Palestinian without often agreeing which bits are which). I haven’t read the Twain, but we get snatches of his book in Ian (Lord) Strathcarron’s Innocence and War: Mark Twain’s Holy Land revisited (Signal, 2012). It is a vivid account of a man-and-wife journey following pretty closely the Twain itinerary, and written in homage to – and with a similar attitude to – the American’s. It is very good travel writing and also a very good historical survey. This latter shows us Twain’s – a Victorian’s – understanding of the history of the region, which Strathcarron updates both as to what we now understand about Biblical antiquity and as to events which have unfolded following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It is, I think, a brilliant enterprise.

Ian Strathcarron is incredibly helpful in giving us a flavour of what it is like to be a traveller in the region. One advantage he confers, and no other modern guide book is likely to, is that he is well-connected. So I am emboldened into being an independent tourist in this tricky area because I imagine I will be able to hitch on to local tours, but I have the advantage of reading Strathcarron’s accounts of the region both from British diplomats he meets, and from the local guides various embassies suggests he employs, as he travels in rather grander independent style.

There are important differences between his account and Twain’s. The first is that one gets to know the difficulties in travelling between Israeli and Palestinian tourist spots. This is a distinction unknown to Twain, of course.  Secondly, Twain is pretty dismissive of Arab squalor and scruffiness: he doesn’t seem to sense a plight, or a condition, so much as an inadequacy or an idleness. Strathcarron rather likes the Arab mentality, and – and here’s the tricky bit – compares it favourably with Israeli aggressiveness (on a personal and state level) and rudeness.  (His relief at being amongst Arabs is akin to my pleasure in being in Mexico after a stay in the US: I love the Americans, but the Mexicans are a relief from them.) Thirdly, and this is also important, Strathcarron’s historicity is pretty reasonable. For my biased taste, he sees rather too much fault in the British diplomatic failures of the early 20th Century, but at least sees that they hurt the Jews about as much as the Arabs. He doesn’t dodge the long series of catastrophic failures in Arab statesmanship (if one may use such a word for them). He is quite tough on the Israelis’ treatment of Arabs throughout the history of the emerging state, but not egregiously so.

I am hoping – and even expect – to enjoy being amongst Israeli Jews rather more than Strathcarron seems to have done, and I am certainly trying to work out how to be amongst Arabs or every sort during my planned visit.

I can, by the way, see that Strathcarron’s account of Jewishness is not all it might be. I don’t go nearly as far as Jonathan Mirsky in his review of Strathcarron’s book in The Scotsman, but recommend the latter nonetheless as what is probably a useful recalibration of my own take on things, as well as correcting some Strathcarron errors. Mirsky does of course know far more than I ever will of this stuff. By the way, I think Mirsky is right that Strathcarron is sometimes sloppy as well as too perky in style. But I think, unlike Mirsky, that these small failings are worth it in spades to have an account of difficult matters which is pretty accurate, fair and pacey with it.

As a travelogue, Ian Strathcarron’s is partly that of a yachtsman (as was Twain’s in a sense). For my taste, I would have had more of this dimension. There is a funny and interesting account of the couple’s passage from Beirut to Haifa. It is strikingly similar to an account in Tristan Jones’s The Incredible Voyage of his arrival at Haifa in 1970, after a run along the Lebanese coast. Both yachtsmen had a rude first brush with the Israeli Navy; both noted the navy’s efficiency; both soon found that the navy’s officers included men of good humour and helpfulness.  (By chance, I am almost sure I knew Jones’s crewmate on that voyage, Conrad Jelinek: at least, there was a hippy-ish, ex-public schoolboy – as Jones describes him – working as a driver for a time during my spell driving for Walton, Hassell and Port in Kentish Town in the late 1960s. I also got to know Jones quite well in New York, and on his boat during a short passage from the Kent Channel coast to Tower Bridge, whilst writing about him for The Observer and The Independent in the 1980s.

I have recently come across an account of a yachting trip which mirrors some of Twain’s marine encounters in the Mediterranean and the Turkish coast: the adventure writer Hammond Innes (a Scot, like Strathcarron) produced a vivid account of various seasons’ sailing, and shore excursions, thereabouts (and elsewhere) in his Sea and Islands (Knopf, 1967).

As for Strathcarron’s adventures on land, it is worth comparing them with those of Colonel W Byford-Jones, a military and diplomatic journalist who knew almost everyone worth knowing in the Middle East. His Forbidden Frontiers (Robert Hale, 1958) is a strikingly unbiased but never cynical account of the borderlands of Israel, and of the forces and activities on both sides of the dividing lines between the lands of Arabs and Jews (and within them, too) which he travelled in pretty intrepid style and with a sharp eye.

I follow many of these journeys in a 1932 edition of the 1904 Murray’s Small Classical Atlas, which actually is a large format volume, though slim. It is beautifully made, and anyway sheds the centuries in a rather useful way. Every other volume mentioned above was bought in a second hand or charity  (or a gallery shop, in the case of the Strathcarron), except the Jones, which was a review copy. But the atlas came as a gift from its present owner, whose uncle, Maurice Wilson, loved his walks, excursions and informal mountaineering in the Levant in leave periods during WW2 (as recounted in his The Wartime Adventures of B Squadron “Corpse”, Parapress, 1997).




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Publication date

04 April 2014


Mind & body; On books