Sunday, 10 March 2013

CBe 2013 3 / Tony Lurcock, No Particular Hurry

Tony Lurcock, who lived for some years in Finland and has a deep affection for the country, and who over a decade or two or three has read widely in the travel literature of that country, sent me in 2010 the manuscript of Not So Barren or Uncultivated, an anthology of writing by British travellers in Finland between 1760 and 1830 – and though this seemed not, at first glance, a natural CBe title, it won me over. In the Preface Lurcock explained the method: extracts from ‘a score or more of accounts, with a short introduction to each writer’, with a commentary within each chapter linking the chosen passages from each writer and an Introduction in which ‘I have presented the writers against the background of their times, describing some of the cultural, social and literary ideas which they reflect’. He added: ‘It is by no means necessary to read the introduction to enjoy the contents of the book, nor need the book be read chronologically, in full, or indeed at all.’ And thereby hooked me.

Here is the second book: No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917. Reading these compilations is like travelling through Finland in a coach with Mr Lurcock and assorted other passengers who enter and exit along the way; the scenery is stunning, the road bumpy, the food and accommodation variable, the conversation continuously engaging – not least because, as one of the reviews of the earlier books remarked, ‘Lurcock’s own commentary is often at least as worth reading as the texts themselves’. He manages to be both scholarly and entertaining, a rare feat that other reviews of the previous picked up on (‘a valuable work of scholarship and also very readable’; ‘a gem of a book which will delight the scholar and the general reader alike’). Of some of his writers he is clearly fond; with others, his comments on their writing style give the game away: ‘This mixture of sub-Wordsworthian and evangelical response to Finnish nature is not matched by any other British traveller, which is just as well, since her feelings seem to be beyond the reach of grammar’; ‘Reading the dull slabs of Hill’s prose (“The hills of Finland are not of any considerable elevation ...”) prompts some belated condonation of Atkinson’s verbal excesses.’ There is praise too: ‘Travers has the ability to describe the unspoiled countryside without either idealising or sentimentalising it.’

In the period covered by No Particular Hurry, the transport and accommodation have improved, so that what is recorded here is, overall, ‘The mutation of explorers into travellers into tourists.’ But the travellers remain individuals, fussing about their tea-time or impatient for adventure. They include Bartholomew Sulivan, who sailed with Darwin on the Beagle; Arthur Evans, the Knossos man; and a much larger number of women writers than the previous book. They have difficulties with bedbugs and mosquitoes (‘we passed that night in a condition bordering on frenzy’) and with food: ‘With regard to that brown rye-cake of Lapland, I brought a piece home to England, which my dog saw and annexed. He is a fox-terrier of lusty appetite, and he tried to eat it. He tried for a whole afternoon, and finally left the cake alone on a lawn, very little the worse for the experience.’ And sometimes they have difficulty with the locals: ‘They were all able-bodied Finns, though one (and he was the strongest) had a hump like a Brahmin cow, another had a hare-lip, and the headman possessed a most virulent squint’; a guide had ‘about as much sense of humour as a crayfish’.

But many are also deeply impressed by what they see. The high level of literacy and education: ‘It is certainly not creditable to us as a nation that we should be so behind in education those we have previously considered half-barbarous Finns. They can hardly believe that numbers of people in England cannot read.’ The relaxed attitudes to nakedness, and not just in the saunas: ‘In the rural districts mixed bathing is frequently indulged in by the peasants. And yet there is practically none of that “Peeping-Tom”ism which the elaborate toilets of the fair bathers in more sophisticated lands seem to attract.’ The position of women (Finland was the first nation to allow women to vote, and the first in which they entered parliament): ‘In no other country was such equal opportunity for every kind of knowledge, livelihood, and work given to women.’

In the 1850s there was a war – part of what we now know as the Crimean War, but this was a significant part of that, as the British (and French) attempted to keep the Russian fleet blockaded in the Baltic and divert their resources – and it was complicated: the enemy was Russia, the overlords of Finland, not the Finnish people, and to get the Finns on board ship for parties and dancing the Brits had to pretend they were taking them prisoner, so that the Russians wouldn’t see them as collaborators. And because it wasn’t really so far away, aristocrats who fancied a bit of action cruised out for a spot of war-tourism.

Travel writing of the old school is a genre contemporary writers can play with: see, for example, Ellis Sharp’s Intolerable Tongues, in which Donald Ebenezer McCollum, PhD, a buttoned-up son of the manse, treks off to the Holy Land in 1939 with a pith helmet and a sun umbrella and a publisher’s commission to write ‘an uplifting tale of travel to a region both divine and colourful’ and becomes monstrous; or Lydia Davis’s ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’. But, skilfully presented, it needs no such tweaking. Lurcock is also the author of a history of an amateur cricket club, and somehow he manages to include six references to cricket in this book about Finland. In around 1881 ‘Rae arranged a cricket match against an all-Lapland XI, captained by “the Doctor”, and bowled out Lapland for 0 in their second innings’.


Sian said...

Ahem. Finland may have been the first European country to adopt universal suffrage but did so in 1906 - 13 years after New Zealand.

Sian said...

Apologies: reading things properly revealed you're absolutely right. New Zealand women were able to stand for parliament in 1919 - 13 years after the Finns.

charles said...

Still, credit to NZ. Both NZ and Finland appeal strongly, both countries with no global pretensions and that seem to arrange their social relations pretty well.