Saturday, August 18, 2007

How to Make Friends and Oppress People

In these days of conflict and terror, it's hard to imagine a time when travelers were able to use their citizenship as a talisman, rather than a target. But 100 years ago, not only did governments seem to regard British tourists as sacrosanct, but (inexplicably) the local population did as well. The Briton abroad might well get overcharged, but he was rarely in physical danger - except from the regional flora, fauna, and microbes. Therefore, the Victorians wandered through the world with an amazing mixture of reckless adventure and personal entitlement. Vic Darkwood highlights this in his new book How to Make Friends and Oppress People: classic travel advice for the gentleman adventurer. In typical British fashion, Darkwood takes a satirical approach, writing his 'instructional guidebook' as if he were a 19th century author, putting forth egocentric and xenophobic views in a deadpan manner and interspersing his narrative with quotes from actual travel guides of the period. Reading this book cover-to-cover is a little like watching 4 straight hours of Monty Python skits: the tone gets a little old after a while. It's best to take a break between chapters, so that the humor stays fresh. The funniest parts of the book, of course, are the actual excerpts and the travel advice they propose. Carrying a full-size inflatable rubber bathtub into the African bush is encouraged, as is trucking along a brass bedstead through India, or cases of wine and champagne. Well, sure, why not? You're not the one who is actually doing the carrying. The Victorian travel experts present unfavorable opinions of foreign beds, transport, hygiene, drinks, clothing and food with a consistent undercurrent of 'British is Best'. "The inns in the towns of the interior are with few exceptions filthy in the extreme, and destitute of everything which an Englishman regards as comfort...all appliances of the table of suspicious cleanliness, and cookery only to be stomached by those whose confidence equals their appetite". This, from a guidebook to Sicily, which is not exactly the back of beyond. The period illustrations may have been taken out of context, but they add to the overall humor of the book. This is a good read for anyone who enjoys traveling, or who feels justified in staying safely at home.

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