Journey To A War by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1939)

When we awoke early next morning the train was crossing a wide valley of paddy fields. The rising sun struck its beams across the surfaces of innumerable miniature lakes; in the middle distance farmhouses seemed actually to be floating on water. Here and there a low mound rose a few feet above the level of the plain, with a weed-grown, ruinous pagoda, standing upon it, visible for miles around. Peasants with water-buffaloes were industriously ploughing their arable liquid into a thick, brown soup.
(Journey To A War, p.191)

Collectively, perhaps, we most resemble a group of characters in one of Jules Verne’s stories about lunatic English explorers. (p.104)

The Sino-Japanese War

In July 1937 – exactly a year after the start of the Spanish Civil War – Japan attacked China. It was hardly a surprise. In 1931 the so-called ‘Mukden Incident’ had helped spark the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the large area to the north east of China, just above Beijing). The Chinese were defeated and Japan created a new puppet state, Manchukuo (setting up the last Qing emperor as its puppet ruler) through which to rule Manchuria.

Going further back, in 1894–1895 China, then still under the rule of the Qing dynasty, was defeated by Japan in what came to be called the First Sino-Japanese War. China had been forced to cede Taiwan to Japan and to recognise the independence of Korea which had, in classical times, been under Chinese domination.

In other words, for 40 years the rising power of militaristic, modernising Japan had been slowly nibbling away at rotten China, seizing Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. Now the military junta in Tokyo decided the time was right to take another bite, engineered an ‘incident’ at the Marco Polo bridge on the trade route to Beijing, and used this as a pretext to attack Beijing in the north and Shanghai in the south.

Thus there was quite a lot of military and political history to get to grips with in order to understand the situation in China, but what made it even more confusing was the fact that China itself was a divided nation. First, the nominal government – the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang under its leader Chiang Kai-shek – had only with difficulty put down or paid off the powerful warlords who for decades had ruled local regions of China after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

But second, Chiang faced stiff competition from the Chinese Communist Party. The two parties had lived in uneasy alliance until Chiang staged a massacre of communists in Shanghai in 1927 which brought the tension between Chinese nationalists and communists into the open.

It was the three-way destabilisation of China during this period – warlords v. Nationalists v. Communists – which had helped Japan invade and take over Manchuria. Prompted by the 1937 Japanese attack the Nationalists and Communists formed an uneasy alliance.

Auden in Spain

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the great political issue of the age was the Spanish Civil War which began when General Franco led a military uprising against the democratically elected government in July 1936. Like many high-minded, middle class liberals, Auden and Isherwood both felt the time had come to put their money where their mouths were. Auden did actually travel to Spain in January 1937 and was there till March, apparently trying to volunteer to drive an ambulance in the medical service. Instead, red tape and the communists who were increasingly running the Republican forces apparently blocked him from getting a useful job. He tried to help out at the radio station but discovered its broadcasts were weak and there were no vacancies.

Frustrated and embarrassed, Auden was back in England by mid-March 1937. The long-term impact of the trip was his own surprise at how much it upset him to see the churches of Barcelona which had all been torched and gutted by a furious radical populace as symbols of oppression. Auden was shocked, and then shocked at his reaction. Wasn’t he meant to be a socialist, a communist even, like lots of other writers of his generation? The Spain trip was the start of the slow process of realisation which was to lead him back to overt Christian faith in the 1940s.

Also Auden saw at first hand the infighting on the Republican side between the communist party slavishly obeying Stalin’s orders, and the more radical Trotskyite and Anarchist parties who, later in 1937, it would crush. Later he paid credit to George Orwell’s book Homage To Catalonia for explaining the complex political manoeuvring far better than he could have. But watching the Republicans fight among themselves made him realise it was far from being a simple case of black and white, of Democracy against Fascism.

So by March 1938 Auden had returned to Britain, where he was uncharacteristically silent about his experiences, and got on with writing, editing new works for publication (not least an edition of his play The Ascent of F6 and Letters From Iceland).

Meanwhile, Christopher Isherwood was living in Paris managing his on-again, off-again relationship with his German boyfriend Heinz. And although he had accommodated Auden on an overnight stop in the French capital and waved him off on the train south to Spain, Isherwood hadn’t lifted a finger for the Great Cause.

Then, in June 1937, Auden’s American publisher, Bennet Cerf of Random House, had suggested that after the reasonable sales of his travel book about Iceland, maybe Auden would be interested in writing another travel book, this time travelling to the East. Isherwood was a good suggestion as collaborator because they had just worked closely on the stage play, The Ascent of F6 and had begun work on a successor, which was to end up becoming the pay On The Frontier. The pair were considering the travel idea when the Japanese attacked China, quickly took Beijing and besieged Shanghai.

At once they seized on this as the subject of the journey and the book. Neither had really engaged with the war in Spain; travelling east would be a way to make amends and to report on what many people considered to be the Eastern Front of what was developing into a worldwide war between Fascism (in this case Japan) and Democracy (in this case the Chinese Nationalists).

China also had the attraction that, unlike Spain, it wouldn’t be stuffed full of eminent literary figures falling over themselves to write poems and plays and novels and speeches. Spain had been a very competitive environment for a writer. Far fewer people knew or cared about China: it would be their own little war.

And so Auden and Isherwood left England in January 1938, boat from Dover then training it across France, then taking a boat from Marseilles to Hong Kong, via Egypt, Colombo and Singapore.

Journey to a War

Journey To A War is not as good as Letter From Iceland, it’s less high spirited and funny. There isn’t a big linking poem like Letter To Lord Byron to pull it together, and there isn’t the variety of all the different prose and verse forms Auden and MacNeice cooked up for the earlier book.

Instead it overwhelmingly consists of Isherwood’s very long prose diary of what happened to them and what they saw in their three months journey around unoccupied China.

The book opens with a series of sonnets and this was the form Auden chose to give the book poetic unity – sonnets, after all, lend themselves to sequences which develop themes and ideas, notably the Sonnets of Shakespeare, or his contemporaries Spencer and Sidney. There’s a collection of half a dozen of them right at the start, which give quick impressions of places they visited en route to China (Macau, Hong Kong). Then, 250 pages of Isherwood prose later, there’s the sonnet sequence titled In Time of War.

But instead of the bright and extrovert tone of Letters From Iceland, Auden’s sonnets are often obscure. They are clearly addressing some kind of important issues but it’s not always clear what. This is because they are very personal and inward-looking. Auden is clearly wrestling with his sense of liberal guilt. The results are rather gloomy. Spain had disillusioned him immensely. He went to Spain thinking the forces of Evil were objective and external. But his first-hand experience of the internecine bickering on the Republican side quickly showed him there is no Good Side, there are no Heroes. History is made by all of us and so – all of us are to blame for what happens. Travel as far as you want, you’re only running away from the truth. If we want to cure the world, it is we ourselves that we need to cure first.

Where does this journey look which the watcher upon the quay,
Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies,
As the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes
And the gulls abandon their vow? Does it promise a juster life?

Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveler find
In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,
Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,
Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?

No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness
On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:
He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real…

(from The Voyage by W.H. Auden)

‘An illness on a false island’ which is clearly England, a place ‘where the heart cannot act’. The traveller is trying to escape himself but cannot and glumly realises ‘he is weaker than he thought’. Or the thumping final couplet of the sonnet about Hong Kong:

We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

Isherwood’s diary

Luckily, the prose sections of the book are written by Isherwood and these are much more fun. He keeps up the giggling schoolboy persona of the novel he’d recently published, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), he notes the way the Chinese pronounce their names Au Dung and Y Hsaio Wu, he sounds wide-eyed and optimistic. He hadn’t seen what Auden had seen in Spain, wasn’t struggling with the same doubts.

On February 28 1938 they leave Hong Kong by steamer for Canton and Isherwood finds everyone and everything hilarious. Look a Japanese gunboat! Listen, the sound of bombs falling! He has same facility for the disarmingly blunt image which he deploys in the Berlin stories. The mayor of Canton (Mr Tsang Yan-fu) is always beaming, has a face like a melon with a slice cut out of it. After dinner the Chinese general entertains them by singing Chinese opera, showing how different characters are given different tones and registers (‘the romantic hero emits a sound like a midnight cat’).

He refers to the whole trip as a dream and as a landscape from Alice in Wonderland – they expected Chinese people to behave as in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera and had rehearsed elaborate compliments, and are disarmed when they’re much more down to earth. The train journey on through Hunan province is boring, the tea tastes of fish, they amuse themselves by reading out an Anthony Trollope novel or singing in mock operatic voices.

But this sense of unreality which dogs them is simply because both of them didn’t have a clue what was going on, what was at stake, the military situation,  had never seen fighting or battle and weren’t proper journalists. They were privileged dilettantes, ‘mere trippers’, as Isherwood shamefacedly explains when they meet real war correspondents at a press conference (p.53).

In Hankow the Consul gives them Chiang, a middle-aged man with the manners of a perfect butler to be their guide. They attend the official war briefings alongside American and Australian journalists, they meet Mr Donald, Chiang Kai-shek’s military adviser, the German adviser General von Falkenhausen, Agnes Smedley, Madame Chiang Kai-shek herself, and with delight are reunited with Robert Capa, the soon-to-be legendary American war photographer who’d they’d met on the boat out. They attend traditional Chinese opera, which Isherwood observes with the eye of a professional playwright.

They catch the train to Cheng-chow which has been repeatedly bombed by the Japanese, capably looked after by their ‘boy’, Chiang. They are heading north on the train when they learn that Kwei-teh has fallen, nonetheless they decide to press on to Kai-feng. With them is an exuberant and seasoned American doctor, McClure, who takes them to watch some operations. They walk round the stinking foetid town. They go to the public baths which stink of urine. Then they catch a train to Sü-chow. And then onto Li Kwo Yi where they argue with Chinese commanding officers (General Chang Tschen) to allow them to go right up to the front line, a town divided by the Great Canal.

If you’ve no idea where any of these places are, join the club. I was reading an old edition but, even so, it had no map at all of any part of the journey. Which is ludicrous. The only map anywhere appears to have been on the front cover of the hardback edition, replaced (uselessly) by an anti-war cartoon on the paperback editions, and even this doesn’t show their actual route.

First US edition (publ. Random House)

With no indication where any of these places are, unless you are prepared to read it with an atlas open at your side, Isherwood’s long prose text becomes a stream of clever observations largely divorced from their context. Even an atlas is not that useful given that Isherwood uses the old form of the placenames, all of which, along with most people’s names, have changed. Thus Sian, capital of Shen-si province, is now Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province, Sü-chow is now Suzhou, and so on.

We are intended to enjoy the surreal aspects of travelling in a deeply foreign land – the village restaurant which was papered entirely with pages of American tabloid magazines, and so covered with photos of gangsters and revelations about fashionable divorcees (p.126); or the expensive hotel in Sian whose menu included ‘Hat cake’ and ‘FF potatoes’ (p.141). Beheading is a common punishment because the Chinese believe a body needs to be complete to enter the afterlife. They meet lots of tough and brave American missionaries, mostly from the American south.

Finally, back in Hankow (Hankou) they become part of polite society again, are invited to a party of Chinese intellectuals, a party given by the British admiral and consul, where they meet the legendary travel writer Peter Fleming and his actress wife Celia Johnson, the British ambassador Archibald Kerr, the American communist-supporting journalist, Agnes Smedley (p.156). Fleming pops up a lot later at their hotel in Tunki, and is too suave, handsome and self-assured to possibly be real.

Militarily, Journey To A War confirms the opinions of the modern histories of the war I’ve read, namely that the Nationalist side was hampered by corruption, bad leadership and, above all, lack of arms & ammunition. When they retook cities which had been under communist influence the Chiang’s Nationalists realised they needed some kind of ideology which matched the communists’ emphasis on a pure life and so, in 1934, invented the New Life Movement i.e. stricter morals, which Madame Chiang politely explains.

Isherwood notices the large number of White Russian exiles, often running shops, come down in the world. This reminds me of the Russian nanny J.G. Ballard had during his boyhood in 1930s Shanghai, as described in his autobiography Miracles of Life.

From pages 100 to 150 or so our intrepid duo had hoped to approach the front line in the north and had crept up to it in a few places, but ultimately refused permission to go further, to visit the Eighth Route Army, and so have come by boat back down the Yangtze River to Hankou. Now they plan to travel south-east towards the other main front, where the Japanese have taken Shanghai and Nanjing.

On the Emperor of Japan’s birthday there is a particularly large air-raid on Hankow and they make themselves comfortable on the hotel lawn to watch it. The Arsenal across the river takes a pasting and they go to see the corpses. 500 were killed. Nice Emperor of Japan.

They take a river steamer to Kiukiang and stay at the extraordinary luxury hotel named Journey’s End and run by the wonderfully eccentric Mr Charleton. They catch the train from Kiukiang to Nanchang, stay there a few days, then the train on to Kin-hwa (modern Jinhua). Here they are horrified to discover their arrival has been anticipated and they are treated like minor royalty, including a trip to the best restaurant in town with 12 of the city’s top dignitaries.

Auden and I developed a private game: it was a point of honour to praise most warmly the dishes you liked least. ‘Delicious,’ Auden murmured, as he munched what was, apparently, a small sponge soaked in glue. I replied by devouring, with smiles of exquisite pleasure, an orange which taste of bitter aloes and contained, at its centre, a large weevil. (p.195)

They are taken by car to the town of Tunki. They try to get permission to push on to see the front near the Tai Lake, They have to cope with the officious newspaperman, A.W. Kao. This man gives a brisk confident explanation of what’s happening at the front. Neither Auden nor Isherwood believe it. Isherwood’s explanation describes scenes they’ve seen on their visit, but also hints at what Auden might have seen on his (mysterious) trip to civil war Spain. Auden is given a speech defining the nature of modern war:

War is bombing an already disused arsenal, missing it and killing a few old women. War is lying in a stable with a gangrenous leg. War is drinking hot water in a barn and worrying about one’s wife. War is a handful of lost and terrified men in the mountains, shooting at something moving in the undergrowth. War is waiting for days with nothing to do; shouting down a dead telephone; going without sleep, or sex, or a wash. War is untidy, inefficient, obscure, and largely a matter of chance. (p.202)

Peter Fleming turns up looking gorgeous, professional, highly motivated, speaking good Chinese. He attends briefings, manages the locals with perfect manners. They organise an outing towards the front, with sedan chairs, bearers, two or three local notables (T.Y. Liu, A.W. Kao, Mr Ching, Major Yang, Shien), Fleming is indefatigable. On they plod to Siaofeng, Ti-pu and Meiki. Here the atmosphere is very restless, the miltary authorities are visibly unhappy to see them, half their own Chinese want to get away. The spend a troubled night, with people coming and going at the military headquarters where they’ve bivouaced and, after breakfast, they give in to the Chinese badgering, turn about, and retrace their steps. Twelve hours later the town of Meiki fell to the Japanese. On they plod up a steep hillside, carried by coolies, and down the precipitous other side, down to Tien-mu-shan and then by car to Yu-tsien (p.229).

We stopped to get petrol near a restaurant where they were cooking bamboo in all its forms – including the strips used for making chairs. That, I thought, is so typical of this country. Nothing is specifically either eatable or uneatable. You could being munching a hat, or bite a mouthful out of a wall; equally, you could build a hut with the food provided at lunch. Everything is everything. (p.230)

Isherwood hates Chinese food and, eventually, Auden agrees. At Kin-hwa Fleming leaves them. It’s a shame they’ve ended up getting on famously. It’s interesting that both Auden and Isherwood initially were against him because he went to Eton. The narcissism of minor differences knows no limits.

They say goodbye to all the people they’ve met in Kin-hwa and set off by bus for Wenchow. They take a river steamer from Wenchow to Shanghai.

Arrival in Shanghai on 25 May signals the end of their adventures. They stay in the chaotic, colourful, corrupt city till 12 June. Fascinating to think that over in his house in the International Settlement, young James Graham Ballard was playing with his toy soldiers, dreaming about flying and laying the grounds for one of the most distinctive and bizarre voices in post-war fiction.

And Isherwood confirms the strange, deliriously surreal atmosphere of a Chinese city which had been invaded and conquered by the Japanese, who had destroyed a good deal of the Chinese city but left the International and the French Settlements intact. They attend receptions at the British Embassy, are the guest of a British businessman hosting high-level Japs.

There is no doubt Auden and Isherwood hate the Japanese, can’t see the flag hanging everywhere without thinking about all the times in the past four months when they’ve ducked into cover as Japanese bombers rumbled overhead and fighters swooped to strafe the roads.

This is the only section of this long book with real bite. Isherwood interviews a British factory inspector who describes the appalling conditions Chinese workers endure and notes that they’ll all be made much worse by the Japanese conquerors.

Schoolboys

It’s a truism to point out that the Auden Generation was deeply marked by its experience of English public schools, but it is still striking to see how often the first analogy they reach for is from their jolly public schools, endless comparisons with school speeches and prize days and headmasters.

  • Under the camera’s eye [Chiang kai-shek] stiffened visibly like a schoolboy who is warned to hold himself upright (p.68)
  • Mission-doctors [we were told] were obliged to smoke in secret, like schoolboys (p.88)
  • They scattered over the fields, shouting to each other, laughing, turning somersaults, like schoolboys arriving at the scene of a Sunday school picnic (p.142)
  • The admiral, with his great thrusting naked chin… and the Consul-General, looking like a white-haired schoolboy, receive their guests. (p.156)
  • [Mr A.O. Kao] has a smooth, adolescent face, whose natural charm is spoiled by a perpetual pout and by his fussy school-prefect’s air of authority (p.201)
  • Producing a pencil, postulating our interest as a matter of course, he drew highroads, shaded in towns, arrowed troop movements; lecturing us like the brilliant sixth-form boy who takes the juniors in history while the headmaster is away. (p.200)
  • The cling and huddle in the new disaster
    Like children sent to school (p.278)
  • With those whose brains are empty as a school in August (p.291)

The photos

At the end of the huge slab of 250 pages of solid text, the book then had 31 pages of badly reproduced black and white photos taken by Auden. In fact there are 2 per page, so that’s 62 snaps in all.

I don’t think there’s any getting round the fact that they’re average to poor. Some are portraits of people they met, notably Chiang kai-shek and Madame Chiang, Chou en-lai of the communists, and celebrities such as Peter Fleming the dashing travel writer and Robert Capa the handsome war photographer. A dozen or more named people, Chinese, missionaries and so on. And then lots of anonymous soldiers and scenes, the dead from an air raid, the derailed steam train, coolies in poverty, a Japanese prisoner of war, a Japanese soldier keeping guard in Shanghai, Auden with soldiers in a trench and so on.

Remarkably, few if any of these seem to be online. I can’t imagine they’re particularly valuable and their only purpose would be to publicise the book and promote Auden and Isherwood’s writings generally, so I can’t imagine why the copyright holders have banned them. If I owned them, I’d create a proper annotated online gallery for students and fans to refer to.

In Time of War

The book then contains a sequence of 27 sonnets by Auden titled In Time of War. In later collections he retitled them Sonnets from China. They are, on the whole, tiresomely oracular, allegorical and obscure. The earlier ones seem to be retelling elements of the Bible, Genesis etc as if recapitulating the early history of mankind. These then somehow morph into the ills of modern society with its bombers.

But one of them stands out from the rest because it reports real details and rises to real angry eloquence.

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(Sonnet XVI from In Time of War)

Those last lines have stayed with me all my life. Nanking. Dachau. The darkness at the heart of the twentieth century.

Commentary

The last thing in the book is a long poem in triplets, from pages 289 to 301 and titled simply Commentary.

It’s a sort of rewrite of Spain, again giving a hawk’s eye view of history and society, the world and human evolution. It starts off describing what they’ve seen in Auden’s characteristic sweeping style, leaping from one brightly described detail to another, before wandering off to give snapshots of great thinkers from Plato to Hegel.

But at quite a few points voices emerge to deliver speeches. Then, on the last page, the Commentary becomes extremely didactic, ending with a speech by the Voice of Man, no less, the kind of speech he turned out by the score for his plays and choruses and earlier 1930s poems.

But in this context it seems inadequate to the vast and catastrophic war in China which they have just glimpsed, and which was to last for another seven years (till Japan’s defeat in 1945) and was itself followed by the bitter civil war (1945-48) which was only ended by the triumph of Mao Zedong’s communist party early in 1949.

The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned out to be just the start of a decade of terror and atrocity, and Auden’s response is to have the ‘Voice of Man’ preach:

O teach me to outgrow my madness.

It’s better to be sane than mad, or liked than dreaded;
It’s better to sit down to nice meals than nasty;
It’s better to sleep two than single; it’s better to be happy.

Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a silent witness.

Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubble;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till they construct at last a human justice,
The contribution of our star, within a shadow
Of which uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All other reasons may rejoice and operate.

It yet another of his prayers, deliberately personal in scale, addressed mostly to chums from public school, fellow poets, friendly dons and reviewers. It is calling on people who are already well-fed, well-educated and mostly decent chaps to be a bit more decent, if that’s alright. But ‘ruffling up your perfect manners’ wasn’t going to stop Franco or the Japs, Hitler or Stalin.

It is ironic of Auden to ask people to remove from their heads ‘impressive rubble’, which I take to mean the luggage of an expensive education in the arts – as that is precisely what he was going to use to make a living out of for the next 35 years and which was to underpin and inform all his later works.

And there are numerous small but characteristic examples of learnèd wit it here, such as when they light a fire which is so smokey that it forces them out of the room and Auden wittily remarks, ‘Better to die like Zola than Captain Scott’ (i.e. of smoke asphyxiation rather than from freezing).

In this respect the Commentary is another grand speech which, like the grand speeches in the plays he’d just written with Isherwood, was, in the end, addressed to himself. Once again, as with Spain, Auden has used a huge historical event to conduct a lengthy self-analysis.

Auden’s contemporary readers were impressed, as ever, by his style and fluency but, as ever, critical of his strange inability to engage with anything outside himself and, specifically, to rise to the occasion of such a massive historical event.

Half way through the text Isherwood tells a story about Auden’s complete conviction that the train they’re on won’t be shot at by the Japanese, whose lines they are going to travel very close to. Sure enough the train emerges on to a stretch of line where it is clearly visible from the forward Japanese lines, which they know to contain heavy artillery, and so they pass a few minutes of terror, petrified that the Japanese might start shelling any second. In the event, there is no shelling, and the train veers away to safety. ‘See. I told you so,’ says Auden, and Isherwood reflects that there’s no arguing with ‘the complacency of a mystic’.

It’s a joke at his old mate’s expense and yet I thought, yes – complacency – in Auden’s case complacency means undeviating confidence in his own mind and art to hold off, inspect and analyse. He creates a rhetoric of concern but it is nothing more than that, a poet’s rhetoric, fine to admire but which changes nothing.

And he knew this, had realised it during the trip to Spain, and had lost heart in the political verse of the 1930s. The pair returned from China via America, where all mod cons were laid on by his American publishers and Auden realised that here was a much bigger, richer, more relaxed, open, friendly and less politically pressurised environment in which to think and write.

He returned to England just long enough to wind up his affairs, pack his bags, then in January 1939 he and Isherwood sailed back to the States which would become his home for the next 30 years, and set about rewriting or suppressing many of his most striking poems from the troubled Thirties, trying to rewrite and then censor what he came to think of as his own dishonesty, pursuing a quest for his own personal version of The Truth.


Related links

1930s reviews

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

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