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Tangerine dreams

Before tourism came travel; and before travel, exploration.

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-93 Paul Bowles, introduced by Paul Theroux

Sort of Books, pp.508, 14.99

Before tourism came travel; and before travel, exploration. A sense of wonder had accompanied journeys along the lip of the unknown, as the Victorian pathfinder was often an amateur scientist, required to bring home a trunkful of fossils. Today, of course, travel is merely an extension of the leisure industry. The first thing we see as we embark on our holidays is a filth of our own making (resort hotel seepage, takeaway detritus). Paul Bowles, himself no armchair excursionist, bemoaned the creeping industrialisation of travel — its translation into tourism — and what he called ‘the 20th century’s gangrene’, by which he meant, broadly, modernity.

This superb collection of his travel journalism takes us back to the days of exploration, when the going was rough. It provides an absorbing record of the American novelist’s love of Islamic North Africa and the sand-dwelling peoples of the Sahara, as well as Sri Lanka and the unjustly maligned Madeira. The sublime Victorian presumption that a harsh nomadic life makes a better person was shared to a degree by Bowles. Yet he was no Wilfred Thesiger figure, contemptuous of democracy, human rights or women. He learned some Arabic but baulked at wearing Arab fancy dress (Brooks Brothers suits were preferred to Wilfred of Arabia-style flowing headcloths).

An elusive, slyly watchful individual, Bowles combined a scholarly knowledge of North African custom and culture with slightly bitchy observation and a witty, anecdotal concision. In ‘The Rif, To Music’, a bravura essay, he relates his difficulties in making a series of recordings of Moroccan music in 1960. Amid the matchless descriptions of desert landscape are droll flights of humour and self-deprecation. Absurdly, Bowles was obliged to consume supplies of ‘piping hot Pepsi Cola’ as he lugged recording equipment across the Atlas mountains.

Of the 40-odd travel articles here, eight have already appeared in Bowles’s own selection published in 1963, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue. The rest have been salvaged from a variety of magazines and journals. The Moroccan seaport of Tangier, where Bowles lived for most of his life, inevitably dominates. Prior to its absorption into Morocco proper in 1959, Tangier was by reputation an insalubrious, foul-smelling city of notably sodomitic allure, where pimps, panders, dabblers in exotica, unfrocked priests, catamites and trumpery aristocrats of one sort or another languished beneath the palms (in a haze, usually, of gin and tranquillisers).

Bowles first visited in 1931 on the recommendation of his novelist friend, Gertrude Stein. Tangier was then just two hours away from Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar, yet Bowles felt he had left the certainties of Europe behind. In the city’s International Zone he found an expatriate life kept financially buoyant through smuggling and other borderline enterprises, as well as a hive of local Moroccan intrigue. In many ways, pre-war Tangier was the Moroccan equivalent of Capri in the days of Norman Douglas: a faintly snobbish playground of sybaritic delights. Under the influence of majoun cannabis jam, Bowles composed a chapter of The Sheltering Sky, and felt all-round beatifically attuned.

From his eyrie of self-imposed exile, in fact, he turned Tangier into a laboratory of the human soul, coolly observing the tribulations of lovers and acquaintances. His wife’s alcoholic friendship with Tennessee Williams seems to have incurred his envy, and in 1957 he consigned her to a psychiatric hospital where, in between bouts of electroshock therapy, she passed her time playing ping-pong. Tangier, meanwhile, continued to exert its hothouse attractions, and in the beatnik summer of 1961 it was invaded by Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso and, conspicuous by his trilby hat, William Burroughs.

But, as Bowles relates in a piece for London Magazine, by the mid 1960s Tangier was no longer a Sodom on the Sea but a fairly humdrum North African port. Cecil Beaton complained of an ‘Oriental Cheltenham’, devoid of its former raffish glamour. The Woolworths heiress, Barbara Hutton, kept a Moorish palace there until 1979, when she died an old-style Tangerino death of barbiturates and booze. With her went a slice of the city’s palmy days and debauched excess.

Spanning four decades of Bowles’s writing career from 1950-93, Travels is fascinating to dip into and offers superior escapism for the post-holiday blues. As well as providing eye-witness accounts of Kenya under the British and Algeria under the French, it includes some choice pieces on the habits of parrots and the pitfalls of majoun consumption.

Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica (Faber) won the 2010 Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book Award.

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