Time for some non-fiction – and what a joy this book was! As I mentioned here, I came across this book totally by chance in a charity shop box, thanks to Youngest Child’s eagle eye, and was attracted to it by the title, then discovering it was a record of the author’s travels through Soviet Russia and beyond in 1961. It sounded right up my street and it was!

I’d never heard of Fred Basnett or his book before finding it, and there is precious little about him on the Internet – all I have managed to discover is his obituary here which makes mention of his as a writer and broadcaster. He seems to be a forgotten figure but on the basis of this book I’m not sure why.

Alas - not my edition!

Alas – not my edition!

In August 1961, Fred found himself co-piloting an ancient (1926!) Alvis car with his friend Paul Redfern, as they have somehow been convinced it would be a good idea for them to drive it through Russia then on through Iran and Turkey before returning to the UK. This would be something of an undertaking at the best of times, but bearing in mind that this was at the height of the Cold War, not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis, then it starts to seem foolhardy. Fred and Paul set off nevertheless, travelling with the car by boat to Sweden, then up to visit the Arctic Circle, before heading south through Finland and crossing into Soviet Russia. Somehow the car holds together and they manage to survive through Leningrad, Moscow and right down through Georgia to Tbilisi. After complex border negotiations they pass through Iran, spotting Mount Ararat on the way, before finally arriving with car in Turkey and enjoying slightly more civilised living in Ankara and Istanbul. The book ends as they reluctantly take their leave of Turkey, and alas we don’t get to enjoy their final drive home – maybe this was less eventful than the rest of the journey!

Fred and the Alvis near St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Fred and the Alvis near St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

This is a wonderful book on several different levels. Firstly, as an illustration of the kind of travel book described by Hilary on Vulpes Libris as “brilliant reading for anyone who enjoys perceptive, personal travel writing for its own sake”, it’s exemplary. It’s funny, opinionated, poignant and infused with a genuine love of the people Fred met on his travels. Secondly, it gives an excellent snapshot of what it was like to travel through Soviet Russia at the time. Whether dodging potential informers or controlling Intourist “guides”, Fred and Paul are always aware that they are being observed and it is a rare occasion when they can sneak away to get a glimpse of the reality behind the Iron Curtain. When they do meet the ordinary citizens they get on like a house on fire, and are met with constant kindness (and a desire to buy anything western they are prepared to part with!). The book is almost a historical document and worth reading to remind yourself what life was like for Russian citizens at that time. There is a desperate need for anything from the outside world, and at one point they are even approached for the printed word:

“Lingering in the corridor of the train, not knowing how to say goodbye, the shy youth opened up a little and told us that his father was a languages professor who translated English books. I gave him Muriel Spark’s ‘Memento Mori’, and then he asked, with tense off-handedness, if there were any English newspapers I’d finished with. All I could find was a tattered copy of The Guardian…”

I wonder what the professor made of Ms. Spark’s novel?

The constant run-ins with Intourist (the Soviet travel agency), the endless waiting around for visas, paperwork and even meals, the interminable bureaucracy were unbelievable and the frustrations the travellers had to put up with would have tried the patience of a saint! Fred and Paul at one point end up stranded in a border town that is no more than a railway station whilst waiting for the car to catch them up by train, and as they sink into torpor, Fred finds amusement in watching the antics of local ants!

Thirdly, this is a glimpse of a lost world – a world where travel still seemed like exploration and to set off on a whim in an old car was carrying on one’s travelling heritage (e.g. Robert Byron’s “Europe in the Looking Glass”), where the globe seemed large and regular jet-setting had not reduced the excitement of discovering a new land. And finally, this is just such a readable book – the writing is lovely, evocative and I became completely absorbed, ending up feeling as if I’d made the journey with them.

Lovely map from the book - all good travel books should have a map!

Lovely map from the book – all good travel books should have a map!

I can’t recommend this book highly enough for those who enjoy travel writing – it seems to me that this is such an unjustly neglected book which should be up there alongside Newby et al. It’s full of lovely descriptions of the regions they passed through and also some very funny sections – here are some examples, but I could have pulled out loads:

“Still looking like an inland sea, Lake Sevan must have been even larger before they started tapping off water for a hydro-electric scheme whose pylons go striding off in all directions over the naked hills. What was once an island out in the lake is now a peninsula, an over-large head on the end of a thin, chalky neck of land, which sent the sun bouncing into our eyes as we walked across. Two cosy little churches of the ninth century squatted comfortably at the turfy summit of the former island. The steep path leading to them passed a clump of intricately carved tombstones, as ancient and withdrawn as a group of geriatric patients. The carving was blurred by strata of lichens, which overlapped like stained, corroded, paper-thin medals.”

“The last call was to the covered market to buy some food for the train journey. Ambivalence again – this time of old and new, of apathy and ebullience. A colossal bronze screen, fretted and pierced like a giant doily, fills the arch of the portico. The fifteen-foot door cut through this looks like a mouse-hole; you scuttle through and find yourself in a high, spaciously echoing vault, more like a hygienic hangar than a market. The traders seem cowed by this space, and cling unhappily to the walls like people who’ve come to a dance too early. Old men squat on their hunkers among green-marbled hills of melons thinking nostalgically of the dirty, bustling life of the old street markets.”

“For all I know, the approach to Maku may be beautiful, even spectacular, when the sun is up, but it is very different on a blind, moonless night. The road runs through a strangely brooding valley, thickly peopled with tall boulders which stand humped like cloaked trolls, sometimes in quiet groups, sometimes alone and waiting with terrible patience at the very edge of the road. The silence was a straining drum-skin waiting to burst in one dreadful boom – and the rocks would then stir stiffly and begin to lurch forward. In this context Maku appears like the good fairy….”

“The dome rang with the sound characteristic of swimming pools everywhere – a compound of the baying of muscled extraverts (sic) and the cries of the drowning. The only thing missing was the whiff of chlorine. The water needed more than a whiff. It was opaque enough to make  your hand disappear six inches down and, after swallowing a half-pint, I rejected any idea of joining in the wrestling.”

Negative points? I can’t really think of any – perhaps there is the occasional slightly politically incorrect reference (mainly to women rather than ethnic minorities) but there was nothing that made my hackles rise. In summary, this book is going to have pride of place on my travel shelf and if you have any love of travel writing at all, please track down a copy – there are plenty of low-priced ones online, and you’ll be in for a treat! Loved this book!