Superficial thing that I am, I have to confess that I was attracted to this book when I saw it on Twitter by two things – the beautiful cover image and the fact that it was a Mediterranean travelogue from 1929. However, I’m not being totally trivial as I *have* read and loved Waugh before, and I adore good travel writing. So I wasn’t taking too much of a risk when I sent for a copy via Waterstones Click and Collect using some of my birthday book token… 😀
Waugh is, of course, best known for “Brideshead Revisited” (which I have to confess I’ve never read…); however, most of my reading of his work was pre-blog, apart from “The Loved One” (which was a real scream!) Satire is the word which usually springs to mind when Waugh is mentioned; “Labels” doesn’t exactly fit into that genre, although there is plenty of snidey snarkery, which is a real delight!
In February 1929, Waugh sets off on his travels round the Mediterrean, which a view to keeping himself afloat financially by producing a book. His stated aim was to visit Russia, but alas he never got there (which is a shame, as I’d like to have seem that). Instead, he cruises his way around the south of France, Italy, Egypt, any number of islands and bits of Greece, Spain, and even makes it to Constantinople. As he travels, he shares not only his impressions of the places he visits but also his travelling companions, art, architecture, antiquities and the whole concept of tourism. It’s a singular, often funny, provoking and entertaining mix and I laughted out loud in many places!
… I left the Crillon for cheaper accommodation. My next hotel was remarkably less comfortable. It was exactly facing into the Metro, where it runs very noisily above ground, and the bed was, I think, stuffed with skulls. The only furniture was a bidet and a cupboard full of someone else’s underclothes. There were some false teeth under the pillows, and the door opened oddly, being permanently locked and detached from both hinges, so that it could only be moved at the wrong side just far enough to admit of one squeezing through. However, it was cheaper than the Crillon, costing in fact only 18 francs a night.
This is certainly no saccharine account of a trip round pretty places; if Waugh dislikes a place, he says so in no uncertain terms; and he’s clear-eyed about the squalid aspects of the trip, from the constant harrassment by locals exploiting the tourists, to the red-light entertainment mostly laid on just for the monied visitors. He’s often critical about tourism as a concept, seeing it as a kind of descendant of the Grand Tour, which he disses beautifully. It’s a little bit shocking to realise that this is getting on for a century ago, and yet Waugh is already meditating on the evils of mass tourism, commenting that “…places like Venice and Constantinople swallow up this influx without undue indigestion, but the spectacle, which I once saw on a previous visit, of five hundred tourists arriving by car to observe the solitude of a village in the Greek mountains is painful and ludicrous.”
There is much discussion of art and architecture, which of course Waugh encounters in quantities wherever the cruise ship lands him, and even then many antiquities had been insensitively wrenched from their original locations. Much leaves him cold, and he’s not afraid to say so; however, when he’s moved by something his commentary goes into raptures about it, and the pages about his reactions to Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona are fascinating and lyrical. However, he’s always ready to subvert the reader’s expectations and puncture pretentiousness:
I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.
As I read, I was reminded that the book was written at an intriguing time; Waugh is situated at the end of the Roaring Twenties as the world was about to hit depression and the rise of fascism. A frank discussion of drugs is balanced with reflections on Mussolini, who was already on the rise, and the fate of various countries which had been parcelled up and handed over to various rulers at the end of the First World War. Despite the wit and frivolity and name-dropping, there is an underlying seriousness in Waugh which I’ve sensed before in his writing.And his writing is *excellent*! Occasionally, he launches into a wonderful tirade against something, which is what I would call a “‘Watney’s Red Barrel’ moment (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you’ll know what I mean!) It’s quite glorious and here’s an example where he rails against the bucolic and twee countryside of his home country:
The detestation of ‘quaint’ and ‘picturesque bits’ which is felt by every decently constituted Englishman, is, after all, a very insular prejudice. It has developed naturally in self-defence against arts and crafts, and the preservation of rural England, and the preservation of ancient monuments, and the transplantation of Tudor cottages, and the collection of pewter and old oak, and the reformed public house, and Ye Olde Inne and the Kynde Dragone and Ye Cheshire Cheese, Broadway, Stratford-on-Avon, folk-dancing, Nativity plays, reformed dress, free love in a cottage, glee singing, the Lyric, Hammersmith, Belloc, Ditchling, Wessex-worship, village signs, local customs, heraldry, madrigals, wassail, regional cookery, Devonshire teas, letters to the Times about saving timbered alms-houses from destruction, the preservation of the Welsh language, etc. It is inevitable that English taste, confronted with all these frightful menaces to its integrity, should have adopted an uncompromising attitude to anything the least tainted with ye oldness.
“Labels” turned out to be a delight; funny, thought-provoking, lyrical and entertaining, it was the perfect post-Christmas read. There were a couple of points where I was reminded that I was reading a book by somebody upper-class from the 1920s; the terminology is often not what we would use today, and I found his dismissal of much Oriental art baffling (although that *may* just come down to personal taste, as he didn’t dislike it all). Nevertheless, this was a wonderfully enjoyable and relaxing book; and as I believe he’s written more travel works, I’m going to have to do some careful consideration of what I’ll be spending the remainder of the book token on… ;D