Although I’m not a great traveller, I normally manage to get the odd trip away during the year and particularly in the summer break. That, of course, has not been happening during pandemic times, and I’ve been relying on books to help me escape mentally, even if I can’t get away physically. After journeying around a bit with my #WITMonth reads via a number of fictions, I thought it might be nice to dip into Mount TBR and pull out a real travel book – and so I settled on “The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh” by Chiang Yee.

Often, when I finally get round to reading and reviewing a book, I can’t actually recall where I heard about it first. However, I’m pretty sure I came across mention of The Silent Traveller on Simon’s blog as he has one of the ST’s books on Oxford. I must have investigated and found there was one on Edinburgh, so instantly picked up a copy. Edinburgh is, of course, my city of birth and I had an emotional return visit there a few yeas ago. Chiang, however, visited in the late 1930s and 1940s (during WW2) and so I was very interested to see what his take on the city was.

I have never been in the habit, as most visitors have, of reading a guidebook first and then working out a plan. I prefer to ‘ling-lueh’ whatever crosses my path. I may waste much time in getting to some noted place which would easily have been reached with the help of a guidebook, or I may even miss altogether a number of well-known sights. No matter: it is my way of travelling.

Chiang Yee was a fascinating character; a Chinese poet, author, painter and calligrapher, he had an illustrious career in his native country until he came to the UK in 1933 to study, unhappy with the political situation in China. Having abandoned his wife and child to do this, he lived in the UK until 1955 when he moved to the USA where he worked until 1975; in that year, he finally returned to China where he died two years later. His first ‘Silent Traveller’ book was “The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland” which came out in 1937, and the word artist in the title is very relevant to what Chiang was doing with his books.

Edinburgh, of course, is a beautiful city, and Chiang appears to record his impressions of it over a number of visits at different times of the year. Whether walking for miles and climbing hills, having encounters with curious natives, tolerating and actually enjoying the constant rain, or reflecting on the glories of the landscape, the ST really does bring a fresh eye to the city. He has a pint in a pub with locals; chats with old Scots or soldiers on leave; visits friends and tours fascinating parts of the National Library of Scotland; and through all of this sees parallels between the land of his birth and Scotland.

I have always declared in my other books that I would like to see all the names of the various nations abolished and all the national boundaries wiped out, leaving only the local place names. If this could be achieved, I should not bother myself with the question of Burns’ nationality and I would be spared the threat of Scottish spades, spears and swords!

As I quoted in the heading to this post, Chiang states at one point “There is a Chinese story for every occasion”, and that’s certainly demonstrated in the book! He’s a wonderfully digressive author, finding connections between the Chinese and the Scots at every juncture, quoting tales and poetry, even writing his own verse. Charmingly, these are also rendered in Chinese characters which adds another lovely element to the book. I did very occasionally wish he would digress slightly less and stay on focus with Edinburgh, but only very occasionally…

Seeing Edinburgh through the eyes of a visitor from such a different culture was absolutely fascinating, but the icing on the cake with this book has to be the illustrations. Chiang was a marvellous artist, producing the most beautiful watercolour paintings of Edinburgh scenes and landmarks; and twenty of these are reproduced in full colour in the book. As my edition is produced on creamy, thick paper, this enhances these even more; and to add to the delight, there are numerous small black and white sketches dotted throughout the narrative. All of this combines to make reading the book such a lovely experience, and I did indeed feel transported whilst doing so!

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I approached “The Silent Traveller…” but it ended up being a brilliant and evocactive read; Chiang’s portrait of Edinburgh during the War is particularly memorable, and resonated in these difficult times. He encounters people who are still going about their lives despite the trauma in the world; and his references to his family, in unknown circumstances back in China, are moving (though I did find myself wanting to know more about the backstory of why he left and what happened to his family). And as I’ve said, the illustrations are just stunning; on the strength of those alone, I may well find myself having to explore more of the Silent Traveller’s wanderings! 😀