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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 18th, 2005


 

By the Seat of My Pants (Lonely Planet)

by Don George

Traveller's Corollary

A review by Tom Chesshyre

Don George is Lonely Planet's Global Travel Editor, and this is a quirky anthology of thirty-one stories by new and established travel writers, Jan Morris being the best known. There are cab drives with conmen wielding machine guns (Danny Wallace), close encounters with lions (Kelly Watton), car crashes in the Australian Outback (Joshua Clark) and fer de lances in hotels (Linda Watanabe McFerrin). But there are also some straightforward accounts of peculiar scenarios: chatting to a charming man who turns out to be the Crown Prince of Liechtenstein on a long train journey (Kathie Kertesz); being interrupted while "at it" by a large Argentinian family that has entered the wrong hotel room in Ushuaia (Michelle Richmond); getting locked in a public library toilet in Maastricht (Doug Lansky).

George believes that travel is inherently comic, both in that it invites the out-of-the-ordinary, and that it often requires a sense of humour in order to get out of a tight squeeze. Adapting Plato, he writes that the "traveller's corollary" is that "adversity is the mother of invention" and that "seat of your pants" adventures can tell us "about the unknown, unexplored corners of ourselves".

Some stories are better than others, but almost all are good. Lansky, stuck for an hour in the library lavatory (other users incredibly ignoring his banging and yelling), made me laugh out loud, as did Jeff Greenwald's run-in with impossible bureaucracy at the left luggage counter at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Calcutta, with the official pushing forward a huge, ancient and almost-filled complaints book (dating from the 1950s), raising an eyebrow and saying: "Please. Make a note of it".

Morris's short story about changing her usual luxury approach to travel -- based on her belief in an old naval saying, "The British Navy always travels first class" -- ends with her being given a free meal by sympathetic staff at Harry's Bar in Venice after her money is stolen on a public vaporetto (not her usual private water taxi). And Simon Winchester provides an endearing tale of an overflowing bath tub at London's Connaught hotel involving an unnamed "towering literary figure", some honeymooners and a glass of martini.

Tom Chesshyre works on the travel desk of The Times.



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