Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Train Reading - J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth

This moving lark has been more disruptive than even I expected. However, after almost a week I at least have the computer working. Tomorrow, touch-wood, the internet connection will be on.

It has also been more frustrating than I expected. The writing bug is now so deeply embedded in my system that I kept seeing things that I wanted to write about and then could not.

My train reading has switched to J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth, a book I finished yesterday. Mr Curle was a very popular English travel writer during the 1930s; Face of the Earth was published in 1937.

I will write about the book in more detail later. While well written, many today would find some of Mr Curle’s views quite offensive. I want to discuss this because I deliberately chose the book to get a snapshot of the world just prior to the armageddon described in Pacific Fury, Peter Thompson’s history of the war in the Pacific.

In some ways I got more than I bargained for.

The book is laced with comments about nationality, race and ethnicity expressed with a freedom that would not be tolerated today. I almost put the book aside after the first chapter with the thought do I have to read this stuff? I kept going because I had, after all, deliberately chosen the book as a window into a past world.

As I read I found that I could put aside my reactions.

The travel descriptions across the Pacific, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe are remarkably interesting. As I read about travels through the frontier provinces of what is now Pakistan including a visit to Kabul, I could not help but contrast Mr Curle’s descriptions with current realities.

As I read I also found that Mr Curle’s views on race and ethnicity were layered, nuanced, in a way that was not immediately apparent. They also lead him to make some remarkably interesting observations.

I do not recommend this book for all. I think that for many, the offence would simply be too great. Here I quote from Peter McCarthy:

JH Curle was a mining engineer and successful travel writer. His views on eugenics made him a pariah when the Nazis rose to power. His books are a mix of humorous personal and mining history, observant travel experience and racism. Of his degree at Cambridge he wrote: “The University authorities were approached as to a mining course, but it was soon evident they knew rather less of mining than I did; it was outside their ken. It ended in a scratch course in geology, chemistry, and hydrostatics; but of their practical bearing on mining I learned nothing, and left the University in complete ignorance of the profession I hoped to enter.” Curle, a friend of Hoover, traveled the world for years as a mining journalist for The Economist and wrote “The Gold Mines of the World” to much industry acclaim.

Despite this, I do plan to discuss some of Mr Curle’s views because of the insights they provide into past thoughts and perceptions.

In the meantime, my next train reading is Valentine Williams autobiography, The World of Action (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1938). While very different, I am reading it for similar reasons as to J H Curle.

Valentine Williams is one of three generations of journalists who worked for Rueter's almost from its foundation.

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