Thursday, 16 June 2016

Strange Bedfellows

Once or twice a week I go to the public library with the small knapsack that has replaced the handsome wool-and-leather shoulder bag I gave B.A. and then stole back. (Another lesson of the Chartres Pilgrimage is that carrying a heavy bag over both shoulders is really more comfortable.) After my latest visit, I reflected that the contents of the knapsack reflected the content of my character, as they included:

1. Polish missal, which I forgot to take out on Sunday.
2. Polish dictionary, which I was going to use soon.
3. Polish children's book, which I am reading in depth.
4. Polish notebook, dedicated solely to the aforementioned children's book
5. Gruffalo-themed pencil case with motto "Everyone is afraid of me."
6. The 5:2 Fast Diet Cookbook
7. Delicious Dishes for Diabetics
8. High Heels and a Head Torch: The Essential Guide for Girls who Backpack
9. The Abolition of Britain from Winston Churchill to Princess Diana
10. Success with Languages
11. Teaching and Learning Languages: A Practical Guide to Learning by Doing
12. Survival Handbook in association with the Royal Marines Commandos
13. Wallet
14. Keys
15. MAC "Russian Red" lipstick 
16. Old grocery store receipt
17. Umbrella
18. Water bottle

I felt guilty that there were no novels in this collection. I know I'm supposed to be reading novels. I'm supposed to be saying "Aha! Good opening sentence. Excellent sketch of surroundings. Masterful character development." Etc. 

As you can see, my extramural interests lie with Polish, low-sugar diets, backpacking and life in the UK. I am not actually a diabetic (thank heavens); I've just chosen to eat that way. My daytime slap has been reduced to lipstick because "You look better without [the whole nine yards], darling."  

The library books are currently swearing at each other. The big troublemaker is, of course, Peter Hitchens' The Abolition of Britain, which compares how poor, colourless, clever and morally upstanding the British were in 1965 to how rich, colourful, stupid and base they were in 1997. 

The problem is not so much Hitchens' ideas--some of which are echoed by Theodore Dalrymple in Our Culture, What's Left of It--but the discomfort that lingers in the brain when reading anything else involving his themes. The first chapter, "Born Yesterday", was very entertaining, but I read his second chapter denouncing contemporary teaching methods just after a chapter of Teaching and Learning Languages: A Practical Guide to Learning By Doing. The focus on students rearranging their desks and talking to each other is the sort of thing Hitchens complains about and, as a matter of fact, when I was a child in Canada, basic French was banged into our heads not through teamwork but by group chanting of "Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est, ON est, nouzzzz avons, vouzzzz avez, ils sont, elles sont." Today I long for a mind-numbing, but effective, recording of Polish verbs.  

That I will ever finish  Teaching and Learning Languages is now in doubt. 

In the evenings, when my brain is less suited to philosophy, foreign languages and spleen, I have been turning to the Survival Handbook in Association with the Royal Marines Commandos and  High Heels and a Head Torch: The Essential Guide for Girls who Backpack. These are very different books. 

The first book is brilliant, serious, well-illustrated and full of excellent advice about how to deal with a number of gruesome possibilities. I am working up the courage to read the First Aid section, but meanwhile I have learned how to predict rain. I have also been inspired to assemble a survival tin, even though B.A. says such things as, "We won't need it just for walking in East Lothian." Ho! Confident words for a man who was slowly chased by cattle just the other day.

The second book isn't really about backpacking, it's about BACKPACKING, which is to say travelling  around the world from hostel to hostel in search of thrills, including sex with strangers. Instead of assembling a survival tin, the author of High Heels and a Head Torch stuffed her backpack with condoms. 

The transformation of British sexual morality is another subject at which Peter Hitchens gets all very gloomy. When I finished High Heels and, still sleepless, reached for The Abolition, I stayed my hand. Another dose of Hitchens after Duke's cheerful promiscuity would have been much too depressing. The Royal Marines Commandos are surely not prudes, but they completely neglected the subject of sex in their tome, possibly because in a survival situation you're not supposed to waste your energy on such frivols. (They even advise against over-reliance on rabbit flesh as you would spend too much energy digesting something much too low in fat.) Here is High Heels' top survival advice (besides never taking a taxicab from the airport in Delhi at night):

"I know I keep banging on about this (no pun intended) but it's easy to forget when you're away from home in an exotic location, you've had a couple of drinks, picked up a gorgeous guy, gone for a romantic walk along the beach and are about to get down and dirty in the sand. Pausing the action to ferret around in your bag for a condom may not be your first concern--but it should be. Especially with a partner you don't know. You probably wouldn't trust them with your money, your credit cards or your passport so don't trust them with your health either. The effects of losing that are far more long term  (p. 152, emphasis mine). "

High Heels has a usually enjoyable tone, provides some interesting tips and provokes some giggles, so I am searching around in my mind for kinder adjectives to describe it. Louche, perhaps. It was written for girls travelling after their secondary education (i.e. high school), so the target audience is about 18 years old and--to judge by this book--drugged up to the eyeballs on the Pill. It is curiously classist and racist in that the author assumes that you would put out for a tall blond surfer/fellow backpacker in a heartbeat but not for an Indian rickshaw driver. This is especially interesting when you come across her joke/information that British friends might give the backpacker points for "each different nationality you get through."

Naturally I do not think an 18 year old English girl far from home should put out for an Indian rickshaw driver, either. I am even willing to admit that, for cultural reasons, he may be more dangerous than the Aussie surfer of the author's dreams. I have read rather less about gang-rapes by blond men in Australia than I have of gang-rapes by dark-haired men in India. Still, if you wouldn't trust a man with your money, credit card or passport, I don't know why you would trust him with the tenderest bits of your body. What would the Royal Marines Commandos have to say about it, I wonder. 

The philosophy of High Heels is rather strange from a Catholic, or a Britain-in-1965, point of view, but may explain why so many men in hot, poor countries think white women/British women are barely different from prostitutes. (High Heels has much advice for white girls, especially blondes, to avoid being groped by colourful natives.) It also leads me to suspect that saying, "I'm not comfortable with this conversation; I'm a Catholic" will elicit white hot screams of "Are you judging me?" from your fellow (literally speaking) travellers. 

My advice to Catholic backpackers would be to travel with another Catholic pal or another traditionally religious pal of good will and to seek out backpackers from cultures in which female chastity (at very least) is acknowledged as a sensible (if not desirable) choice. This is just a guess, however, as I never did backpacking of the hostel-jumping sort. In my youth, my few holidays abroad were never longer than two weeks in duration, and I always chose hotels over hostels. I also paid extra for First Class train tickets, thinking this would make me safer as well as more comfortable. This was done at the expense of food--which, by the way,  the Royal Marines Commandos think should be avoided in the first 24 hours of your survival situation. Clean drinking water is more of a priority.


  1. Interesting coincidence! I've just spent a week in Athens visiting a friend who cautiously admitted to me that he's been reading both Hitchens and Dalrymple. I borrowed his copy of The Abolition of Britain for my bed time reading, have been thinking about it a lot this week. If you do want a novel recommendation, I'm being very greatly rewarded by finally taking my mother's advice of reading Winifred Holtby's South Riding . There's lot's in it I think you'd like.

    I went inter-railing from Paris to Prague with six other friends at eighteen, so if you ever find yourself in need of a guest post...

  2. From Paris to Prague! That sounds very romantic and adventurous.

  3. Thank you! Actually, maybe Verily magazine would take it.