Slowly boating

SLOW BOATS TO CHINA by Gavin Young, originally published in 1981; my (lovely) edition 1995

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 33

I love vicarious travel.

It has so many advantages – you don’t have to worry about the water, being assaulted or offending people inadvertently; you don’t have to spend time at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases getting unlikely injections beforehand and you don’t have to spend time with the bank afterwards, trying to sort out your finances.

Some travel books, though, make you want to leap off and emulate the author immediately.

And some do not – and this is one of those.

That’s not, of course, to say that it’s a bad or even indifferent travel book, because it isn’t; it’s wonderful (or at least, I think it is). But I am deeply grateful that I wasn’t in any way involved with most of Gavin Young’s 1979/80 journey. It was a romantic dream of sea travel, of taking a succession of ships and small boats all the way from Europe to China, something that was barely possible at the time, and which is even less possible now. But Young managed it, and indeed even went on to write a sequel, Slow Boats Home. And if anyone could do it, he could.

Gavin Young was born in 1928 and worked for a large part of his life as a foreign correspondent, covering a total of fifteen wars. He started in journalism as a stringer working out of Tunis, and before he joined the Observer he worked for two years with a shipping company in Basra, and then spent a couple more years with the Marsh Arabs nearby in southern Iraq. His journalistic career was marked by revolutions and conflicts, and he was 1971 International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the traumatic birth of Bangladesh. All of this certainly prepared him for his later life as a travel writer, particularly one with a marked interest in the East. His ability to get on with a wide variety of people, and his persistence and flexibility when travelling, are certainly reflected in the journey which resulted in Slow Boats to China.

It is perhaps surprising, given such a career, that he comes over as such an incorrigible romantic…

The whole idea of the journey sprung from childhood memories of the north Cornish coast and consequent dreams of running away to sea. Young decided he would take whatever ships were available – it’s been described as ‘a sort of traveller’s roulette’ – and make his way from Piraeus to Canton as best as he could. From disgusting ferries in the Mediterranean to kumpits in the pirate-infested Sulu Sea, he managed it (and only rarely had to resort to alternative means of transport).

En route he met many interesting individuals – a cliché of the travel book, but Young’s reporter’s eye and ear make the most of all his encounters and the same cannot be said of some other books in this field – and enabled his readers to share in many experiences, but virtually: always more comfortable. I certainly hadn’t the slightest desire to spend precarious time with Moros in the Sulu Sea (though I now have a good piece of advice should I be in fear if my life in similar circumstances: keep smiling), and I still haven’t – but Young’s account makes me understand what it must have felt like. His writing is extremely evocative, and time and again the romantic surfaces, though not in purple prose: he was, after all, a war reporter.

Young died in 2001, six years after Slow Boats to China appeared as one of the Picador Travel Classics.

It’s a lovely edition, though the illustrations and clear maps have appeared in all editions – and the maps are excellent (it’s a shame that the same cannot be said of all travel books). His later book In Search of Conrad was joint winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, but I much prefer Slow Boats.

Maybe I’m something of an incorrigible romantic about the sea myself…

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