The Journeys of John Hillaby

In the early part of the 20th century, travel writing began to feature much less bravado than it previously had, with younger writers turning towards humour and self-deprecation as a means of engaging with their readers. Largely confined to British literature, this style was later made popular by several writers, who presented themselves as amateurs, while at the same time seeming to prove otherwise. These writers were usually robust, erudite and dauntlessly plucky. The best ones were also typically unpretentious, knowing well the limitations of the false heroism exhibited by some of the rather dour travellers of the past. They strived chiefly to entertain, and by appearing to seem blundering and ineffectual, were able to provide the reader with an account to which he or she could relate, and conceivably have written under similar circumstances.

For perhaps these reasons, the character of the amateur adventurer has become something of a staple of travel literature, not only here in Britain, but elsewhere in the world, too. The style has been employed by such writers as Bill Bryson to Mark Wallington, and has produced some quite good books, as well as a nasty slew of very bad ones with titles like “Crossing the Gobi Dessert in a Sinclair C5” and “Round Antigua with a Tin of Spam Glued to My Face”. Perhaps the worst thing about these books is that they have heralded in a new era of impetuousness in travel literature, by which the writer sets off with absolutely no intention of saying anything interesting about the place he or she is visiting. Worse still is the trend of writers setting off on a journey of personal discovery; an excursion up their own backsides, with fleeting references to whichever country they’ve been paid to visit.

So unpromising are these trends that I often find myself being overcritical of any book that sounds even moderately suspect. When I come across a book with the title Journey Through Britain (1968), for example, I know at once that it has the potential to either be, at best, quite good or else irredeemably bad. And unfortunately, unless a strong urge persuades me differently, experience has taught me to expect the latter to be true. In this instance, I took a chance and rather pleasantly found the book to contain none of the slipshod, self-interested writing that I mention above. The author, John Hillaby, is a writer very much of the old school tradition: witty, punctilious and with a proclivity for quoting poets and other writers. He has a fondness for history, too, and always seems to have a fact or anecdote at hand for whenever he passes an old abbey or peculiar-sounding town.

Journey Through Britain is Hillaby’s account of his walk from Land’s End in Cornwall to John o’ Groats in Scotland, which is about as far as one can walk in Britain before disappearing into the sea. The journey takes him 55 days to complete, during which he drinks (by my approximation) 330 pints and eats (in his words) more than he has ever eaten before. Despite this, he is remarkably fit and covers 25 miles a day at speed of roughly four miles per hour. When he is tired, he is not above sleeping beneath a tree, and seems in fact to enjoy roughing it whenever the weather is fine. I liked his account mostly because I liked Hillaby. Throughout the book, he frequently becomes disillusioned with walking, but perseveres and remains good-humoured till the very end, when his toenails fall off. He is able to give the reader a sense of what he’s been through, while never putting them through the equally unpleasant ordeal of having to read through page upon page of indignation.

The humorous parts could have been written by Eric Newby, and the historical parts by Norman Lewis, through whose travel books a reader can learn as much about the world as he or she could ever hope to know. A similar thing can be said of Journey Through Britain: some readers may learn more about Britain from it than they perhaps want to know. But that’s hardly Hillaby’s fault. He is a babbling stream of esoteric information, and as good as that is for readers like me, those expecting a straightforward step-by-step account may find his approach distracting. Whether you appreciate it depends, I suppose, on the sort of travel books you are familiar with: the older didactic variety or the simpler contemporary kind. Personally, I love reading about the etymology of the name Chepstow or the customs of our pagan ancestors. And I appreciate Hillaby’s other quirks, too, such as his tendency to suddenly come out with something completely bewildering like this:

Try walking naked on a hill sometime for a kind of ecstasy unlike anything else I can think of, but a word of warning: keep a pair of britches at the ready for an unexpected encounter.

These sort of sentences leap out at the reader from time to time, like a disrobed rambler, enthusiastically appearing out from behind a tree with a big rapturous grin across his face. You don’t get that sort of thing from, say, Thesiger, though he doubtless pulled similar tricks while roving the Rub’ al Khali; we just didn’t hear about them.

Journey Through Britain is Hillaby’s third book; his second, which is similar in both style and tone, is Journey to the Jade Sea, about his thousand-mile trek from Northern Kenya to Lake Rudolf. These books were bestsellers in their day, and although both are markedly dated, their success is easy to account for. Having enjoyed Journey Through Britain so much, I purchased a cheap and battered copy of Journey to the Jade Sea and found it equally as compelling, and in some ways, even more satisfying to read. The significantly more exotic location certainly helps, as does the fact that Hillaby travels with hired bearers, who become endearing characters in his vast and remarkable account. With a couple of rifles, 12 pairs of plimsolls, a floppy hat and a Swahili phrase book, Hillaby walks through the plains of the Serengeti, through Rwanda and up the Mountains of the Moon in Zaire, all the while entertaining the reader with anecdotes and allusions to the works of writers like George Orwell and W.B. Yeats.

The book immediately became a favourite of mine, and I have no hesitation in calling Journey to the Jade Sea one of the great travel books of the 20th century. I adduce below, as proof of its enduring brilliance, one of my favourite passages from it, which I hope will persuade readers to seek out a copy for themselves.

Wrapped up in three cotton vests at the bottom of my medicine chest I kept a little wireless set, made in Japan and extraordinarily efficient at picking up three, and almost only three, types of music. Europe and North America seemed to transmit almost nothing but rock-and-roll, augmented by peculiarly British Early Morning and Workers’ Playtime type of bands. Whatever the repertoire the dumpty dumpty ditties were delivered at exactly the same tempo, encore et encore, ad nauseam. A twist of the dial brought in the wail of Islam, costive and insistent in North Africa but enriched in the Sudan by full-throated recitations from the Qu’ran. From Nairobi, the coast, and all points east came the cheerful, irregular songs of India in Gujuratic and Hindi, to me the most attractive oriental sounds of all.

One night, high above the Chalbi, I went to bed early, intent on hearing a retransmission of a Festival Hall concert in London, due to begin at half-past nine. I tuned into the short wave and turned the volume down to a mere breath of sound to dampen either a quiz programme or a spelling bee. The radio twittered on the floor about a yard from my ear and I fell asleep.

Shortly before midnight I awoke to find the blades of four spears outlined against the sky. The shafts were held by four young Samburu who were kneeling with their heads bent down over the radio. They were listening to the whine of a late-night dance band.

Softly, I asked them if they liked it. They ran away. Calling them back I repeated the question. Was it good? Did they like the noise? In a phrase which I treasure, one of them said it was asali kabissa; the very essence of treacle.

Journey to the Jade Sea may be Hillaby’s best book, but readers wishing for more of the same will not be disappointed by the rest of his bibliography. The next book they should reach for is Journey Through Europe (1972), Hillaby’s breezy follow up to Journey Through Britain, in which he hikes through Holland, down into Belgium and Germany and eventually to the Mediterranean. He likes tramping through Europe, he explains, because “you can turn up and look like a drowned rat, and they will not worry about the outer rat but rather the inner man”. Greeted with hospitality wherever he goes, Hillaby seems to get himself into much less trouble than he does in his earlier books, and perhaps in consequence, devotes many pages to reminiscing about his formative years and providing the history of the towns and cities he visits. Sometimes he even gets distracted. And I like it when he does, because it is then that he gives us extracts such as this one, precipitated by a group of sullen-looking cats he meets in Luxembourg:

As most people know, the Egyptians venerated the [cats], going into mourning, shaving their own eyebrows when they died and burying them in hallowed ground. But not so much is known about the cat-stealing and counter-cat-stealing which dampened relations between the Egyptians and the catless Greeks and helped to precipitate the war that eventually ruined them both. And thus it was the venerated protector of granaries that went to Rome.

Cats and Christianity spread throughout Europe together, but for some reason the animal fell into profound disrepute about the middle of the fifteenth century. Some blame the epidemic of fear aroused by the witch and her feline familiar. It may be that in western Europe, especially in those forests between the Meuse and the Rhine, Christianity lapsed temporarily in favour of the old cult of Freya, that goddess of love and fertility who went about in a gleaming chariot, drawn by a leash of cats. At certain times of the year, lusty women took to worshipping her by yowling and behaving like queens on heat. Unattached young men were much in favour of these practices, but not so those who found their beds empty at night, and certainly not the priests who persuaded Pope Innocent VIII to put an almighty malediction on all forms of cat worship. And things went hard for the animal thereafter. Cats were tortured and walled up in new buildings to assure the fitness of the foundations. Cat-hating became a cult and cat-killing a sport. That’s why cats stare. They know. That’s why those cats were staring at me.

On the surface, it may seem as though there is a lightness to Hillaby’s writing; that the places he chooses to visit are rather pedestrian compared to the places some travel writers choose to visit. Captious readers may even dismiss his books as potboilers, though they’d be wrong to do so. As the blurb inside the Paladin edition puts it: “Few journeys really justify what it takes to make them. The travels of John Hillaby are a remarkable exception,” and I find this hard to disagree with. It is worth remembering that if Hillaby’s walks occasionally seem undemanding or unexotic, then perhaps this is because he is simply very good at making it seem that way. He makes writing and walking look easy. Yet anybody who has read his books will agree that he does both things tremendously well.

He covered less ground as he got older, but continued to walk and write about walking into his 70s. I am afraid to say that I haven’t got round to many of his later books, though I have enjoyed his book about London, which he describes being as much an autobiography as it is a travel book. With his wife at his side, Hillaby is less intrepid than he would like to be. But having spent many years working as a science writer for The Manchester Guardian, he is able to share his anecdotes about his days working on Fleet Street, when the entire area was filled with the din of printing machines. He has much to say, too, about London pubs, most notably The Anchor along the South Bank, which has previously served the likes of Samuel Johnson and William Shakespeare. But as I say, it’s mostly a biography; a book of stories from all the years he spent living in the city.

Hillaby grew up in Leeds. He loved Yorkshire, and his writings on the county form a great number of his books. During a recent trip to Whitby, I picked up one of these, Journey Through Love (1976), largely because I knew that Whitby was one of the places that Hillaby visits in the book, and because I knew that he would not disappoint in providing me with a few recondite facts about the town. The book surprised me. It appeared at first to have little structure: one moment he was in Hampstead, the next he was walking in the moors of North Yorkshire. It read like a collection of short essays, which have been hastily tacked together. But a few chapters later my opinion had completely changed, and I got it. It was about Hillaby’s late wife, Tilly, whom he lost to lung cancer while he was writing the book. He struggles after her passing: he crashes his car, he contemplates suicide and he turns to drink. Then he starts to walk again, and with time, and through commitment, he finds the strength to dull the grief. He finds a sort of sombre tranquility.

I find it disheartening to think that all of the books that I have mentioned in this essay are no longer in print. For many years, until Paladin Books folded in the mid-’90s, Hillaby’s books sold well. Yet after Hillaby’s death in 1996, there seems to have been no effort to keep them in print. Nowadays, they can be picked up in second-hand bookshops or in charity shops, where they usually go for about two pounds: a cheap enough price for anybody who may be persuaded, as I was, to give one a chance. I sincerely recommend them, particularly Journey to the Jade Sea and Journey Through Love. Good books, like bad ones, are constantly rising and falling in popularity. John Hillaby happened to write very good books. He wrote with eloquence and erudition and with an immense passion for walking. I can only hope therefore that his will be republished sometime in the near future, so that more people can enjoy what has brought me so many laughs and so much happiness over this past year.

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