Still life in mobile homes

Mother Tongues: Travels Through tribal Europe, by Helena Drysdale, Picador, 401pp, £16.99

November 19 2001 / New Statesman

Travel writing is, on the whole, a debased and exhausted genre. Most modern travel books are truth-free zones, in which facts are never allowed to interrupt a good story, dialogue is recollected in tranquillity and thus unconvincingly burnished, and imaginative fancy is irresponsibly indulged. Too often, a travel book is no more than a work of exaggeration and distortion. It is less a study of people and places than a rather tedious inward journey—an examination of lonely consciousness, as in Jonathan Raban’s most recent book, Passage to Juneau (Picador), about his journey by water from Seattle to Alaska, which was really a study of the disintegrating self (Raban had separated from his wife, his father had died, and he wanted to universalise his misery). Or, in the case of the most egregious examples, it is an indulgence of ego, a form of ostentatious display. Who, after the publication of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin, can read the reflections of the self-mythologising exquisite withou t disbelief and indifference? Nor is chatwin sufficiently engaging or unpredictable to be read purely as an exercise in style. Rather, all one can say of him is that he has had a catastrophic effect on a generation of younger travellers, for whom the journey is less a means to an end than an end in itself: an act of Nietzschean self-affirmation, a search for sensation. These young post-chatwin travellers have shrunk the world into a bland monochrome; wandering lost, like the celebrated W G Sebald, in a nebulous mist of half-remembered quotation, arcane allusion and duplicitous evasion, they seek not to discover but to celebrate—themselves. They end up speaking to no one but themselves.

It’s not that one expects a travel writer to be entirely reliable, constrained by facts and dry detail, rooting around in dusty archives like a furtive historian. The best practitioners of the genre—Thomas Browne, V S Naipaul, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Jan Morris—have always been engagingly unreliable, either alchemists of the real, or driven by hard polemical purpose. Rather, all one demands of a travel writer is a certain humility, wit, an authentic curiosity about the world and other minds, and a true sense of vocation. A journey, one would think, ought to have a certain necessariness; there must be a reason for going. If not, the resulting book is no more than a marketing contrivance and reads as such; it has all the intrigue of someone else’s holiday snaps. But we have lost confidence in simple, direct works of reportage. The world is not enough. There must be something more: embellishment, a conceit. The journey itself must become a kind of stunt.

Helena Drysdale is different. For a start, she can write; every page of her new book carries the imprint of her originality of thought and expression. You never doubt that she travels to discover not just herself, but the world in all its dizzying perplexity. Her previous book, Looking for Gheorghe: love and death in Romania (published later in paperback as the more reader-friendly Looking for George), told of how, while on a trip to Romania as a student in 1979, Drysdale met a young dreamer called Gheorghe cupar, an aspirant poet-priest from a peasant family, who had taught himself English. For one gloriously liberated week, Gheorghe, defying the authorities, travelled with Drysdale and her two friends through the remote forests of the Carpathian Mountains. One night, he told Drysdale that he loved her; they kissed. After she had returned to Cambridge, she began receiving long, impassioned letters from Gheorghe, the “Mad Monk”, as her friends called him. In his letters, he hinted at trouble with the police, existential frustration and his longing to leave Romania. She responded with diminished enthusiasm. The letters stopped and she heard nothing more of him.

In 1991, after the fall of Ceaucescu, Drysdale returned to Romania to find out what had become of her mad monk. “No traveller can be a silent witness, leaving no trace,” she wrote. “Their very presence, watching and listening, changes what they see and hear.” As she journeyed across the country, meeting those who had known Gheorghe, she began to understand how much her earlier presence in Romania had disturbed the young poet, filling him with impossible expectations, and how irresponsible she and her friends had been in allowing him to travel with them, monitored as they were by the secret police. Looking for Gheorge begins as a conventional travel book—young woman searching for one of Ceaucescu’s disappeared—but slowly deepens into something stranger and more mysterious, an authentic metaphysical quest, in which truth shimmers brightly but elusively.

In Mother Tongues, Drysdale is no longer travelling alone, but with her husband, Richard, and their two exotically named young daughters, and her travels through what she calls “tribal Europe” are less explicitly personal than politically motivated. She is attracted to the contested, ethnically confused shadowlands of the. remoter, often mountainous edges of Europe, where “minority” languages are spoken and many of the indigenous inhabitants have long nurtured an embattled romantic nationalism—the Basques, the Bretons, the Corsicans, the Lapps, the Slav-Macedonians and so on. Drysdale is in search of cultural difference and linguistic diversity (perhaps she should have gone to Nigeria); she is anxious about the homogenising thrust of modernity, the amorphousness of contemporary European society and the threatened extinction of many of the world’s languages, because, for her, language, culture, ethnicity and identity are inextricable. (She simplistically equates language with culture.) She would agree, I th ink, with the linguist David Crystal who, in a recent essay in Prospect, wrote: “We should care about dying languages, for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet.” Languages, so the argument goes, are valuable in and of themselves, and ought to be protected as such, as one would a rare flower.

The book begins with Drysdale and her husband purchasing a mobile home—Mob, they call it—in which to travel, and one immediately fears the worst. In the event, after initially cluttering the narrative with excessive domestic detail and too much willed bohemian eccentricity, Drysdale begins to settle into her style, and into her journey. Leaving behind south London’s “dog-shit parks and car crime”, she travels far and wide, from northern Scandinavia, where the transnational Sami (Laps) roam freely, to the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and then east to riven Macedonia, with its ethnic muddles and disputed territories. She travels hard and not without discomfort; her hygiene suffers, the Mob is infested with lice, she is robbed twice in Catalonia, the children are frequently bored and hungry, and the people she interviews do not always share her naive enthusiasm for their local language and culture. Fortunately, the redoubtable Richard emerges as something of a marvel: mushroom-hunter, dri ver, cook, lover and DJY fanatic, the one still, calm life in her erratic mobile home.

Drysdale is a considerable poet of landscape, and the best of the book lies in her descriptions of the high mountain passes and sudden storms of the Tyrol, and the boundless emptiness and great forests of northern Scandinavia. Arriving in Finland for the first time, she is exuberant: “I kept hearing a single note—passionate, mournful, exquisite—of a Japanese flute. In the wooden architecture, in the modern architecture, in a Finnish neatness and attention to detail, in that eastern slant of the eyes, beside the lakes, beneath twisted pines, I thought of Japan.”

Often, however, she finds herself disappointed, repelled by the defensive nationalism of those such as the Basques she meets—who are agitating for a racially pure state, rooted in a cult of blood and soil—or merely dispirited by a persistent, cross-cultural, low-level indifference. In Dutch Freisland, frustrated in her attempts to find a native Frisian speaker, she writes: “I wanted to be inside a real Frisian house, living and breathing with a real Frisian person.” At such moments, she can sound dangerously like a tourist on safari who is searching for particularly rare game, her face pushed up against the window as she peers out at the exotic locals from the safety of her air-conditioned camper van. (Oh, all right, the Mob doesn’t have air-conditioning.) And her questions can be repetitive and guileless. What does it mean to be Breton, or Macedonian, or Frisian, or Walloon, she asks her perplexed interviewees. Their answers are as diverse and inconclusive as you would expect if you were stopped in the street and asked what it means to be, say, English or Scottish or Manx.

Drysdale seems to have returned from her travels as uncertain as she was when she left as to the value of preserving minority languages. “The speakers of these [minority] languages have choices: they can choose passive assimilation, allowing their culture and language to die; or they can fight to save it.” But, she adds, there is a “third way”. There usually is. “It is adaptability, assimilating a different culture but without surrendering to it. Many people are content to have two selves—Breton and French, Welsh and British, Frisian and German. Most (except extremists) see a value in this. The route is bilingual education.”

Is it really? “Loneliness and claustrophobia” is what Drysdale experiences on the road in a mobile home. And loneliness and claustrophobia are perhaps the defining extremes of the experience of many of those she meets who seem to be living in what V S Naipaul has called “half-and-half worlds”, suspended uneasily between the majority culture from which they feel excluded and an older, more ritualised way of life that is rapidly disappearing. There is something moving about the plight of those struggling to preserve a dying language, but one should never forget that a language is nothing if it is not a medium of communication. As the estimable Kenan Malik has written, a “language spoken by one person, or even a few hundred, is not a language at all. It is like a child’s secret code.” Too often, minority languages are no more than secret codes, badges of honour, and they are disappearing from the world because they are of little or no use to anyone, beyond, perhaps, the reactionary assertion of an outmoded, semi -tribal identity.

In Britain, we live in a multiethnic and, indeed, multinational state, but ours is not a multicultural society, despite what relativists would have us believe. To deny that we have a majority culture—liberal, sceptical, secular, broadly tolerant, anglophone—is to deny the truth of both our present and our past. If a person is to thrive in this country, is to participate fully in the wider culture, he or she must be encouraged to speak English, the lingua franca of the modern business world.

Drysdale’s third way is, in principle, admirable, but it has always seemed pointless to me for a child to be taught, say, Welsh or Breton at the expense of a truly useful global second language such as Spanish. One has no wish to restrict the use of minority languages, but they should be allowed to live or die without the intervention of the state. A language does not have intrinsic value; any value resides in its application and use. If a language cannot be naturally sustained by its users, if it does not have a function, then it is mere sentimentality to lament its passing. Which is in no way to diminish Helena Drysdale or the achievements of this marvellous book.