Another, Darker Continent

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‘I like these old travellers,’ wrote Norman Douglas, ‘not so much for what they actually say, as for their implicit outlook on life.’ The comment comes apropos his early eighteenth-century predecessor in southern Italy, the ‘loquacious . . . restless’ Pacicchelli. Nearly a century on from the first publication of Old Calabria (1915), the equally loquacious and restless Douglas has himself become something of an old traveller.

Not that Douglas’s outlook on life is ever implicit. If you haven’t read him and want to get a feel, don’t bother with the blurb – go to the index:

Albanians, . . . preposterous language, 173, 187 . . .
Arabs, bigots because half-starved, 126 . . .
Avanti, a corrupt rag, 280 . . .
Breakfast in Italy, dislocates moral stability, 18, 25; responsible for homicides, 127 . . .
Commercial travellers, an objectionable brood, 31, 296

This is only a taste of the text itself. The victims of his verbal lashings are many and various: baroque architecture, the ‘buffoonery’ of Italian law, Matthew Arnold, the aesthetics of Calabrian towns – which ‘have solved the problem of how to be ineffably squalid without becoming in the least picturesque’ – ‘emasculate’ saints, ‘the megalomaniac rhetoricians who control their country’s fate’ (plus ça change), priests, yuccas, tax-men – ‘uncouth savages, veritable cavemen, whose only intelligible expression is one of malice striving to break through a crust of congenital cretinism . . .’ Who would get away with this in a travel book today? And on a different but perhaps more telling note, who would get away with quoting without translation not only from the antique Italian of the loquacious Pacicchelli (who was, at least, a Fellow of our own Royal Society) but also from the texts of dozens of even more obscure historians and travellers? They crowd the index, alongside t

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About the contributor

Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s most recent book, Landfalls, won the Oldie Travel Book Award for 2010. He wonders if that is a sign that he, too, is turning into an old traveller.

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