A Nightmare on Wheels

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I have a horror of scenes. I hate rows about money and I’m in misery when an Englishman abroad goes on about bloody foreigners and turns into a bully. So there is no reason for me to love Tobias Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy; I see Smollett as the man in Reception at the holiday hotel, puffing himself up and demanding to speak to the manager. Yet the cantankerous old blighter somehow always manages to win me over.

You get some of the flavour of the book from his vocabulary. His favourite nouns are ruffian, coxcomb and perfidy; his adjectives of choice are insolent, saucy, frowzy, rapacious, peevish and knavish. Towns or inns are usually paltry and when he is forced to part with money it is a scandalous imposition. He has gone just a few miles in his journey through France when he announces ‘I abominate garlick.’

Smollett set out on his travels in June 1763, aged 42, and was away for two years, basing himself eventually in Nice and making expeditions to Florence and Rome. He went for the good of his health – he was suffering from asthma and probably consumption – and in the hope of earning much-needed cash from the book of his travels. The poor chap was exhausted by overwork and quarrels in Grub Street.

There were five in his party. Smollett was accompanied by his wife, two young ladies she was chaperoning, and his manservant. These people scarcely get a mention; I picture the women cowering as he launches into another tirade against the natives. ‘I was obliged to quarrel with the landlady,’ he writes, and I think of them clutching their hankies and cringing in the background. ‘I had a warm dispute with the landlord,’ he says, and I picture myself there studying the horizon, pretending not to notice. There quickly follows a dispute with postilions. ‘I threatened them with manual chastisement,’ he declares, a

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About the contributor

Oliver Pritchett still writes for the Sunday Telegraph. He recently returned from a holiday in Spain where he was polite to everybody.

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