Book Review: Access All Areas
by Sara Wheeler
North Point Press, 2013
Throughout her career as one of our finest living travel-writers, the irrepressible Sara Wheeler has been smashing myths, and right at the beginning of her long-awaited new collection of pieces, Access All Areas, she’s at it again – about the first subject of all:
It has been said, all too often, that I was “brave” to stride forth across pack and tundra, alone with a bar of Kendal Mint Cake. This is absurd. Brave people risk their lives to protect others or to protect democracy; brave people battle to live a compromised life in the teeth of horrific marginalization, and to live it well. Besides, I seek refuge in the protection of solitude: I prefer being there alone to being here with you, as the reader will quickly see.
This may sound inhospitable, but there couldn’t be anything more welcoming than a big collection of these great pieces, and in this North Point Press has done itself proud, giving readers who’ve always cherished Wheeler’s writing the best possible collection, and giving those readers who’ve never encountered her writing a deliciously comprehensive introduction.
The book is sub-divided into rough categories like “Finding the Story” or “Staying Put,” but much like their author, the pieces tend to wander outside the boundaries – except for the over-arching boundary of just what constitutes this age-old sub-genre she writes so well:
What makes a travel book work? A pattern in the carpet: the book must be fundamentally about something other than the journey (taking for granted style, insights, a core of human sympathy, and the ability to give a snapshot impression of a whole life from a fleeting but revealing angle. Oh yes, and the novelist’s willingness to let the obscure remain obscure).
People as much as places full this collection, a choice most magnificently evident in the section “Role Models,” which features vivid pen-portraits of such fellow travel luminaries as Apsley Cherry-Garrard (whose The Worst Journey in the World has been called the single greatest piece of travel-writing of them all, and whose writing Wheel describes as “plain as crotchets on a stave”), Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird, Harriet Tyler, Kate Marsden, Ernst Shackleton, Norman Lewis, and the great Fanny Trollope (“what an inspiration is Fanny!” Wheeler blurts, a line somehow not chosen as the collection’s title). In these pages we also find Bruce Chatwin (refreshingly dethroned a bit), Martha Gellhorn, and the imperious Freya Stark (“There are few sorrows through which a new dress or hat will not send a gleam of pleasure, however furtive”). Here is the mighty Gertrude Bell, about whom we’re told, “After a week on a camel, she could straightaway walk for miles (I was a physical wreck for a month when I tried).”
Her estimations of these great names are candid and brutally honest to her own lights, which makes them instantly memorable – as when she opens her remarks about V. S. Naipaul with “You have to admire someone who just doesn’t give a shit.” Or when she pays to the odious Wilfred Thesiger the ultimate writer’s compliment:
Our hero does not emerge as a sympathetic figure. Even by the standards of the time, he could be priggish; he had no sense of humor; his self-belief was impregnable; of independent means himself, he scorned those obliged to work for a living … But who cares what he was like when he wrote so well? Both Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs are poetic masterpieces that will endure until the next ice age – more than one can say about the tomes of the tin-pot heroes who crowd the front pages today.
And true to form, she has her quixotic lost causes, the most odd and endearing of which is her belief in Dutch, the memoir of President Reagan written by her friend Edmund Morris:
Academic critics mauled it with the viciousness only academia knows, and the rest of the critics obediently followed suit. I think the book is ahead of its time … I believe Dutch will be valued, one day, as the masterpiece it is.
“Don’t you sometimes find daily life almost unbearably poetic?” she asks at one point. “Minute curiosity is a requirement of a travel writer – and of the biographer, novelist, and poet.” Fans of Sara Wheeler’s work have long suspected she had elements of all those writers inside her, and those suspicions are abundantly proven by the wonders on display here. Globe-trotters and armchair travellers both should snap up this book – no travel-writing library is complete without it.