• Same place, different century

    (Photo by Emma Francis)

    Stuck for a good read? Try two books about the same place from writers who were there a century apart. I’ve done it twice now, by chance. I recommend it. 

    First, I read Siberian Journey: Down the Amur to the Pacific, 1856-1857 by Perry McDonough Collins, an incredible account of his trip as the first American to travel the length of the Amur River on the border of China and Siberia. 

    I followed this up by reading Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler

    Collins travelled the Amur as Slavs from Russia were craving out territory for the Tsar. He envisaged a new America in the Far East, rolling back the primitive Chinese. Ziegler’s contemporary travels revealed gleaming Chinese cities looking across the Amur at impoverished Russian settlements. 

    From US Grant to Kerouac

    It happened again when I read the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – American civil war hero and president. He published them in 1885, just before his death. They largely recount the civil war years and the battles he was engaged in. 

    I followed this up with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, published in 1957 and chronicling his road trips across the US in the late 40s and early 50s. I hadn’t intended them as comparison pieces, and yet they were. 

    Kerouac’s crazy drives from coast to coast, with almost no sleep, occasional fuel stops and bouts of drinking, happened to take him through both Vicksburg, Mississippi and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Both were sites of major civil war battles Grant described. 

    A hundred years from now…

    I was struck by how these two men were treading the same ground less than a hundred years apart, yet one was bogged down in constant mud, trying to pull mule trains of munitions and bedraggled soldiers through the mire, hitting the major obstacle of rivers they couldn’t cross. 

    The other was crossing the entire American continent from coast to coast in a matter of days, in an automobile on bitumen roads. For one, the conditions were so harsh they imperiled life itself, for the other, it was a joyride.

    Same place, different reality. 

    More travel and books? Here’s how to spend a long haul flight

  • You live in the right place, right?

    Red double-decker London bus toy with an advert on the side
    No mincing of words

    France has the best wine in the world. Sweden has the best childcare in the world. Britain has the best television in the world. Brazil has the best football in the world. 

    We love to tell ourselves stories. I’ve been living in a new country now for two months, and it makes you realise just how much we’re encouraged to buy-in to the stories of a nation. 

    God’s own country

    All countries like to think they’re best – some more than others, perhaps. I do come from Great Britain, after all. Not just good, but Great. But wherever you are, a lot of effort is expended in making you sure you’re where you should be. 

    ‘British Meat’s got the lot!’

    That’s what it says on the side of a toy bus I’ve had since childhood. Now my son drives it around the carpet. It’s just one tiny, innocuous example of the recurring mantra that you’re in the right place. 

    That’s probably a good thing. The last thing we need is millions more dissatisfied subjects, clammering to cross borders. But for anyone who has placed a foot in another country, this refrain becomes a little exposed. 

    Is it really better here?

    Nationalist blasphemy, of course. Everything and everyone around you encourages you towards contentment with the way things are where you live. 

    Of course Britain has the best political system, the best drivers, the best beer – until, that is, you arrive somewhere where everyone tells you they have the best political system, the best drivers and the best beer. What then?

    A place called Sweden

    As a new arrival, Swedes have been keen to unveil their envied social system to me. They pay a lot of tax. They’re happy to, because they have the best social care in the world. That’s how it is. 

    But scratch a bit and their social care isn’t that different to British social care, yet you pay a lot more for it. But hush, don’t tell the Swedes. They’re content with living in the right place. 

    As for the British, they have the best political system in the world. But hush, don’t… oh. 

    If you want to cross a border, Is It Your Right To Migrate?