I enjoy reading travel books when travelling. Not long, complicated travel novels or detailed guides, but rather collections of short articles that bring places to life. So when I heard that the celebrated playwright and novelist Michael Frayn had produced such a book, I was keen to get my hands on a copy.
I’m not sure whether to describe ‘Travels with a Typewriter: A Reporter at Large’ as a travel book or a history book, in that it describes the author’s visits to places around the world made in the 1960s and 1970s. The book was published a couple of years ago when the author was over 75 years old (he is 80 this year) so in many ways it can be seen as his nostalgic remembrance of when he was dashing around the world as a reporter for the Guardian and the Observer.
In the introduction he writes that hopefully some of these articles “still have a kind of archaeological interest”. Well certainly there is plenty of interest for Seniors, in that he is describing places and events that were very much part of our lives 40-50 years ago: Cuba in the first few hopeful years after Castro took over, Israel coming to terms with the results of the Six-Day War and Berlin learning to live with the Wall.
He was keen to report “not the extraordinary, but the ordinary, the typical, the everyday”, so people feature prominently in these articles. For example, when describing Cuba, it is the Cubans who take centre stage, as the author tries to understand what the Revolution has meant to individuals and their daily lives. In Israel, he talks to a wide range of people about their ideas for a peaceful future – exactly the same conversations could be held today. In Berlin, he is interested in the attitudes of West Berliners to those in the East and vice versa.
The articles are written in a witty, amusing style. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of eating in Japan. Among other delicacies, he consumed raw fish, raw chicken, jellyfish, sea urchins, seaweed and whale fat, but made the mistake of eating quietly. This caused great amusement and he was asked: “Why don’t you let us all hear that you are enjoying the food?” He then tried, with some success, loudly to crunch his radishes and to suck up his noodles with a slurp.
You will not get much tourist information as such in this book, but if you are planning to travel to Cuba, Paris, Israel, Berlin, USA, Japan, Moscow, St Tropez, Sweden, or Vienna, then your trip will be much illuminated by his insights into the people there.