Thursday, 29 September 2011

Travelling with Samuel Johnson and Harry Potter

Johnson and Potter are unusual travelling companions perhaps, but literally acceptable.
Very occasionally we rent out our house in Spain. Recently We had a one week booking which left us homeless, so we took a trip in the camper van. My wife suggested that we travelled around our own area (the Mataranya) but I felt the need for pastures new so we ventured to the Ebro River and  the Monsant area of Catalunia.
It was a nice trip with no set agenda except a beginning and an end, yet we quickly dropped into a daily pattern. I went running most mornings, then had breakfast inside or outside the camper van whilst reading a little. Usually we managed to find beautiful setting for our overnight stay, though not always. After a shower we explored the village that we were visiting or I went for a longer walk. Later we moved on, stopping at some pleasant location for a picnic lunch in transit.
Then came the hard part. It was intensely hot that week though we were in the latter part of September. Our camper does get very stuffy so we had to find somewhere, usually in a village, that had a little shade from the sun. Now such spots are in great demand even though the villages are thinly populated (one had only 40 or so souls within it according to the priest). If we were lucky then we parked in a shady spot during the hottest part of the day and either slept or read or wrote - the villages were spookily quiet at this time in the afternoon as they too slept, or read or wrote.
At five or so we toured our current village in search of bars and restaurants. We then spent the rest of the evening drinking cold beer, often followed by tapas and cold red wine. Then home (the campervan) for a carjillo (coffee with anis), a bit more reading, and so to bed.
I read Harry Potter for educational purposes. I read a little each day. I read in Spanish in the hope that it will improve my poor understanding of the language, and I read professionally since Potter and his friends, like it or not, are of great interest to many of my Oxford tour groups. I am currently reading the sixth book but during the trip could find little in it which related to Monsant.
I was also reading  Samuel Johnson’s report of his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, mostly because I visited his birthplace in Lichfield recently and was moved to buy the book of his, and Boswell’s, describing their travels, as a memento of my visit. I included it in my bundle of books for Spain (we both have a real fear of finding ourselves without reading matter and are hoping for Kindles this Christmas) and, though I have not completed it, I found his notes an excellent companion to my own travels.
Johnson describes his journeying without becoming embedded in a diary-like itinerary. He hitches everything to experiences within the Hebrides, but regularly launches off into fascinating philosophical trails discussing anything from human migration to the price of cows. He has an inquiring mind and an apparently encyclopaedia- like recall.
Monsant shares with the Hebrides a low population and a lack of industry, but it is clear that the people of this mountainous area were richer or perhaps more industrious than the Scots. The houses of the lovely Monsant mountain villages are old yet they are clearly better built and certainly much taller than the stone huts described by Johnson. Water is a problem in both locations, though for diametrically opposed reasons. Monsant is very dry and relies on collected water and irrigation, The Isle of Sky, in Johnson’s time was, so boggy that there were no roads and only the locals could safely traverse the island.
I am home now, but still reading Johnson and Potter. One of the most enjoyable accounts by Samuel Johnson, the compiler of of course of our first comprehensive English dictionary, is the Highlanders’ willingness to answer any question: quickly and with immense authority. However, follow up questions quickly dissipated that confidence, diluted the answer and sometimes actually resulted in a completely different tale. This is so like the Cotswolds that my reading of it aloud even made Margaret (the implacable supporter of Stow-on-the Wold superiority) chuckle.

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