Monthly Archives: March 2012

Tut, tut! Miss Lucy!

I’ve just finished reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I’m a little late to the party, I know, but the sparkly chick-lit packaging of the UK edition put me off. It wasn’t until I found the US paperback with its more grown-up, Condé Nast archive photo on the cover that I felt able to buy the book. I’m glad I did. The plot’s thin (two girls meet boy in a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve 1937) but the evocation of the Manhattan high-life of the late Thirties is fantastic. The writing is whip-smart F Scott Fitzgerald meets Raymond Chandler: “I was just finishing a countersuit to be typed out in triplicate, getting ready to mope my way home, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Charlotte Sykes approaching from the washrooms. She had changed into high heels and a tangerine-coloured blouse that clashed with all her best intentions.

The verve and gutsiness of several of the women in the book reminds me of Lee Miller, who if you’ve read my earlier post you’ll know I hold in some esteem. And if you haven’t read my earlier post (Lee Miller invades the Long Bar) read it now and then this:

She pointed back up Seventh Street.

—I know a cute little place right up here. I’ll buy you a beer. We’ll catch up. It’ll be a gas.

The cute little place turned out to be an old Irish bar. Over the front door a sign read: GOOD ALE, RAW ONIONS, NO LADIES.

—I think that means us.

—Cmon, Fran said. Don’t be such a Patsy.

See what I mean?

This also delighted me:

—What’d you buy?

He didn’t know what she was referring to.

She pointed.

He’d forgotten that he still had the bookseller’s bag in his hand.

—A Baedeker’s, he said. I thought we might see some of the sights later.

I always get excited by the casual namedropping of a Victorian-era guidebook, and there’s no finer guidebook name to drop than that of Baedeker. EM Forster knew it too. In A Room with a View Lucy Honeychurch is directed around Italy by her little red guidebook – that is until she encounters the lady novelist Eleanor Lavish: “Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker,” says Ms Lavish and confiscates the guide to leave Lucy exposed and defenceless, with the result she’s led astray to ultimately elope with a young gentleman admirer. That’s what happens when you lose your Baedeker.

The Lonely Planets of their day, these guides were put out by Karl Baedeker, a German publisher, who after seeing some early Murray’s Handbooks (see my previous post) was inspired to copy them. (Karl Baedeker openly acknowledged the debt and became good friends with John Murray, although many years later the latter would accuse the former of plagiarism.) The first Baedeker guides were published in the 1830s, in German, and covered Rheinreisse (Travel along the Rhine), Moselreisse, and Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. The series sported distinctive red cloth covers and the books were the size of a portable Bible, printed on similarly thin, almost tissue-like paper (Murray’s Handbooks at this time all had brown covers but they later switched to a similar shade of blushing red to their competitors). After Karl’s death in 1859, his son Ernst took over and under his direction the company introduced editions in English, expanding coverage beyond the German hinterlands to Britain, the Mediterranean, Russia, America and the Near East: a guide to Lower Egypt was published in 1878, joined by a guide to Upper Egypt in 1892, before the two were combined in a single Egypt guide in 1898.

This new edition condensed the two previous volumes into a single book of about 600 tightly typed pages, including 22 maps, 55 plans, and 66 engraved views and vignettes. It’s a staggering piece of work, and one that for the most part holds up well today, if you can make allowances for sections such as that headed ‘Intercourse with Orientals’ in which the paternalism strays into outright condescension: “[The traveller] should bear in mind that many of the natives with whom he comes in contact are mere children, whose waywardness should excite compassion rather than anger”.

There’s a terrific essay on the Baedeker phenomenon by someone called Edward Mendelson, who at the time he wrote it was an English professor at Columbia, in which he describes Karl Baedeker as “Europe’s ideal parent”. He goes on to describe beautifully what Baedeker was about: “he did more for his readers than guide their way to agreeable hotels, picturesque churches, and sublime vistas. He also set an example of private and public virtues ranging from thrift to patriotism, comforted the timid and encouraged the daring, taught the proper response to courtesy or cunning, combined moral probity with practical wisdom, and even while warning his readers away from unseemly pleasures let slip the knowledge of where they might be found.” You can read the rest of it here.

Under a succession of sons and grandsons, the company continued to thrive. One of the innovations introduced was a star system, marking with an asterisk the points of interest that travellers in a hurry shouldn’t miss. Later a second asterisk was added for doubly unmissables. ‘To Baedeker’ became a verb meaning to travel. Such was the authority of the books that the Nazis employed them in 1942 when they threatened to bomb every two-star building in Baedeker’s guide to Britain. The British response came on the night of 3 December 1943, when the RAF obliterated large parts of Leipzig, and with it, all the stocks and practically all the records of the Baedeker publishing house.


Filed under Baedeker and other guides, Book reviews

Never hurry a Murray

Apologies but this is going to be a wordy post. One of the reasons for creating this site was to provide a home for all the bits that didn’t make into the Grand Hotels book (for reasons of space – not because they were rubbish). One element that, with great reluctance, I had to jettison was an appendix I’d written on the wonderful old guidebooks of the 19th century, the Murray’s, Baedeker’s and Thomas Cook’s. So over the next few weeks in a series of posts I’m going to recycle that material here. It’s a bit hardcore and geeky, but then isn’t that what the internet is for?

Long before I started writing Grand Hotels I was a big fan of old 19th-century guidebooks. Hardly surprising, given that for several years I wrote guidebooks for a living. From 1993 onwards, I indulged a fetish for unloved regimes covering places like Kaliningrad, Siberia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Syria for Lonely Planet. When the basketcase countries ran out I returned to Egypt and did several editions of a guide to the country, as well as a spin-off stand-alone title on Cairo, which ran to two editions before it was shelved due to lack of interest. I developed a profound admiration for the work of those who trod this path before me. It was arduous enough researching a guidebook with planes, trains, air-con coaches, telephones and the internet at my disposal – how much more difficult must it have been to do the job 150 years earlier?

Some of the earliest guidebooks are, understandably, a bit suspect. The oldest one I’ve got is Usborne’s Guide to Egypt and the Levant, published in 1840, which blithely advises that although there are around 300 mosques in Cairo only three of these are really worth visiting, and warns travellers of tarantula spiders of a “very large size” which it says are extremely venomous and derive their poison from feeding on the bodies of the dead.

But the quality of the information quickly got a lot better. Just seven years later, the first proper dedicated guide to Egypt was published by John Murray of London (est 1768), pioneers in the field of guidebooks. John Murray III, grandson of the company founder, took a trip round the Continent in 1829. He travelled without a guidebook for the simple reason such a thing didn’t exist, an omission he set about righting on his return. “I set to work to collect for myself all the facts, information, statistics, &c … which an English tourist would be likely to require or find useful. I travelled thus, note-book in hand.” There were several exhaustive research trips, which Murray wrote up and then had friends go out and test his “Routes”. It wasn’t until 1836 that the finished book –Handbook for Travellers on the Continent – was ready. It was swiftly followed by “Handbooks” to Southern Germany (1837), Switzerland (1838) and Northern Europe: Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Russia (1839). Murray wrote the first two himself, but by the third had begun to recruit collaborators.

For Egypt he contracted John Gardner Wilkinson, who had spent the years 1821-1833 in Egypt, a stay that resulted in the seminal work of Egyptology Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, published in three volumes in 1837. For John Murray, Wilkinson returned to Egypt in 1842 and the first Handbook for Travellers in Egypt was published five years later. (For comparison, as a Lonely Planet writer I would get six months to research and write a new book.)

Between 1847 and 1907, Murray’s Egypt Handbook went through eleven editions. Wilkinson did the updates for the second and third editions, but with the fourth edition of 1873 the task of revisions was handed on – eventually falling for the ninth and tenth editions, in 1896 and 1900, to Miss Mary Broderick, one of the earliest of women Egyptologists. By this time, though, Murray’s handbook was no longer the most popular guidebook to Egypt in English, having been overtaken by the guides produced by Karl Baedeker, about whom I’ll post next time. Out-muscled in the guidebook market by their German publishing rivals (not just in Egypt, but everywhere), in 1915 John Murray sold the rights to their whole backlist of Handbooks, which were subsequently relaunched as the Blue Guides.

Meanwhile, if you fancy taking a look at the original 1847 Murray’s Handbook for Travellers to Egypt, then the whole thing has been scanned and posted up online here.

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Judging a book by its cover

So Grand Hotels of Egypt is out. We had the launch party last Sunday at the Windsor Hotel in Cairo and I’m sorry if you weren’t there because it was a terrific evening (thank you Neil, Trevor and Nabila at the AUC Press). First reactions to the book were fantastic – although, at this point nobody had, of course, read any of it and it was all based on appearances. A lot of people, in particular, said how much they liked the cover. But the praise wasn’t unanimous. Word was someone had objected to the fact it shows a dark-skinned waiter serving white folk. I thought nothing of this until the following morning when Gadi (the book’s designer) and myself were interviewed by a local journalist. He and I had a straightforward chat about the subject matter of the book but when it came to Gadi’s turn to talk about the design the very first question was, ‘Why did you chose to show a black servant on the cover?’

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The cover was chosen because it’s a striking and appropriate image. It’s a genuine poster from the 1930s and the scene is of the terrace at the Mena House, one of the hotels covered at length in the book. The original poster (above) was designed by the graphic artist Ihap Hulusi Gorey. Born in Cairo in 1898 to a Turkish family, Hulusi left Egypt to study art in Munich before setting up his own studio in Istanbul in the latter half of the 1920s. He was one of the first graphic designers of modern Turkey and a fervent supporter of nationalist leader Kemal Atatürk. He was hugely influential, initially producing endless propaganda and educational posters for the new republic, later doing a lot of work for major international brands such as Cinzano, Haig whisky and Fernet Branca. At some point he was also commissioned to produce a series of posters for the Egyptian government and Misr Air, some of which are below.

The poster we used for the cover of my book is an artfully executed portrayal of the hotel life of the time: the dignified sufragi in uniform bearing tea things on a silver tray past a table of pale-skinned foreigners enjoying afternoon refreshments. A bit of a cliché perhaps, but beautifully done and very evocative of the era covered by the book. Ironically, the Thirties graphic style aside, the thing that really dates the image is the clothing and accessories of the Westerners – the pipe, trilby and ladies’ suit hat. The fancy garb worn by the waiter – or a variant of – is still uniform in plenty of upmarket hotels in Egypt today, where serving staff are still often Upper Egyptians starting careers on the lower rungs of the ladder. Is this racism? I don’t think so, I think most people would just recognise it as tourism.









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Filed under Art and artists, Book news, Memorabilia