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Friday, 26 May 2006
Abroad is bloody

“Don’t go abroad,” muttered George VI, speaking for his class and most of his realm. “Abroad’s bloody!” Nancy Mitford’s Uncle Matthew ventured abroad once, but “four years in France and Italy between 1914 and 1918 had given him no great opinion of foreigners . . . ‘Frogs are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends’.”


When I read these words part of me cheered. Yet I have been abroad many times, to far flung corners of the globe, and loved it. This may sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t. There is a version of abroad in my mind – my Own Private Foreign Parts, if you like – full of funny foreigners eating funny foreign food and doing stereotypically funny foreign things, and there is the reality, where all the stereotypes are confounded.


I was delighted, therefore, to read Bernard MacIntyre’s thoughts on an “intolerant travel guide” due to be published in paperback next month, entitled The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.


Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer, an Englishwoman who started out as a children’s author, published three volumes of travel writing between 1849 and 1854, covering the globe from Asia to Africa to the Americas. She was even-handed, in a back-handed way: she despised just about everyone and everything.

The Portuguese, as well as being “the clumsiest people in Europe”, are “indolent, just like the Spaniards”. The Welsh are “not very clean”; the Zulus: “A miserable race of people”; the Greeks: “Do not bear their troubles well; when they are unhappy, they scream like babies”; Armenians “live in holes in the ground . . . because they hope the Kurds may not find out where they are.” Buddhists, Hindus, Mohammedans: all received a thrashing from the aggressively Protestant Mrs Mortimer.

Lao-Tzu, the father of Taoism, is dismissed as “an awful liar”. Roman Catholicism comes off little better: “A kind of Christian religion, but a very bad one.” Oddly, however, she professes a soft spot for Nubians: “A fine race . . . of a bright copper colour”.

Her sweepingly negative generalisations and racial stereotyping seem even more remarkable for the fact that this doughty world traveller didn’t go to the places she described and disparaged. The sum total of her foreign travel was one childhood trip to Paris and Brussels. Her knowledge of Taoism was exactly zero. She had never set eyes on a Nubian. She amassed her pungent prejudices sitting in her English drawing room.

This was once an acceptable British way to travel (or, more exactly, stay at home and not travel). Mrs Mortimer’s all-embracing xenophobia was probably extreme, but it was far from unique. Those sorts of casual prejudices were part of the arrogance of empire, but also reflected a deep-seated insecurity. Mrs Mortimer was terrified of anybody un-English because she stayed in England…

We owe Mrs Mortimer a debt, for her little book is the shining example of how not to travel in the British manner, a reminder of a way of thinking that has gone forever.

Mrs Mortimer wrote her own epitaph: “They always laugh when they hear of customs unlike their own; for they think that they do everything in the best way, and that all other ways are foolish.” Was this some sudden flash of self-knowledge? No, this is Mrs Mortimer, sticking the boot into the Bechuanas of South Africa.

Of course if you do go abroad you take your prejudices with you, no matter how open to new experiences you think you are. One way of dealing with any strangeness and discomfort that you encounter on your travels is to laugh at it.  And what can be stranger, and more uncomfortable, than foreign toilets?

As a rule of thumb, the more exotic and interesting a place, the worse the toilets are. A relative once threw her hands up in horror when I said that I was going to Cambodia. “Cambodia? You’ll get killed, and what about the toilets? Why not go somewhere nice like Switzerland? The toilets there are so clean.” But as I explained, I can go to Switzerland when I’m old and decrepit, and so tired of life that the sight of a clean toilet and a cuckoo clock lifts my spirits more than sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Still, to give the Cambodians their due, in a couple of hotels we stayed in, they had taken measures to cater to Western standards of toilet hygiene. These measures consisted of chucking a lot of diluted disinfectant down an otherwise filthy, broken toilet, and putting a strip of paper across it, on which were printed the words: “American standard”. Or were they trying to tell us something? A Turner Prize exhibit, perhaps?

In a hotel in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, they went one better. To protect the delicate Western posterior from any unpleasantness, they provided paper toilet seat covers. I have never seen anything like this before or since my trip. Unfortunately with a foreigner’s tin ear for English – and I acknowledge that my ear for Laotian would not even make the base metals – they had named this handy product: “Ars-Ring”.

In the countryside it was worse. After various mishaps, we found ourselves stranded, briefly, in the middle of nowhere. Toilets? In our dreams. If we were lucky, there would be a bucket. In a rhyming fit, I wished I’d gone to Phuket. Still our local guide, the cheerily named Ping, put the best possible construction on things. She spoke excellent English, but as with “Ars-Ring” above, it was in the wrong register. Thus she would invite us to take a “comfort break” and visit the “rest room”. Since the “rest room” was a stinking bucket, there was not much comfort to be had. And rest? All I can say is you would need to be very tired.

Posted on 05/26/2006 1:17 PM by Mary Jackson
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