Friday, February 22, 2008

Alexander Kinglake: the Travelling Gent

“I could not think of anything particular that I had to say to him”
– Alexander Kinglake

The Sinai: no place for "mere sociability"
WHAT’S A CHAP TO DO if he runs into another British fellow out in the wilds of some far-off foreign land? Should he stop to speak? Or would that look frightfully pushy, not having been introduced to the gentleman in question?

It’s a tricky one. And, by Jove, it got poor old Alexander Kinglake in a right pickle back in 1835.

Kinglake was crossing the Sinai desert, heading to Cairo in a small caravan of four camels: two for his servants, one for baggage, and one for his good self. Four Arabs who had rented them the animals walked alongside.

The journey was long and hot and lonely. They went for days without meeting any other people, trudging along in silence under the fierce sun. Kinglake nodded off atop his camel. He records seeing little else but “sand, sand, sand, still sand, and only sand, and sand, and sand again”.

Then one day the small party came alive with excitement. There was a moving speck on the horizon, it looked like another group of travellers - and it was heading their way.

Drawing closer, they could make out three laden camels. Closer still and they saw that two of the beasts carried riders. Then, to Kinglake’s astonishment, he noticed one of the travellers wore a shooting-jacket… an English shooting-jacket. It must be another British fellow and his servant! What the devil was he doing here?

You’d think Kinglake’s first impulse might be to ask him. But no, the old Etonian and Cambridge University graduate had other concerns. “As we approached each other, it became with me a question whether we should speak,” he writes. “I could not think of anything particular that I had to say to him.”

Coming over all “shy and indolent”, Kinglake says he “felt no great wish to stop, and talk like a morning visitor, in the midst of those broad solitudes”. So he didn’t. He just tipped his cap, waved solemnly at his sunburned countryman, and rode on without a word.

Amazingly, the other guy, clearly of similar mind, did the same. And the super-repressed, super-reserved pair passed each other in the desert, in Kinglake’s words, “quite as distantly as if we had passed in Pall Mall”.

And that would have been that, not so much as a “How do you do?”, were it not for the travellers’ more gregarious foreign companions who were having none of such nonsense. They of course paused to chat, delighted to hear new voices. Then even Kinglake’s camel “caught the social feeling” and refused to budge.

Our man was left twiddling his thumbs a few yards beyond the excited huddle, sitting upright on his stationary animal, conspicuously alone and feeling like a bit of a lemon. Looking back, he saw the other Englishman in the same predicament thirty yards away. “I felt the absurdity of the situation,” he writes gravely. So, keen to avoid any further awkwardness, he threw off etiquette and rode back “to accost the stranger”.

What happened next is a classic of old-school gentlemanly nonchalance, even by the mind-boggling standards of the nineteenth century. The stranger thought it rude to assume Kinglake’s approach was out of “mere sociability”, so instead he pretended there must be some urgent matter of business to be dealt with. And this is what he came out with: “I dare say you wish to know how the Plague is going in Cairo?”

What a gambit. No “Hello”, no “What the dickens brings you here?”, not even a remark on the hot weather. Just straight in there with the bubonic plague, followed by a very English apology that he regretted not having the latest death toll figures to hand.

After mulling over the plague for a bit, the two travelling gents talked briefly about more pleasant matters. The stranger, it transpired, was an army officer returning to Britain from India via Palestine, and Kinglake found him “manly and intelligent”. Then, with the chit-chat soon exhausted, they turned their camels to face opposite horizons and once again plodded on their way.

That strange meeting in the Sinai is one of the highlights of Kinglake’s classic travelogue, “Eothen”, a cracking little read even today. The book is an account of his youthful adventures in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. It took him nine years to write. When it came out in 1844 it was an instant and massive hit.

Kinglake comes across as a gutsy and good-humoured young chap, full of beans and up for anything. He tackles the dangers of the desert, braves the plague in Cairo, defies a local pasha who tries to halt his progress, and generally marches around like he owns the place.

He’s never afraid to tell it as he sees it, sometimes with unintentionally comical results. The sacred Sea of Galilee isn’t as nice as Windermere, he informs us, but still has “the winning ways of an English lake”. The best way to ride a camel is to attach English stirrups. And Arabs must be ignored if they suggest travelling at night and sleeping during the hottest part of the day: “I tried their plan once, and found it very harassing and unwholesome.”

Bedouin women, meanwhile, are a bore. After making the extraordinary statement that they have no religion (they’re Muslims of course), he declares them plain and clumsy and concludes they have “so grossly neglected the prime duty of looking pretty in this transitory life that I could not at all forgive them”.

Yet despite Kinglake’s mad assumption of God-given English superiority and his tendency to treat all foreigners as children, his book is a good one. It’s fresh and funny and original, a far cry from the dull, fact-packed travellers’ account that had come before. “As I have felt, so I have written,” he writes in the preface. The Victorians loved it.

None more so than a young journalist who was to become one of the greatest explorers of the Victorian Age. Henry Morton Stanley grew up in a Welsh poorhouse but always admired and tried to emulate the stiff-upper-lip style of the English gentry. According to his biographer Tim Jeal he was particularly struck by Kinglake’s laconic encounter in the Sinai, no doubt considering it a jolly good show.

And Jeal makes a fascinating link between the Kinglake episode and a far more famous meeting that took place decades later near Lake Tanganyika in east Africa: the moment Stanley found David Livingstone.

Everyone knows what Stanley was supposed to have said that day when, after months of searching, he finally stood face to face with the missing explorer. “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” It’s got to be one of the most famous one-liners of all time.

But did he really say it? Jeal’s not so sure. Livingstone never made any mention of it in his journal. The page in Stanley’s diary for that day has been torn out. And Stanley destroyed his earliest description of the dramatic meeting.

More likely, the insecure journalist who grew up in poverty thought long and hard after the meeting before deciding what memorable words to give himself. “Dr Livingston, I presume?” He invented it. Made it up to make himself sound more dignified, more gentlemanly, more like Alexander Kinglake.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post on this blog, but have started a new one called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow me on Twitter @historynuts or at Thanks again!

Kinglake, Alexander, Eothen, or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East (London, 1844)
Jeal, Tim, Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer (London, 2007)
De Gaury, Gerald, Travelling Gent: the Life of Alexander Kinglake (1809-91) (London, 1972)


Anonymous said...


Portista said...

I would venture a comment, but we haven’t been introduced.

Anonymous said...

Someone had once asked Winston Churchill’s advice on how to improve his prose style. ‘Read Kinglake,’ said Churchill.

Turns out that Kinglake wrote two things of note: Eothen, for one, plus an eight-volume history of the Crimean War.

Still the best 8-volume history of the Crimean War ever written.

Michael Pecht

Unknown said...

The desert travellers are afraid of the???