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Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 2 Feb 1995
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Evelyn Waugh chose the name "Labels" for his first travel book because, he said, the places he visited were already "fully labelled" in people's minds. Yet even the most seasoned traveller could not fail to be inspired by his quintessentially English attitude and by his eloquent and frequently outrageous wit. From Europe to the Middle East and North Africa, from Egyptian porters and Italian priests to Maltese sailors and Moroccan merchants - as he cruises around the Mediterranean his pen cuts through the local colour to give an entertaining portrait of the Englishman abroad.
About the Author
Evelyn Waugh was born in 1903 and was educated at Hertford College, Oxford. In 1928 he published his first novel, Decline and Fall, which was soon followed by Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934) and Scoop (1938). In 1945 he published Brideshead Revisited and he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1952 for Men at Arms. Evelyn Waugh died in 1966.
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Honest Evelyn! I tend to avoid travel writing like the measles; not on this occasion. Waugh was clearly not abroad to grovel or revel, only to be his own sweet self, not yielding for an instant to 'cosmopolitan mush'. Remind you of anything? How wise of him to have a clear view of the possible dangers lurking in a city like Naples...
I no longer go 'abroad' - that is, to France or Italy (mostly). That isn't to say that I especially 'Like It Here', yet England still has its minor compensations. Oh, KA of course disliked 'architecture' (and probably museums and galleries - three cheers for that), perhaps preferring a decent ice-cream or hunk of bread.
These travels take place in 1929 and so this book is fascinating as an account of a long vanished world as much as being a record of Waugh's trips. He is a young man here, having published only one biography and one novel. At this time, his brother Alec was a far more successful writer than he was - indeed, he makes light of being mistaken for his brother by a woman he meets, but it surely rankled. His sharp humour is very much in evidence in this wonderful volume and he is full of sly observations. In Cairo, for instance, he is slightly overwhelmed by staying in a hotel so close to the pyramids. It is, he observes, "like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there."
During this book, Waugh has a warm and chatty style; he is charming, charmed and open to new experiences. If you have enjoyed Waugh's more famous novels, then this will show you another side to the author as he just started out on his travels. Like all his books, it is a delight.
He has a wonderful turn of phrase and a delightfully irreverent approach to his commentary, he often addresses the reader directly, which makes for a much more conversational, intimate journey for the reader. He takes in the delights of France,Greece, Italy, Egypt and Algeria to name but a few. His dialogue about discovering the works of Gaudi in Barcelona is particularly charming and enthusiastic and his juxtaposition of the serious and silly works beautifully.
This is a book of its time, and in this way reminded me very much of the travel books of Lawrence Durrell which I also loved. It is worth reading, not because you will ever be able to retrace his steps, but precisely because you won't, and you are able to enter into a unique series of snapshots of a bygone era. Delightful.
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