Friday, 1 July 2011

Penguin no. 258: Wild Oats
by Eric Muspratt

Poverty is the greatest of all human troubles. Sickness is a lesser evil, unless combined with poverty. Poverty wastes the mind as well as the body...I was a person who had ignored the ordinary material advantages of money and all it means. So many people grasped at it, more or less meanly and unthinkingly. But I wanted a measure of success that was altogether apart from the piling up of money and the satisfaction that affluence brings. That was genuine in me. It may have been only a greater conceit, a greater arrogance and smugness. But to me it was a precious idea, an ideal, something worth fighting and suffering for. Now looking backward, I fail to see anything at all better in it than in anything else people struggle and suffer for.

This is one of the 96 cerise Penguins, which signals it as a book about travel and adventure. Eric Muspratt was a young Englishman who thought of Australia as his home. He had led an itinerant life, moving through a succession of jobs and travelling around the world, so that by the age of 26 he had worked as a sailor, a soldier in the First World War, a pineapple farmer in Australia, an odd-jobber in the United States, and a plantation manager in the Solomon Islands, never staying with any job for very long. In 1926 he found himself back in England after being deported for stowing away on a tramp steamer.  This is the story of his first attempt to travel back to Australia, taking a route through Europe, and setting off without a passport and without much money. He lasted six months, and managed to travel through twelve countries, before being forced to retrace his steps to London. A later book describes his successful journey back to Australia.

He planned a route that crossed France to reach the Riviera, travelled up through the mountains to reach Italy, and continued on through Austria, and the Balkans to reach Constantinople. He had extended stays in Venice and Vienna, and was imprisoned twice for vagrancy. He travelled about by either walking or jumping trains, slept in the open air, and endured wind, cold, rain, extreme hunger, loneliness and boredom. His lack of a passport meant long detours to avoid soldiers and border checkpoints, and ultimately derailed his plans. His whole journey was a gamble: he relied on serendipity and it didn't always deliver, so that he was sometimes reduced to begging or theft for his survival. He endured these hardships almost constantly, day after day, until the whole venture seemed so pointless. There was little enjoyment, little time to concentrate on the scenery, and little time to experience the places he travelled through. His moments of pleasure seemed to come only during the infrequent windfalls which gave him a brief respite from these hardships.

Other authors have endured poverty for a purpose, and the two examples that come immediately to mind are George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Jack London in People of the Abyss. These books are journalistic in intent, highlighting the difficult lives of people who have suffered misfortune. But Muspratt's purpose is something quite different. He romanticises the idea of the vagabond; he sees something noble in the endurance of hardship for its own sake, and despises wealth and comfort. He seems to be a man who was easily bored, always searching for a new experience, and heavily influenced by a Socialist ideology.

He spends his moments of solitude fashioning a philosophy that elevates the status of someone just like himself. My sympathy for him began to ebb when he started discussing his own feelings of superiority when comparing himself to those who lead conventional lives, without reflecting on the fact that it was the people he looked down on who produced the food he stole and kept those trains running, enabling his adventurous lifestyle. It further ebbed when he took the money remitted to him by his friends and wasted most of it on drinking. And it completely disappeared when he started planning to attack strangers and steal their money and possessions. It was interesting that he felt no shame in revealing these plans, and perhaps even more enlightening to read a contemporary review of the book which pardons these planned attacks on the basis that the robberies were planned against victims who "deserved spoilation": that is, homosexual men.

I can probably enjoy any travel book set in Europe. The mention of the names of places, streets and buildings inevitably evokes a sense of nostalgia and recognition, but my enjoyment of this book was only fleeting. It didn't take me long to realise that this was a book written for an audience that didn't include me, as the author and I simply didn't share a common set of values. He seemed too intent on his ideology to learn anything from his own experiences, and so he had nothing of value to pass on to me.

Related links:
Duncan J. Smith's guide to the 96 Cerise Penguins.
Flickr set of cerise Penguins


  1. Another well-considered review, Karyn. Very many thanks. Might you consider tackling a female cerise author sometime? I think 161 "North to the Orient" by Anne Morrow Lindbergh might be an interesting one, given the tragic background to this lady's journey. keep up the excellent work - and best wishes to you - Duncan

  2. I would love to read this. I am fond of the 'curious traveler' genre and I really like George Orwell's book.

  3. I suggest My SouthSea Island, by Muspratt



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