I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
I’m just back from the Cevennes. On the long drive down, over three leisurely days, we read to each other from the kindle, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With a Donkey. Published in 1879, it recounts a journey across one of the most remote areas of France. Stevenson never says quite what motivated him to make the trip, but the religious wars of a hundred years previously are a constant theme. His own Protestant upbringing, his desire to understand the human religious impulse and the only once alluded-to idea that ‘to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free’ are among the few clues to the personality behind the writing. Nor do we learn quite why, together with bread, brandy, wine, chocolate and a sleeping bag, the writer needs to also carry an egg whisk.
The book anticipates much literary travel writing and is an early example of creative non-fiction. It’s also very funny, especially when read aloud, the convoluted elegant sentences taking their time to reveal, the wit of the writer.
The main relationship in the book is that between RLS and Modestine, his recalcitrant donkey. On the first two days, he struggles to keep her walking. He then stays at an inn where the keeper makes a ‘goad’ complete with nails, and lo and behold, Modestine begins to comply. RLS rather worryingly conflates her with the fairer sex.
There’s lots to enjoy and reflect on here, but the book sent me back to Christopher Rush’s To Travel Hopefully, both a re-creation of Stevenson’s journey and a homage to the writer. He read, unforgettably, from the book at the Lapidus conference here in Canterbury in April 2006
At the end of To Travel Hopefully, Christopher Rush reflects on the meaning of the donkey when Stevenson writes in his dedication of the book that ‘we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world – all too, travellers with a donkey …’. Christopher Rush suggests that the donkey might represent the body, especially one, as in Stevenson’s case, that suffered illness and travail. He quotes Francis of Assisi who also died in his forties, begging forgiveness of ‘my poor brother donkey, my body’ which he had subjected to deprivation and austerity.
For me, the donkey is more than just the ‘heavy bear that goes with me’ of my body. I’m starting to think of all my obligations as donkeys – my house, my work, in all its varieties – paid, voluntary, creative – my neuroses, my relationships, my friendships, my hopes and expectations.
Philip Larkin characterised work as a toad, squatting on his life. My donkeys are more characterful than toads. They are contrary, stubborn, endearing, stoical and a bit ridiculous – and even though they can drive me nuts, I like donkeys.