On a bookshelf at home sits an old book, which has been in my possession for a number of years. I purchased it in a collective heap at auction, recognised it as a classic, and put it away for a rainy day. It tells the true story of a rather oddball collection of wealthy Americans, who set off on a paddle steamer, the ‘Quaker City’, across the Atlantic in 1867 for a Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Lands. The edition I own is a 1908 publication by Chatto & Windus of The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, the book was originally published in 1867, only two years after the American Civil War ended.

My copy is obviously from way back before paperback books came onto the market, the pages are held in place by some form of yarn, in an old-fashioned method of bookbinding employed back then. The pages need often blowing apart due to the almost torn edges of these pages. Not like the mass produced and sharp edged books we suffer these days. I will try to explain my rather dated taste for older books, those that sit comfortably in the hands, knowing that someone else has perused these self same pages years before I was born is wonderful. The material texture of the actual book cover, or maybe the block printed drawings, to better enhance the text that, are liberally sprinkled within the 600 or so pages. It is all a tangible, exciting compunction that compels me to read this book.

After numerous attempts to get the journey underway, we read that they eventually set off, but this is in the days when weather plays no small part in sea travel. This is where Twain really begins his often-hilarious descriptive text of events, characters, their foibles, their pretensions, their ignorance, their seasickness, the entire gamut of emotions in fact. At the time of course, there were no distractions at all i.e. radio, television, phones, so they made their own amusement, playing Dominoes, or cards, or simply recording day to day events as they transpired with pen and paper. A few select musical instruments were bought on board, and various ‘solo performances’ became laughingly portrayed by either the passengers or the crew at assorted ‘on board’ soirees.

Eventually they reached warmer climes and the real adventures began. All the time Mark Twain is recording the events first hand as they occurred. His wonderful wit, sarcasm, blasphemously sensible way with word usage is an undiminished delight all the way through the book. His intensely descriptive narrative about the trials and tribulations they all encounter, as they wend their way through all manner of situations. Quarantine at lots of ports of call because of the cholera that was sweeping the globe at the time, then the rather selfish, and arrogant disregard for the local rules, allied with night-time excursions to where they should not go, Athens for one example. Touring the Acropolis and the Parthenon at midnight, dodging patrolling guards. Twain writes rather disdainfully about these self same tourist/travellers, and their insatiable and greedy way of chipping bits of famous masonry, i.e. tombs, pyramids, pieces of art and so on, it did not abate one jot the entire time of the trip.

Mark Twain writes so well, especially about his fellow passengers. Their use of mules, donkeys, camels are a delight to read, the men who led these self same animals. It is a history lesson like no other, the only way to traverse the Holy Lands is by animal, long before the advent of the safari or all-terrain vehicles. Nowadays a trip of this magnitude can be done in a week or so, but back then months would pass as the steady plodding along, of a train of animal mounted excursionists, could be seen limping over the scrubland, all the time striving to catch up with their other train of ‘slaves’ for want of a better word, that pitched camp each night, and prepared their meals. Tables and chairs, napkins, tablecloths, all would magically appear at each place they halted.

Mark Twain wrote this book more or less as soon as he reached home again. He employs great sarcasm throughout, but it invokes a feeling of happiness in the reader. There is an aura of Baron Munchausen about some of his writing, and I enjoy that sense of the ridiculous, far-fetched nonsense, but at the same time, he also writes honestly of events, and they are so different to what we live, and experience today. This book is a treat for the eyes, imagination, and embellishes your own sense of humour to read The Innocents Abroad even though it is well over a hundred years old now.

Reg Seward 5/5

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Wordsworth Editions 9781840226362 pbk Apr 2010