Saturday, 15 May 2010

On The Road

I have been half-heartedly looking for this book ever since I fist heard about it, a few years ago. I have only just started reading it, since I bought it in a charity shop last week. It has a very long preface, written by a man called Pat Rogers, who gives a good insight into the background of Defoe's tour, so I read it all - usually I skip prefaces and go right to the author.

I did not realise that Defoe (born 'Foe', but gave his name an aristocratic 'de') has such a chequered career - all I knew about him before was that he wrote Robinson Crusoe. He was a hosier, a government spy, fought in 2 battles of the English Civil War, managed the royal lottery, owned a newspaper, was imprisoned twice for sedition and debt, conducted a fact-finding tour of Scotland for the king, and finally went into hiding from an old creditor, dying - in poverty - at simple lodgings in 1731. (Why is it that I always veer toward people who - despite having what I would call a 'successful life' - end up dying without a penny? It doesn't bode well...)

Defoe's tour of Britain was carried out between 1724 and 1726, and is generally reckoned to be the best written of a number of tours conducted before and after. Pat Rogers compares this to Boswell and Johnson's tour of Scotland, Lawrence Sterne's Sentimental Journey and also William Cobbett's Rural Rides. These accounts seem to focus more on the social conditions and the state of agriculture, etc, but Defoe - being a journalist - seems to tell it as he finds it, using his eyes. Apparently he just guessed when it came to statistics like population, and his guesses were often wildly wrong. It took about two weeks to travel from London to Scotland in those days, and that speed was only achieved by the improved roads, which were maintained by the ever growing Turnpike Trusts. Prior to that, you took your chances depending on the weather and local 'road menders' who you would tip small amounts of money to on the way. It was either dust or mud all the way, until you hit the cobbled streets of a wealthy city centre. An old map of my local pub - which was built as a coaching inn in the 17th century - shows a low wall beside the road, leading to the front door. This wall protected the travelers from mud splashed onto them by passing coaches. 'Heavy going' was just that, as the clay stuck to the rims of the wheels and the hooves of the horses.

I am really looking forward to taking this pre industrial revolution tour of my own country, particularly since staying at home for holidays has become more popular over the last couple of years, what with the economy and Icelandic dust clouds. I suppose it's another form of escapism just like a real holiday, and I might find myself reading it at night whilst drinking wine from a glass that was made about the same time as Daniel Defoe hit the road, way back in 1724.


  1. I've read Cobbett's Rural Rides. A lot of informative stuff there, but gawd how tedious to read! I trust that deFoe's tour of Britain will prove less tiresome. Bryson does well in 'Notes from a small island', and his one on Oz is pure genius; it should be obligatory reading for ALL Aussie school-children.

  2. Yes, Cro, I remember the Cobbett connection from Farnham, but I have a slightly clearer recollection of the 'William Cobbett' pub there. I never made it to the end of Rural Rides - a bit too political for me, even then.

  3. I enjoyed the agricultural side of RR. And yes, that publican became rich off my back. I can hardly believe it, but I used to drink Guinness and cider mixed. Yuk!

  4. I got Ivor Cutler to visit the William Cobbett for the poetry society once (I think). What a mad-man he was. Tony Shaw used to play the jugs there too! He lived in Bath for years, but went to live on a boat in London a few years ago. Time (and beer) did not mellow him.