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A Traveller's Alphabet

A Traveller's Alphabet [PDF]

I've always admired Steven Runciman as a historian and a writer. His clear voice in books like The Great Church in Captivity or the Mideaval Manichee so matched his great scholarship and fine writing style.
This book fills Sir Steven out, good and bad. He is a tireless traveler and a tiresome name dropper that was distantly related to every other member of the foreign service he met. Hailing from a distinguished family—Sir Steven's father was a viscount and in multiple cabinets, his grandfather a shipping magnate—Runciman was able to retire at a rather young age after spending a few years as a Cambridge Don.
Runciman was no doubt brilliant. His knowledge of multiple languages was quite amazing, but he was also an incredibly contradictory product of his times. He makes the acutely thoughtful comment that though the Dutch ruled Indonesia efficiently, they "took no account of the sad fact that most people prefer chaotic independence to efficient rule by aliens" (pg 157). On the other hand, when a group of Westerners go native in Bali, Runcimen is repelled by this blending of nationalities: "It was a bad moment for arriving there. During the last previous years numbers of people, Europeans and Americans, men and women, had settled in Bali and become rather to intimate with the natives. Fortunately the Dutch put an end to this fraternization. The men were jailed and the women deported from Dutch East India" (pg 159).
Of course Runciman also makes brilliant, witty observations. "There are charming quarters and charming people in the city (San Francisco) ; but the smug, complacent air of moral laxity is, I find unattractive (pg 88)." Now that's a proper put down in the great English tradition.
Still, Runciman annoys almost as much in this passage as Colonel Montgomery, the soon-to-be field marshal. "We all took a great dislike to Colonel Montgomery," Runciman the aristocrat sagely acknowledges, "as he used to lecture us on the luxurious lives that we led. . . .not even sparring Prince Alice from his strictures." Obviously Montgomery's manners just weren't up to snuff.
The book is by turns brilliant and exasperating. Sometimes winging, other times judgmental, Sir Steven travel writing is fascinating if you have the patience for the toff writing style and the assumptions he makes. But in no way let this deter you from history writing.


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