Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The ends of the earth

For a generally sad book, Simon Winchester's The Sun Never Sets (recently republished as Outposts) is certainly a fun read. In the 80s, Winchester got the idea to travel to the remaining pieces of the British Empire. Most of them are nearly unknown (Trista da Cunha anyone?) and tiny. At the time, Hong Kong was a colony, but the remainder are small indeed, which makes for interesting stories of forlorn little places like St. Helena and, in some regards, Gibraltar.

What makes the book so enjoyable is Winchester's prose which swerves from nostalgic to wistful to acid. Here he mocks the Gibraltar Rock Apes, famous due to the legend that as long as they stay on the Rock, so shall Britain:

But here they still sit, begging for food on the Monkey's Alameda, swinging from wall to tree to tourist shoulder, spitting, lunging, hawking, puking, and displaying their unpleasant and oddly tailess backsides to the daily busloads of the curious. They are truly loathsome creatures, in a state of permanent distemper, ogrous packages of green and grey fur, all teeth, stale fruit and urine. How little these true barbarians know of the solicitous tendresse to which they are subject, or the colonial telegrams that have passed to and from the Gibraltar cable station, attesting to their contentment, or their decline.

Great stuff for travel fans, but Imperial fans in particular.

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