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The tradition of the Grand Tour was started in 1608 by an intrepid but down-at-the-heels English courtier named Thomas Coryate, who walked across Europe, miraculously managed to return home in one piece, and wrote a book about his bawdy misadventures. With The Grand Tour, Tim Moore proves not only that he is Coryate's worthy successor but one of the finest and funniest travel writers working today. Armed with a well-thumbed reprint of Coryate's book, Moore donned a purple plush suit and set off in a second-hand ...
The tradition of the Grand Tour was started in 1608 by an intrepid but down-at-the-heels English courtier named Thomas Coryate, who walked across Europe, miraculously managed to return home in one piece, and wrote a book about his bawdy misadventures. With The Grand Tour, Tim Moore proves not only that he is Coryate's worthy successor but one of the finest and funniest travel writers working today. Armed with a well-thumbed reprint of Coryate's book, Moore donned a purple plush suit and set off in a second-hand and highly temperamental Rolls-Royce through France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland. Like Coryate, Moore possesses an astonishing ability to land himself in humiliating predicaments. His account of his hilariously memorable misadventures on Venice's canals on one fateful afternoon is by itself worth the price of admission. Moore brings new life to the Old World and in the process sends readers into paroxysms of laugher and delight.
As is often the way, Thomas Coryate's story is an unlikely one. A parson's son from the village of Odcombe in Somerset, until the age of 28 he was just the bloke who sorted out his dad's church fetes and gave endlessly pompous speeches at any public gathering. Then his father died, and he was belatedly adopted by his well-connected godfather, who somehow had him installed in the court of the Prince of Wales. Here he became a noted wit and scholar (his interpretation) or a bumptious unwitting court jester (everyone else's). When he began to realize that his compulsive alliteration and fondness for inventing pretentiously florid words on the hoof ("lucifuge" -- a creature that shuns light; "antipriscianasticall" -- ungrammatical) had put him on the wrong side of the "laughing at/laughing with" divide, he resolved to produce a work that would prove his intellectual and cultural credentials.
To this end, in 1608 he set off to walk around France and northern Italy. It was unheard of to make such a journey alone and overland; still more so to write a first-person travelogue, as Coryate's Crudities revealed itself after it was published in 1611. Consequently, two of the bold and dubious claims I am nonetheless happy to make in my book are that he invented both the Grand Tour and travel writing as we know it today. As might be guessed from its title, Coryate's Crudities is an arresting volume. Its frontispiece engraving depicts Coryate being variously vomited on, flashed at, and pelted with eggs.
Sadly for him, however, neither the title nor much of the content was a fair representation of Coryate's original manuscript. He had submitted a learned cultural and economic treatise, tempered with incidents intended to demonstrate his resourcefulness, wit, and religious faith. However, the Prince of Wales -- who, though still a teenager, had insisted on inspecting and approving Coryate's work before publication -- saw to it that wholesale changes were made. He appointed a panel of wits and poets, including John "For Whom the Bell Tolls" Donne and Ben "Bargain-bin Shakespeare" Jonson, to add their own gloss. Unsurprisingly, they interpreted several key incidents -- the time Coryate tried single-handedly to convert the Jews in Venice's ghetto to Christianity; his investigative encounters with topless courtesans; an encounter with the Teutonic lynch mob who caught him stealing grapes from a vine -- in a different light. So it was that his genuine achievements (he introduced the fork to Britain after seeing its widespread use in Italy; was the first to acclaim the architecture of Palladio, whose influence went on to change the face of Britain; and, though we're now at the bottom of the barrel, is credited with coining the word "umbrella") were lost amidst the endless mockery of an artless, tight-fisted, self-important buffoon abroad.
His desperate response -- and even writing this still makes me wince with disbelief -- was to walk to India. Apparently unnoticed by his associates, in 1613 he slipped away from England, and after six months, arrived in Jerusalem. Here he had large crucifixes tattooed on both wrists and was harried by archers up in the dunes during a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Setting off eastward, in the next ten months he walked 3,300 miles across mountains and deserts unknown to the Western world; his only map and travel guide was the Old Testament. He was mugged so regularly that for the last weeks he lived on a penny a day, the money "hidden in certaine clandestine bodilie corners." Always a religious zealot, even in the initimidating strongholds of Islam he would regularly risk his life with astonishing displays of bigotry. He woke early in order to shout down the muezzins from a roof opposite their minarets, and always took the trouble to learn the local language in order to be able to point out the superiority of Christianity, generally by urging massed crowds of Muslims to "spit in the face of thy Koran and bury it under a privy." Yet somehow, in July 1615, he arrived unscathed in the courtyard of the Great Mogul Emperor, Jahangir, in the north Indian city of Ajmer. He had just done something no European had even attempted since Alexander the Great's infantry reached the Ganges 2,000 years before.
Inevitably, though, he was doomed. Coryate's tragicomic life is one of those where pride always came before a fall. After a rather pointless 200-mile supplementary ramble to Surat, near Bombay, he collapsed and was taken in by the local East India Company rep (one of only a dozen Englishmen in India at the time). Once under his roof, Coryate summoned his last reserves to shout, "Sack, sack! Is there such a thing as sack? I pray give me some sack!" His host's overeager fulfilment of this alcoholic request ensured that these were Coryate's tawdry but memorable last words. He was buried under an imposing domed tomb that still stands today on a lonely plain near Suvali, just north of Surat. (Tim Moore)
Posted April 5, 2009
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