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Life's Rich Pageant
As you know Bob, I’m a little obsessed with Isabella Bird.
Quick recap if you’re new here: Bird was a Victorian-era adventurer who traveled the globe, from Australian to Japan to Tibet to Morocco and about a billion points in between. She hooked upwith “Mountain Jim” on her trip to Colorado. She rode a horse through rural Japan up to Hokkaido. She rode a yak into the mountains of Tibet. Nearly all of her books — she wrote about these trips in great detail — feature moments where she came remarkably close to death through freezing or falling or drowning.
Bird’s story is doubly compelling because she wasn’t supposed to do any of this. Two reasons: 1) Women in 1800s Britain were supposed to rule their homes, not galavant about in the world and 2) Bird’s health was terrible. She was a sickly kid and an even more sickly young adult. Her doctors couldn’t figure out the cause or the cureand punted. Go on a trip, they said. You’re probably dying anyway so it won’t do much harm.
And so she sailed to Canada. Her health improved.She turned the letters she wrote home to her sister into bestselling books, founded two hospitals in India, was inducted into the Royal Geographical Society, etc., etc. I’m hitting the highlights here. There’s so, so, so much more.
For instance, in her later years, Bird became a renowned photographer.
One of the many, many parts of Bird’s story I keep coming back to is how much of a pain in the ass everything was then. Imagine the series of conveyances you’d need to get from London to Tokyo in 1870. Think of all of the crap you’d need to carry with you, including all of the clothing you needed to wear.To say nothing of all of the photography equipment, which was not exactly compact at the time.
Let’s say a modern woman of a certain agewas going on a trip. The social barriers are few. She has to pack decidedly less clothing and can get from, say, Newark to Tokyo in about 14 hours for about $1700. Not cheap, mind, but not months on a ship, train, another ship, a rickshaw, and some horses. She can also do stuff Bird could never dream of, like vote, build a company, and show her ankles.
You know what she can’t do? Take that same photo of the Shrine of Kaziman.
The building still stands, mind, and said modern woman has a cell phone that can take all kinds of pictures. But for all of the freedoms she enjoys that Bird could not, she cannot go to Iraq. Or, rather, is strongly advised to not go there because a) she’s American and b) she’s a she. I don’t know where to go with this idea — but it is a reminder that the default movement of the moral arc is not toward freedom.
Bird never shied away from writing about the poverty in the places she visited. She took some heat for doing so, too. Not every reader wanted to know about how grinding subsistence agriculture was in rural Japan or how brutal simple illnesses can be when you don’t have basic supplies. Her books weren’t about the glory of the British Empire and how lucky other countries were to be colonized. Instead, they show how shitty life in India remained even after her countrymen took over.
Which brings me to Sue Perkins, who is best known in the U.S. for her work as the Great British Baking Show host.In the U.K., her career has been less about cake and more about pushing her own boundaries by, say, conducting an orchestra or eating an Edwardian meal. She’s also no stranger to the travel documentary.
But Perkins isn’t taking light holidays in Provence. Instead, she, like Bird, is up for a challenge. Her most recent series (Perfectly Legal on Netflix) takes her to South America, where the conceit is that she is feeling stuck in the middle — middle age, middle fat — and is looking for something that will shake her out of the rut. As one who is the same age, same fat, I say PREACH.
Perkins tests her boundaries by getting shot in Colombia,white water rafting with sex workers, and running into explosions in Mexico. The most nerve-wracking bit was the explicitly raunchy rapping in a favela in Brazil. It’s one thing to paraglide; it’s another to stand on a stage in front of an armed audience and do something they did not come to see. Perkins ends the trip with an ayahausca-adjacent trip up in the Andes. Her vulnerability is what keeps it from feeling like a gimmick. The audience is let in on how profound the experience was for her and that makes all of the difference.
But Perkins has never shiedfrom being human. Her previous travel docs took her to rough country in Southeast Asia. In East of Croydon, she writes about the parts of the trip you don’t always see on TV. Like Bird, she shows you the fleas and rats — and how horrible it can be to be alive. Unlike Bird, Perkins balances all of the grimness with antic glee.
East of Croydon is an enjoyable enough read. There are bits that are pure comedy goldand other bits that will, as kids say, make you feel some kind of way. About 7/8s of the way through, she drops the hammer with chapters about her Dad's final days and the omnipresence of grief that is crushing and beautiful and heavy. So heavy. You appreciate how light it all was up to that point. Which is a lot like actual life. One moment, you're telling a dick joke; the next, bludgeoned by grief. Appreciate the dick jokes when you hear them, is what I'm saying, because they may be your last.
I’m sure that sounds better in Latin. Carpe iocus phallus?
While Bird would not be down for off-color badinage with Perkins,Bird would likely agree on that you have to show both the beautiful and the ugly in order to get to the truth of an experience.
(for very Victorian definitions of “hooked up.” Like they climbed Mt. Long together and slept around the same campfire.)
And with that trip, I can draw a line from Bird to Ursula Vernon, one of my current favorite writers.
Medicine at the time was still of the leeches and ether variety but it was better than it had been.
In the pursuit of accuracy: she felt better when on the move and worse when at home. It’s not like she was suddenly the picture of wellness. There’s always a few times on any of her adventures where she’s just like, “I hurt everywhere and will just stay put for a week,” but it’s also fair to say she likely would have died very young had she not left England.
one of the first women in the club — and that’s its own long story
Also: if anyone feels up for a “fun” transcription exercise, please take on this letter from Bird to her publisher asking for an extension on her deadline (I think). Between her handwriting and the thin paper … oof.
One of her innovations was a split petticoat, which she wore under her over-dresses so that she could ride astride and still keep her modesty. There are so many passages where she makes it clear she’s NOT wearing trousers because she would NEVER wear trousers. Imagine climbing a mountain in about 15 yards of fabric.
assume it’s me for the purposes of this. I’m actually ten years younger than Bird was when she went to Persia but, while that’s interesting, it’s not relevant.
(unless she still has small kids in her house, in which case she should never leave.)
yes, there were exceptions back in the 1800s. BUT they were exceptions.
Bird also visited the antebellum American South and said, “The struggle between the advocates of freedom and slavery is now convulsing America…and appearances seem to indicate a prolonged and disastrous conflict between the North and the South.” Which is what happened and, per that moral arc idea, is still happening. The default position is alway stasis.
She was long dead before the U.K. had to reckon with what colonization did to the places they went, which is a reckoning some still refuse to participate in.
While the recent version of the show with Noel Fielding is mostly harmless, the early seasons with Mel, Sue, and Mary Berry were perfection. Nothing gold can stay.
Health-and-safety Sam might be my all-time favorite BBC personality.
and absolutely delightful and oddly wholesome? Like Perkins so wants to get this right, even though she is so out of her depth. There are layers of endearing here — and utter filth, in the very best ways.
at least in this phase of her life
Which isn’t to say Bird is only grim, just that she was not known for her puns and double entendres. Or even single entendres.
Among my favorites: Perkins trying to figure out which English word for vagina she should use that is BBC appropriate.
I don’t think they still say this
The husband and I are swimming through some similar tides at the moment and it’s so hard. SO HARD.
I’ll workshop it and circle back.
I’m guessing here. Maybe she had a rich lexicon of words for fanny.