Magazine article The Spectator

No Shelf-Life for Sir John

Magazine article The Spectator

No Shelf-Life for Sir John

Article excerpt

Concerned by the amount of home shelf-space already crammed with books of travel, my outstretched hand has often hesitated to take down from the shop shelf one of the many editions of Sir John Mandeville's Travels. Always, so far, I have decided to do without such a farrago of fables and borrowings as the 14th-century romancer compiled around an imaginary journey to the Far East, content to accept the Encyclopaedia Britannica's verdict (delivered after six pages of argument closely reasoned by Sir Henry Yule, Marco Polo's best editor) which puts it `beyond reasonable doubt' that the book is spurious and is not the experiences of a St Alban's knight but the concoction of a Liege physician. With this judgment a six-page entry in the DNB concurs. Sir John is well known, and well known as a fraud.

So Mr Milton has set himself a task: to make this deconstructed figure the centrepiece and raison d'etre of a book which gives an account of Mr Milton's own travels, trips at this or that newspaper's expense which take him here and there in the Near East. As newspapermen do, he is careful to assume the character of a simple bloke dodging about the shop, out of his depth most of the time, getting things wrong. So thick was the fog he started in that he thought all through Chapter II that he was in the Bosporus when really the place he describes is in the Sea of Marmora, an error uncorrected by the 36 people he has thanked for helping him write the book - his itinerary justifying itself by occasionally crossing the supposed track of Sir John's. Used to writing for tabloids, he is accustomed to an uninformed readership, and, anxious not to appear a know-all himself, is at pains to keep the book reader-friendly by pretending (though himself `an expert on Eastern Christianity' as the blurb tells us) that the Nestorian heresy was unknown to him. `Never heard of this lot,' states his demotic alias, and takes up the next few pages teaching us the history of Nestorianism under guise of learning about it for the first time himself.

But what relevance to the purpose of the book has the history of Nestorianism? Sir John records that there were Nestorians in Syria in his day: Mr Milton struggles out to El Haseke, where `to my great excitement' a few Nestorians survive: ergo (according to Mr Milton's idea of logic) Sir John was a real personage telling the truth about his travels 650 years ago. …

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