Magazine article The Spectator

Leading the Way in the Dark

Magazine article The Spectator

Leading the Way in the Dark

Article excerpt

A S ENSE OF THE WORLD : HOW A BLIND MAN BECAME HISTORY'S GREATEST TRAVELLER by Jason Roberts Simon & Schuster, £12.99, pp. 400, ISBN 0743239660 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It was Peter Fleming who noted a principal difficulty for the traveller in the 20th century. There were no journeys to be made, he said, that had not been made already, and he knew that in anything he chose to do, 'other, better, men' would have gone before. Under such circumstances, 'only the born tourist -- happy, goggling, ruminant -- can follow in their tracks with the conviction that he is not wasting his time'.

James Holman, the hero of A Sense of the World, was probably happy and possibly ruminant. But what he was most definitely not was goggling. For by the time he set off to travel hither and yon around the world, Holman was blind. His blindness began suddenly in 1787, the summer of his 25th year. At first he hoped -- as who would not? -- that the affliction was temporary. But by the spring of the following year he accepted that his blindness was permanent. What, then, was a young man of considerable intellect and imposing physique to do?

First he learnt 'how to be blind'. Jason Roberts describes in sympathetic detail how the young Holman taught himself to navigate not by touch, which was the conventional recourse of blind people at the time, but by sound. He taught himself also to write, and regarded these as the first two steps on the road to his stated goal: self-sufficiency.

To be self-sufficient he needed an income.

Partly through good fortune and partly through his own efforts, he was appointed to a little-known sinecure as a 'Naval Knight', which afforded him security and the most modest of livings. But Holman was still young and restless. He could not live the cloistered life expected of a Naval Knight and within a year he was making plans -- notwithstanding his stubborn blindness -- to move on. …

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