"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche



25 Jan 2021

Review of 'Vagabond Girl', Jenny Steele Scolding



A delightful autobiography by an extraordinary woman.
Vagabond Girl chronicles Jenny Scolding’s life between the ages of 21 and 41, a rare combination of a committed workaholic—when in work—with her insatiable wanderlust and appetite for the the rare, exotic, abject and marginalised people and places of the globe. Equally at ease with expatriates, tourists, and the locals, Scolding’s travels go way beyond the regular tourist destinations and frequently by the most rudimentary means available, the better to experience total immersion in the object of her latest adventure.

Leaving a good job as a production secretary at the BBC at the age of 21, with only £20 in her pocket, Scolding embarked on the first of many adventures that would take her to the Middle East, Iran, Pakistan, India, the Americas (including a total of six years, on and off, working as a film researcher for Canada’s CBC and other film and media companies), Caribbean, East, West and North Africa. When the fancy took her, she would linger in places or with people that held a particular enchantment. For a more conventional Westerner, some of her closer, more intense, relationships could easily have resulted in setting down to a more domesticated existence. But even when life involved a regular job and intimate relationship for a period of time, Scolding was not ready to give up the freedom of the road: 


On the couple of occasions when I’d fallen desperately in love and been swept of my feet, there had always been a tiny part of me that remained rational, aware that the turmoil of love and passion was short lived.”


Even so, Scolding did find her lifetime partner Bill before the book concludes, and with whom she had some of her craziest adventures before eventually becoming a mum at the age of 39. Even then, and beyond the scope of this book, the wanderlust is never extinguished in the true vagabond. There were further tramping adventures to come, including Cuba, Thailand and Sri Lanka with Bill, and then, aged 64, a 10 week solo back packing trip around China. “I noted in my diary that I would travel forever; that I could envisage myself as a really old woman, still exploring the world.”


There were also times on her travels that Scolding was clearly irritated by her sometime reliance on, and unwanted attention of, men, even though such irritations were clearly outweighed by the generous hospitality she received from many locals, as well as other foreigners, encountered along the way: 


One or two men had offered to hitch to Ethiopia with me, but I had rejected them. I was angry at my dependency at travelling with others, particularly the opposite sex: I saw it as a cop out.”


My diary was full of analysis about my role as a woman in a world of rough travel: anger at
the dependency my body imposed on me; at the practical complications and temporary weaknesses caused by menstruation."


Nazareth 1964


Similar experiences are echoed by Kathleen Phelan in her own autobiography of vagabond life.


Aided by well kept diaries, correspondence to and from the friends from around the world, and an incredible archive of photographs—dozens of which illustrate the book—Vagabond Girl proceeds in a Chatwinesque style to chronicle not only her travels and adventures, but also reflections on colonial history (British and French in particular), politics, religion, geography, natural history, as well as the customs, culture and culinary habits of the people whose lives Scolding shared intimately in the course of her travels.


This book takes place in the 60s and 70s, a time before internet, email and mobile phone communication, but an era that had rejected the austerity of its parents post world war generation and indulged in new found freedoms. It was also a time, long after the ravages of colonialism’s enslaving and Christianising of local peoples—in spite of the book’s descriptions of certain expat’s still living as though the British Empire still existed—but before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which would shut down travel by Westerners to many of the places described by Scolding in her book, and its catastrophic effects on the local population. Not least Timbuktu, being a brutal example of both invasions. 


Timbuktu 1980


What I most enjoyed about Scolding’s writing were the paradoxes and absurdities that she observed and describes in her unselfconscious and inimitable prose style. Highlights there are, but distinct from many travel writers, Scolding does not sentimentalise or romanticise her encounters with the human and natural world. But let Scolding’s writing speak for itself.


From India:


I was aware that people travelled from all over India to die in the holy city, but when I stumbled on the sick and dying it was a shock. They formed long queues which snaked their way towards wide flights of steps, the ‘ghats’, which descended to the sacred waters. Lepers, cripples and people who were barely alive, crawled, shuffled and dragged themselves along the ground, or were carried, in the direction of the great Ganges and their ultimate demise. … They did not always burn; either the relatives lacked the funds for sufficient fuel, or else the river doused the flames before the cremation was complete. From a rowing boat, I watched limbs floating past, birds pecking at the flesh. A baby and then a man sailed by, face downward, their bodies translucent, white below the waterline and a putrid yellow above. … Those who washed in this water, drank it, or bathed in it, could count on absolution from their sins.”


On a friend's roof, Rajpura, Punjab, India 1965

From Ethiopia:


The journey north took us along terrifying switchback roads through range after range of spectacular mountains. Sometimes our heavily-laden vehicles crossed rickety bridges which spanned vast chasms. I felt like a hostage to fate; I would gaze into the abyss and wonder whether this time my number was up.”


From Egypt:


I had arrived at the Valley of the Kings to find there was no water at the souvenir shop and café, presumably to ensure tourists purchased overpriced fizzy drinks. When popping into the ladies, however, I came across a bucket of water standing in a corner. I had just topped up my water bottle when the door burst open and an Arab appeared, an impressive figure in traditional dress and, to my astonishment, male! ‘That’s my water!’, he said, snatching my flask and emptying the contents back into the bucket. ‘No it’s not,’ I protested. ‘Half that water was mine. I brought it with me from Luxor.’ ‘OK,’ he said, reluctantly, narrowing his eyes and fixing me with an angry stare. ‘OK …’ He held my flask beneath the waterline in the bucket until it was exactly half full. ‘There, this is your water. The rest is my water.’ He picked up the bucket and flounced out. What he was doing in the ladies toilet I can’t imagine, but our altercation served to remind me that water was a commodity precious beyond all else.


Onboard a ship from Alexandria en route back to Europe:


I had brushed with so many lives. Africans from wayside stalls in Tanzania to the slums of Addis Ababa, had shared their thoughts and dreams with me, had welcomed me into their lives and homes.”


I was in a bubble, floating between Africa and Europe. An Egyptian woman billowed back and forth across the deck in a long red velvet dress. While the warmth and sunshine lasted, everyone lazed on the deck, a weird assortment of characters whose enforced proximity lent a surreal edge to the voyage. I felt as if I were living in a 1920s postcard.” 


With Bill and brother Phil, Women Teachers' College, Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria, 1980.


From Nigeria:


A man with a bucket of paint was splashing his way up the drive which led to the Women Teacher’s College. The stones which lined the route were whitewashed regularly, particularly on special occasions. Painting stones white was a national preoccupation which not only delineated territory but also made the approach to any establishment look neat and official, belying the reality inside. The man ambled along in the heat and as he painted each rock he splattered the whitewash on the surrounding soil, leaving a mottled trail in his wake.

     As he was putting the finishing touches to the stones, another man appeared, wobbling along the drive on a bicycle, his back bent beneath a large sack. His dilapidated bike swerved dangerously close to the painted rocks and the vice principal, who had come to inspect the work, was furious. ‘Careful of those stones,’ she growled. ‘It is fresh paint for speech day tomorrow!” The cyclist juddered to a halt, took the sack off his back and threw it to the ground whereupon it took on a life of its own, writing on the pathway. ‘Maciji,’ he announced. ‘Three! Three snakes for the school science exhibition. You want snakes?’ The vice principal declined the offer and sent him packing.”


With Billl and his students, Haliru Abdu Teachers' College, Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria, 1979


From Mali:


Bar Mali was the star of all cat-houses: copulating couples glimpsed through doorways; drunks lying in the corridors among discarded bottles; the smell of urine pervading every nook and cranny. I loved the place for its craziness, its exuberance and blatant debauchery. The next morning found me queueing with the whores in front of the only two showers available for women. To my astonishment, an elderly white-haired English woman emerged from one of the cubicles. She smiled at me. ‘Good morning, my dear,’ she said. ‘Lovely day isn’t it?’ and, without pausing, she sailed up the corridor.



A Footnote on Culture Shock:


Culture shock does not always follow immersion in an alien culture, it can also result from the return to one’s own country following a prolonged period abroad. The two passages below, the first from Scolding, the second from my own memoirs, captures the same identical emotions. Below from Scolding on her return to Britain from her West African adventures, trip up the Nile, and departure from Alexandria by boat described above:


We arrived in Folkestone at dawn and I persuaded a lorry driver from Yorkshire to give me a lift to London. The dark, sodden English countryside slipped by, an alien colourless world. I needed silence to come to terms with my homecoming …”


Below, the almost identical sentiments following my own return from Africa in 1970:


If I experienced a culture shock at all, it was returning to Britain after two years of total immersion in African food, music, people, language and the land itself – spending 3 weeks out of every month camping in remote parts of Northern Zambia, trudging through miles of forests and plains, over hills, across rivers and lakes, to collect samples of soil and rock; then back to town and a week off with my monthly subsistence allowance, spent mainly in the township beer halls, after which I was happy to sober up and get back to another 3 weeks of nature. So imagine getting off the plane at Heathrow early one very cold and grey British winter day, boarding a bus with my single suitcase, and looking out of the bus window at streams of shivering workers walking or cycling to local factories, their canvas lunch bags across their shoulders containing cheese or ham sandwiches, probably in white sliced bread, accompanied no doubt by a packet of crisps, and thinking just what the fuck am I doing here.


Setting of for Sri Lanka with Bill in 2016

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