Friday, 22 April 2016

Four wheels good, two wheels better

Biking the Americas – with engine, and without. Two great travel books 

There’s something seductive about travelling on two wheels. You are smaller, more mobile, more maneuverable – somehow more free.  I have always loved bicycles. Today, I rarely get further than the six-mile ride round Central Park. But I remember beautiful day rides through Norfolk when I lived there 10 years or so ago. I also remember, with wonder, snaking 4,000ft down a Himalayan pass at dusk on an Indian racing bike with part-time brakes. And going right back, at 15, I rode with a friend from the English Midlands across into Wales and up into Snowdonia. One part of that journey stands out, 44 years later – a very long day's ride from Cleobury Mortimer across the Marches towards the Welsh border, through Shropshire, covering mile after mile of single-track road between high hedges, into steep valleys and over high hills, past isolated farmhouses with collies that lazed in the road and woke and chased you as you passed, barking madly; all with grey sky and green country, the typical soft summer English morning.

But I’ve never done what David Kroodsma did. One day in late 2005 the young Californian climate researcher got on his bike in the morning, as usual. But instead of turning right to go to work, he turned left to ride to Tierra del Fuego. He had a double motive. He was going to have one hell of a ride. And he planned to spread awareness of climate change as he went. The resulting book, The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate, is one of my reads of the year so far.

I found it hard to get into this book at first. It seemed to take Kroodsma a long time to get going; there was too much about his motivations. The book should have started when he crossed the border. The backstory could have been dealt with in a paragraph or two, or worked into the story later. For God’s sake, Dave, get on your bike already. I was also irritated (unreasonably, perhaps) at the amount of hi-tech kit he acquired for the journey. “I also had a small suite of electronics: a laptop (which I would mail to a friend once I reached Mexico), a PalmPilot with tiny folding keyboard (to replace the laptop south of the border), an iPod for music and to back up photos, extra memory cards, a host of chargers and cables, and a small tripod for my camera. I also brought a small electric razor powered by rechargeable AA batteries...” Forget it, Dave. It’ll all get nicked.

But then Kroodsma crosses the border into Mexico, and the story takes off. As he works his way down Baja California, the landscape unfolds, and he meets the people. As the journey gets interesting, so does Kroodsma. He’s a resourceful traveller, and a good guest. By the time he gets to Mexico City, The Bicycle Diaries has become an engaging read.  

The point at which I decided this was not just a good book, but a very good one, came when Kroodsma passed through a town called Caucasia in Colombia. There’s nothing remarkable about the place; he just somehow brings it very much alive. This feeling of riding with Kroodsma gets stronger as he pedals over the northern Andes and into Venezuela, and southward into Brazil. Along the way there are fishermen, oil people, teachers, drunks and more. Then he makes a remarkable voyage with his bike up the Amazon to Peru, and has an even more extraordinary trip across the high cordillera to the Pacific coast. The man is a true adventurer. Woven into the narrative are Kroodsma’s thoughts on the climate. This could indeed have been earnest and preachy, but Kroodsma has a light touch, and ties his remarks to the ecosystem he is passing through – coastal wetlands, agriculture, the high glaciers that provide water for Peru’s cities. It isn’t heavy; it’s very interesting, and is also well-referenced.

Kroodsma doesn’t quite have the magic touch of someone like Ted Simon or Eric Newby. But he is a good solid writer, and there is a lot to enjoy. There are also some great photos, all presented at the point in the narrative when they were taken (he stays with a family; their picture’s on the same page). Moreover I felt a growing sympathy for Kroodsma himself. Besides being culturally sensitive, he’s also very thoughtful. The climate evangelism ebbs away as he feels more and more that the people he is meeting are threatened by pollution that his country, not theirs, is causing. Meeting a Brazilian researcher in Manaus, he is told:
“It’s like, when you are in an elevator with a bunch of people, and one person just keeps on farting. That person needs to change what he eats.” I laughed, at first not sure how to respond. “You guys are farting too,” I said. “Yeah, but not nearly as much!” Kroodsma admits that since the USA pollutes more than all Latin America put together, he should perhaps continue his project there. He has since done just that, becoming a leading figure behind the Climate Ride movement.

I liked this book. It’s a good travelogue, but also a vivid description of what may happen to a lot of places, and people, as the climate warms. Combining the two in this way might not have worked, but it does. It took a few pages to get into this book – but I am very glad I stuck with it.


Kroodsma pedalled. But motorbikes can be great for this sort of journey too, as Lois Pryce shows in her book Lois on the Loose: One Woman, One Motorcycle, 20,000 Miles Across the Americas. She begins with a quote from Robert M. Pirsig’s famous 1970s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he says that travelling by car is like watching a movie, but riding a motorbike is like being in one. It was a round-the-world ride on a Triumph Tiger, again in the 1970s, that gave rise to one of the greatest travel books of all time, Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels.

Near Wanka, 1994
I gave up riding a motorbike after an accident in London in 1980, but can still see the attraction. I still like to sit on the pillion and in 1994 I rode across Bhutan with a friend on his little trail bike; I am still not sure how we got over 12,000ft passes on that thing, often with hangovers (we called on many friends along the way). But we only dropped the bike once, on a dirt road at twilight, when my friend took a tight hairpin bend too slowly after 12 hours on the road. We were sent sprawling, happily unhurt, near a village that rejoiced in the name of Wanka.

I remembered this while reading Lois on the Loose;  I think Lois Pryce would have been splendid company. In 2003, in her late 20s, she was working for the BBC in London (but in telemarketing, not a glamorous TV job). Bored nearly to tears, she found solace in motorbikes. Sloping slothfully back to work after a holiday in the saddle, she decides she has had enough of her cubicle, her dull job, and her management-speak boss. Things reach a climax when she hears him moaning on the phone that his new toilet seat hasn’t been delivered.  So she decides to quit and ride from Anchorage to Ushaia. As you do.

It’s not the safest journey, especially on your own, but Pryce reassures herself by looking at the State Department’s advice for US travellers to the UK. This assures her that she should by now have been robbed by a bogus taxi driver, mugged, date-raped, blown up by the IRA or all of the above. “I ...wondered if there really was any need to motorcycle across Colombia or the Congo when there was clearly so much action that I was missing out on here, on my very own doorstep,” she writes. In the late winter of 2003 she ends up in Anchorage. In Alaska she finds there are far more men than women – but as a local woman warns her, one must choose carefully (“the odds are good,” she explains, “but the goods are odd”). Still, she doesn’t plan to stick around. Meanwhile it’s snowing, she speaks no Spanish and she has 20,000 miles to go.

Pryce presents herself as a bit naive, and sometimes she does seem that way (she knows no Spanish; in Canada she is booked for having no insurance). Yet in other ways she’s well-prepared. She knows her big old Brit bike isn’t right for the journey and gets a secondhand single-cylinder 223cc Yamaha trail bike. It’s chosen carefully; she needs to pick it up on her own if she drops it. She clearly knows her way around the bike and does most of her own maintenance and repairs (of which there are plenty) on the trip. She’s also tough, camping out in the Yukon, where it is still snowing. There are bears. In Vancouver her bike winds up in the pound. In Los Angeles she winds up in a weird strip club. She keeps going. Unlike Kroodsma, who is likeable but a little serious, Pryce keeps laughing and keeps you laughing with her. By the time she crosses the Mexican border, I liked her a lot, and I wanted her to reach the bottom of the world.

To find out whether she does, you’ll have to read the book. It does have its darker moments. In Bolivia a fellow-rider crashes very badly; Pryce is appalled, and does everything she can to help. In Guatemala and Nicaragua she is the target of attempted scams. In Colombia she’s driven back into her hotel by predatory males. On two occasions she suffers sudden, violent stomach upsets that are graphically described; it’s funny, but it clearly wasn’t at the time. But there are also some very high points – the mountains of Canada and Ecuador, especially; the desert of Baja California; and warm encounters with other bikers along the way. In Quito she gets roped in to the Ecuadorian celebration for the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson, is mildly depressed by an encounter with Western backpackers and then gobsmacked by the Andes. In Peru the frontier guards give her water-melon, which she accidentally drops down her cleavage.

Lois on the Loose isn’t really a classic travel book as such. If you’re looking for shrewd observations on the countries, deep, meaningful cultural encounters, etc., you won’t find them here. In many places, she doesn’t even seem to have met the locals much. If you are expecting Colin Thubron or Paul Theroux, you may be disappointed. But I wasn’t. This is just a good yarn by a young woman having fun on the road. Pryce isn’t the solemn, committed type, and she’s making her trip, not a travel writer’s. In fact I wonder if she had a book in mind at all when she went.  

Pryce has been on the road since, riding from London to Cape Town – a journey she’s recounted in another book, Red Tape & White Knuckles. More recently she’s been riding in Iran. So far as I know she hasn’t made it to Wanka yet. But, you know, I rather think she will.

David Kroodsma’s latest adventures can be followed at and Lois Pryce’s at

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads
Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.

Friday, 8 April 2016

War tour: The incredible journey of Ève Curie

In 1943 Ève Curie's Journey Among Warriors nearly won a Pulitzer. But it has vanished; forgotten, and never reprinted. Why? It is one of the best pieces of reportage to come out of the Second World War

Early one morning in November 1941, a Pan-American Airlines Clipper flying-boat lay moored at New York's La Guardia, preparing for an historic flight. Outside, reporters gathered and photographers’ flashbulbs split the predawn darkness. The Cape Town Clipper was to pioneer a new route for PAA, to British-controlled West Africa. The flight was not secret, but its purpose was not explicit. Many of the 58 passengers were young men who were more often in uniform, while others were logistics experts. The British had set up an air route to ferry planes across Africa to the desert war. Now PAA was quietly helping the British and the neutral governments to strengthen it from the west.

Ève Curie in London in 1937
In the darkness inside the plane was a passenger PAA preferred to keep hidden, as she was not supposed to be there. “We will carry you to Nigeria,” she had been told, “but just try to forget how you got there.”  It had not been hard to arrange. This petite, charming woman was extremely well-connected. A few weeks earlier she had met the Roosevelts at the White House, and the year before she had dined with Churchill at Chequers. A little after five on the morning of November 10, she was escorted on board. Between now and February, she intended to go round the world. She carried all the luggage she was permitted: 29lb (about 13kg), including a brown silk dress, a typewriter and a book called Brush Up Your Russian

She would not get round the world. But she would visit almost every major front, and would write a book, Journey Among Warriors, that would narrowly miss a Pulitzer. Today it is mostly forgotten, yet it is a wonderful piece of writing that bears extraordinary witness to the war and to those who fought it.


Ève Curie was French, but was half-Polish; she spoke both languages. In November 1941 she was just short of her 37th birthday. Pictures and newsreels from the war years show her to have been slim and elegant, with striking dark eyes. Unlike her sister, Irène Joliot-Curie, she had never shown their famous mother Marie Curie’s aptitude for science. But as a child she had been a gifted pianist, such that Paderewski was impressed when she played for him aged six. As a young woman she gave concerts in Paris and elsewhere, but she does not appear to have felt herself good enough for a concert career. Instead she turned to journalism. After Marie Curie died in 1934, Ève wrote a biography of her that was extremely well-received and remains in print. By 1939 she was well-known in France and on the outbreak of war was co-opted into a senior post in the Ministry of Information.

Early in 1940 Curie visited the US, where she addressed audiences on France and the war. She seems to have made some impact, featuring on the cover of Time in February 1940. She then returned to France via Lisbon on another PAA flying boat (that time her luggage didn’t make it, being left on the quay by mistake; the moment she was told this was somehow captured by a Life photographer). She arrived back in Paris in June 1940 – and left again, this time in a hurry. Leaving Paris on June 11, Curie escaped from France a week later on board the P&O liner Madura, which had been diverted to pick up refugees from Bordeaux. She never wrote of this voyage so far as I know, but others did so; badly overloaded, the ship survived air attack and reached Falmouth two days later with about 1,400 refugees that included not only Curie but Baron Rothschild; also Hugh Carleton Greene and assorted other British journalists, some of whom had a bibulous voyage.*

One's luggage has been left behind (Bernard Hoffman/Life)
Curie spent some months in Britain, working with the Free French and also visiting the Free Poles, then returned to the United States. There was another lecture tour, and Eleanor Roosevelt gave a dinner at the White House in her honour. The woman who sat in the dark interior of the flying boat Cape Town Clipper in November 1941 was now an exile and a nomad, but she was a jolly well-connected one. She had been commissioned to write for the Herald Tribune and for a British group; she refers to the latter as Allied Newspapers, though in fact it was by then Kelmsley Newspapers. It included The Sunday Times and The Daily Sketch.

This intrusion of mine in the Anglo-Saxon press, the best in the world, impressed me frightfully,” she wrote. “For the first time, also, I was to attempt to write a book in English.... The water whistled under us and we took off. New York, the United States, vanished in the chilly mist.” Ève Curie’s Journey Among Warriors had begun.


The length and complexity of that journey are lost on us now. The regular JetBlue service from JFK to Bermuda takes two hours and nine minutes; from New York to Banjul is about nine and a half hours. Curie’s Clipper took five hours to Bermuda and would take three days to reach Bathurst, as Banjul was then known, via Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Belém and Natal. Nonetheless Curie expressed a sense of wonder at arriving in Bathurst just three days after leaving New York, and at the time she was not wrong.  The huge British Short flying boats had shrunk the Eastern hemisphere, the even bigger American Clippers the Western. 

In West Africa Curie found the British busy shrinking Africa. There was a desperate need for planes to reinforce the Middle Eastern front. Quite early in the war they had started to ferry planes across from West Africa, and by 1941 the Americans were also heavily involved in the logistics. In fact, reading this book, one realises that the United States was just barely neutral. Had it still been neutral when Journey Among Warriors was published, she would, one assumes, have been much less frank about what she saw.

Curie is also frank about the differing views of her American travelling companions. On the flying boat a young Californian pilot tells her that the administration was “muddling into this war against the will of the people, when America is not menaced. ...A war with Japan?” he sneers. “It is not in the interest of our good friends the English, so the English will see to it that it does not happen.” Other pilots and Pan American staff express a very different view. One comments that America must organize a full-scale war industry without being at war, and wonders if that is possible. In less than a month this debate would end with Pearl Harbor, which none of Curie’s companions could have foreseen. But history is written by events, and only a book like this can show you the world before they occurred.

She moves east across the continent, on a succession of planes. It is as she crosses Nigeria that she starts to use her descriptive skills. In Kano:

It was market day. ...We made our way slowly, cutting through the throng of black Mohammedans wearing white robes and flat fezzes, of black women draped in a splendid, dark blue material that they wove themselves ...The deep red mud houses of the native town, which dated back to the fifteenth century ... were so much like an African legend that it was difficult to believe they were true. The edges and corners of their flat roofs were bristling with sharp protuberances pointing to the sky, and complicated carvings ornamented some of the doors. It was all very rough, savage and virile – indeed beautiful.

Éboué with de Gaulle (Wikimedia Commons)
A European’s Africa. Later, the British Resident introduces Curie to a man she describes as “the local Emir”. It is explained to him that her parents had discovered “a thing called radium”, which was “very important in science and medicine”. She continues:  “The black ruler worded his courteous answer so that we should not gather whether he had, or had not, heard of radium before.” He was almost certainly Abdullahi Bayero, who had reigned since 1926 and had considerable autonomy, which he used to encourage industry in Kano. He had also, early in his reign, provided water and electricity across the city although the colonial administration regarded it as too expensive; in fact he made it pay for itself.  I think he had probably heard of radium.

Curie wonders how much the people of Kano know and understand about the war. She comments that educated Africans “were keenly aware – much more so than the Arabs – of what Hitler’s racial theories had in store for coloured people.” This is quite possible, but one wonders how she knew. But the fact is that in 1941 many Europeans would not have asked themselves these questions, or cared greatly about the answers. It is also clear that Curie has no time for the colour bar. It is a matter of pride for her that the Governor of the French colony of Chad, Félix Éboué, is black, born in Martinique, she says (wrongly; he was born in French Guiana). It is because Éboué has declared for de Gaulle that the crucial air route was possible; had he sided with Vichy, it could not have crossed Chad. Curie does not meet Éboué, and sadly he would die of a heart attack in Cairo not long after Journey Among Warriors was published.


Curie pushes on across the desert with BOAC, the forerunner to British Airways, arriving eventually in in Cairo soon after the beginning of Operation Crusader, Auchinleck’s offensive against Rommel, which had begun on November 18 and appeared to be going well. Curie wanted to go to the front and see the fighting. “No woman,” she writes, “foreign or British, had ever been allowed in the Western Desert so far ...the military men to whom I spoke did not seem to think that to send me to the front was the most urgent war measure that ought to be taken.”  They might have been right.  

However, as always, Curie is well-connected. She is staying with diplomat Michael Wright, who has been a friend when  posted in Paris, and who she describes as “now secretary at the British Embassy in Cairo” (actually he was First Secretary and would later, as Sir Michael Wright, serve as ambassador to Iraq).  She also had “off the record” talks with a number of “the great and the good”, including Air Marshal Tedder, who commanded the RAF in the Middle East;  Sir Walter Monckton, a future Minister of Defence who was head of propaganda in Cairo; and Oliver Lyttleton, Minister of State in the Middle East. “In the preceding twelve hours,” she writes, quite a few obstacles to my trip had been levelled.”  She is told Randolph Churchill, the Prime Minister’s son, will pick her up at seven. “Now remember,” says Lyttleton at dinner, “I have not heard that you are going to the desert tomorrow.”  One wonders how the old-fashioned war correspondents feel about this. Moreover, while Curie is never afraid to be near the fighting, she does not always seem to think too hard whether she might cause complications there. This was especially so in the desert, where the situation could change rapidly in a few hours – as she and Churchill would soon find; Operation Crusader has stumbled somewhat, and communiques describe the situation as “confused” as both sides used armoured columns to probe each other’s defences.

Every group of men we met ...had the same story to tell ...It amounted to: “There was a battle of tanks. The Germans crashed through our formations. We got lost.” Then, invariably, the men asked us how they could return to their unit.  ...We did not even know our own way.

On a sandy airstrip in the middle of nowhere Curie interviews young pilots as they leap out of their Hurricanes and Tomahawks. “One could see that their guns had been used. The men were gay and excited, also tired, somewhat out of breath. They looked like jockeys after a winning race.” She cannot get them to take themselves seriously, and seems to like them for it. There is some surprise at seeing a woman in the desert. A Polish pilot standing beside his Hurricane is even more surprised to be addressed in Polish, then announces he has read her book. A German pilot who has been taken prisoner is puzzled that she is French.  “He turned toward me and said severely: ...”May I know what Marshal Pétain would think of a Frenchwoman being here with the British? He would not be too pleased, I suppose!”

The Free French are a recurring theme in this book. Curie clearly prefers them to the British; but they were, after all, her people, and she was in exile. They were also a reminder that the humiliation of the surrender had not been total, because some Frenchmen had decided to fight on. When she talks of the Allied invasion of Syria, the fact that British forces were also involved is hardly mentioned, but perhaps she can be excused for that; the Free French had to shoot at other Frenchmen. But some British soldiers will also have found that hard. John Verney, who took part in the invasion as part of a Yeomanry regiment, later wrote that he only cried once in the war, after a bad day’s fighting in Syria.

Curie and her party emerge unscathed from the desert; the only casualty is Randolph Churchill’s silver whisky flask, crushed by someone’s typewriter. It would perhaps have helped had this happened more often in his life. (Curie mentions that only the unexpected presence of Auchinleck could shut him up.) By this stage of the book one is getting a better picture of Curie. It is a mixed one. She shows a touch of French chauvinism, yet also has great  charm and poise that she clearly uses, along with a massive social network, to get help from the English who (at least collectively) she does not really like. But she is also shrewd, and, although writing in wartime, honest; she is quite frank about the Allies’ problems with the Arabs, for example. In fact her political antennae seem unusually sharp. Moreover she clearly has some quite serious balls. To be sure, she pulled strings to get into the desert, but her drive to see the war, and to share its discomforts, was real. As for the bulging contact book, it would have been useless without enterprise. She shows this in her next port of call – Tehran, where she meets the new ruler of Iran.


In December 1941 Tehran (Curie spells it Teheran) was a very strange place. It was neutral, but pro-German rumblings, and the need to open a supply route to Russia, had led the British to invade it in August. In this they had the help of their new Soviet allies, who took over the north-west of the country. In the process the British deposed and deported the ruler of Iran, who had come to power in 1921 and had himself made monarch, or Shah, in 1925. His 21-year-old son was placed on the throne in his stead. Iran found itself under much the same position as Egypt: nominally independent and neutral, but under the thumb of the British, and humiliated. A few weeks later the Ambassador in Egypt, Sir Miles Lampson, with whom Curie had lately lunched in Cairo, would force King Farouk (the young Shah's brother-in-law) virtually at gunpoint to dismiss his government. These are incidents that the British have forgotten; the Egyptians and Iranians have not. But they paved the way for much that has followed since.

Curie was not the first Allied journalist to interview the new Shah; in fact not the first woman journalist. That had been the gutsy English reporter Clare Hollingworth, who in 1939 had been the first to report that the Germans were about to invade Poland. Hollingworth had interviewed the young Shah very soon after the invasion the previous August. She seems to have got little from him, not least because he then spoke no English; he had been educated in French. Curie does seem to have warmed to him, perhaps for that reason:

...a tall, thin boy of twenty-two, clad in a pale green officer’s uniform. He had black, curly hair, thick eyebrows. In his handsome face, the eyes were very dark, sensitive and proud, the features sharp, the nose high-bridged. The Sovereign of Iran [was] as graceful as the oriental princes about whom I had read when I was a child.

The Shah with Queen Fawziah (Imperial War Museum/Cecil Beaton)
Curie finds the young Shah unsure of himself: “He often left a sentence in suspense, as though he found it unwise to express his whole thought about a subject about which he felt strongly.” He had, says Curie, just gone through a disturbing chain of events, being dragged onto the throne by the British on the same day that they sent his father, who he admired, into exile in Mauritius. Curie senses strongly how upset the new Shah still is about this. One wonders if anyone else did. The quiet young man who has been educated in Switzerland has found himself nominally in charge of a country that was in reality occupied by two ruthless empires. At one point he asks Curie what the world thinks of Iran’s “non-resistance” to the invading powers (in fact there has been a little limited resistance). “I was almost sure to make a blunder, whatever I answered,” writes Curie. She answers sincerely that her own country is overrun by Germans and that she would be delighted to have the Allies there temporarily instead, just as they now occupied Iran. The Shah accepts this eagerly, saying that it has been to avoid “the fate of countries doomed by Hitler” that Iran has accepted “the present arrangement”. It is a revealing interview; as with so much in this book, Curie seems to perceive the future implications of what she hears and sees in ways that others perhaps do not.

In one respect, the Shah does disappoint Curie. “It was amazing,” she writes, “to come all the way to Iran, a country of glamour, of legends, and to be received by the Shah in a dull office that could just as well have been located in the Rockefeller Center.” In this, Clare Hollingworth had fared better. The shah had “welcomed me in a small study ...where he had a range of bound books on military history and strategy.” Invited to stay to lunch, she “rather cheekily compared the ‘flash’ entrance hall of the palace to a Lyon’s Corner House.” The Shah takes this as a compliment and later asks her if she really thinks it is that good. Hollingworth would see the Shah change, for she would interview him again several times, in Tehran and finally in Marrakesh in 1979 after he, too had been sent into exile.  Yet there is something poignant about Ève Curie’s description of a young man adrift in a new world that foreshadows the struggle he would have to make sense of it.


But Curie does not intend to stay in Tehran. She has an appointment in Samara.

The central Russian city of Samara had since 1935 been known as Kuybyshev, in memory of an old revolutionary who had died that year, although probably not accidentally. Since October it has been the administrative capital of the Soviet Union; the embassies, government departments and much of Moscow’s industry have been evacuated there as the Germans surround Moscow (where Stalin has remained). A Russian-crewed DC3 is said to travel between Kuybyshev and Tehran, but Curie’s foreign friends assure her it is semi-mythical. After several weeks’ wait she is summoned to the airport, to the jeers of fellow-guests at her hotel, who assure her she will be back for lunch. She is not.

It is about 1,750 miles (over 2,800km) from Tehran, and it is the depths of winter. After an overnight stop in Baku (where Curie joins the locals for a well-attended opera), the plane pushes north via Astrakhan, and the temperature starts to drop. It can be below -40 deg F/-40 deg C in Kuybyshev in January; Curie is going to experience that in a hotel room with no heating. But she will also see what it means to fight a war in this weather. Just to keep machinery going is hard, and the crew must drain the oil from the engines at night, heat it and pour it back warm in the morning; charcoal stoves burn under the engines to stop them freezing. Coal stoves are used in the ambulances that bring wounded soldiers from the front. It is in Russia that Curie’s writing starts to reach heights that mark Journey Among Warriors as one of the greatest war books of all time, and for the rest of the book, the standard never drops.  

Lepeshinskaya in Don Quixote, 1940 (Wikimedia Commons)
It is clear to her that that the USSR is engaged in total war.  In a hospital she meets General Timofev Korniev, who has been badly wounded in the defence of Smolensk. Asked what he regards as the most important factor in resisting invasion, he cites the cooperation of civiliansand the fact that he could give orders to them too. Curie meets, too, the USSR’s preeminent ballerina, Olga Lepeshinskaya, who is also mobilized; she is secretary of the Anti-fascist Youth Committee. Beautiful, committed, urgent, she tells Curie, “I am twenty-five – about the age of the Soviet regime.  I am a daughter of the October Revolution I have never known anything else than the fight of the Russian people against capitalism and fascism.” One wonders if Curie gulps a little at this, but she accepts an invitation to a children’s party, where Lepeshinskaya will dance for the young evacuees:

She wore a short white tunic, white and supple, and had a red flower in her hair. She looked herself like a happy child. ...The floor was rough, the spotlights were all wrong, and the accompaniment ...of the poorest sort. Lepeshinskaya did not seem to care. ...She danced the most difficult steps with a delighted smile, if she felt like leaping higher and whirling much faster still. She was a skilled virtuoso, and she was Youth herself.

The next morning Curie leaves for Moscow.


As always, Curie wanted to reach the front. No-one from the Press Corps had, and in Russia her society links were of little use to her. But the name Marie Curie was. On January 15 1942 her daughter Ève and her Russian companions drive out of Moscow in search of the fighting. This had come very close to Moscow in December, but the Germans were ill-equipped for winter and had been driven back by a determined counter-offensive.The Red Army was now hoping to retake Mozhaisk, about 70 miles west of the city. Its strategic position on the east-west highway meant that this would end the battle for Moscow.

Curie records a mass of evocative detail. There are the destroyed houses of which only the stove and chimney remain; there are soldiers on skis, stranded tanks, the skeleton of a crashed plane, men fishing for mines. Destroyed bridges are being replaced with wooden ones that the engineers throw together with manic speed, using tree-trunks hauled by peasants. German corpses lie scattered in the snow (Curie takes a close look at a few, but is warned not to touch them; they are sometimes mined). The destruction left by the retreating Germans appalls Curie. In one town of nine thousand people, Istra, just three houses are left standing. People from the town tell Curie that the Germans had forced them into the centre of the town as targets for the Russian shelling, and then lobbed grenades into the houses on their way out. In Volokolokamsk, 80 miles from Moscow, the Germans have burned the monastery, the School of Agriculture and the children’s hospital. Late in January Mozhaisk does fall, and Curie enters it soon afterwards. The first person she meets is a wailing young girl who tells her that the Germans had driven two hundred people into the cathedral and blown it up. The general in charge, one Leonid A. Govorov, confirms to Curie that this has occurred.

I can’t find any reference to this incident. But that does not mean it did not happen. Certainly Govorov was real enough (he would eventually take charge of the Leningrad Front, and finished the war as a Marshal of the Soviet Union).  Maybe the dead of Mozhaisk were, in the end, part of a catalogue of destruction so long that some items have been lost in the intervening years. In general, Curie seems reliable. To be sure, she had no love of the Germans. But crude propaganda was not for her, and she wasn’t afraid to argue with her Soviet hosts about politics. The Russian passages, like the rest of the book, have a ring of truth.

But there is a curious coda to her trip to the front. Near Volokolokamsk she interviews one Major General A.A. Vlasov, “one of the young army leaders whose fame was rapidly growing the USSR.”  Vlasov hasn’t slept for five days but is hospitable and enthusiastic, showing Curie some of the regimental emblems and Iron Crosses that his men have captured, and gifts sent to him by the admiring people of the USSR – including an inscribed wristwatch.  Then he takes a large map and a pencil and shows Curie how the campaign has been fought.  Curie is impressed:

There was something very stimulating in talking with this energetic man, completely obsessed by his hard job. ...He kept muttering: “Everybody, everybody, must fight the fascists.”  Here was a man who waged war with something more than determination, something more than courage: he waged it with passion.

Vlasov with Himmler, 1943
But Vlasov was to go over to the Fascists. Captured in July 1942, he changed sides in captivity and by the time Journey Among Warriors was published in 1943, he had already written a pamphlet describing his reasons for joining the fight against Bolshevism. Later he would try to recruit an army from Soviet prisoners – with limited success, for the German high command never really trusted him. At war’s end he was arrested by the Red Army near Dresden; tried the following year, he was hung on August 1 1946. Vlasov’s treachery was to become notorious, but it is possible that Curie did not yet know of it in 1943. She was later to say that he was not the same Vlasov she had met near Volokolokamsk. But he was. So it is hard to know if she was being disingenuous, or whether she sincerely believed that the two men could not possibly be the same. My guess is the latter.

For the most part, though, Curie is not credulous. She admires the Soviet war effort but has not forgotten the Nazi-Soviet pact, and reminds her hosts of it now and then. And she has not forgotten the Poles. In Kuybyshev she spends time with the Polish ambassador, who is trying to find out what has happened to a staggering one million Poles who are believed to be in the USSR. They are no longer its enemies, and are now supposed to be set free or allowed to join one of the new Polish units training in Russia under the Polish General Anders.

Nobody said much. In Russia, amid the resuscitated Poles, I was learning an unusual kind of restraint. Men who had suffered extreme hardships ...[and] had chosen to join their former jailers in the struggle against Germany ...felt they were the best judges of what the ...attitude towards Russia should be.

Curie does not mention the Katyn massacre of 1940, when the Soviets murdered thousands of Polish prisoners of war. But it was not widely known of in 1942 (a neutral mission would go to Katyn at the instigation of the Germans the following year). She does know, however, that there are Poles scattered in towns and camps all over Siberia. The Soviets say they cannot help locate them all because they have simply lost track of them. Unbelievably, this seems to have been true; Curie meets a young man attached to the Embassy who wanders round isolated towns with a Polish eagle on his coat, finding Poles in rags everywhere, and making them help him find more.


From victory Curie goes to defeat. The British and their allies will win the war in Burma in the end, but in February 1942 they are retreating, and will soon lose the entire country.

Burmese refugees flee north, 1942 (Imperial War Museum)
Curie flies on a Chinese airliner to Lashio in the Northern Shan States, and then battles her way south by train and car towards the advancing Japanese against the tide of humanity fleeing in the opposite direction. In Rangoon (now Yangon) she finds quiet panic. Nothing works; shops are closed and the hotel staff have fled. The roads are crowded with refugees. She pushes onto the front with an Indian liaison officer, and interviews exhausted soldiers five miles from the fighting. A young British officer politely offers her tea, insisting that she have another biscuit. They are surrounded by teak trees, and an overwhelming silence. She returns to Rangoon, where the British governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, insists they plan to hold the city. But Curie has been in France in 1940 and can smell defeat. Rangoon falls three weeks later.

She is not polite about the British in Burma. “They did not, like the Russians, face the most appalling battles with an insane determination to win. They fought, and gave their lives, with something like resignation,” she says.  One wonders if she misunderstood something here. If he knows he must die, a Russian blesses the Fatherland; an Englishman returns his library books. But she may have been right about the civilians in the East, who she thought did not understand how the world, and their own country, had changed. In particular, she notes the colour bar. It distresses her Indian liaison officer, a volunteer who is committed to Allied victory but does not understand why he can’t go into a restaurant with a white man. As Norman Mailer was to write years later, British snobbery was forever building empires, then buggering them. At the same time, however, Curie seems bemused to find that Mr Porter, the Commissioner for the Shan States, who is her host in Lashio, is half-Burmese. (This will have been Arthur William Porter. He has been made an OBE some years earlier, though Curie won’t have known that. Sadly history records little else of him.)

The collapse in Burma has been very bad luck for a major ally, China. In April Lashio will fall, cutting the 700-mile Burma Road that linked it with Kunming in Yunnan. It also opens another front where Chinese troops will have to fight. They have in fact been fighting since 1937.

Madam Chiang returns to Wellesley, 1943
As Beijing (then known in the West as Peking) fell early on, the provisional capital is in Chongqing (again, then known as Chungking). Curie flies there from Lashio, again on China National Airways.  As usual, she meets everybody. Now China at last has friends in the war, but they have disappointed her, and Curie hears rude things said of Pearl Harbor, Burma and Singapore. She also meets Chiang Kai-Shek and Chou En-Lai. Yet it is not her interviews with them that are memorable – or even her meeting with Madam Chiang (Soong Mei-ling), who, intriguingly, is very American and has been educated at Wellesley, graduating from it 52 years before Hillary Clinton, who she seems to have resembled.

What is striking about Curie’s chapters on China is, first of all, her descriptive powers, evident in her picture of Chongqing, a very different city from the modern metropolis of 18.4 million. The second is Curie’s acute sense of the future. A prominent Chinese businessman takes her to see China’s one and only Bessemer converter in action.

Both the workers and the engineers were obviously thrilled when ...the one and only Bessemer converter poured dazzling white steel, as fluid as milk ...The men who handled the containers full of liquid metal were barefoot ...They wore dirty shirts or overalls and, for some unknown reason, round straw hats. To be sure, they did not go about their job with the routine precision that was the rule at Detroit or Birmingham. Yet the work was being done. Steel was actually being produced.

As I write this, the last British blast furnace is about to be shut down and Chinese steel is glutting the world markets. But Curie would not have been surprised. “This was a solemn moment in the history of Free China,” says Curie, and goes on to wonder whether the Chinese would “make the jump from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century without breaking their necks, ...or whether they definitely needed a transition period.”  

For the moment, an older China holds sway. On a visit to a military academy in Chengtu, she is told that it does have some tanks, “behind the dispensary”. On the way back the car breaks down in the countryside. In search of food, she walks to a mud house where she finds “a half-crippled woman with a frightening face; one of her eyes was enormous, entirely red and blind. She looked like a Cyclops in a fairy tale.” The party stop overnight in a village where she sleeps on a “bamboo mat in a wretched hovel ...For some unknown reason a dead squirrel was hanging on the door handle. When I first grabbed it in the dark, I did not find this a very exciting welcome.”


But the next chapter opens with Curie staying in the colonial splendour of Government House, Calcutta. It was once the residence of the Viceroy; the capital had moved some years before to Delhi, but it was still the home of the Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, of whom she was a guest. There are no dead squirrels here.

The last 100 pages of this long book are amongst the most extraordinary, and of the most interest to an historian. Up to now, Curie has given us vivid descriptions of the fighting fronts, their hinterlands and the swarm of soldiers, technicians and engineers united in the war on fascism. But although she has met many people of importance, they have not always told her much; or more likely they have, but it has been in confidence. India is different. In Delhi, a week or two hence, she will alternate between the residences of the current Viceroy, the Marquess of Linlithgow, and the Commander in Chief of the Asian theatre, General Wavell.

Linlithgow she describes as: “A tall man, with long arms, long legs, and a remarkably long head.” She finds him modest and shy. History has not been kind to Linlithgow; he is remembered for bringing India into the Second World War without consulting Indian politicians (he was not obliged to join the war; the Raj was a separate entity under the Crown). He is also remembered for his failure to respond adequately to the appalling Bengal famine of 1943. It is said that he had been exhausted by his long tenure as Viceroy and had already asked to be released. But Curie will have known nothing of this. In any case, she devotes more space to Wavell, who will eventually succeed Linlithgow and will be the last real Viceroy. As such, he will start by taking more vigorous action to address the famine (which nonetheless is to cost millions of lives).  But he will also struggle to find common ground with the Indian leaders and, even more, between them. For the moment, however, that lies in the future. For now, Wavell’s problems are solely military.

Wavell as Viceroy (Imperial War Museum)
Wavell has a reputation for taciturnity, but Curie finds that when he does speak, he is frank and sometimes very charming. She does not mention that he also writes poetry (he will later edit an anthology of other people’s). Neither does she mention that he has recently suffered a serious back injury; an odd omission – it had occurred while he was boarding a flying boat at Singapore a few days before it fell. But she clearly likes Wavell, and history suggests that she is right.

However, Curie is in the unique position of being able to talk not only to the British high command but to the leaders of the Indian independence movement. In view of this, Curie’s portrait of them is of enduring interest. It is “easy to get to see Jawaharlal Nehru, because he was utterly natural and simple and because he liked people.”

How did Nehru look? Like a handsome prince in a fairy tale. ...He was clad in graceful Indian clothes ...He was slim and rather short.  ...What made him unforgettable was not only that he had dark, beautiful eyes and regular features. It was that, on his very pale and sensitive face, one could almost read his thoughts and guess what his mood was: gay or gloomy. His was a romantic face; also a witty one. It changed quickly, like the sky on a windy day.

Curie stays with Nehru in Allahabad. The family is immersed in preparations for Nehru’s daughter’s wedding. Curie does talk to her, briefly; one wonders what she might have asked Indira had she known that she would one day be the most powerful woman on earth. However, her extensive conversations with Nehru are riveting. In particular, Nehru is, in many ways, an upper-class Englishman; yet he is fighting an emotional battle for India’s separation. Yet it is clear that Nehru is himself very aware of this paradox and even amused by it. Also, he does not reduce imperialism to the idea of Empire; the concept of economic imperialism, as practised by the United States, is quite clear to him. Neither has he any illusions about the nature of Japanese imperialism. It is clear that Curie likes Nehru, and again, one feels that she is right.

Cripps with Gandhi (Imperial War Museum)
Curie comes to Delhi at a crucial juncture in India’s history: Sir Stafford Cripps is bringing a set of proposals for the country’s leaders. Although she doesn’t find out until later, they are an explicit statement of intent that India will become independent at the end of hostilities, and that although she will have Dominion status like Canada or Australia, she will be able to modify that if she chooses. Curie has the curious task of interviewing Jinnah and Gandhi when they know the contents of the proposals, and she does not (the Indian leaders will eventually reject them). With Jinnah, the conversation is one-way. That with Gandhi is far more interesting. He is welcoming and thoughtful. Curie presses him hard on his doctrine of non-violence. His response is courteous and shows great internal logic, yet seems, to her, ultimately sterile:

I mentioned ...the Poles who, by their heroism on countless battlefields, kept their invaded country alive – the Poles who had even accepted to fight at the side of the Russians, their former oppressors, in order to liberate their fatherland. ...He dismissed the Poles, not without disdain, by saying: ‘They are a race of fighters who have not the slightest notion of what a philosophy such as non-violence consists of. To fight is their only way of expressing themselves.”

To Curie, who was half-Polish, this must have struck a rotten note. She urges Gandhi to accept that non-violence will not protect India from invasion. He replies – one suspects, with a certain hauteur – that the Japanese would be no worse than the British. It is an attitude that Curie finds infuriating amongst Indian leaders. They have, she reflects, a relatively free press. They are also able to take part in politics; the British had by then introduced elections and limited self-government in most of India. Curie is not uncritical of the Raj, pointing to the medieval poverty that existed within its borders. It also seems clear that, in the long run, her sympathies lie with independence. But when she hears Indians say that British, Japanese and German oppression are the same, she is appalled. She notes that she is able to buy “two or three vitriolic volumes denouncing the sins of the British imperialists” in a bookshop, from an English clerk.


This long, final part of Journey Among Warriors that deals with India is fascinating, even compulsive, reading. It is especially so when Curie writes of Wavell, Gandhi and Nehru, air-raid drills in Calcutta, old-school expats mouldering in their clubs while other, younger men have come from Britain to forge weapons of war. Why has this book been neglected by historians?

Journey Among Warriors was published in 1943, in British and American editions. It attracted some interest, and Curie was in contention for a Pulitzer, but was beaten by the American war correspondent Ernie Pyle. The book was not reprinted after the war, apart from a French edition in 1947. It has since vanished.

Perhaps readers would find it a strange book now; the modern style of travel writing is as much about the writer as their environment, a sort of confessional. Curie belonged to a less self-indulgent age. And yet she is there in the book if you look for her. Now and then one is reminded how she must have felt. In Kaduna, Nigeria:

Suddenly, I felt very much alone among all these Englishmen. The frame of British life was universal and immense. All over the world, an Englishman could meet other Englishmen who shared his own ideas and habits, possibly his prejudices, who spoke the same language as he, with the same instinctive affectations, and who, most probably, knew one of his cousins or his brother-in-law.

Meanwhile Curie had been stripped of her citizenship (and her flat) by the Vichy government in May 1941. She had no idea when, or even if, she would return to France. She could take little pleasure in the splendour that sometimes surrounded her. On the mountainous Trans-Iranian railway: “A fringe of countless black sheep edged for an instant, against the dazzling sky, the silhouette of a steep rocky hill. Spring was there already – another war spring – and to me this was strangely sad and pathetic.” Travelling from Lashio to Mandalay, she is dazzled by the beauty of Burma: “Only the road told us of the retreat ...On both sides of us, defiantly spread under our eyes, was the most beautiful country in the world, which the war affected in no way and which knew nothing of our feuds. ...We passed silvery rice fields, then a swift river with jade-green waters.” In Lashio, soon to fall to the enemy, she has breakfast on the porch of Porter’s residence, the bright sun lighting the green hills around and the garden full of “red, exotic flowers ...It was one of those radiant mornings which seem to be the negation of everything cruel and gloomy.” Yet her job “constantly compelled me to leave the pleasant spots of the world order to get to the ones where there was trouble.” In Allahabad she rests on the veranda of Nehru’s house, hearing the wedding preparations around her, and realises that, for the first time in months, she is in a real home. But this too she must leave.

Hermione Ranfurly, who met Curie in Algiers later in the war, describes her in To War with Whitaker as extremely intelligent, multilingual with perfect English, and also very pretty, but “rather serious”. The pictures and newsreels confirm that Curie was very attractive, and her English was indeed near-perfect. Mlle Curie was soigné, elegant, self-possessed, charming, and extremely well-connected, but also, one suspects, self-contained. She had many friends but was also alone, France and family lost, travelling the world like a restless spirit. One imagines her at dinner with the Minister of State or the Viceroy or the Commander-in-Chief or Randolph Churchill, the latter braying at someone to pass the salt; and suddenly one knows that sometimes, when no-one was looking, her gaze would fix itself on a wall or a painting, and she would not be there.

Early in Journey Among Warriors Curie is in the desert with Churchill and a “lean, good-looking” officer approaches:

He said: ‘Don’t you remember? We dined together in Paris, at Vera M---’s, and she gave us heaps of caviar.’ ...Several times, in the desert, it so happened that I ...heard a refined, slightly affected voice say to me: “How very nice to see you here! We haven’t met since that luncheon at the Ritz’ ...Somehow, I felt that the Ritz, and the occasional caviar, and everything pleasantly artificial  ...on both sides of the Channel, had very logically led us all here – to this bare land where the steel monsters, methodically built for years by the Germans, were now trying to take our lives.

Curie was finished with caviar. By the time Journey Among Warriors was published, she had joined the Free French army. When Ranfurly met her in Algiers, she was a lieutenant in the medical corps, and had served in Italy. In 1944 she was awarded the Croix de Guerre. After the war she worked in journalism in France and later as special assistant to the first Secretary-General of NATO, Lord Ismay. In 1954, now nearly 50, she married American diplomat Henry Labouisse, who became head of UNWRA and later UNICEF, a post he held until 1979. During his tenure Curie devoted herself to travelling and working for UNICEF, an organization with which she had already been involved, and to which she showed enormous commitment. Labouisse died in 1987. Curie, however, lived to be a very old woman indeed. In December 2004 she celebrated her 100th birthday, an occasion marked by a visit to her New York flat by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.The following year she was made an Officer of the Légion d’Honneur in a ceremony at UNICEF House.

Among her many achievements, Curie left behind two books. One, her biography of her mother, is in print to this day. (There is also apparently now a biography of Ève herself, though so far in French only**). But Journey Among Warriors has vanished, forgotten, never reprinted. Why? It is one of the most extraordinary pieces of reportage to come out of the Second World War.

Ève Denise Curie Labouisse died in New York on October 22 2007, six weeks short of her 103rd birthday. She had lived an immensely full life; concert pianist, journalist, socialite, war correspondent, public servant and diplomat. She had much to remember. But one wonders if, towards the end, she thought sometimes of the long journey by flying boat, the cold night in the Western Desert, the grandeur of the Viceregal residence, or the booby-trapped dead Germans in the snow; or of late nights talking with Wavell or Nehru; arguing with Gandhi; the silence of the teak forests; or the red, exotic flowers in a garden where she sat wishing she could enjoy them, if only the war would end.

* According to Daphne Wall, who as a child was amongst the English refugees on board (Wall, D.: The World I Lost: A Memoir of Peace and War, 2014).

** Monteil, Claudine: Eve Curie: L'autre fille de Pierre et Marie Curie, Odile Jacob, 2016. As previous books by Monteil, a feminist intellectual and diplomat, have been published in English, one hopes that this will be too.

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Mike Robbins's own collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.