The Art of Exile: A Vagabond Life

Patricia Cleveland-Peck reviews the latest book by John Freely

When I read on the flap of this book the author had spent his childhood on the man streets of Brooklyn scavenging for junk to sell, my heart sank – especially when I learned that John Freely came from an Irish Catholic background, for wasn’t it Frank McCourt who wrote, “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood?”

If however, I imagined this was going to be yet another misery memoir, I couldn’t have been more wrong. John tells of his life factually without dwelling on difficulties or exhibiting any self pity and his success, achieved solely by his own effort, is only made more triumphant by the fact that his childhood and youth were so hard. Hard, but not bad, for his family were close and loving and he inherited from them some good writing and story-telling genes. The book is in fact a testimony to what can be attained with a good brain.

John’s grandfather was born and lived a frugal life on the Dingle Peninsular in County Kerry where he and his wife, the more educated Mary Ashe, raised 11 children on a small croft. The author’s mother Peg, one of the six girls and also a book lover, eventually got a job in Foley’s Pub at Inch (a place still there and not unknown to me as I have made several happy visits to this part of Kerry.) Perhaps because I love the area I found this section of the book very absorbing. That all but one of the 11 children emigrated to America, did however bring home to me the fact that however lovely the landscape, it had little to offer the inhabitants by way of sustenance. The Irish population halved in just one decade.

Peg met her husband John in Boston and they married and had baby John in 1926. They soon left for New York where they did not find the streets paved with gold, especially after John lost his job. Peg then decided to return to Ireland, the first of several trips she made back and forth: if John found work Peg and the children would return to the US, if he lost his job ( and he often did – he was a drinker) they set off again for Ireland. I was struck how nowadays, crossing the Atlantic even by the cheapest route would be too expensive for anyone as hard up, yet the $40 adult fare was somehow found by those immigrants desperate enough to prefer to suffer poverty within the bosom of their families than to live penniless amongst strangers.

It was when the author was six yeas old that he first remembers making such a trip ( in fact I was his fourth) and he recounts with seemingly total recall his visit to Kerry. It was there that after his grandmother Mary had taught him to read, he found a book in the attic which exerted a strong influence on him. A Pictorial Journey Around the World had apparently been bought by Mary’s father, his great grandfather, in Constantinople. He, Thomas Ashe had found himself there after being wounded at Sebastopol and being nursed by Florence Nightingale. From that moment world travel and Constantinople became the stuff of dreams for John.

He received a basic Catholic education and finished top of the class but the family were always struggling and he had to take part time jobs including the junk scavenging to add a little to the coffers. Eventually he got a job in a condom factory while studying part-time at college. Here he read the second book which influenced him for the rest of his life, The Odyssey. The other subjects did not interest him as by this time the war was in progress and he was keen to join the navy – which he did at the age of 17.

Thus began his travelling life as his ship sailed for China via Australia and Calcutta and it was on board that the third influential milestone in his education was reached when the Catholic chaplain Father Ryan gave him the catalogue of the Great Books Programme which he himself had studied at college. This, beginning with The Iliad and ending with Ulysses, is what John worked his way through over the next few years.

After numerous exciting and harrowing wartime adventures for which he was decorated with medals and stars, John found a place in a Catholic university studying physics paid for by the G.I Bill, under a scheme for ex-servicemen. A week later he met and fell in love with the girl, Dolores, known as Toots, with whom he was to spend the rest of his life.

They both had dreams of being world travellers and even made a blood pact that they would do so at some stage. After John’s graduation he started work as a Civil Service scientist and they were able to marry. His work went well – he made a discovery in electron physics and was offered a job at Princeton doing secret work – surely something amazing considering his start in life. Then, no sooner had he received his doctorate than he learned that an American college on the Bosporus was looking for staff. Thus began the personal Odyssey of John, Toots and their children.

Based in Istanbul where John now aged 90 still lives, he Toots and their three children Maureen ( Yes, Maureen Freely the novelist and translator of my favourite Istanbul writer Orhan Pamuk – though the penny didn’t drop until toward the end of the book) Eileen and Brendan travelled extensively throughout Europe, the Near East and then farther afield. They took in and explored the history and culture and John honed his writing skills so that upon retirement he busied himself writing best- selling travel guides, some 32 of them.

This book is subtitled A Vagabond Life but John and Toots were neither vagabonds nor hippies but well -paid employees of academia (not that this meant that they didn’t frequently run out of money on their trips) who made best use of their vacations. John writes of their experiences very well, threading classical and literary quotes and allusions about the places they visit though the informative text.

Not everything is perfect – at times he gives the reader far too much information. Do we really need to know not only the names of all his colleagues but also the names of their children? (Although he has the discretion not to name the couple his children described as, “very dull” when they were being looked after by them…)

As I discovered at the outset John is positive and optimistic. Even when recovering from a stroke scare, he slips over by a wet well-head in Venice and breaks his leg badly he is joking when the medics who come to help him both slip over at the same slimy spot – and of course he carries on writing his guide book on Venice while in hospital. There is some sadness in his life, he loses his parents and his son Brendan suffers a mental breakdown but it is not until the death of his beloved Toots – his own Penelope – that one senses that although not much is said, a great deal is felt.

At one point after his hospital stay John was relieved that his memory was still good, because as he says, “my brain is my only resource…” Such a resource especially if equipped with such a prodigious memory is something rare. It enabled John to succeed professionally and fulfil his wish to many amazing journeys. Journeys on which I accompanied him with pleasure via the pages of this book. It also resulted in my re-reading The Odyssey – something I am sure no other book could have done.

Published by I.B Tauris – RRP £20.00