The Reading Room

Michael Ross’ People of the Mirage

Michael Ross’ journey across the Sahara in 1951..

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Retroculturati loves vintage travel books. They must, however, meet a certain criteria before admittance to the library shelves. Firstly, they must have been written no earlier than the 1930s and no later than the 1970s. Second, they must detail interesting aspects of travel, be it to the destination or during it. The illustrations are key here, either or, pencil sketches and those wonderful, deeply saturated colour prints pre 70s. Nothing of the modern era captures the imagination of a travel hungry young mind as they did. I know, I was that boy.

In 1951 the author and artist, Michael Ross travelled across the Sahara with two friends, one of whom was Ivor Bulmer-Thomas who lost his Parliamentary seat the year before and so decided to take up the journey. Bulmer-Thomas was quite a figure, renowned in later years for his tireless campaign to stop churches falling into disuse he  enjoyed a considerable and varied career. Information on Ross is harder to obtain, the journey across the dessert was not especially spectacular in itself but garnered enough attention for it to be forever associated with Bulmer-Thomas.

What makes this book so special is the writing and illustrations by Ross, the writing style is clearly of its time and unmistakably English in style. Reading it one can imagine Ross speaking at a lecture with a slideshow of his drawings of which there are many.

The book serves as a useful guide to life as it was in Sub-Saharan Africa in the early fifties and Ross was very keen to show the reader how the women in particular dressed and detailed aspects of their daily nomadic or tribal lives.

Below is an illustration of one of the narrow streets off the Medina in Fez, on the Barbary Coast. He writes: “We arrived in the late evening, when the smoke of innumerable wood fires was forming a pale blue haze over the ancient Medina, and in the distance the snow-capped Atlas mountains were still bright above the shadowed valley”

mr-oneHe clearly enjoyed drawing the women of Dakar as there are several towards the end of the book, he explains the difference between the younger women and their older relations; “As young women, these Negresses frequently have beautiful figures and carry themselves superbly, but the older women are inclined to stoutness, and often wear voluminous, billowing one-piece robes which exaggerate their girth.”

In Niamey they found the natives to be “some of the cleanest in Africa”, depicting scenes of a busy river bank where the women of the tribe “devout their lives to the career of water-carrying”

The men are shown in striking but entirely practical garments, the young man holding a spear was a guide from the Asker Touareg tribe who accompanied Ross on earlier trips.

It is a charming read, one which evokes images of the earliest travellers and what they must have felt at seeing tribesmen and women so far removed from their own worlds. It is a reminder of how times have changed too, these men were devout Christians who moved freely throughout a tribal Muslim population with little fear. The women were often heavily veiled and there a lovely paragraph in which a group of women, expressly forbidden to ask the author for cigarettes would wait for the man of the house to turn his back before signalling for Ross to pass some under the mat!

What this book reminds one of quite starkly is how people such as these, living under the Muslim faith did so in relative peace and harmony with others. They put up with French occupation in some quarters but what Ross found throughout his journey was a people simply trying to live their lives without political or religious motivation, happy to work the land and raise children in accordance with their tradition. What these people depicted in Ross’ drawings would make of the introduction of fundamentalism we shall never know but a fair-minded guess would suggest a sense of abhorrence.

People of the Mirage is a difficult book to find, published by Rockliff of London in 1952 it is certainly worth looking out for if you are a lover of vintage travel books.

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