West on Books: Ode To Lawrence Osborne
By Richard West
The British novelist and travel writer, Lawrence Osborne, writes in The Naked Tourist, “Few writers have a real voice, and when one does, the effect is nothing less than amorous…Mead [Margaret] has a voice in the act of travel.” Exactly what I vastly admire about Osborne’s five works of travel, a singular voice that’s a bit world weary, that of a true skeptimist (all fine reporters are skeptical optimists), Oxbridge-level learned, and of a world-class hedonist. Been there, done all of that, what about a bit more?
In his first book, Paris Dreambook, (1990) he did the impossible by writing originally about the most written city in the world where he lived for several years. Do they still slit the throats of live chickens in the Cite Veron? Between the arch of St. Denis and the rue de Turbigo do prostitutes still wear “Wouldn’t You Like To Squash Me” outfits that Osborne noted? He saw it all. Since dreambook, his unique style and eye has taken us through wine vineyards, one of the most primitive places on earth, ex-pat life in Bangkok, and drinking his way through the Mid-East.
… In The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World (2004) Osborne no doubt agrees with Diogenes that his favorite wine is another man’s. With Ahab-like determination and concentration, he swirls, spits, and swallows gallons of refined grapes as he works his way through vineyards in California, France, and Italy. No surprise that Burgundies triumph, as the Belgians say, like “the baby Jesus dressed in velour pants sliding down your throat.” Oh yes, Osborne also is very funny, especially on the silly wine jargon perfected by the all-powerful wine critic Robert Parker. Tastes like “crisp stones”? “Melted asphalt”? “Crushed seashells?” Get outtaheah.
…The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall (2006). In a world where tourism has replaced travel, Osborne’s destination is to escape the former, get to the unknown as he heads east, first ambling through Dubai, Calcutta, the Andaman Islands, Bangkok, Bali, finally to the back of beyond: the impenetrable central rain forests of Irian Jaya, the Indonesian-held western part of New Guinea Island. Where his G.P.S. reads “No data”, thus “our dubious paradise did not even exist.” Where natives have never seen whites, live in large tree houses (where only men sleep), get aggressive when they smell shampoo, eat mouse tails and “Capricorn beetle grubs, the caviar of the Kombai people, that taste like biting into sausage skins filled with explosive pus.” How did he get there and survive this place? It’s a page-turner.
…Bangkok Days: A Sojourn In the Capital of Pleasure (2009) is simply the best book of life in a modern city written since Jan Morris’ Sydney, Hong Kong, and The Great Port (New York), books written from 1969 to 1992. “Hedonopolis” he called Bangkok in a previous work and the man revels in Bangkok’s erotic mise-en-scenery. Never in a sleazy way, never to the nasty tourist trap of the Pat Pong area, Osborne’s more the observer who does no harm and passes no judgment regarding the cheerful No Hands Restaurant (you’re fed by charming lady hostesses); the Dead Artists Street with racy theme bars named after Dali, Van Gogh, Goya, etc; the bar devoted to jilted lovers where you pin up a photo of the faithless one and hurl glasses at it while listening to music of despair. More, however, is a superb account of ex-pat day-to-day life in this fascinating city. His motto seems to be Nunquam Dormio, I never sleep.
…The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey (2013) is Osborne’s latest and best-written work. He wants to bridge “the West and the East, the alcoholic and prohibited.” He begins in Lebanon where alcohol is legal and even has vineyards; hymns arak and vodka martinis at Beirut’s Albergo Hotel’s rooftop bar; has no trouble in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, before learning alcohol’s rare as cat’s tears in Muscat, only downing orange juice on New Year’s Eve with his disappointed girlfriend. He finds one of only three bars in Islamabad (“like buying unwrapped pornography in a Walmart Supercenter in Salt Lake City”); experiences the real danger of drinking in southern Thailand thanks to Muslim extremists; and ends in Cairo’s Windsor Hotel bar, his favorite watering hole in the Middle East.
Osborne explains the Koran’s prohibition of alcohol: it takes one out of one’s normal consciousness, thus falsifying every human relationship and to God as well. He disagrees and is eloquent on the pleasures of drinking: it is “life giving, exultant, sense enhancing, liberating…increases spontaneity and frankness, affection, and temporary selflessness.”
Indeed, sir. Thanks Lawrence Osborne for all your work. As the Irish say, drink as many cups as the years you wish to live.
Visit Amazon.com to purchase Lawrence Osborne’s books.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.