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Through a Land of Extremes: The Littledales of Central Asia

Through a Land of Extremes: The Littledales of Central Asia.

Elizabeth and Nicholas Clinch. Foreword by Christian Bonington.

London: Sutton Publishing, 2008. 324 pages. $75.00.

Never heard of the Littledales? Neither had anyone else. They were apparently indifferent to whether anyone heard of them or not; they left no public writings and very little else. Elizabeth and Nick Clinch practically extrapolated the whole story from the Littledales fox terrier’s silver collar, which resides in the Royal Geographical Society archives. If you wonder what the collar is doing there, you’re beginning to think like the Clinches.

The Littledales, a married couple—St. George and Teresa— made three major journeys through Central Asia between 1890 and 1895. The first crossed the Pamirs over a period of about five months in 1890; the second crossed central Asia from Samarkand to Peking over about 11 months; the third, a journey across Tibet, lasted a year. The latter two would tally some 4,000 miles each—not that the Littledales were tracking their own mileage (and neither do the Clinches). It’s the character of the journeys one is drawn to: traveling in small, sparsely supported parties, traveling as a married couple, and, probably the most enthralling: doing it so far from the public eye.

St. George was a world-class hunter, true, and he supplied numerous “trophies” to museums worldwide, and yet one never gets the sense that the journeys were made for this purpose. These are true explorers, adventurers of the ilk of Younghusband and Hedin (whom they knew, of course) but for whom the idea of fame meant absolutely nothing. No wonder the Clinches admire them so. In their later years hunting for its own sake had given way to collecting zoological specimens and later still to map-making and “intelligence.” Many of the Littledale’s journeys were through sensitive or “forbidden” lands and took place during the waning years of the Great Game, the rivalry between England and Russia for control and influence in Central Asia.

As their lives wound down they developed a ritual: the winding of their grandfather clock, which ran for 13-months on a single winding. They invited guest winders, who signed a special book. The list of winders features statesmen (including, gasp, Benito Mussolini!), but also Kipling, four Prime Ministers, and King George V; also Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who wrote in the winder book: “Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper, higher and nobler.”

The introduction is a truly fascinating account of the authors’ research, which in essence starts with a conversation Nick had with, appropriately enough, Eric Shipton, who recommended to him the “unknown” Tibetan peak, Ulugh Muztagh, at 25,340 feet. It had been Littledale who had determined the height. The lengths the authors went to are a great story in itself. Let’s just say that if they had relied on Google, the book would have been shorter than this review. This was very determined, very thorough, and very patient work, and one can’t help think that if the Clinches had not done it, the Littledales would have been lost to history forever.

We live in an age wherein the details of heretofore unimaginable personal tediousness are publicly broadcast to the Twitterati. In the Littledales we have the opposite scenario: truly epic undertakings (I think the Littledales would abjure the word “heroic”), expeditions that might have filled volumes—even in their own day—but were instead done for private satisfactions. For this reason alone I’m grateful that this lacunae in the public record has been so carefully recovered. In addition, as Chris Bonington says in his foreword: the book is “particularly appropriate today when the ruthless pace of modernisation is penetrating the most distant valley of this vast, once untamed, area.” The Littledales, I think, would be flattered by the Clinches’ portrait, but may well have wondered what all the fuss was about. The closing sentence of the book is “The Littledales did it right.” And, at the risk of stating the obvious: so have the Clinches.

David Stevenson