James Fenton’s ‘All the Wrong Places’ Gets It All Just Right
Most travel writers gloss over their misfortune while traveling, but the best parts of Fenton’s iconic book are often when he tells us how things went wrong.
This is part of Armchair Traveler, our temporary series highlighting books you can escape with during the Coronavirus lockdown.
In All the Wrong Places, James Fenton pulls off a rare feat: He precisely and often hilariously conveys the confusion that is almost every traveler’s constant companion. He does this from the midst of war zones and revolutions, but you'll surely recognize the feeling.
If we’re honest, we have to admit that most of the time we’re on the road, we’re out of our comfort zones. We don’t know what’s around the next bend, what’s for dinner, or if that hotel a friend recommended will work out or not. Sometimes the not knowing is fun, but mostly it forces us to live with at least a mild case of underlying anxiety.
The odd thing, to me at least, is that travel writers do what they can to iron out those anxious moments. Maybe they think we won’t believe them if they record the uncertainty they felt about the routes they took, the places they stayed, or the people they met. The ironic result is I wind up believing only about 40 percent of what they say.
In Fenton’s case, though, I believe it all, because he’s so honest about being confused, lost, and uncertain about who and what to believe. Perhaps he wears his disorientation on his sleeve (the subtitle of All the Wrong Places is Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim), but a travel writer who leads with their fallibility still has my vote.
All the Wrong Places was originally published in 1988, and before that several parts had been published periodically in Granta, which devoted an entire issue to Fenton’s “The Fall of Saigon.” When the book first appeared, I suppose it had more currency, or a closer tie to the wars and revolutions it describes in Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea. There was more historical urgency about what Fenton wrote then. Readers cared where you stood on Vietnam. Now, not so much. It’s a safe bet that all most people remember about the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines is that Imelda Marcos liked to buy shoes.
Some books don’t survive the time in which they were written. All the Wrong Places survives. And knowing a lot about the late-20th century wars in East Asia is not a prerequisite for enjoying it. It’s aged into being a kind of timeless pleasure.
Most of the time Fenton is becomingly baffled about what’s going on around him. Admitting that gives him license to describe, say, the tumultuous chaos of the fall of Ferdinand Marcos as just that, chaos. It’s not his job to explain it, or even give it context. But out of that chaos he plucks a detail or an anecdote that perfectly distills what it felt like to witness that page in history.
The Marcos he describes is a dictator that knows the game is up, he’s just not sure how everything fell apart so quickly: Addressing the nation on television, “Marcos’ eyes were lifeless. He could have been blind. Or perhaps he had only just been woken up. His mouth was an example of a thoroughly unattractive orifice.” And Imelda, watching from the wings: “Like any bad actress she had a way of telling you: This is what’s going through my mind, this is what I’m feeling.”
Present when the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon, Fenton wandered through the deserted American embassy, “where the looting had already begun.” To blend in—”Some people gave me suspicious looks, as if I might be a member of the embassy staff”—he starts looting like everyone around him. He took an armful of books, a pacification report, and some embassy notepaper. “Two things I could not take (by now I was not just pretending to loot—I had become quite involved): a reproduction of an 1873 map of Hanoi, and a framed quotation from Lawrence of Arabia, which read, ‘Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their war, and your time is short.’ Newly I found a smashed portrait of President Ford, and a Stars and Stripes mangled in the dirt.”
The world Fenton describes is sometimes violent but it’s always messy. He navigates this “blooming, buzzing confusion” with intelligence (he knows what he doesn’t know, and when he doesn’t, he says so) and a wonky, very British humor (dry, self effacing, all that, but also like a holy innocent in a Bertie Wooster sort of way). And he’s got a poet’s eyes and ears. Fenton is a poet, of course, and for all I know he thinks of that as his main gig, but I never got any hint that he dismisses reporting as any sort of side project. He’s too willing to put himself at risk, too eager to bear witness, and too genuinely hard on himself when he thinks he’s missed the main event. That is what he kept repeating to himself when Marcos fled and Fenton kept getting sidetracked on his way to the dictator’s empty palace: “I’ve missed it all. I’ve missed it.” And you want to say to him, “Dude, you didn’t miss much, just soldiers taking over the palace. How bad is that? And look, you scored one of Imelda’s monogrammed bath towels when you did get to the palace. So relax. ”
It’s not easy to categorize All the Wrong Places. It has elements of war correspondence. And it’s a kind of travel journal. It’s also political analysis, and sometimes it’s deeply personal and subjective. At it’s best, it’s all of those things at once. Fenton makes a good companion on the page, and while you may not ever wish to visit the places he describes, certainly not under the conditions he so vividly portrays, you’re always grateful he made the trip.
There is a moment, in the section on Korea, set around the time of the 1988 Olympics, that epitomizes Fenton’s genius for mixed feelings and a sort of off balance clarity. He finds himself in a town taken over by rebellious students and surrounded by—and very much threatened by—the South Korean army. The historical importance of the moment, the gnawing awareness of his own ignorance, and the precariousness of his position as an outsider all churn within him.
“The day was as scaring as it was frustrating. It was so hard to find anyone who spoke more than a few words of English. Hard, too, to find people who wanted to talk in public. When the [taxi] driver finally said it was time to go, a part of me was relieved that I did not have the money simply to pay him off, and stay. To the voice that said, ‘Don’t go now, coward,’ another voice replied, ‘You must only take calculated risks.’ And: ‘Anyway, you’re a theater critic.’ And: ‘These people have told you to go out and tell the truth about them.’” And so he has.
All the Wrong Places