Published: 9 August, 2012
by SIMON WROE
As travel writers go, Edward Temperley Laing (or Ted, as he prefers) is unusual.
He does not travel for the sake of travelling, takes no notes or photographs of the places he visits and, until he was in his sixties, never had any intention of writing a book.
But after four decades working as a consultant on ports and shipping in more than 70 countries around the world, Laing realised he was sitting on a trove of experiences few could match.
How many people have out-raced gangs of Mexican hoodlums on tortuous mountain roads, or witnessed a Chinese Communist Party boss lose a chilli-eating contest to a Westerner?
How many people know about the Albanian code of revenge, the Kanun, or the more peculiar laws of Turkmenistan, where drivers used to answer questions about the president’s autobiography to get their licences?
So, in 2006, when a contract in Estonia fell through, Laing decided it was time to start writing.
“I was suddenly faced with three months without work,” he says, “and I got to thinking, ‘What would you regret not having done if the Grim Reaper appeared over your shoulder?’.
“The book is all done from memory. You might think that’s difficult but you remember the things you remember well. It comes back very clearly.”
Fakirs, Feluccas and Femmes Fatales (his second work after The Amoral Philosopher, about the nature of free will) is a collection of 45 vignettes – “little scenes that produce a panoramic view of the world”.
Perhaps the book’s most charming aspect is the portrait that emerges of the author: not the dashing explorer or bear-wrestling type, the Laing of these accounts is a softly spoken, unassuming economist in rubber-soled shoes; a pale Brit who speaks little besides English, with a supporting cast of eccentric, sometimes dangerous, characters.
Laing says he saw himself a bit more romantically than this, but concedes that it is largely accurate. Withering under the gaze of a predatory woman in a Nigerian hotel, he describes himself as “a timid stewpot missionary”.
On another occasion, a Russian taxi driver puts a hand down Laing’s trousers to see if his underpants are from Marks and Spencer (they are.)
Reminded of the Mexican gang that nearly caught him, Laing shakes his head. “I was really out of my depth,” he says.
Born in Northern Ireland and brought up in Newcastle upon Tyne (though no relation of the famous Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing), his father ran a number of small businesses and invented a betting machine that would have replaced bookies’ runners, had it taken off. His mother taught domestic science.
After studying PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford, he went to work for BP and then The Economist Intelligence Unit, where he was told he would need to travel.
“I was really pissed off,” Laing says. “It made keeping relationships with girlfriends really difficult.”
This opinion soon changed, however.
His stories of deals done in smugglers’ bars and riding his luck in war-torn Africa hark fondly back to a different age, before companies began employing minders to guard their foreign representatives and giving them strict curfews.
“People just weren’t as nervous in those days. There was no feeling of danger. It would be more difficult to do the same thing now,” he admits.
But Laing, who lives in Gospel Oak with his wife Patsy, a nurse, believes travel still holds great rewards, particularly for those who go alone and for work.
“You’re there to do something very specific, you get involved with the people – you live with them, work with them, eat their food. You’re much more deeply immersed in the country,” he explains.
Sometimes, as with the Albanian code of revenge (where you are required to kill any man who has killed your closest relative or your houseguest), the places Laing writes about can seem incredibly alien to the English reader.
But there are moments when the lens is turned on us, and we see how strange our own land can look.
“Tell me,” a woman in Azerbaijan asks him, “is it true that the English send their children away to boarding school and sleep with their dogs?”
• Fakirs, Feluccas and Femmes Fatales by E.T. Laing. Bradt Travel Guides, £9.99