The great escape

Just As Well I'm Leaving: to the Orient with Hans Christian Andersen

Michael Booth <em>Jonathan Ca

In 1840, as he set off on a nine-month journey from Copenhagen to Constantinople, Hans Christian Andersen wrote: "It's just as well I'm leaving; my soul is unwell." The ugly, ambitious shoemaker's son had achieved some success with plays, novels and the first volumes of his fairy tales, but had become increasingly frustrated by the insularity of Danish society. "I wish my eyes may never again see the home which can only see my shortcomings," he wrote to a friend. "The Danes can be evil, cold, Satanic!"

The route south across Europe offered the 35-year-old writer an absorbing alternative to his own "damp, mouldy-green islands". The result was A Poet's Bazaar, an eccentric travelogue influenced by Lamartine's Voyage en Orient and spiced with exotic anecdotes and fantastical imaginings. The journalist Michael Booth came across the neglected work while studying Danish in Copenhagen and decided to follow Andersen across Europe this year to mark the author's bicentenary.

The journey was as much an escape for Booth as it was for Andersen. After marrying a Dane, he found himself washed up in wintry Copenhagen, unemployed and far from the consolations of London media life. (These are lovingly detailed - we learn, for example, that one December day he "spent the afternoon at the Time Out Christmas lunch, before meandering on to a Channel 4 party in Soho".) Desperate to flee Denmark, Booth put in a timely book proposal and headed south.

To succeed, an "in-the-footsteps-of" account must presuppose some affinity between author and subject. Booth and Andersen, however, are comically mismatched. Forged on television reviews for Time Out and a host of other "happy, pointless" pieces, Booth's prose coasts along in laddish mode. Lewis Carroll's relationship with Alice Liddell "would have got the News of the World camping on his doorstep had it occurred a few decades later", while travel made Andersen "as randy as a rabbit on day release from rabbit prison".

When Booth does foray into "serious" territory, the results are awkward and embarrassing. During an imagined meeting with Andersen in Istanbul, he muses: "I wanted to put my arms around him, give him a big hug and tell him everything was going to be all right."

In the best tradition of the picaresque, Just As Well I'm Leaving contains lots of digression. Booth turns up some interesting trivia: Chairman Mao was so fond of Andersen's stories that he put them on the curriculum of every school in China. But his account is frequently overindulgent; Andersen's journey becomes a vehicle for Booth's own mini-Bildungsroman, involving misadventures with hire cars, a German prostitute and a cruise ship full of pensioners on the Danube.

Booth complains of the Danes' home-grown version of tall-poppy syndrome - Jantelov - but criticises Andersen's love of society and titles. Despite its straight-shootin' style, this is a squeamish book: keen to avoid pretension itself, it engages with Andersen only through flippant ironies. One is left amazed that the same journey could have produced two such different works as A Poet's Bazaar and Just As Well I'm Leaving.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act