Blind Travel

Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books have aged poorly in spots. The uproarious adventures of ‘Prince Bumpo’ aren’t the only reason, either. Too often the stories slip into whimsy, telling predictable adventure yarns which just happen to have dogs or ducks as the heroes. But laced through the books is Hugh Lofting’s genuine sense of the uncanny. He was clearly fascinated by the huge, the ancient, the barely explicable – from the giant crystal-shelled sea snail in the second book to the (barely reprinted) Doctor Dolittle And The Secret Lake, whose lead character is a stupendously aged turtle, the last, colossal animal survivor of the Biblical Flood.

Lofting was also interested in travel. The Doctor’s itch to travel is the motor of most of his adventures – a wanderlust not founded on romantic ideas of the Other but based on Dolittle’s desire for good animal conversation. In a lot of stories he’s the model of the decent colonial bureaucrat, forever sorting problems out – an entire book deals with him setting up a postal service in Africa.

The themes of travel and the uncanny come together in the best and most haunting of the Dolittle books, Doctor Dolittle’s Garden. This starts with him learning the language of insects, and he talks to several of them, who tell him stories of a race of giant moths that could fly between worlds. Meanwhile his monkey friend tells him a tale set “in the days before there was a moon”, a phrase that strikes a nerve in Dolittle (and in young me!). Things come to a head when the Doctor decides to play a game of Blind Travel.

Of all the ideas I met in children’s books, Blind Travel has stayed with me the most – I can’t open an atlas without thinking of it. The idea is that you take a large atlas or map, blindfold yourself and let it fall open at random, then stick a pin into the page: that is your destination, and it’s up to you to make something of it. It still seems to me an enchanting, rich idea. The Doctor and his friends play the game and – in a spine-tingling moment – the atlas falls open at its beginning, on the large plates illustrating…the Moon.

I have never played Blind Travel. I hope to someday.