Lilli and The Hippopotamus: A short review

By: Bernd Wechner
© September 1, 2001

Lilli and The Hippopotamus: A short review

Lilli and The Hippopotamus: A short review

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: September 1, 2001

Flicking through some references one day I came across an old book review in the Manchester Guardian. It was from 1958 and described a book about a hitch around the world. My ears perked, this was a gem. It's not got 'hitch' in the title, it's not filed under the subject heading 'hitch-hiking' in any of the many archives or libraries I'd searched over the years. In short, this was the kind of book you just couldn't find without a stroke of luck.

It reminded me a lot of Wendy Myers account of her 1960's seven year hitch around the world, but the contrast is strong to say the least. Peter Beale was called up for military service in 1954, dashed home from the South of France where he was hanging out at the time, and was rejected on medical grounds. To kill the time suddenly granted him he decided to hitch around the world, just for the hell of it.

He hit the road at 6.30 a.m., Thursday, March 17th, 1955, standing on Blackheath Common waiting for a ride. I wonder what Blackheath Common looks like now, and if anyone would imagine hitching from there?

He really did hitch the vast majority of the way to India and back via France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordon, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, and Pakistan, taking almost two years to do it. He flew back in almost one jump. In the 1950's this was a world not much diffferent to that described by Wendy Myers. It was possible, on account of a dearth of tourists to charm your way onto anything from cars to aeroplanes and ships, just by presenting yourself amicably to the right people. The magic of an Englishman so far from home, just out to see the world, often did the trick.

"I'm trying to hike around the world", Peter says to an India Guru.

"Does this not cost money?", comes the reply.

"Sometimes. Not much though. If you are lucky you get free rides on ships or 'planes" ...

But Peter didn't have the time of it that Wendy did. To begin with he was a man, not a woman which will never work in your favour when hitching a ride, but to cap it off he wasn't very charming in the least. Up-front is what I'd call him, obnoxious and arrogant at times -- a downright bloody prat as often as not.

To be a successful hitch-hiker, Peter writes, "you must cheat and lie. You must live on your wits. You must trip Authority and thumb a nose at Public Opinion. Above all you must enjoy doing all this and more, much more, anything in fact to further your own interests. You must be thoroughly selfish."

He confesses right away "Being a louse, a thorough-going died-in-the-wool louse, is the best thing that can happen to a hitch-hiker". Well, whether it's the best thing or not I don't know, but it certainly works too. In spite of making his fair share of enemies on the way, he builds friendships as well. There is in the end something very romantic in the recklessness of what he's doing.

He's got an English sense of humor too, and as silly as Peter is at times, he still has a way of writing about it that will bring a laugh out of most readers from time to time.

Peter is literally skinflint most of the time. He ended up camped under a tree in Calcutta for lack of any contacts or any place to stay (or any money). Just waiting day after day under this tree, a local guru eventually invites him to a ghetto where the beggars live -- with the warning that it probably wouldn't help him find a lift out of town, but it would keep him fed and housed.

He ends up living some months with beggars in Calcutta because he just couldn't find a lift out of the place, as predicted. I mean he was aiming high, a plane to Singapore, but still it wasn't happening.

In the end he almost makes, well he gets his ride to Singapore, but is turned back at the border and flies right on back on the same plane. Ultimately he gives up and catches a plane back to London to end the whole trip -- he never did make it all the way around the world.

The book is called "Lilli and the Hippopotamus", was published by Secker and Warburg in London, 1958, and written of course by Peter himself. The title isn't at all clear until very late in the book, both Lilli and the Hippopotamus are the objects of Peter's love at some stage in his Indian travels, the former a little more orthodox than the latter.

Well, one thing that sustained Peter on this trip, and that sustains any long distance or regular hitcher I think is this: "The hiker's doctrine is pessimism. If you wave your thumb at every car and don't get a ride, it's just what you expected, and if you do get a ride, why it's a pleasant surprise".

On the whole "Lilli and the Hippopotamus" is an entertaining read, laced with the ridiculous and the arduous, but above all today in 2001 it provides one of those wonderful glimpses into the Euro-Asian hitch which preceded the wave of hippes that were to follow ... a time before the tourist was an everyday sight in almost every corner of the globe and when things were, plainly said, "very different".

Full tracing details for the diligent:

    Lilli and the Hippopotamus
    Peter Beale
    Secker and Warburg
    No ISBN.

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