The Jolly Pilgrim
Author: Peter Baker
Review by Ben Bailey
In 2005, Peter Baker left London on an open-ended trip across Europe with a bike, a tent and a bag of books. Two years later he returned with a self-styled moniker, a shedload of stories and a fully-formed theory of life, the universe and everything.
Most of Baker’s journey is recounted through the emails he sent to friends and family at the time, but as he makes his way around the globe, the book gradually builds into much more than a simple travel diary. What follows is a mishmash of local history, reflections on world affairs and accounts of conversations with some intriguing characters.
Despite his philosophical turn, this Jolly Pilgrim likes to party with the best of them. Upon reaching Istanbul, he slides into a month-long bender which sees him swimming the Bosporus in near-zero temperatures while his friends are jailed for attempting to climb the dome of the Aya Sofya. It’s harebrained stuff, but the author has a knack of weaving these episodic encounters into a worldview that’s both expansive and decidedly optimistic.
By the time he decamps to South America, the travelogue gives way to a series of ‘global musings’ on history, economics and religion. His take on humanity is that we’re still figuring out how to live in harmony with each other and the planet. “We’re a species of hyper-intelligent tool-using omnivores,” he says. “With apparently bottomless ingenuity and imagination.”
Instead of despairing at the prospect of ecological disaster, the Jolly Pilgrim encourages the reader to take the long-term view. The critical issues of today don’t seem nearly so daunting when they’re seen as a limited and specific phase in history. Evolution has landed us at this juncture with no instruction manual. End of days? Exciting times, says the Pilgrim.