Found at the Thrift Shop

It was half price day at the thrift shop, and I had a very full shopping cart, plus three or four additional and somewhat largish items waiting for me in one of the outbuildings (a coal scuttle, a wheeled footstool, a free-standing wooden clothes dryer, and a bean-bag). We (two Progeny and two out of state houseguests) had been there nearly three hours. I was almost done shopping, and had, in fact, sat down in the cafe section of the store merely to rest my feet.

The cafe section is only separated from the rest of the thrift shop by a row of bookcases stuffed with thrift shop books. A fat red hardback with the look of a vintage book caught my eye. I picked it up, didn’t recognize title or author, but I thumbed through it. A beautiful color plate fell out of it.

The color plate in my hand wasn’t this one, but it was in this style.

I looked at the description- a travel book published in 1925 detailing the travels of British couple through the Balkans. They had been there previously in World War One. The husband writes of the train journey. First they found themselves at a station after dark, mud feeling greasy beneath their feet, unsure where they were to go next, and unable to get a word from their fellow passengers who were speeding past them.:

Almost exhausted, we reached the train. The lights had not yet been turned on, and leaving our luckless baggage to fate on the platform, we crept through the carriages, striking matches in the faces of surly passengers who were already settling for the night. We were too late, not a seat was vacant, either in the first or in the second class. These passengers had been silent with a purpose, it had been everybody for himself and the devil take the hindermost.
Ha! We were indeed back in the Balkans.

Their previous visit to the Balkans includes their work at a military hospital and their subsequent flight through the mountains as the British government ordered its citizens to get out as best they could as quick as they could, with the Austro-Hungarian (can that be the correct way to spell it?) army in hot pursuit.

On this visit, they finally find an empty coach (for which they have a ticket), but it’s locked, and the officials will not release the key, insisting that the coach cannot be unlocked until the train from Belgrade arrives. Once the Belgrade train arrives, an official explains, they are more than welcome to sit there as well, or as the author puts it, “have the pleasure of participating in a rush for seats.”


We tried logic upon the man, we pointed out that, holding the advantage of position against the Belgrade travellers, we must inevitably secure the first seats, that we, having tickets no less than they, has as much right to accomodation, that in practice he was merely putting us to extra discomfort on the damp platform, and so on.

And now comes the delicious passage that reached out to me and bade me buy this book and bring it home and make it mine:


But the official mind is not trained to appreciate logic; it has orders to obey, these orders were to keep the doors locked- the letter of the law is still as sacrosanct as it was to the Sadducees. Then Jo, who has a pertinacious temperament, found out that though the outer doors were locked those closing the communication between carriage and carriage were open. Through a tortuous path hampered with our ponderous baggage we made our way into the carriage. The officials looked on unmoved; their orders were to keep the doors locked, the letter of the law triumphed, and when at last the Belgrade train steamed in the doors were unfastened with due seriousness.

“The official mind is not trained to appreciate logic…” How that makes me chuckle (although the reality is that this sort of strangulation by pettifogging rules and regulations is the death knell to freedom).

I had to know more. The book is Two vagabonds in the Balkans, by Jan and Cora Gordon. I brought the book home and began googling.  I found this website, and it is richly rewarding for anybody seeking information on the Gordons.

Jan Gordon was:
Born the son of a parson in 1882 Godfrey Jervis Gordon was educated at Marlborough College, Wiltshire, in keeping with its status as a college for the sons of clergy. His father was a scion of a wealthy Midlands family, his grandfather a onetime Mayor of Litchfield, but by the time Jan was born this wealth had become so very thinly spread amongst the huge extended family, all living off inherited capital, that Jan, as he had become known at college, was having to establish himself in a career. Influenced by his family’s connections he mistakenly elected to become a mining engineer, seduced as he says ‘by the sweet logic of mechanisms . . .’

His spunky wife Cora, whom he had not yet met, was three years older than he. During the time he was embarking on his career, she was refusing to stay home as unpaid housekeeper and all around dogsbody to her father and his second wife, and unpaid nurse and nanny to the young children of that marriage. She chose art school. She got her father to pay for it by threatening to become an actress instead, a career her father felt was no place for a lady related to him. She also studied music seriously enough to take a teaching degree in the field.


Jan had unenthusiastically embarked on a doomed bid to make a fortune mining tin in the Malay, his limited enthusiasm further dampened by his disquiet at the way the industry was run and his distaste at the exploitation of the local labour force. Nor did he endear himself to his employer when he was found sketching the fire that burnt down the mine buildings instead of endeavouring to save them.

Having succeeded in finding out something more about these authors, I now know I wish to read everything they ever wrote.

Cora went to Paris (far from her father’s reach) and two years later so did Jan, and that is where they met.

They married in 1909, and

Jan and Cora were a remarkably talented couple who wrote twelve captivating books about their travels between 1916 and 1933.
However, their output was by no means limited to travel literature: they taught at art schools; played European folk music on a variety of instruments with great accomplishment; and produced many paintings and etchings. Jan also had published a considerable number of articles on art criticism, several books on the history of art – and six novels.

Unfortunately, they all seem to be out of print and not terribly easy to find. It is a gladsome thing to me that I serendipitously stumbled across this one at the thrift shop. It was a very good day.

Updated to note, again, this is the best website for all things Gordon.

There is one book of theirs, or rather two in one, available free at Kindle: The Luck of Thirteen Wanderings and Flight through Montenegro and Serbia

A Balkan Freebooter is available free at Googlebooks.

I’ve encouraged the copyright holder of the others to make them available in Kindle formatting if he can.

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