Mark Twain in the Holy Land by John Holmes

Mark Twain in the Holy Land 

‘I have seen old Israel’s arid plain.
It’s magnificent — but so’s Maine!’

(New England - Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers, 1976)

When I think of Mark Twain (real name Sam Clemens) I think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and a few famous quotes. But those titles were not his bestselling book in his lifetime. That was The Innocents Abroad, still one of the most commercially successful travel books of all time. This piece is about the background to that work. Subtitled The New Pilgrim’s Progress, it is about a trip Twain made across Europe, ending in the Holy Land, the voyage’s principal destination.                 
The year was 1867. By way of context, this was two years after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65) and the assassination of Lincoln, and nine years before General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry were routed at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In England it was almost halfway through Queen Victoria’s 63 year reign. 

Twain was a brash 31 year old reporter when he persuaded the Daily Alta in San Francisco to send him on the first ever cruise aboard the Quaker City, a retired Civil War gunboat, on a five month trip to Europe and on to Palestine. It was agreed that for $1200 he would write fifty articles for the paper. He was also to send despatches to a couple of East Coast publications. He had grown up in the Calvinist tradition with a love of Bible stories and a desire to believe in the New Testament message, despite feeling unable to do so. He was counterculture, endlessly curious, energetic and humorous. The other 64 passengers were mainly small-town businessmen and professionals - little travelled but mostly well up on the Bible and religious. 

Twain soon found the self-righteousness of the pious folk distasteful with their nightly prayer meetings led by the humourless Colonel Denny. He organised his own group: the Nighthawks (later Sinners) who drank, smoked and played cards. When they went to the Old World - Spain Italy and France - he soon tired of the docile reverence expected of the travellers, feeling tour guides were manipulating them. In Italy he was outraged at the sight of the well-fed priests compared to the starving lay population around them. He was constantly annoyed by all the hyperbole and adulation for things merely because they happened to be old. Europe’s traditions were suffocating it to death. After stops in Greece, Russia and Turkey, they arrived at Beirut where the passengers divided into groups. Twain chose a challenging three week trek on horseback, paying English-speaking dragomen $5 a day to guide and protect the eight Americans, although not from the conditions - hot, dusty desert. Water was scarce because Islamic villages refused to allow their wells to be profaned by Christians. Tents, however, were luxurious with ample food and drink. In that respect at least, the travel books had been proved correct.


When a three day trip in the Bekaa valley was crammed into two so the pious could avoid travelling on the Sabbath, Twain objected but without success; fearing for the horses, he believed their mistreatment sinful. On reaching Banias, their first stop in the Holy Land, Twain’s sense of wonder revived - to be walking where Jesus once trod! But the feeling soon passed, irritated by the pious weeping over relics and chipping off fragments of the temple to take with them. He branded them ‘American Vandals’. Approaching the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus performed healing miracles and walked on water, the pious were full of excitement, seeing their lifelong dream of sailing over it within grasp. No price could be too high for such an experience. But when the boatman quoted them the equivalent of $8 (a dollar each) they tried to persuade him to accept $1. So disgusted was he that he departed without them, causing a squabble amongst the pilgrims as to whose fault it was, and leading one wag to ask, ‘Colonel Denny, could this be the reason Jesus walked?’ For Twain, having earlier dismissed Lake Como as inferior to Tahoe, Galilee was similarly unimpressive. The relative smallness of everything, compared to its depiction in the Bible and at Sunday school, was central to his disappointment with the Holy Land. He discovered that the kings of mighty nations he’d thrilled in reading about as a boy, had no more to their domains than the average American small-town mayor. He also felt travellers were betrayed by earlier writers, in particular William Prime with his overly sentimental prose and frightening tales of his heroics fighting bloodthirsty heathens.

The journey on to Jerusalem was rocky and desolate, and pious and sinner alike rejoiced on seeing the Holy City before them. They stayed in the Mediterranean Hotel in relative comfort, so much so that Twain spent the entire first day enjoying its luxury. Jerusalem, however, proved another letdown. Once again, he simply could not reconcile the city in the Bible with it in real life ( saying a fast walker could circumnavigate it in an hour). He found it dirty, crowded, noisy and smelly, people in squalor unimaginable to the average American, everyone yelling ’baksheesh’ and pestering him to do deals on things he didn’t want. Even the pious seemed disillusioned with the city. 

At the Muslim Dome of the Rock situated on the ruins of King Solomon’s temple, Twain was disgusted by Colonel Denny’s refusal to remove his shoes as was the required custom, simply because it was not his religion. At the Tomb of Jesus his Protestant sensibility gagged at all the ‘gewgaws and tawdry ornamentation’. He was bemused by the Tomb of Adam, suspecting it was, like much he’d seen, fraudulent. But then he thought that if genuine, it was, after all, a blood relative buried there, ‘True, a distant one, but still a relative’, and he wept at the fact of never having known his ancestor. A decade later, the tomb had became a tourist stop as the place where Mark Twain wept. He softened at the site of the Crucifixion, however, prepared to accept that, given its significance, it must have happened there or close by, and gained from it an appreciation of the power of religion. It was after this he ordered a special Bible with cover made from three different woods to take back to his mother. He was respectful of her faith and that of anyone else when it was genuine. 

Away from Jerusalem the party swam in the Dead Sea and the River Jordan. From his Bible readings he had anticipated the latter to be miles across but found it no wider than Broadway in New York. In Bethlehem with its beggars and relic-peddlars, he was able to touch the spot where the infant Jesus had once lain — and he experienced nothing whatever. Two days later, the party, by now keen to return home, travelled, despite it being the Sabbath, to Jaffa where they boarded ship. Even the pious were relieved to be free of the desert, and, as Twain observed, ‘They wept not over Jerusalem.’ 

The Quaker City arrived back in New York in November 1867. A publisher approached Twain about a version of the articles for a book. He worked on them, refining the prose, and the book was published in 1869. He dedicated it to his mother. It was a great success with critics and public alike. There was a laugh on every page and after the ravages of the Civil War the nation was in need of it. The book transformed his life. He could now turn his full attention to writing books. He travelled extensively, but never again to Palestine. He mellowed over time, however, saying that looking back one doesn’t recall the heat, thirst, squalor and so on, only the pleasant memories of Jerusalem.


His book is still read today, or at least quoted from. In 2009 Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, gave President Obama a first edition. Twain has sometimes been criticised for depicting Ottoman-ruled Palestine as such a desolate place — it has been used in arguments over the state of the country before Zionism - and also criticised for his flippancy. But Twain was young and relatively unknown. He was writing his impressions, originally as articles, not an academic text book or political treatise. Moreover, as indicated by the title, he was as interested in his fellow travellers as the countries they visited; it was in his nature to mock almost everything and everyone, including himself. In The Innocents Abroad he sought to convey what contemporary American eyes saw, rather than what others might want those eyes to see. Americans felt inferior to the Old World, which the Old World encouraged, and he wanted to show them they had no reason to feel so. Their New World offered much more. 

Finally, there was an interesting postscript to his love affair with Lake Tahoe. In a scenario that would no doubt have amused him, it was formally proposed that one of its coves be renamed after him. However, the local Washoe tribe protested against this. For all his progressive views on issues such as slavery, his public openness to other faiths and races did not extend to the American Indian, and the Washoes’ complaint went beyond his disparagement of them as a ‘digger tribe’. After reflecting on it, even the man who’d suggested the change declined to support it, and in 2014 the idea was dropped. It is unlikely to be revived.

Picture Credits - on line, copyright unclear. Will remove if offending.

‘LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL’ by Pete Brammer

Pete’s response to the Trigger ‘lock’ … and two others.


DCI Townsend’s bleep suddenly broke into life at 4am one Sunday morning. Answering to the call, he learned there had been a break in at Bedlam’s Electrical, on the Mayfair Industrial Estate the other side of town. Along with his number two, Joe Watson, they set off to investigate.

Arriving on site, a police constable stepped out to greet the officers. “Constable Jenkins, sir.”

Townsend nodded. “What do we have Jenkins?”

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‘You’ by Kevin Murphy

This is an extract of a larger piece that Kevin has written around the prompt ‘You’.

Liam brings Tack up short telling him that his story of love for girls is all about him.

Liam sucked his lip loudly. ‘You…’ He wasn’t sure he wanted to go there. ‘The girls – you … what do they think of you?’
Tack looked at him, somewhat blankly.
‘I don’t wish to be cruel, Tack, but what you are telling me is all about you, with the occasional reference to what they look like.’
‘I see,’ said Tack, not a bit convincingly.
‘You seem to fall for a girl, you don’t really say why, and then you, well you chase them. Is that fair?’
‘My sister did pull me up on that.’
Liam laughed. ‘What notice did you take?’

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Peter Green’s End of the Game by Kevin Murphy

Kevin’s response to the trigger green

My Peter Green and the End of the Game for us.

December 1970

Image Copyright, Kevin Murphy

I had missed the early years of the British Blues Boom as I was a young Friar in a monastery. A few months after I left in June 1968, out of the corner of a community centre came an experience which changed my life. Some ethereal music was playing with the most plaintive singing and a heart rending wail of ‘I just wish I had never been born’.

It moved into a rock section which warmed me, before settling down and the singer finished with the line, ‘And I wish I was in love’.

By that point I was hovering over the Juke box and learnt that the track was ‘Man of the World’ by Fleetwood Mac.

After being cloistered away from ‘the world’ for the whole of my teens, the song stirred something in me. Yes, I had ‘missed the sixties’, and I did wish I was in love.

I needed to hear more, so I played the B side. I could have lost out so much. ‘Earl Vince & The Valiants – Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonite’? It seemed like Fleetwood Mac must be a novelty band, having a B side not by them: they must have so little material as to be a one-hit-wonder band.

It was from that same Juke box that I first heard Jimi Hendrix with ‘All along the Watchtower’. Luckily I was taking Melody Maker occasionally, so checked both – Mac and Jimi. It took a while to delve into the history to find what I had missed in music: Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, West Coast rock, the British Blues Boom all getting a grip on me.

In early 1969 I was elected Member Leader of our new Youth Club – Greyfriars, Oxford – whilst also suggesting ‘dances’ at the College of Further Education. During a steep learning curve, over the coming year I became Social Secretary, Soc Sec – and was invited to Melody Maker’s Battle of the Bands final. The show was memorable to me only for the act who covered the judging interval – singer of the novelty hit, Space Oddity and its even stranger B side ‘I’m a little Gnome and you can’t catch me’, David Bowie.

I had promoted Anarchy rock sensation The Edgar Broughton Band three times – Out Demons Out was their politics – Steamhammer, Gypsy, Gracious and Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments among many others. So I did get deep into the burgeoning Rock Music scene.

I bought up the sparse back-catalogue of Fleetwood Mac, and soon realised that I was moved only by the tracks written and sung by Peter Green. This fitted because ‘Vince’ of the Valiants, was Jeremy Spencer who seemed to have only one tune and style – that of ‘Dust my Broom’ and I would soon be skipping those tracks.

I then needed to find where Peter had started. This led to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ A Hard Road album, with the spine tingling instrumental The Supernatural. That became a live staple even with Splinter group thirty years later. And the singles – there it was, a B side, what was to become my song – Out of Reach – deep, sad blues singing, and spine tingling guitar – by an eighteen year old! The last line ‘I’m Out of reach, can’t take no more’, brought me up to date with Man of the World’s – ‘I wish I was in love.’

The search was now on for any opportunity to catch Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac live.

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God rest Peter who died during the Covid 19 Lockdown.


After many months of ‘Lock down’ during the Coronavirus pandemic, things were beginning to return to some form of normality, in the sleepy village of Ashburton. A newly married couple looked so happy, as they emerged from the quaint St. Katherine’s Church, on a warm Saturday afternoon in July, with almost every resident coming out to witness the happy event.
Confetti fluttered down on them, as the photographer struggled to direct friends and relatives into their positions.

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‘After’ by Kevin Murphy

For the trigger ‘after’:
An extract from my work in progress: After I left the monastery.
40 years later, fellow novice Brother Fidelis – Liam Murachu – wonders about the departure of Brother Bernard – Sean ‘Tack’ McIntire.

Tack didn’t wait for an answer, turned and headed into his room.

Cell, thought Liam, glancing at his closed door. He looked down at his heavy plaid shirt and brown cords, noticed the matching cardigan in the floor, dreamily draped it over his arm, stretched and yawned.

Tack’s Treasure card peeped out of a pocket. His back cracked as he bent to pick it out. Why bother? The flop onto the bed, was more of a pour. He seeped into the mattress.

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‘Finders Keepers’ by Pete Brammer

Pete has come up with another of his stories incorporating song titles – a great writing challenge for any fan – of books, songs … whatever – GB Stamps?
He had underlined the titles, but we’re going to have more fun: Cliff Richard is the only act to have had a number one single in the UK in five consecutive decades, so even some young ones will know quite a few. (Did you see what I did there?) It’s not an exhaustive list – but how many of the 34 contained, can you find?


In the early 80’s I was in my early 30’s and feeling like a bachelor boy after splitting with my wife Samenita.

For my summer holiday, I decided to take in the sights of Rio de Janeiro and visit the famous Copacabana Beach, a place I had always dreamed of, after hearing the song by Barry Manilow.

My second day there was the day I met Marie. To me, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.
We happened to meet on the beach , where she was dancing very provocatively. It was her wonderful tanned skin and slim body that attracted me to her, and I couldn’t blame it on the Bossa Nova. I felt good vibrations, and as a lump came into my throat, I nervously told her. “I think I’m going to fall in love with you.” It felt like a schoolboy crush all over again.

Her little hand tightened its grip on mine. “Yes, I could easily fall in love as well.”

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Pete’s response to the trigger green


The world was astounded by a little school girl who took on their governments, her name Greta Thunberg. She was fighting for this planet of ours, against pollution and destruction of the ozone layer. We will never forget how she took on single handed, Donald Trump, the President of the United States of America, addressed the United Nations whilst winning all our hearts.

Then, an invisible creature decided to rear its ugly head in Wuhan, China; its name, ‘Coronavirus’ (Covid 19). It grounded aeroplanes; stopped trains, kept vehicles off the road and confined communities to their homes preventing them from disposing of their litter in public places. It did what Greta could not do.

Unfortunately it sadly killed millions as it swept across the globe, taking governments like ours unprepared. For years our government had been slowly running down and destroying the Health Service by privatising areas bit by bit, hoping we wouldn’t notice. This is when it came back to bite them, and boy did it bite them hard. Our nurses, doctors, porters, care workers, and others, too any to mention stepped forward with the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ putting their own lives at risk, fully aware of a shortage of protective equipment. Unfortunately some paid the ultimate price to protect us. They were angels and we salute them.

During this time, there has been one person who has been overlooked and not given a mention, in any way, shape or form. That person was one of the greatest politicians this country has ever known, Aneurin Bevan the founder of our wonderful NHS.

In order to rectify this, I have written to Her Majesty the Queen, requesting he receive a posthumous Knighthood and appear on a future banknote. This is the least we could do.

Thank God we have great people like Greta Thunberg, Aneurin Bevan and not forgetting Captain Tom Moore.

‘I, you and he’ by Limi Jones

Everyone had been stir-crazy sitting at home, waiting for the weather to change, and the first sight of the sun had gone out to the park with picnics and ball games. Dogs ran around, babies crawling across the grass with doting grandparents taking pictures, children on bikes with ice creams and toddlers splashing in the water, the squealing of children, and the chatter of people filled the park. The hard, warm wood of the bench underneath me melted away the cramps and the muscle tension around the back of my thighs and hips. I closed my eyes and lifted my head to the sky and bathed in the fresh spring heat, and the breeze brushed against my face and hands. The sounds of the park flooded my ears, and I breathed in the smell of coffee, hotdogs, and doughnuts. I smiled. It’s been a year since I had left that awful, middle of nowhere town, the abusive husband; the backhanded

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‘Highway Robbery’ by Michael Keeble

From the Casebook of Police Constable John Thoresby

Report of PC John Thoresby 16th April 1846 Gringley on the Hill

I was making my rounds of the village on foot at 10 o’clock this morning and was in discussion with Jabez Wilkinson at the Mill when we heard a commotion coming from the centre of the village.  Mr Wilkinson and I hurried towards the source of the noise and, coming around the corner at Cross Hill were met with the sight of a coach outside the White Hart being held up by two men on foot.  The men were aiming pistols at the driver.  I cried out that I was an officer of the law and ran towards the men.  They both aimed their weapons at Mr Wilkinson and I and discharged them.  Fortunately for both of us, only one of the pistols fired, the other suffering a flash in the pan.  Their aim was not good, and neither of us was hurt. 

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