The romance and the caring are gone. Roving the British Empire

The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire, by Simon Winchester. New York: Prentice-Hall. 317 pp. $17.95. For first-class armchair travel, you don't need an armchair at all. Find a book as compelling as Simon Winchester's, and a park bench or even one of those plastic perches at an airport will make an efficient launching pad. But do, if you possibly can, latch onto a companion with a sympathetic ear. You will find yourself constantly confronted with passages you simply must read aloud.

``Listen,'' you will demand, and off you will go, for instance, with the author's description of his arrival at Tristan da Cunha:

``At first, there was a patch of settled grey cloud on the far horizon; then as we rolled nearer, a shape became distinct -- a huge cone, its flanks soaring out of the depth with an abruptness that looked almost unreal, as though a child had daubed its idea of an island on the canvas. It had all the appearance of exactly what it was -- a vast submarine volcano, poking up from the mid-Atlantic cordillera, and so tall that its summit pierced the sea and rose 6,000 feet into the sky.''

Or you will want to make someone else see a pair of hummingbirds on Montserrat ``wafting liquidly like tiny brilliant colored kites tugged by invisible twine.''

And how could you possibly keep to yourself the wind on the Falklands, ``so cool and fresh and clean that a quick turn of an evening left you feeling scrubbed down to bright metal''?

Long before this, I should have told you -- though you've probably guessed it from the title -- that this is not your average travel book. No how-to-get-theres or where-to-stays or the best places to eat. In fact, many of the places Mr. Winchester visited are well nigh inaccessible to the average traveler. What he does do is convey atmosphere and people and scenery, a good deal of entertainingly told history, and today's social conditions. And excellent maps are provided.

He has taken as his territory the British Empire, or rather what's left of it. Enough scraps and rocks and countries are conveniently distributed across the face of the earth so that the sun still always shines on something British somewhere. With King George V's reputed last words in mind (``How is the Empire?''), Winchester embarked on a journey that took him three years and covered 100,000 miles, traveling by cargo boat, private yacht, chartered plane, and an RAF VC-10.

To do the book justice, each country should have a review to itself: the enormously thriving Hong Kong (``past imperfect, present tense, future conditional''), for instance, or the Cayman Islands (a tax haven and a ``mixture of the seedy and the greedy''), but especially the numerous specks in the ocean where life is lived as close as possible to the way it was in provincial England during the 1930s.

Once in a while it is a relief to sit at home and let Winchester do the traveling. After all, Gibraltar was summed up by a sailor who remarked that the Rock was also the name given to Alcatraz. And who would want to go, even if he could, to Diego Garcia, leased to the United States after Britain had with ``horrifying callousness'' forcibly evacuated its inhabitants?

Winchester could never be accused of depriving us of the minor perks of travel. Take glimpses of people, for instance. He introduces us to the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands (he was there just as the war began) and, far away in the West Indies, to a happier man enjoying the sunset (``It's like I'm looking at tomorrow'').

Mr. Winchester, a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times (London), is not just taking us for a cruise. Skillfully concealed under all the delicious, thickly spread jam is the solid bread of his report on the empire today. His verdict is a sad one. ``...our success in making an Empire, in running it, in handing back and in winning the respect and, yes, the love even of those whom we had ruled -- our success in all this grand endeavor came in no small part because we cared.... We managed the Empire with men and women of compassion and skill, energy and intellect, and something of a romantic dream about them.''

By and large, he feels that caring has, alas, gone.

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