The Magic Triangle

Graham Heath, one of the authors of the Magic Triangle

The Magic Triangle is an indispensable history of youth hostels around the world.

Written by two men from the international federation of youth hostels it is a definitive history of youth hostels around the world and in many different countries. Given its scope, it’s unlikely to be equalled or overtaken. It is rarely available today.

Published in 1982, the book runs from the beginning of youth hostels in Germany in 1909 to their expansion into South America in the 1970s.

Graham Heath began his involvement with youth hostels in England and Wales in 1937 when he was assistant national secretary while Jack Catchpool was in the USA. Heath’s father, St George Heath, had taught Catchpool at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college in Birmingham.

After the war Heath became YHA’s international officer, providing advice and arranging tours in Europe for youth hostel members in the aftermath of the second world war. In 1968 he became Secretary General of the international federation, equivalent to today’s chief executive. Graham Heath also wrote a biography of Richard Schirrmann, the German founder of youth hostels.

Anton Grassl took an active part in re-establishing youth hostels in Germany after the second world war and, as well as being vice chairman of the German youth hostel association from 1949 – 1979, was president, or chairman, of the international federation from 1962 – 1976.

Both were well placed, not only to write the early history of youth hostels, but as key players in the post war development of youth hostels they had a ringside seat on the challenges youth hostels faced through growth and the demands for modernisation to face the changing tastes of young people.

Their book covers the origins of youth hostels at the end of the 1800s and the pioneers in Germany before covering the rapid expansion of youth hostels through Europe in the 1930s. The 1950s and 1960s saw youth hostels spread around the world through all the continents including finally through South America.

The book is simply written with well laid out, easy sections to help cover such a wide field. Both writers use their experience and understanding of the importance of the youth hostel ethos to explain the occasional clashes of ideals within what became a vast movement.

Today the federation faces enormous challenges. The development of the internet has overtaken the need for marketing of youth hostels by countries or by any single body. The many and varied ways in which youth hostels operate around the world challenges the concept of a single organisation to represent such diversity.

At times it is hard to see how such a federation can survive. If only because of its history in the cause of an international community it deserves to do so.

The book’s an essential for anyone wanting to understand the world-wide development of youth hostels. Its value is spoiled only by its lack of availability today. I checked when writing this review and found one copy on Amazon. You won’t get much change from a £20 note if you buy it.

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