Latest Posts

See what's new

Writing the Caribbean

Starting this afternoon at 4pm, Radio 4 has two programmes under the banner “Writing the Caribbean”. In the first, the actor and  writer Elisha Efua Bartels talks to the Trinidadian writers Sharon Millar, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw and Andre Bagoo about the sense of place in their work. The second programme is due to be broadcast at the same time next Monday.

Sitting up with the storytellers of the South

suwtdjktI’m delighted to hear that a new edition has been published today (by Arcade, in the United States) of Sitting Up with the Dead, Pamela Petro’s account of her first trip to the southern United States, and her encounters with the great storytellers who live there. She travelled from the Atlantic seaboard across the high country of Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, seeking out people who were keeping alive the narrative tradition and saying to them, “Tell me your tales.”

“Two covers, a spine, and a few hundred pages,” she writes in the prologue, “do not have nearly as much personality as living, cussing, dancing, spitting, smoking, eating, drinking humans.” She’s too modest: turn her pages and you’re with her on the journey — which is why I was so keen to buy an extract for The Daily Telegraph when the book first appeared in Britain in 2001.

The new edition has a foreword from Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the National Storytelling Festival. It also has a plug on the cover from Paul Theroux, who recently travelled to the same part of the country for his own book, Deep South: “The origins of Southern literature are its folktales and local stories,” he says, “and the South is full of storytellers. Pamela Petro has found the best of them. This book is both important as scholarship and great fun as a trip.”

Travel writing: dead or alive?

grantajourneyscover_“Is travel writing dead?” That’s a question considered by a baker’s dozen of writers whose short pieces are scattered among the essays in the current issue of Granta magazine, for which the theme is “Journeys”. Judging by the contents of the magazine itself — among them a timely piece by William Atkins from the US-Mexico border — the answer is: far from it. It’s evolving, adapting to the 21st century and as rewarding a form, for writer and reader, as ever.

Among those pondering the health of the genre are Lindsey Hillsum (best known as international editor for Channel 4 News) and the Australian writer Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Both make the point that some of the travel stories we most need to hear today are about journeys of necessity rather than choice; journeys made by asylum-seekers and refugees.

There are contributions, too, from Robert Macfarlane and Geoff Dyer, who disagree over what constitutes life. For Macfarlane, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, published in what he calls the annus mirabilis of 1977, is indisputably great. Dyer, however, argues that “certain titles enjoy a reputation as ‘travel classics’ while falling way below more general standards of literary achievement. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts depends on these standards being dispensed with entirely.”

The issue as a whole makes for a good argument, and a great read. You can find some of it online, but I’d suggest making a journey of your own to the nearest bookshop.

Water that flows in the veins

A beautiful intro to an excellent piece, by Peter Kujawinksi, in The New York Times about Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, which is much more to the locals than a body of water:

Thousands of years ago, every lake was like Great Bear Lake. So pure you could lower a cup into the water and drink it. So beautiful that people composed love songs to it. So mysterious that many believed it was alive. Today, of the 10 largest lakes in the world, it is the last one that remains essentially primeval.

Peregrine’s Tour de France

Anthony Peregrine left Lancashire for the Languedoc three decades ago and has been writing about his adopted country ever since, quite often in the pages of The Daily Telegraph. He’s just begun his own 2017 “Tour de France”, and opens in Roussillon with his unmatchable joie de vivre.

On the borders

Borders have been much on my mind lately — and not just because of an American president’s desire to wall himself off from Mexico. In July 1997 — nine months before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement — I set out to travel by train from County Derry, where I grew up, to Cork. I had to go from Belfast to Dundalk by bus: rail services had been suspended because a signal box had been blown up on the line. In October last year, on a new luxury train, the Belmond Grand Hibernian, I crossed the border twice and didn’t even register I’d done it. Ireland, post-Good Friday, is a healthier place. But what about post-Brexit? Will there be a “hard” border again? Will things get trickier for travellers? Those were questions raised by many strangers meeting on our train last October.

Kapka Kassabova, who was born in Bulgaria and now lives in the Scottish Highlands, has recently been travelling along the border zone “where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey converge and diverge”,  a region she reports on in Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, which was published last week by Granta. In The Guardian at the weekend she wrote:

“It is understandable that borders are creeping into fashion again, lubricated by the passions of various new nationalisms that aren’t at all new – in the same way that, once in the system, viruses aren’t new, just dormant or rampant depending on the general health of the patient. It is understandable because there is an overwhelming sense of fear in many – and a border appears to be ‘a kind of solution’ (the Greek poet CP Cavafy’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, from which this quote comes, is perennially fresh). But it may be useful to recall that, until 1990, for half of Europe’s people, borders were a trauma. The iron curtain was more than a figure of speech. It cut into flesh, into families, into the lives of the unborn.”

I’ve been sent a copy of Kassabova’s book (reviewed yesterday by Sara Wheeler in The Observer), but haven’t yet had a chance to read it. I have, though, read and reviewed a timely account of Ireland’s dividing zone, The Rule of the Land by Garrett Carr (Faber & Faber), which was also published last week. That review is due to appear in the travel section of The Daily Telegraph next weekend.

Carr’s is a marvellous book, in which he contends that Ireland is more divided than any of us suspected — not in two but in three: north, south and borderland. The third state has its own frontier-slipping people, who have their own language. They talk of dolmens — the prehistoric tombs that dot their territory — as “domees”; they say “fornenst” for next to, or up against. Or they will if you can get them to talk at all. For the borderlanders, Carr says, are a people whose conversational tone is always closing; “who say hello in a way that makes you aware it is also goodbye.”

Both Kassabova and Carr were among contributors to a discussion on Radio 3 of borders, led by Anne McElvoy, that was first broadcast last Thursday.


Sayarer wins Stanford Dolman prize for ‘Interstate’

Julian Sayarer last night won the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award for Interstate, a roadside view of  America as seen during a hitch-hiking trip from New York to San Francisco towards the end of the Obama administration. He announced that he was giving half of the £5,000 prize money to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The poem and the journey

The winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award will be announced at a dinner in London on Thursday. Geoff Dyer, who has been shortlisted for White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, was musing in the review section of The Guardian at the weekend on what constitutes travel writing. The poet Billy Collins, he says, “considers himself a travel writer even though the experience of foreign travel plays no part in his work”. I can’t link from here to Dyer’s piece because, for some reason, it hasn’t gone online, but I did come across a revealing interview with Billy Collins on the WorldHum site.

Poetry, says Collins, is “travel writing of the highest order because it provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of consciousness. The poem’s music and its rhythms combine to form the soundtrack to these mental excursions, which carry us in two directions at once: out into the world and back into ourselves, for we read poetry not so much to discover who the poet is as to discover who we are.”


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

A biker girl’s guide to Iran

Lois Pryce’s Revolutionary Ride (Nicholas Brealey), a memoir of her 3,000-mile motorcycle trip through Iran, was published too late for consideration for the “adventure travel” category in the new Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. Judging by Iona McLaren’s review for The Daily Telegraph, however, it could be a contender next year.