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Travel writing at September’s festivals

Events featuring writing on travel and place over the next couple of months include the following:

Cardiff Book Festival (September 7-9), where Angus Roxburgh and Trevor Fishlock, who have reported from Moscow for, respectively, the BBC and The Daily Telegraph, discuss modern Russia and “the good, the bad and the ugly side of being a foreign correspondent”. With Wales celebrating its coastline in 2018 with a “Year of the Sea”, Ifor ap Glyn, the National Poet, joins Dafydd Elis Thomas, the Culture Minister, and Lleucu Siencyn, chief executive of Literature Wales, to discuss what words and waves mean to the nation.

Wigtown Book Festival (September 21-30), where Aida Edemariam will tell how she immersed herself in the landscape of Ethiopia to write The Wife’s Tale, a biography of her grandmother, Yetemegnu, who was born in the northern city of Gondar and died five years ago aged nearly 100; Damian Le Bas tells of his journey through Gypsy Britain for The Stopping Places; Guy Stagg recalls his 10-month pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, recounted in The Crossway; Nicholas Blincoe talks about the small but historic place he called home for 20 years, and whose history he has written in Bethlehem: Biography of a Town; Cameron McNeish, “who embodies Scotland’s love affair with the outdoors”, talks about a life in the mountains as recalled in There’s Always the Hills; and Tristan Gooley, “the Natural Navigator”, introduces his latest book, Wild Signs and Star Paths.

Marlborough Literature Festival (September 27-30), where Tim Dee will be talking about Ground Work: Writings on Places and People; Lois Pryce, author of Revolutionary Ride, will recall her adventures on a motorbike in Iran; and Aida Edemariam (see above) will be talking about The Wife’s Tale.

Ilkley Literature Festival (September 28-October 14), where William Atkins reports on his journeys in desert places for The Immeasurable World; Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin introduce their primer on a new geological age: The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene; Paul Scraton (born in Lancashire but based in Berlin) reports on his journeys along the German Baltic coast for Ghosts on the Shore; Joshua Jelly-Schapiro talks about his book Island People: The Caribbean and the World; and Richard Morris argues that Yorkshire, as the subtitle of his new book has it, is “England’s Greatest County”.

The scientist playing bear in the Arctic

Conducting scientific research in the Arctic is expensive, hard and dangerous. Studying the creatures who live there sometimes calls for a novel approach, as Tim Flannery reveals in a piece for the The New York Review of Books about the work of the conservationist Joel Berger:

Berger decided to try to determine whether musk oxen fear bears, reasoning that if they did, then bears must be significant predators. So he dressed in a bear costume and approached herds of musk oxen, recording their response. Just to be sure that it was the bear costume they were responding to, he also approached the same herds dressed in a caribou outfit.

Berger discovered that the approach must be made from at least a mile away and, like that of a bear bent on attack, it must not be direct. With a wind-chill factor of–15° C and a skin of ice over the snow, on his first attempt Berger took an hour and a half to get within forty-five yards of the herd. Then a bull charged—from twenty-five yards away. Instinct kicked in, and he tossed the head of his bear costume skyward, causing the confused bull to halt. Berger then struggled through the deep snow toward his colleagues, who were approaching on their snowmobiles.

The astonishing thing is that Berger did not give up but repeated the exercise again, and again and again, over deep snow, sharp rocks, and permafrost, enduring hours of agonizing cold. At most, he got to record two encounters per day, but often only one. Over the years, he built a data set of more than one hundred encounters and got charged “seriously” by bulls four times. Always, in the back of his mind, a question lurks: What if, while dressed in his costume, he meets a real bear?

Travel writing’s far from dead

In the “Book clinic” slot of The Observer yesterday, a reader asked: “Is travel writing dead in the age of social media?” Sara Wheeler answered with a  robust “no”, and a challenge to users of Twitter.

A lough where landscape and history meet

The border between Northern Ireland the the Republic of Ireland runs through Lough Foyle. For 1843 Magazine (the culture, lifestyle and ideas magazine from The Economist), Garrett Carr has taken a trip round a lake that could soon divide Britain from Europe. If you haven’t read it, by the way, I thoroughly recommend Carr’s book about Ireland’s border country, The Rule of the Land (Faber & Faber), which was short-listed for the 2017 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

Raban competition winner

Congratulations to Rob Jones, of Newport, Wales, who has won the Deskbound Traveller competition for all five Jonathan Raban books reissued by Eland Publishing. Happy reading to him, and thanks again to Eland for putting up the prize.

Nicolson wins Wainwright Prize

The 2018 Wainwright Prize, for travel/nature writing focused on Britain, was awarded today to Adam Nicolson for The Seabird’s Cry (William Collins), which is both a celebration of life on the wing and a warning of the threats the birds face from the action of human beings.

The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan

Thanks to Tim Dee for directing me, via his Twitter feed, to a piece by Joshua Cohen on the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, extracted by Tablet Magazine from Cohen’s new book of essays, Attention, which Fitzcarraldo Editions will publish on August 14. It’s educational, entertaining and — as Tim Dee says — in places  exhausting. (Cohen, who lived and worked for half a dozen years as a journalist in Eastern Europe, is not a writer to waste research: “Both Nisanov and Iliev were born in the most venerable of the Mountain Jewish auls, Quba. Pronounced Guba. Actually, they’re from a Jewish enclave located just outside Quba, which in Azeri is called Qırmızı Qəsəbə, and in Russian is called Yevreiskaya Sloboda (Jewish Town), though under the Soviet period its name was changed to Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Town).”) Don’t try to read it on a phone.

On America’s border (No — not that one.)

America’s border with Mexico has been generating a lot of words, not just in news and feature pieces but in books as various as William Atkins’s The Immeasurable World and Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of his years as a US Border Patrol agent. (Cantú also popped up last weekend on BBC2 in Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border, briefing the road-tripping comedian on musicians but without being given a chance to plug his own book.) Porter Fox (what a great byline!) has been preoccupied with a quieter American frontier: the one between the US and Canada. To write his new book, Northland (W W Norton & Company), he spent three years travelling about 4,000 miles from Maine to Washington. He told The New York Times: “I started the way every other northland explorer had for the last 400 years: I packed a canoe, tent, maps and books, and headed for the line.” Outside Magazine has an excerpt from his book on territory in Montana known as the Medicine Line (“named by Native Americans for how the US Calvary magically stopped pursuing them at the US-Canada boundary”).

On this day in 1862…

…John Hanning Speke made a triumphant note in his diary:

 Though beautiful, the scene was not exactly what I expected; for the broad surface of the lake was shut out from view by a spur of hill and the falls, about 12 feet deep, and 400 to 500 feet broad, were broken by rocks. Still it was a sight that attracted one to it for hours — the roar of the waters, the thousands of passenger-fish leaping at the falls with all their might, the Wasoga and Waganda fishermen coming out in boats and taking post on all the rocks with rod and hook, hippopotami and crocodiles lying sleepily on the water, the ferry at work above the falls, and cattle driven down to drink at the margin of the lake, — made, in all, with the pretty nature of the country — small hills, grassy-topped, with trees in the folds, and gardens on the lower slopes — as interesting a picture as one could wish to see. The expedition had now performed its function. I saw that old father Nile without any doubt rises in the Victoria N’yanza, and as I had foretold, that lake is the great source of the holy river which cradled the first expounder of our religious belief.

John Hanning Speke, The Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, 1862.

Deserts, and what the mind makes of them

My review of The Immeasurable World (Faber & Faber), in which William Atkins explores deserts and what the human mind has made of them, appeared in the print edition of The Daily Telegraph today. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

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