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Stagg, Goodwin and the long walk

Guy Stagg’s The Crossway (Picador), about his walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem in the hope of mending himself after mental illness, is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. The author will be in conversation with Jason Goodwin — traveller, historian and creator of the Ottoman sleuth Yashim — at the Marylebone branch of Daunt Books, in London, next Thursday (June 28). They’ll have more than a little in common: Goodwin walked from Poland’s Baltic coast to Istanbul for his portrait of Central Europe, On Foot to the Golden Horn.

Out from ‘Underland’

On his Twitter feed today Robert Macfarlane revealed the cover for Underland, “which explores the lost worlds that lie beneath our feet” and is due to be published next May. It is, he says, “the longest, strangest, deepest, darkest book I’ve ever written – and probably ever will write”. In a piece on his publisher’s website, he writes about working on the cover with the artist Stanley Donwood.

  When I interviewed Macfarlane in 2015, he told me the book had taken him to unfamiliar places not just underground but on the page, and was prompting “new challenges of form and new forms of language”.

Atkins swaps the damp for the dry

For his first book, The Moor, which was short-listed for the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize, William Atkins travelled along the wet backbone of England. For his latest, The Immeasurable World  (Faber), he heads into deserts — including the Sonoran, between Mexico and the United States, where the Trump administration has been following its “zero-tolerance” policy against undocumented migrants. There he spent time both with a group that is helping migrants and with a border patrol officer.

  Atkins was on Start the Week  with Andrew Marr on Radio 4 on Monday, and he will be speaking at the Wealden Literary Festival, in Biddenden, Kent, on June 30.  You can read a brief (600 words or so) extract from his new book on the website of one of my favourite London bookshops, Foyles, and a longer piece he wrote, while working on the book, on the website of Granta magazine.

The Traveller and the resident

The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas (Chatto & Windus), which I mentioned recently, was reviewed last weekend in The Observer by Tim Adams, who thought it a “lyrical, keenly researched… journey in search of authenticity”. Adams’s piece is now online. The Observer also had a review by Kate Kellaway of Notes from the Cevennes: Half a Lifetime in Provincial France by Adam Thorpe (Bloomsbury Continuum), who moved with his family to France 25 years ago and has written about it in columns for the TLS. Kellaway says it is an “affectionate, appreciative and perceptive” memoir, but one that “serves as a corrective to unchecked dreams of living in France”.

Raban revisited

“Which is your favourite travel book?” I’m often asked. I read a lot of them, for review and pleasure, so I’m adding to my favourites every year. But there are a few I re-read regularly. One of those is Coasting, one of five titles by Jonathan Raban that is being reissued by Eland Books, that great reviver of the out-of-print in travel classics. 

  Raban has written three novels as well as nine-or-so works of non-fiction; he’s a writer who travels rather than a traveller who writes. “The writer’s working conditions,” he has said, “tend to drive him to travel, just as they often drive him to drink.” Coasting demonstrates that you don’t have to be driven far to write a great book: he approaches home as if he’s not an Englishman but a foreigner, sailing into Britain in the year of the Falklands War (1982) in his 30-foot ketch:

  Even when you’ve spent just a few hours at sea, it is always a bit difficult to learn to walk on land. After water, earth is a sickmakingly unstable element… At first I took the news of the war as another symptom of this general topsy-turviness of things on land. I didn’t trust it, any more than I trusted the scaly cobbles of the fish market or its green filigree roof, which was swaying dangerously overhead. It seemed beyond belief.

  Coasting is a portrait of home that’s both fond and wickedly funny (and, weirdly, bang on the Brexit button: “England, seen from the sea, looks so withdrawn, preoccupied and inward… its fringe of garden posted against trespassers.”). It demonstrates powerfully, too, the freedom of the form — assuming there’s a form at all, for travel writing licenses you to write about pretty well anything. The travel writer should be no more constrained by supposed boundaries between genres than an otter is on the River Liddel by a mapmaker’s line dividing England from Scotland.

 Raban, in Coasting, exploits the possibilities to the full. He was inspired by Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), a book Sterne wrote partly to poke fun at a contemporary, Tobias Smollett, and his plodding, linear account of a journey through France and Italy. Raban’s plan was that his book “would be part meditation, part autobiography, part adventure story, and it would, with luck and grace, have the improvised, imaginative structure of a work of fiction, rather than the Gradgrindish, topographical progression from A to B of the conventional travel book.” He succeeded brilliantly.

  “Watching water move,” he writes in Coasting, “is a much sweeeter and less unpredictable way of altering the mind than inhaling the smoke of marijuana.” Reading Raban as he reads water can be similarly effective in opening doors to perception:

  The Irish Sea is, as Seas go, small, shallow and parochial. It responds, as parochial places do, to any news or change with the rapidity of a village. When a gale blows up, the Irish Sea turns instantly to whipped cream; when the wind dies, it goes flat in an hour.

  He is equally good on rivers:

  In the last few days I had noticed that every time I stopped at a town it was like going to a movie. One watched and listened, and knew that what one was seeing and hearing wasn’t for real. Actual life was the river itself. It was the roll of a wake lifting the boat and slamming it down. It was the monotonous stutter of the motor at my back, the buoys, mile-markers, sandbars and the trick the river had of always fading, miles ahead, into the sky, so that one had the illusion of being able to drift right off the surface of the earth into pure emptiness. The river had, quite literally, put me into a trance.

  That passage is from Old Glory, another of the books that Eland is reissuing, in which Raban  tells of his journey in a 16-foot boat down the Mississippi. The other titles are Arabia, a portrait of the Gulf states prompted by curiosity about the home lives of Arabs he’d seen holidaying in London in the 1970s; Hunting Mister Heartbreak, in which he sets out to discover America and the immigrant experience anew; and For Love & Money, which is about making a living from words. All of them were already on my shelves, and all repay re-reading, but the last — which I bought in Picador paperback in 1988 (can it really be 30 years ago?) — is one of the most well-thumbed. 

  Raban was born in 1942 and taught English and American literature at university before turning to writing. Younger readers coming to his work for the first time thanks to Eland — especially those struggling to pay rent  — will be envious to learn just how little he could get by on in London when starting out. In 1969, he recalls, “For £7 a week (or about 300 words) I rented a large and comfortable room in a flat in Highgate and set up in business as a professional writer.” Younger writers (and quite a few older ones) will marvel at an age in which a critic could afford to read a book twice before pronouncing on it.

  If his finances now seem like the stuff of fantasy, his teach-ins on his chosen trade need no updating. Here he is on the difference between the journey and the story, and the process of unearthing the second from the first: 

  Memory, not the notebook, holds the key. I try to keep a notebook when I’m on the move (largely because writing in it makes one feel that one’s at  work, despite all appearances to the contrary) but hardly ever find anything in the notebook that’s worth using later… The keeper of the notebook sounds stupid and confused. He grouses too much about tides and timetables, and all the forgettable mechanics of the journey; he fails to notice what I remember in near-photographic detail…

  Memory, though, is always telling stories to itself, filing experience in narrative form. It feeds irrelevancies to the shredder, enlarges on crucial details, makes links and patterns, finds symbols, constructs plots. In memory, the journey takes shape and grows; in the notebook it merely languishes, with the notes themselves like a pile of cigarette butts confronted the morning after a party.

  Raban has long been resident in Seattle, where I was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 2008. He had a stroke in 2011, precipitating a five-year term of writer’s block, from which he is now recovering. While we wait for his next new work, the Eland reissue is a reminder of the endless pleasures awaiting in his back catalogue.

‘Skybound’: turning rupture into rapture

My review of Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine (Picador) appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph today. It’s  a remarkable book, in which the writer, for whom the world had closed down as a result of cancer, feels it reopen, and carries the reader up on the thermals with her. You can read my review here on Deskbound Traveller.

The old (Gypsy) ways

In The Stopping Places (Chatto & Windus), Damian Le Bas, a Gypsy by birth, journeys round Britain from the fixed community he grew up in to “the world of wagons and tents that passed in the decades before I was born”. His book, which was serialised in The Guardian, has also been reviewed in The Spectator by Sara Wheeler, who describes it as “an excellent account of folk most of us don’t understand”.

Travelling the world in Edinburgh

It’s a while since I’ve been to Edinburgh. This year’s bill for the Book Festival (August 11-27), which is now online, is making me think I should be booking for the duration. Writing on travel and place is particularly well represented. Tickets will be on sale from June 26.

  Rory MacLean will be talking about In North Korea, a book with which he and the photographer Nick Danziger aim “to catch a glimpse of life away from the performance, as it is lived in the world’s most secretive nation, at a turning point in its history”.

  Richard Lloyd Parry will discuss Ghosts of the Tsunami, his account, told through the stories of survivors, of the 2011 earthquake in north-east Japan (a book that recently won him the £20,000 Rathbones Folio Prize).

  Tim Dee (author of The Running Sky and Four Fields), will talk about Ground Work, the collection he has edited of writing on connections between place and people.

  Rose George (author of Deep Sea and Foreign Going), Maya Jasanoff (author of The Dawn Watch, about Joseph Conrad and globalisation) and the Brazilian philosopher Djamila Ribeiro, a major figure in the Afro-Brazilian women’s rights movement, will discuss the seas as a space for trading.

   James Campbell of the TLS and Rosemary Goring, literary editor of The Herald, will consider the city of bedsits, bachelors and bombed-out buildings that is “Muriel Spark’s London”.

  Graham Robb will talk about The Debatable Land, a territory that once lay between Scotland and England but belonged to neither.

  Alastair McIntosh (author of Poacher’s Pilgrimage, a journey through the Outer Hebrides) will compare notes with Guy Stagg (author of The Crossway, about a walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem, due to be published by Picador on June 14).

  Suzy Hansen (who writes for The New York Times Magazine from Turkey and is author of  Notes on a Foreign Country) and Sarah Rainsford (witness for the BBC to the end of Cuba’s Castro era and author of Our Woman in Havana) will offer “portraits of countries that American influence can barely reach and… discuss the issue of America’s place on the global stage”.

  Ian Buruma, editor of The New York Review of Books, will discuss his memoir of 1970s Japan, A Tokyo Romance.

  Abir Mukherjee, Sandip Roy, Nalini Paul and Sampurna Chattarji will mark 70 years of Indian independence by mapping the connections, ancient and contemporary, between Scotland and India.

  Bruno Maçães, who was Portugal’s Europe Minister from 2013 to 2015, will present The Dawn of Eurasia, which “weaves together history, diplomacy and vivid reports of a six-month journey from Baku to Samarkand, Vladivostok to Beijing… in an effort to persuade us that our future lies in developing a supercontinent called Eurasia”.

  The Canadian-born artist and poet JR Carpenter and the Catalan writer Alicia Kopf will discuss polar explorations. The former’s collection An Ocean of Static “is generated from ship logs and code language”; the latter has written a hybrid novel, Brother in Ice, “from research notes, a fictionalised diary and a travelogue of polar exploration”.

  Claudio Magris (author of Danube and, most recently, a collection of essays, Journeying) and Francis Spufford (whose novel Golden Hill won last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize and whose latest work is True Stories & Other Essays), will talk on the theme that “Life is a journey”.

Wainwright Prize long list

The long list has been published for the Wainwright Prize for the best book of travel, nature or outdoors writing focused on Britain. John Lewis-Stempel, as I predicted, is on it for The Wood (Doubleday). The 13 titles also include The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Kay (Hamish Hamilton), a “book of spells” that has worked magic in encouraging children and their schools to reconnect with the natural world, and Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington (see earlier post). The short list will be published on July 5 and the winner named on August 2.

In the Black Hills and the Badlands

Picture © MICHAEL KERR

My article for Telegraph Travel about South Dakota, pegged to the 70th annniversary of the start of work on the Crazy Horse Memorial, is now online

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