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Dillard will be hard to eclipse

According to the BBC, many commentators believe that yesterday’s total solar eclipse over the United States will be “the most observed, most photographed and best documented such event in human history”. It will be hard, though, for any observer to improve on Annie Dillard’s account of an eclipse she witnessed over Washington State in February 1979. First published in 1982, it was republished in full this month on the website of The Atlantic magazine, where it can be read without charge until the end of August.

If you miss your chance, you can find the piece in either of two new editions of essays by Dillard published in Britain as part of “The Canons” series by Canongate earlier this year. One of the collections (with an introduction by Geoff Dyer) is The Abundance; the other is Teaching A Stone to Talk, which I’ve mentioned already elsewhere.


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

Shipwrecks, fossils and smugglers

For an episode of Open Country on Radio 4, the folk singer Eliza Carthy explores her home town of Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire coast, famed for fossils, shipwrecks and smugglers. The smugglers used a series of tunnels and interconnected cottages, she is told, and hid their contraband in their clothing, “the ladies in their long Victorian dresses… and some would look pregnant but they weren’t.” To which Carthy responds: “She was about to give birth to a nice 12-year-old single malt.”

Writers on Rathlin

I was reminded this morning, by a piece in The Irish Times, that I ought to be ashamed of myself. Ashamed because, although I grew up on the Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, I’ve never been out to Rathlin Island. It was here, they say, that Robert the Bruce, hiding in a cave, learnt perseverance from the efforts of a web-making spider. It was here, too, that Guglielmo Marconi’s right-hand man, George Kemp, conducted an early experiment with wireless telegraphy, between Rathlin and Ballycastle, on the mainland. In The Irish Times, Bernie McGill tells how her new novel, The Watch House (Tinder Press), was inspired by that pioneering work:

Both Kemp and Marconi appear fleetingly in The Watch House. All the other characters are completely fictional. What I have tried to stay true to is the island itself. For a number of years, the Ordnance Survey map of Rathlin and Ballycastle has hung above my writing desk. I have recited the litany of the island’s place names like a poem or a prayer: Sloaknacalliagh, the chasm of the old women; Kilvoruan, the church of Saint Ruan; Crocknascreidlin, the hill of the screaming; Lagavistevoir, the hollow of the great defeat. Every name tells a story of its own. Each time a character has moved to make a journey, on foot, by boat, by cart, I have plotted their progress across the map as they navigated those dark histories.

Rathlin features, too, in Islander: A Journey Around Our Island Archipelago by Patrick Barkham, which Granta is due to publish in October. Among those Barkham spends time with is Liam McFaul, a native of the island,  who is an organic farmer, a fisherman, a member of the Fire Service and station officer in charge of the coastguard rescue team. He is also the RSPB warden on Rathlin. A warden from the mainland, says Barkham, would struggle with a survey of Rathlin’s six peregrine nests, which are hidden on its vast and inaccessible cliffs. “Liam has known exactly where to find them since he was a boy; a peregrine nest is island intelligence as easily held as who makes the best cup of tea.”


Nazi Germany as seen by the tourist

Travellers in the Third Reich (Elliott & Thompson) by Julia Boyd, which I mentioned last week, was reviewed in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend by Lewis Jones.

Peripatetic poet

If it had been published earlier, I’d have included The Promised Land (Penguin), the debut poetry collection of André Naffis-Sahely, in my roundup of recommended reading for this summer. Out this week, it’s a slim volume that’s portable and transporting at the same time.

Five of the best books on…

I don’t know why I hadn’t come across it before, but I happened on FiveBooks.Com this week while searching for something else. It’s a site where experts are asked to recommend the five best books on their subject and explain their selection in an interview. Among the 1,000-plus interviewees in the archives are Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron and Tim Mackintosh-Smith on travel books and Amy Liptrot on nature writing. It’s a great resource for travellers (and travel writers) keen to brief themselves in advance of a trip. On Turkey, for example, it has books recommended by the novelist  Elif Shafak; on Pakistan, suggestions from Anatol Lieven, who worked there as a journalist for The Times and is the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country; on the American West, there’s the novelist Jonathan Evison, author of All About Lulu and West of Here. Should you need to get up to speed on Ulster unionism, fairy tales or political economy, you’ll find suggestions on those, too. Highly recommended.

Lewis-Stempel wins Wainwright Prize

John Lewis-Stempel, who had two books on the short list, yesterday won the Wainwright Prize for Where Poppies Blow (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). You can read an extract put online by the organisers of the prize.

What’s new in travel books

I’ve already mentioned a few of my favourites among books published in the first half of the year. Here are some of the travel-related books due over the next few months, ranging in subject from Nazi Germany to Japanese cuisine, and in place from Pakistan to the British Isles.

While his fellow graduates from Princeton set off to be “corporate conquistadors”, Kushanava Choudhury went to Calcutta  — which he had left with his family at the age of 12 for New Jersey — to work on the local paper. After postgraduate studies at Yale, he went back again, determined to “make sense of the city that had escaped and defied me [while I was] a journalist.” The Epic City: The World On the Streets in Calcutta (Bloomsbury, August 10) is the result. According to the writer and historian William Dalrymple, it “marks the arrival of a major new talent”.

How did Germany look to visitors — and there were many of them, particularly Britons and Americans — in the run-up to the Second World War? That’s a question Julia Boyd sets out to answer with Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People (Elliott & Thompson, August 10), which draws on scores of previously unpublished diaries and letters. Drawn together, she says, “they generate an extraordinary three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler”.

Stories evoking Amsterdam’s pre-war past, before the dismantling of Jewish culture by the Nazis, feature in Amsterdam Tales (Oxford University Press, August 24), a collection of fiction, memoirs and anecdotes ranging in time from the 17th century to the 21st. Translated by Paul Vincent and edited by Helen Constantine, it is part of a series from OUP that has already included anthologies from Paris, Copenhagen and Vienna.

For his debut Walking the Woods and the Water, which was short-listed for the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award, Nick Hunt retraced the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor on his epic 1930s trek from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. In Where The Wild Winds Are (Nicholas Brealey, September 7), he is borne along by the very forces he is pursuing, starting with the roaring Helm through the Pennines and finishing with the Mistral in the south of France. It’s a book, his publishers say, “that makes the invisible visible”.

What news we hear in the West about Pakistan is rarely good, a fact reflected in the Foreign Office’s advisory page about the country, which is not exactly an encouragement to visit. In Travels in a Dervish Cloak (Eland, September 28), Isambard Wilkinson, who worked there as a foreign correspondent during the “War on Terror”, sets out to explore the land behind the headlines, for what his publishers promise will be “a funny, hashish- and whisky-scented travel book from the front line”.

In his last book, Coastlines, Patrick Barkham beat the bounds of the National Trust’s seaside holdings. In Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago (Granta, October 5), he heads offshore. Inspired by a DH Lawrence story about a man seeking peace on successively smaller islands, he travels through 11 outposts of the British Isles, moving from large to medium to tiny, “seeking… the essence of what it is to be an islander”.

Ten years after their first visit to Japan, which led to the award-winning Sushi and Beyond, Michael Booth returns with his family “to delve deeper into the country’s food culture, to see what we’d missed, and [to] get to know the Japanese a little better”. He tells all — including a story about a chef who sacrificed a limb in pursuit of the ultimate bowl of ramen — in The Meaning of Rice — and Other Tales from the Belly of Japan (Jonathan Cape, October 12).

‘Intrepid Women’ on the World Service

Intrepid Women, a series from 1980 in which Paddy Feeny interviewed the writers Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy, the sailor Clare Francis and the Arctic traveller Marie Herbert, has been added to the BBC’s website as part of the World Service’s archive project.