Author Archive

Of pilgrims and salmon

Guy Stagg will be reading from The Crossway (Picador) and discussing his walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem at the North Downs Way Pilgrims Festival (September 26).

Adam Weymouth will be reading from Kings of the Yukon (Particular Books), about his 2,000-mile journey by canoe down the river through Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea, at the South West Outdoor Festival in East Soar, Devon (October 5-7). There will also be screenings of The Yukon Assignment, which follows two Cornishmen, Chris Lucas (34) and his actor father Niall (64), as they canoe the river.

Sinclair and the Shard

From the windows in our loft, 15 miles or so from central London by road, the Shard is an arrowhead bound for space. Iain Sinclair, in the inner borough of Hackney, has it jabbing in his eye:

It assaults you: vanity in the form of architecture. Desert stuff in the wrong place. Money laundering as applied art. Another unexplained oligarch’s museum of entropy for the riverbank. A giant dagger serving no real purpose: an exclamation point on the Google map of an abolished city once called London.

  That passage is from The Last London, which was published in Britain last autumn and billed by Sinclair’s publishers as “the final chapter in [a] life-long odyssey through the streets of the Big Smoke”. The book, which appeared earlier this year in the United States, has just been reviewed in The New York Review of Books by Ian Jack, who says:

English matter-of-factness will never be [Sinclair’s] game; he is indefatigable in his pursuit of the ineluctable, and often his prose succeeds (or fails) like poetry does, as a fleeting glimmer of something that can’t be made sensible.

Bookmark: travel at October’s festivals

Cheltenham is the festival to head for in October if you want to pack a lot of vicarious travelling into 10 days. These are some sessions from the programme touching on travel, place and nature…

Cheltenham Literature Festival (October 5-14) 

In “Reading Europe: A User’s Guide”, the novelist Sebastian Faulks assembles a crack team of translators, writers and publishers committed to getting us to read beyond our borders: the novelist and Man Booker International judge Elif Shafak, the acclaimed translator Daniel Hahn, the European literature specialist Rosie Goldsmith and the publisher Christopher MacLehose, who has introduced British readers to authors as diverse as Javier Marías and Stieg Larsson. 

   Guy Stagg (The Crossway), who walked 3,440 miles from Canterbury to Jerusalem in the hope of mending himself after mental illness, and Leon McCarron (The Land Beyond), who travelled 1,000 miles on foot through the Middle East, discuss with Julia Wheeler the transformative power of walking and what role pilgrimage and slow travel have in our contemporary turbulent world.

  Peter Moore, author of Endeavour: The Ship and Attitude That Changed the World, and Laura Walker, co-curator of the celebrated British Library exhibition James Cook: The Voyages, join Steven Gale to discuss Cook’s remarkable journeys.

  Malachy Tallack (The Valley at the Centre of the World) and Melissa Harrison (All Among the Barley) discuss with Julia Wheeler their much-praised renderings of the natural world.

  Sulaiman Addonia (Silence Is My Mother Tongue), a novelist who fled Eritrea as a refugee in childhood, and Olivier Kugler (Escaping War and Waves), a reportage illustrator who has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières, join Lliana Bird (radio presenter and co-founder of the charities Help Refugees and The Kindly Collective) to share their stories of encounters with refugees.

  In “Windrush Journeys: Mixtape Stories”, Anthony Joseph, Nick Makoha and Roger Robinson offer a night of poetry and prose, music and image. They tell public and private stories of the lives of those who have come from elsewhere but who have all, for better or worse, called Britain “home”.

  The television presenter Kate Humble talks about Thinking on My Feet, her  new celebration of the pleasures of walking.

  All roads used to lead to Rome. Today, we’re told, they lead to Beijing. Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads, brings the story of his 2015 global bestseller up to date, and reminds us that we live in a profoundly interconnected world. 

  The singer-songwriter Nick Harper presents “A Wiltshire Tale”, a journey through his home county’s history, landscape and wildlife in poetry, spoken word and acoustic music.

  The poet Helen Mort, editor of Waymaking, and some of her contributors share their crowd-funded anthology of prose, poetry and artwork created by women and inspired by wild places, and discuss how we can get more women both out in the wild and on to the page.

  Anna McNuff (The Pants of Perspective: One Woman’s 3,000km Running Adventure Through the Wilds of New Zealand) and Phoebe Smith (Wilderness Weekends; Extreme Sleeps; and Wild Nights: Camping Britain’s Extremes) discuss breaking down the barriers facing women in the outdoors and offer practical tips for building an adventurous life.

  Jan Morris, who has been one of the great chroniclers of our world for well over half a century, looks back on a life of travel and words in a special pre-filmed interview complemented by live discussion from her son Twm Morys and the writer Paul Clements plus a musical performance by Tym and the Welsh singer Gwyneth Glyn. Chaired by Philip Collins.

  Julian Sayarer, whose Interstate: Hitchhiking Though the State of a Nation was 2016 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, and Tim Moore, whose latest  book, Another Fine Mess: Across Trumpland in a Model T Ford, is due out in November, discuss with Georgina Godwin their unconventional journeys and taking the political temperature through encounters with everyday Americans.

   Other events featuring writing on travel, place and nature in October include the following:

Birmingham Literature Festival (October 4-14)

In a session on “The Call of the Wild”, Abi Andrews (author of The Word for Woman Is Wilderness), Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder and editor of a forthcoming anthology, Women on Nature) and the writer and gardener Alys Fowler (author most recently of Hidden Nature: A Voyage Of Discovery) discuss “the life-changing impact of travelling across lesser and greater spaces”. 

  Jasper Winn, author of Waterways, and Nancy Campbell, the current Canal Laureate (appointed by the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust), share their passion for Britain’s canals. 

  David Lindo, author of How to Be an Urban Birder, and Kate Bradbury, author of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, discuss “the new nature writing” and finding inspiration in urban settings.

  Hometown Tales, a new series from Weidenfeld & Nicolson, focuses on fiction and non-fiction from the regions, pairing in one volume a previously unpublished writer with an established one.  Maria Whatton, who has written Hometown Tales: Birmingham with Stewart Lee, and Kerry Young and Carolyn Sanderson, who share bylines on Hometown Tales: Midlands, will discuss their stories in a session chaired by the lecturer and author Anna Lawrence Peitroni. 

Yeovil Literary Festival (October 25-29)

Picture: © Shoot and Scribble

A talk by the globe-trotting adventurer Simon Reeve (left), whose memoir Step by Step: The Life in My Journeys has just been published, is sold out, but there are still tickets for the following:

  The illustrator Jackie Morris talks about The Lost Words, the book of “spells” she created with Robert Macfarlane, which has worked magic in encouraging children and their schools to reconnect with the natural world.

  The adventurer and explorer Benedict Allen tells “the whole unvarnished truth” of his expedition to Papua New Guinea, from which he was rescued by helicopter from a warzone, suffering both malaria and dengue fever.

  The film-maker David Parker presents “Laurie Lee: The Lost Recordings”, in which the writer, on his 80th birthday, shared memories of his early life; and “Flying Scotsman & The Golden Age of Steam”, with clips from Parker’s filming of a project to rebuild the locomotive.

Berwick upon Tweed Literary Festival (October 18-21) 

The journalist Neil Ansell talks about The Last Wilderness, based on a series of solitary walks in the Northwest Highlands in search of wildlife encounters, and explores the pleasures and pains of being isolated in the wilds.

Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film & Music (October 11-14) 

Adam Sisman talks about More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, his second selection from the travel writer’s correspondence.

Borderlines Carlisle Book Festival (September 27 – October 7) 

Jim Crumley will talk about his new book, The Nature of Winter, and its predecessor, The Nature of Autumn, the first two volumes in a quartet based on thousands of hours of fieldwork. He will also present a workshop on nature writing, explaining “why it is literature’s problem child”, and why a healthy body of such work is essential in the 21st century.

  The writer and radio presenter Stuart Maconie will talk about Long Road from Jarrow, his account of the country he saw as he walked the 300 miles to London in 2016 in a retracing of the “Jarrow Crusade” of 1936.

  Graham Robb will talk about The Debatable Land, his story of a territory that once lay between Scotland and England, and of how contemporary nationalism and political turmoil threaten once again to unsettle the cross-border community.

Dorchester Literary Festival (October 17-21)

Jasper Winn will be talking about Waterways: A Thousand Miles on Britain’s Canals, and Tony Juniper  (campaigns director for the Worldwide Fund for Nature) about Rainforest: Dispatches from Earth’s Most Vital Frontlines.

Durham Book Festival (October 6-14)

Damian Le Bas discusses The Stopping Places, his account of what it means to be a Gypsy in Britain today.

Isle of Wight Literary Festival (October 11-14)

Robin Hanbury-Tenison talks about Finding Eden, his story of a year in the Borneo rainforest leading the team of scientists that launched the rainforest movement and his time with the Penan people, for whom he still campaigns as president of Survival International.

  Angus Roxburgh, who has been a foreign correspondent in Moscow for The Sunday Times and the BBC and a translator of Tolstoy, draws on his memoir  Moscow Calling to talk about Russia’s past and present.

  The writer and broadcaster Paul Heiney talks about One Wild Song, his account of the epic sailing trip he embarked on after his son’s suicide.

North Cornwall Book Festival (October 4-7)

Neil Ansell (see Berwick, above) talks to the historian Lisa Cooper about The Last Wilderness.

  Philip Hoare, who seems as much at home in water as on land, talks about RisingTideFallingStar, his compendium of human and animal stories of the sea, which was short-listed for last year’s Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award.

  Horatio Clare, who has travelled on container ships and in pursuit of swallows, talks about Icebreaker, his account of a voyage to the far North. (Next month, Little Toller is due to publish Clare’s latest book, Something of his Art: Walking to Lübeck with JS Bach, in which he recreates a journey across northern Germany that the composer took in the winter of 1705.)

  Laurence Rose, former head of the RSPB’s European programme, introduces The Long Spring, in which he tracks the season’s progress from southern Spain to the Arctic. 

Off the Shelf Festival of Words, Sheffield (October 6-27)

Iain Sinclair talks about The Last London, which is billed as the final chapter in his life-long odyssey through the streets of the Big Smoke. 

  John Harrison reads from his first collection of short fiction for more than 15 years, You Should Come With Me Now, a work that his publishers say crosses boundaries between horror, science-fiction, fantasy and travel writing — “weird stories for weird times”.

  Richard Morris, author of Yorkshire: A Lyrical History of England’s Greatest County, tells how the county took shape as a place and an identity. 

  Kate Humble (see Cheltenham, above) talks about Thinking on My Feet.

  Helen Moat, author of Slow Travel: Peak District, introduces a guide with an emphasis on car-free travel.

Wells Festival of Literature (October 19-27)

Harriet Sandys introduces Beyond That Last Blue Mountain, the story of how she “abandoned her comfortable life in the suburbs of Cumbria and travelled to the North-West Frontier of Pakistan to see the plight of the Afghan refugees who settled there after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan”.

“The most secretly interesting place in America’

Sam Anderson first went to Oklahoma City in 2012 to write about its professional basketball team for The New York Times Magazine. He didn’t know then that he was embarking on a much longer project, a portrait of the city that he says is “the most secretly interesting place in America”. That portrait has now been published in Boom Town (Crown), which, as the subtitle has it, is “The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis.” The book is reviewed in the current NY Times Book Review, and Anderson talks about it in a podcast.

Life and (slow) death on the Chesapeake

I’m hoping to visit Arizona soon to write a travel piece. I’ve been doing background reading, buying guides and other books and making contact with people whose brains I would like to pick — all online. I couldn’t do that in the mid-1990s when I visited the Eastern Shore, that broad peninsula cut off from western Maryland by the great curve of the Chesapeake Bay. The Daily Telegraph, for which I was then working, had started what it called the “Electronic Telegraph” (on November 15, 1994), but its small staff was still separate from the print team, producing a publication that, initially, was updated just once a day. When my piece on the Chesapeake Bay appeared in print, on March 4, 1995, it was accompanied by mentions of the airline and tour operator with which I travelled, the hotel where I stayed and the tourist board that helped me on the ground. I gave telephone numbers for all of them — but no websites. Few organisations then had websites, and few readers — while access was still being charged by the minute — were minded to go online.

In those days, I did much of my most useful background reading when I arrived, following a swift scouring of the shelves of one or two local bookshops. Which is how I found Watermen by Randall S Peffer (Johns Hopkins University Press), a vivid and salty account of a year Peffer spent with the fishermen of Tilghman Island, harvesting the Chesapeake’s oysters, crabs, fish and waterfowl. If you’re heading to the Chesapeake Bay (and even if you’re not), I’d still thoroughly recommend it. But first, maybe, I’d urge you to buy a more recent, more topical book: Chesapeake Requiem by Earl Swift, which was published last month in the United States by Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins, and which I have just started reading. It promises to be an affectionate but inquiring portrait of a singular place.

Swift, a long-time reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, spent nearly two years on Tangier Island, which sits dead centre at the Chesapeake’s broadest point, “at the mercy of nature’s wildest whims”. Those whims are a large part of his story. The inhabitants of Tangier have made their living for generations from crabs and oysters. But the very water that sustains their community — one of 470 conservative and deeply religious people — is also slowly erasing it. A study published in 2015 by Nature suggested that the island, which has lost two thirds of its land since 1850, would become the first American town to fall victim to the rising sea levels brought about by climate change. Donald Trump, who is hugely popular on Tangier, has said there is no reason to worry…

Delayed dispatches from Indonesia

There can sometimes be a gap between the travelling and the writing. The best part of a quarter of a century, in the case of Will Buckingham, who has just published Stealing With the Eyes: Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia (Haus Publishing), an account of a place where he stayed as a “breathtakingly naive” trainee anthropologist between 1994 and 1995. In an interview with OutsideLeft magazine, he says the book is built around encounters with three artists he met in the Tanimbar Islands, “but it is also about this naivety, about the unsettling strangeness of anthropology, about memory and responsibility, and about how my time in Tanimbar was to shape the [rest] of my life”. You can read an extract on the website of the Asian Review of Books.

Boardman Tasker short list announced

The short list was announced this week for the Boardman Tasker Award for mountain literature. Among the seven books is a work of fiction “audaciously told in blank verse” by the Austrian author Christoph Ransmayr, about two Irish brothers intent on climbing an unnamed peak in Tibet. The winner will be named at the Kendal Mountain Festival on November 16.

More on ‘The Crossway’

I’ve mentioned here before Guy Stagg’s The Crossway (Picador), a beautifully written account of his blistering walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem. The author was interviewed last weekend in The Observer by Joanna Moorhead. The book also featured recently in The Spectator, in the “Holy Smoke” podcast on religion and in a review by Sara Wheeler. 

Swapping Mars for the Silk Road

Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’s account of cycling the Silk Road, went on sale in the United States last week after winning its author rave reviews in her native Canada. I hope we’ll soon be seeing it in Britain too. It’s given me more pleasure than most travel books — no: make that most books — I’ve read this year.

   It’s a book about frontiers (a popular subject right now) and breaking through them. On the road, Harris, with her childhood friend Mel Yule, pedals to places where authorities don’t want her to go, including Tibet. On the page, she flits across supposed boundaries between travelogue and memoir, science and poetry. What she writes of Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th-century British naturalist, applies equally well to herself: “His generative sense of wonder seemed to come from a refusal to specialise, to cultivate singular expertise at the expense of soul.”

  Harris, who grew up in small-town Ontario, was intent at an early age on lighting out for the territory. Having read an abridged edition of Marco Polo’s travels at 10 or 11, she vowed to follow him when she grew up. When she reached her teens, however, the world seemed mapped and tamed, so she set her sights on becoming an astronaut. She went so far as to join scientists and engineers who were simulating missions to Mars in the Utah desert, and who kept “in sim”, spacesuits on, even when they went to the local grocer’s. After a fortnight in a bubble, she realised she was “homesick for my native planet”. 

  Having warmed up with a trip across the continental United States, she and Yule cycled the Chinese section of the Silk Road. Then, in between studying at Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harris found the words of the young Charles Darwin ringing in her ears, urging her to “take all chances and to start on travels by land if possible, if otherwise on a long voyage”. So off she and Yule went again, cycling over a year from Turkey back to Tibet and on to the Siachen Glacier between India and Pakistan (“a place Polo didn’t actually visit but surely would’ve despised for its vastness, severity and glaring lack of marketable commodities”).

  The result is a marvellous debut by a wanderer and wonderer, an author with boundless curiosity and a zest for life that enthuses every page. “I don’t just appreciate huge, head-clearing spaces,” she writes; “I need them like a crutch, the sort of hard contours I can grab onto and heave myself up with to behold the vastness out of which we came and to which we will all return.”

  Writers are often counselled to travel alone, and that, as Steinbeck put it, “two or more people disturb the ecologic [sic] complex of an area”. Lands of Lost Borders demonstrates that that advice can sometimes be triumphantly ignored. The two cyclists don’t make a bubble of themselves; and Harris’s account of their friendship and how it works adds another strand to the book. 

  The copy I was sent by the author was a proof of the US edition, still bearing the odd literal and dangler. But the blemishes were minor. The strongest urge I felt on reading it was not to correct it but to go back and savour passages again, including this one:

Deserts have long been landscapes of revelation, as though the clean-bitten clarity of so much space heightens receptivity to frequencies otherwise missed in the white noise of normal life. This was especially true just before dawn on the Ustyurt Plateau, when the horizon glowed and shimmered like something about to happen. As the sun rose it tugged gold out of the  ground and tossed it everywhere, letting the land’s innate wealth loose from a disguise of dust. The air smelled of baked dirt spiced with dew and sage. Our bicycles cast long cool shadows that grew and shrank with the desert’s rise and fall, its contours so subtle we needed those shadows to see them. The severity of the land, the softness of the light — where opposites meet is magic.

And this one:

  We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident, maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure. In places like Tibet, though, the land itself gives those lines the slip. Borders might go bump in the night  because they’re reinforced by guardrails, but also because they exist in only the most suggestive, ghost-like ways. At least that’s how I sensed them on the Aksai Chin — as a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by wind. What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?

  I’m glad Harris has abandoned her interplanetary ambitions. We’re lucky to have her here on Earth.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor has a holiday.