Author Archive

‘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.

A street summoned in song

Listening to Crooked Calypso, the new album from Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, has reminded me how powerful song can be in summoning a place and what it means, or what it used to mean. “Market Street” is a nine-minute mini rock opera about one corner of Manchester (“We travelled in from Wigan, and we journeyed in from Leigh,/And we headed straight for Poundland, in our hands just 50p.”). And I used to think shopping was boring…

What to read this summer

Wondering what to read on holiday? Here are a few suggestions in a piece I wrote for Telegraph Travel. They take in some of the best new travel books, plus books that touch, in one way or another, on a few of the destinations most popular with British holidaymakers.

Edinburgh’s ‘Outriders’ from the Americas

Travel writing features strongly on the bill for the Edinburgh International Book Festival (August 12-28). Earlier this year the organisers sent five Scottish writers across the Americas, each one travelling with a local writer, to “interrogate the socio-political landscape” of the region. These “Outriders” — including Matthew Tallack (author of Sixty Degrees North), who travelled from Fargo to Tennessee with the Boston-based novelist Jennifer Haigh — will be reporting in a series of events on what they saw and heard.

Other speakers include Garrett Carr, author of The Rule of the Land, about walking the Irish border; Julian Sayarer, whose story of hitch-hiking across the United States, Interstate, was the last Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year; and Madeleine Bunting, whose Love of Country, on her journeys through the Hebrides, has been short-listed for this year’s Wainwright Prize for nature/travel writing focused on the United Kingdom.

André Naffis-Sahely — who was born in Venice to an Iranian father and an Italian mother but grew up in Abu Dhabi —  will be introducing his debut poetry collection The Promised Land (Penguin), which tells of itinerant lives in “disposable cities”.

So… ‘there’s not much to say about airplane journeys’

Gatwick airport in London is expecting its busiest day of the year for outbound passengers this Friday, with 84,000 heading off. Given the security queues they’re likely to join, most of those passengers will understandably be thinking  of the flight as a necessary inconvenience en route to the beach, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Could they be persuaded to change that view? Maybe by reading some of the following…

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage)
If you’ve made expensive journeys to the far north and been denied a sighting of the aurora borealis, you might want to skip the section on night flights. “Sometimes,” Vanhoenacker writes, “I find it hard to remain interested… because [the northern lights] appear so regularly; because they are routine to pilots, ordinary by definition.” Flying, on the other hand, which for most of us means a long wait followed by a cramped seat, is for him a thing of wonder, and a pair of wings “this most charmed of our creations”.

Vanhoenacker, who flies 747s for British Airways, was born in America – to be a pilot, clearly. Taken to Disney World as a child, he couldn’t wait to get back on “the magical vessel” that had brought him there. Having worked as a management consultant (with time to stare out aircraft windows) to pay off student debts, he began flight training in 2001 and is now a senior first officer with BA – and one of those lucky people who can change the weather. If he wakes to an overcast sky in London, he knows he’ll be rising above it.

Join him on his journey, and you’ll see immediately that he’s anything but the aviation equivalent of a petrolhead. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, he touches on Joni Mitchell as well as Mach 1, on T S Eliot as well as tailwinds. In the pages of his book, if not necessarily on your next outing in the economy cabin of his 747, you will find yourself agreeing that “The ordinary things we thought we knew… become more beautiful.”

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)

Through the lives of a fictional family, McCann links three episodes from history: the first non-stop transatlantic flight; the visit of a freed American slave to Ireland; and Senator George Mitchell’s peace-broking in 1990s Belfast. In a cat’s cradle of journeys, the most powerful passages are probably those on the flight in 1919, by Alcock and Brown, in their Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Clifden, in Connemara. It’s a sustained feat of imagination in which McCann inhabits not just the cockpit but the minds of the aviators.

Aloft by William Langewiesche (Penguin Modern Classics)
Before he was a writer for Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, Langewiesche worked as a pilot for 15 years from the age of 18, so editors have pushed him towards aviation. In this collection of essays, he considers how we move about the earth and how we view our place within it. Some are frightening, some reassuring, but all of them are “suffused with the wonder I still feel that as a species we now find ourselves in the sky”.

West With The Night by Beryl Markham (North Point Press/Macmillan)
Beryl Markham (1902-1986) grew up in Kenya, hunting with the Maasai, worked as a bush pilot and became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west. Her memoir culminates with that feat and her Zen-like response when, somewhere over Cape Breton, her engine cut out. Hemingway, who was no fan of hers, said: “[she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers… it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Penguin Modern Classics)
Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) might not have been a model pilot, prone as he was to day-dreaming at the controls and near-fatal crashes, but he made poetry of his experience. This book, which recounts his years flying airmail routes across the Sahara and the Andes, culminates with the story of his miraculous survival following a crash in the Liyban desert in 1936 while he was trying to break the Paris-Saigon record.

Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater (Penguin)

Alexander Frater’s first flight, on December 31, 1946, a few days before his ninth birthday, was on an Empire flying boat from Sydney to the Fiji Islands. In the mid-1980s, he set out to try to recapture the romance of it, following as closely as possible the route taken by Imperial Airways from London to Brisbane in the 1930s. His booklet of tickets was “probably the largest ever issued on British Airways coupons”.

The Wild Blue Yonder: The Picador Book of Aviation edited by Graham Coster (Picador)
This 1997 anthology (edited by my friend and former publisher) includes extracts from Saint-Exupéry, Markham and Frater. If Coster were asked to update it, I’d urge him to add pieces from Langewiesche, Vanhoenacker and McCann. As it stands, though, taking in everyone from WB Yeats to Tom Wolfe by way of Biggles, it’s the perfect rejoinder to Paul Theroux’s assertion (in The Tao of Travel) that “there is not much to say about airplane journeys”.

Hitting the trail with Robert Moor

On Trails, the wonderful debut of the American writer Robert Moor, is now out in paperback (Aurum Press). The book is “on” trails in two senses: it’s the fruit of miles of walking and years of research. He starts with the trails left by organisms of the Ediacaran biota, which became extinct about 541 million years ago, and ends with the longest hiking trail in the world, a global footpath, a collective effort, that’s very much the offspring of the internet. (It’s the International Appalachian Trail — I’d never heard of it until I read his book).

In between, he considers the trails made by insects, animals and man, and the purposes to which they have been put, from finding food to building empires. While the Appalachian Trail, which prompted his inquiry, provides a main line, he branches off it, hiking everywhere from Canada to Morocco and considering the trail as everything from a means of recreation to a metaphor for life. You can now read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

Of men and mules and boats

Among books I’m reading at the moment is One Man and  a Mule by Hugh Thomson (Preface). The title’s a little economical with the truth, as the author has human company much of the way, and the mule’s a bit of a contrivance, given that it shoulders less baggage than its master, but the book is still a companionable account of a coast-to-coast walk across England, from the Lake District to the Yorkshire Moors.

Anyway, I’ve just come across a brief reference in it to the Falklands War, which was fought in the South Atlantic just over 35 years ago. I’m reminded that two travel writers in that same year, 1982, were taking a close look at Britain.

One was Jonathan Raban,  who wrote Coasting after spending four years slowly circling Britain in a 32-foot ketch. His aim: to get the measure of home by putting into port as a visitor. His penultimate chapter is headed “Voyage to the Far North”, a gentle joke on the southerner’s habit of putting the other end of the country at the other end of the earth. (Thomson, who refers to himself as “a soft southerner” but has always liked the North, wonders if his writing about it could be considered, in the PC terms of American intellectuals, “‘voice appropriation’. Could you only write about the North if you came from there?”)

Raban writes:

It took three weeks to reach the Humber from the Thames — about the same time as most small boats take to cross the Atlantic. This made excellent sense: it put Hull at a distance of approximately 2,400 miles from Tower Bridge, which sounds just about right.

As Raban was sailing clockwise around the coast, a fellow author from a really big country, the American Paul Theroux, was travelling in the other direction, by train and on foot. Their friendship, already strained, wasn’t helped when each discovered what the other was planning, but they met anyway, in Brighton. Here are the two literary heavyweights trading exploratory jabs.

Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea (Chapter 4):

It was strange to see a typewriter and a TV set on board, but that was the sort of boat it was, very comfy and literary, with bookshelves and curios.
“This must be your log,” I said, glancing down. The entries were sketchy (“… light rain, wind E S E…”) — nothing very literary here, no dialogue, no exclamation marks.
He said, “I keep planning to make notes, but I never seem to get round to it. What about you?”
“I fiddle around,” I said. It was a lie. I did nothing but make notes…

Raban in Coasting (Chapter 5):

It took Paul less than five minutes to sum up the boat…
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s kind of… tubby and… bookish.”
The phrase rattled me. I rather thought that somewhere I had written it down myself.
“You making a lot of notes?”
“No,” I lied. “I seem too busy with things like weather and navigation to notice anything on land…”

On the Falklands War, Raban proves the more reliable (secondhand) reporter. Theroux writes:

“She put my plate of bacon and eggs in front of me and went to another table and smoked and drank her tea and read her Sun. The headline was SUNK! It referred to the General Belgrano and the 1200 dead men. It was the first of many gloating headlines.

“SUNK” as Raban records, was actually the headline of the Daily Express, which “had an honourable front page”. The Sun’s headline was “GOTCHA!”

On the trail again with Robert Moor

On Trails by Robert Moor, which has just appeared in paperback (Aurum Press), impressed me on its first appearance last year.  It’s a book in which he considers the trail as everything from a means of recreation to a metaphor for life. I see there’s an extract from it on the website of The Guardian.

Winton’s ‘Island Home’

One of my favourite books of last year was Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Wintonwhich is both a celebration of Australia’s wild places and an impassioned argument for their preservation

As I said in a review for The Daily Telegraph, it’s shy of 200 pages, yet airy with the space of the great southern land.

It’s now out in paperback from Picador and, courtesy of the author, you can read an extract from it on Deskbound Traveller.

A real taste of the country

Food doesn’t often figure in travel books mentioned on this site, mainly because most of the books I’m sent are straightforward collections of recipes and shed little light on place. There are a few exceptions, though, and I’ve mentioned the best of the recent arrivals in a roundup.