Europe Archive

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.

Heard the one about the Swedes and America’s national parks?

One of my favourite books last year came from the butterfly mind of the Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg, author of that unlikely bestseller The Fly Trap. In The Art of Flight, published as the United States marked the centenary of the founding of its National Parks Service, Sjöberg told how two of his fellow Swedes had had a hand in that great project designed to ensure that “virgin reserves should be placed here and there throughout the country, like Sundays in a landscape of weekdays”.

This week, The Art of Flight comes out in paperback from Penguin (£9.99). Courtesy of the author and his publisher, you can read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

East Anglia on my mind

I’ve got East Anglia rather than Carolina on my mind. In the past week, I’ve watched Richard Alwyn’s quirky BBC4 film Into the Wind, in which he follows Tim Dee’s attempts to capture “the song of the earth” on The Wash (right); finished reading Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (which I should have read a long time ago); and dipped into a recent (2015) anthology, Est, from the independent publisher Dunlin Press (one of whose founders, Martin Bewick, has, I see, just brought out a volume of his own poetry, Scarecrow).

Dee has spent much of his life recording people (often poets) in and out of doors for radio. He says that as he has grown older he has become “more and more keen on listening to the sound of the world after we’ve all shut up.” That’s what he sets out to do around the Wash, with Alwyn following his efforts.

It is, essentially, a film of a bloke wandering around, talking about the weather and trying to record pure wind. There’s not much to see beyond long flats and big skies, not a lot happens, and the viewer is denied close-ups of the birds Dee watches from time to time through his binoculars. It shouldn’t work as a piece of TV, and yet it does. If you missed it last week, it’s still available (for another few weeks) on the BBC iPlayer.

Richard Mabey is another man with a keen ear for wild sounds. Until February, when I picked up Nature Cure while browsing in a bookshop, I’d been familiar with his reputation, but not with his writing. The author of some 30 books, including the bestselling Flora Britannica and a prize-winning biography of Gilbert White, he has long been regarded as one of Britain’s finest writers on the natural world. Nature Cure makes a pretty good introduction to the man and his work. It’s about the depression that overcame him when he had finished writing Flora Britannica, his forced removal from a house in the Chiltern Hills where he had lived for half a century and his relocation to an entirely different landscape, in Norfolk. Arriving there, in a mood as long and low as the fens, he came to feel, over the space of a year, the “healing currents of the outdoors.”

Those currents are in evidence, too, in Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, edited by MW — Martin — Bewick and Ella Johnston (co-founder of Dunlin Press). It’s a collection of prose and  poetry by people with an interest in East Anglia — a landscape that, in the view of the novelist and film-maker Chris Petit, who has written a foreword, is “the most cinematic… that we have.”

Contributors include Rosie Sandler, who lives near Maldon, in Essex, but was born in the North, where she “learned a hundred words for rain, spooned from my grandmother’s lips”. For her, East Anglia is a place

where there’s no need
for rain
because it’s everywhere:

this estuary
gaping its teeth
to the sky,
spitting out herons
and egrets,
gargling swans like gutturals.

New Jersey to the Hebrides

“Seventeen square miles in eight minutes of latitude may be the next thing to nothing,” writes John McPhee, “but after a short time it becomes a continent.” The continent is Colonsay, in the Hebrides, land of his forefathers, to which McPhee moved his family from New Jersey in 1969 to write an account that originally appeared in The New Yorker.

His portrait of the island, its inhabitants and their absentee landlord, The Crofter and The Laird, the third of his books to be republished in Britain by Daunt Books (£9.99, paperback), is both fond and frank. When it was written, Britain was on the verge of entering “the Common Market”, but some things probably haven’t changed, including the speed with which word gets around. When a chicken ran under the wheels of his car, McPhee says, “News of the death… apparently reached every ear on the island before the pinfeathers had settled to the ground.”

Fences on the ground and in the head: Kapka Kassabova’s ‘Border’

Kapka Kassabova’s Border is one of the best travel books — indeed, one of the best non-fiction books — I’ve read in a while. It’s about the land where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey run into one another. It’s also about fences both on the ground and in the head; about the frontiers between the real and the imagined, between the scientifically proven and the remotely possible. My review of it, which appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph last weekend, is now online on Deskbound Traveller.

You might also enjoy pieces Kassabova has written recently for The New Statesman and The Guardian and an earlier one (from 2014) for 1843 magazine (formerly Intelligent Life), part of The Economist group.

On the Irish border with Garrett Carr

Book of the Week on Radio 4 from 9.45am today is Garrett Carr’s The Rule of the Land, which I have mentioned a few times on Deskbound Traveller.

Peregrine’s Tour de France

Anthony Peregrine left Lancashire for the Languedoc three decades ago and has been writing about his adopted country ever since, quite often in the pages of The Daily Telegraph. He’s just begun his own 2017 “Tour de France”, and opens in Roussillon with his unmatchable joie de vivre.

Travelling on the airwaves

The Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has had an enduring relationship with Barcelona. He first went there at the age of 20 in September 1975 — shortly before the death of Franco —  and stayed on for three years to teach English, returning 10 years later to write his love letter to the city, Homage to Barcelona. He has just been back again for a programme in the Radio 4 series Reimagining the City, broadcast this morning.

I thought I knew a bit about Barcelona (though it’s 15 years since I last spent much time there), but some of what he said was new to me, including his revelation that the revival of the old part owes much to an influx over the past 20 years of Pakistanis. The new arrivals, he says, have been welcomed by the Catalans, with whom they share a belief in hard work and intense family business.

The first part of Laura Barton’s 24 Hours of Sunset (see below) went out on Radio 4 on Thursday and can now be heard on iPlayer. The second part, which takes her from Sunset Strip out to the coast, will be aired next Thursday.

Earlier in the week on Radio 4, Start the Week, under the chairmanship of Amol Rajan, editor-at-large of The Independent, touched on both the physical landscape of the British Isles and the mental and moral one. The contributors were Nicholas Crane, whose new book is The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present;  Madeleine Bunting, author of Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey; the historian David Olusoga, presenter of the new BBC2 series Black and British: A Forgotten History; and Imtiaz Dharker, who was part of a “Shore to Shore” tour from Falmouth to St Andrews by four female poets earlier this year.