Europe Archive

Between Scotland and England — but a place unto itself

My review of The Debatable Land by Graham Robb (Picador), a fascinating book about a territory that once lay between Scotland and England but was part of neither, appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph last weekend but isn’t online. The Telegraph, for some reason, no longer puts much of its literary material into cyberspace, but you can read the review here on Deskbound Traveller.

Iain Sinclair, A-Z

Iain Sinclair’s The Last London, which has been promoted as his farewell to a city whose streets he has tramped and written about for 50 years, has just been published in the United States. To mark the occasion, the Los Angeles Review of Books has “An A-Z of Iain Sinclair” that’s entertaining while being educational about the man’s way of working. It was written by Geoff Nicholson, who, like Sinclair, has made good use of the London A-Z street atlas while researching both fiction and non-fiction.

(At the time of UK publication, last year, Sinclair himself delivered a lecture for the London Review of Books and subsequently wrote a piece for the magazine. You can hear the lecture and read the piece on the LRB site.)

Going wild at home with Brian Jackman

Over the past 40 years or so, in his wanderings across sub-Saharan Africa, Brian Jackman (right) reckons he has spent the best part of four years under canvas. He has become renowned for his writing on the African bush and its wildlife, and particularly for his chronicling (with the photographer Jonathan Scott) of the daily drama of life and death on the plains in The Marsh Lions and The Big Cat Diary. But he has also found inspiration closer to home. Close, indeed, to where I’m sitting as I write. I live in Stoneleigh, Surrey, and Jackman, now 82 and long resident in Dorset, lived as a boy a few streets away during the Second World War, over the road from my nearest sizeable patch of greenery, Nonsuch Park. In a new collection of his journalism, Wild About Britain (Bradt), he writes:

Nonsuch… had once been the site of a great palace built by Henry VIII and subsequently demolished to pay off the gambling debts of the Countess of Castlemaine, into whose hands it had passed the following century. But of course we knew nothing of this. Instead, enclosed by fleets of blowsy elms, its unshorn meadows were our prairies, its hawthorn hedges our African savannas. In one field a landmine had fallen, blowing a deep crater in the clay that quickly filled with rain; and nature, always swift to exploit a niche, soon transformed it into a wildlife haven…

Nonsuch was the perfect adventure playground, where I swung like Tarzan through the trees, made Robin Hood bows from young ash staves and built Apache dens among the cow parsley…

  But Nonsuch wasn’t the real countryside. He discovered the latter on annual holidays to Cornwall, made possible because his father was a railwayman. Then, when the Blitz was at its height, he was sent to live on a farm near Bude:

For two years I never went to school. Instead, I fed the pigs their daily slops, hunted for hens’ eggs in the nettle beds and learned to milk the cows by hand, leaning my forehead against their warm flanks while swallows twittered in the rafters and the pail foamed white between my knees… It was, I suppose, an unhappy time for an eight-year-old, alone and far from home, but its magic haunts me still… Hardship there was, heartache and cruelty, but beauty and wonder, too, and the awakening of a love of all things wild that has stayed with me to this day.

That love is evident in every piece in Wild About Britain — whether Jackman is in search of the spirit of Laurie Lee in the Cotswolds or watching an otter in Shetland; whether he is introducing us to his favourite corner of Dorset (“a rumpled, tumbling green-gold land of secret combes and sensuously rounded plum-pudding hills”), or striving to understand the single-mindedness of one of his angler mates in pursuit of roach (“A trio of mute swans float past like icebergs in the swirling current, and my mind drifts with them.”).

Many of the pieces appeared first in The Daily Telegraph, and some of them I read before they appeared in print. They never needed editing, just breathing on. My favourite piece in the book is one that embraces two of Jackman’s greatest passions: Cornwall and peregrine falcons. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller. Then you really ought to buy the book.

Fictional route to the Faroe Islands

I’ve never been to the Faroe Islands, those 18 final stepping stones of northern Europe. If I don’t make it there this year, I’ll certainly read The Brahmadells, which according to Joel Pinckney, an intern at The Paris Review, is “a captivating and enlightening immersion into [the] place”. The novel, by Jóanes Nielsen, is one of the first books to be translated into English from Faroese. Pinckney says it “tells a story both intimate, tracing the complex familial legacy of the Brahmadells and other families over several generations, and general, weaving historical documents and characters into its narrative thread”. He interviewed the American translator, Kerri Pierce, for The Paris Review website. You can read a brief extract from the novel itself on the site of the American publisher, Open Letter.

Morality and the Irish border

According to the crime writer Anthony Quinn, the border on the island of Ireland, made suddenly visible again by the Brexit talks, has always been about “more than checkpoints, fortified police stations and a sudden deterioration in the road surface”. In his view, since partition, it has contributed to “a distortion in the psyche and the moral view”. He explains how in a piece for The Irish Times.

Wartime Naples, as seen by Norman Lewis

The documentary based on Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, which I mentioned on its release last year, was screened on BBC Four at the weekend. If, like me, you missed it, you can catch up on the BBC iPlayer.

Words on the wind

On a day when some parts of the British Isles are being swept by what the BBC calls “the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia”, that excellent website Caught by the River has published an extract from Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are, which I reviewed recently.

‘Where the Wild Winds Are’: an invigorating blast of a book

My review of Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are (Nicholas Brealey) appeared in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph yesterday. You can now read it on Deskbound Traveller.

Down to the frozen sea with Clare

Horatio Clare has been out on the water again. His last book for adults, Down to the Sea in Ships, a lyrical account of the tough trade of container shipping, was the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. For his next, Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North, he joins the crew of the Finnish icebreaker Otso in the Bay of Bothnia, between Finland and Sweden, as they open up lanes, tow merchant ships and dislodge them from the ice. The book is due to be published by Chatto & Windus on November 9; Clare will be talking about it at Stanfords, the travel bookshop, in London, on November 16.

Talking borders in ‘The Paris Review’

Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, which I have mentioned here a few times, was long-listed last week for the Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) for non-fiction, worth £30,000 to the winner. Yesterday, Jeffery Gleaves, digital editor of The Paris Review, put online his interview with the author.