Europe Archive

Highlights of a week in travel

Of the tens of thousands of words by travel writers I’ve read in the past week, this passage from Peter Hughes was my favourite:

“The thrill of Armenia’s churches comes not so much from their ancient masonry or antiquities but from their energy as fervent power plants, steeped in the certainties and rituals of the faith they have kept for more than 1,000 years. At Geghard monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site, two churches have been cut into rock. A monk billowed in, enveloped in a cloud of incense and irritation. He swung his rattling censer with the urgency of one fumigating the place against a dangerous outbreak of doubt.”

You can read the whole piece, about Hughes’s journey through both Armenia and Georgia, at Telegraph Travel. Another highlight, again from Telegraph Travel: Fionnuala McHugh,  in China, cruising through the Three Gorges region, a “riverine version of nesting dolls”.

Back to Twenties France with ‘The Foundling Boy’

The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon, published recently in paperback in English, is both a coming-of-age story and a vivid picture of France (and Europe) as it was between the wars. It has won praise from writers including Paul Theroux and William Boyd. I’m delighted to be publishing an extract on Deskbound Traveller, with an illustration by Paul Cox that matches the verve of the writing.

A farewell to Michael Jacobs

MichaelJacobsincafeMichael Jacobs had plenty still to write. When we spoke on the phone about three weeks ago he was back in his beloved Andalusian village of Frailes and hoping to find the time to finish his current project, a book inspired by Velázquez’s Las Meninas, that painting in which reality meets illusion.

I mentioned that I was reading and hugely impressed by The Beast, Óscar Martínez’s account of the hellish journey made by Central American migrants seeking a better life in el norte. Michael had already read it (and was equally impressed), but then he had read everything that was worth reading on Spain and Latin America. He said, not for the first time, that he longed to write a book about Martínez’s country, El Salvador.

But his time and energy were running out. He had been diagnosed on September 26 with cancer, which had spread from his kidneys. In between his sessions for pain relief at a hospice in London, he and his partner of many years, Jackie Rae, had married in Hackney Town Hall. During that phone call, he told me that the following day he was due to see a faith healer, and added, with a chuckle, that “there’ll be a procedure involving lots of water”. I knew then that he didn’t have long left. Last Saturday I got a message from a mutual friend in Spain saying that Michael had died. He was 61.

This was a man who had survived being held prisoner by guerrillas in Colombia; who could be out dancing till the early hours in the bars of Cartagena and then at his desk while others were still nursing their hangovers. It seemed scarcely credible that what had started a few months earlier as “terrible back pain” had seen him off.

Michael Jacobs had already embarked on what might be called his “Latin American period” when I met him about eight years ago. An art historian by education, he had established his reputation as an authority on Spain and an interpreter of the country to the English-speaking world, first with scholarly guidebooks to Barcelona, Madrid and Andalusia, and then with The Factory of Light, his playful chronicle of life in Frailes.

Fiction, family ties and the journals of New World explorers took him to the rest of el mundo hispánico. Long before he set foot in it, he had fallen in love with Latin America through the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, the memoirs of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the “personal narratives” of Alexander von Humboldt (with whom he shared what he described as “a constant wonder in the face of nature”).

His discovery of a batch of letters in an attic led to Ghost Train through the Andes, a recreation of the journey his grandfather had made in Victorian days as an engineer on a railway running from the  port of Antofagasta, in Chile, to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. That was followed by Andes, an ambitious but not wholly successful attempt to get the measure of South America by travelling the length of the mountain range.

Then came The Robber of Memories, for me his best book about the region. The robber is a figure from myth in Colombia who is said to arrive on horseback by night. The phrase also makes for a graphic description of dementia, which afflicted Michael’s mother as he set off to travel the length of the country’s longest river, the Magdalena. Memoir, travelogue and current affairs were woven seamlessly together in a book that exemplified his belief in “travel literature as a poetic transformation of reality”.

Michael was a demanding critic, but unstinting with praise when he felt it was merited. He could be withering about travel writers in general who parachuted on to his patch, and said he would “rather die of poverty” than reinforce some of the stereotypes they regurgitated, among them the notion that “the real Spain is Andalusia” or that the country as a whole is fundamentally Moorish. He had no time for mysticism, and found duende “a particularly irritating concept”. He was gentler with his fellow scribblers as individuals, generous with tips, reading suggestions and contacts.

A couple of years ago I was researching a piece about Segovia, venue for a forthcoming Hay Festival. I found plenty of material about  the poet Antonio Machado (adopted there as a literary son) but little on contemporary writers with any ties to the place. Fearful I might be overlooking some giant, I emailed Michael to pick his brains. The response was swift: “Though most of Spain’s famous writers have passed through the town,” he said, “they have mainly done so to eat suckling pig.”

Michael was a champion of narrative travel writing and an enthusiastic supporter of this website, which is one reason why there is an extract here from The Robber of Memories. Read that, if you haven’t already, then follow the links below to let him direct you to some of his favourite books from the Spanish-speaking world:
books about Colombia
novels and memoirs from Latin America.

To Mayo with Longley, and North with Mort

Over the past few years I’ve come to know and love the landscape of County Mayo, and particularly the remote townland of Carrigskeewaun (“The Rock of the Wall Fern”). Even on the wettest Irish year I’ve got the car across the river and through the tide with groceries and laundry for my fortnight among the waterbirds. I’ve watched a dipper on the Owennadornaun, a merlin hunting for meadow pipits, and golden plovers feeding on the waterlogged duach. After a whole day shore-fishing off Allaran Point and Tonakeera, I’ve come home with one mackerel, cooked with reverence and mustard sauce. I’ve watched otters, the first for ages, rationing binocular moments behind the curtains of the bedroom window as they unravelled out of view.

At least I feel I’ve done all of these things – thanks to the lyrical powers of Michael Longley. I’ve never been to Mayo, but Longley, whom I interviewed in 2006  for a piece on literary Belfast, has since transported me there countless times with his poetry, which I’ve plagiarised in the previous paragraph. He is one of the inspirations behind this site. I’ve long believed that some of the best (but least acknowledged) travel writing is done by novelists and poets.

Further proof of that comes in the form of Division Street by Helen Mort, whom Carol Ann Duffy has described as “among the brightest stars in the sparkling new constellation of young British poets”. Although Mort has already won numerous prizes, this is her first full-length collection (she’s only 28), and it’s one preoccupied with the place where she grew up: the North of England. I’m delighted to be publishing on Deskbound Traveller a poem in which she ventures still farther from the South: North of Everywhere.

(Charlotte Runcie has interviewed Helen Mort for tomorrow’s Review section in The Daily Telegraph. Carrigskeewaun features again in Michael Longley’s latest collection, A Hundred Doors, published in paperback by Vintage.)

Tower of strength

Last month, David Oliete was highly commended in the “One Shot” category of the Travel Photographer of the Year competition for an image of a castell, the human tower that is a tradition in his home town of Tarragona, Spain. He shows equal talent with moving pictures, as you can see in the film below, which conveys, wordlessly, the motto of the castellers (“strength, balance, courage and common sense”) and much else besides.

SOM CASTELLS (We are Human Towers) from David Oliete on Vimeo.

Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorms

In The Living Mountain, to be broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday, Robert Macfarlane will celebrate the walks and works of the Scottish novelist and poet Nan Shepherd, whose writing has changed the way he sees the Cairngorms. In Review in The Guardian today, he recalls how, in retracing her footsteps last September, he enjoyed “an astonishing time of gifts”.

Welcome to the Sphendone

The final part of Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities will be screened on BBC 4 on Thursday. Its presenter, the historian and biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, writes in the Financial Times that the most thrilling place he explored in Istanbul was one never opened to the public: the Sphendone, where horses and charioteers were marshalled before racing and dying in front of baying crowds in the Hippodrome. There, he’ll be holding forth for the camera on the ancient punishments of rhinokopia and elinguation.

Four Fields that stand for the world

fourfieldsjktI can’t help imagining an initial pitch to agent or publisher, made over a beer in a Cambridgeshire pub.

“Right, Tim: The Running Sky was a beautiful book, but the second one is always harder. How are you going to follow it?

“Well, I want to write a book about four fields.”

“What – as in grassy fields?

“Yes, they are all grassed at the moment, as it happens…”

In The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, Stephen Moss (editor, incidentally, of The Hedgerows Heaped with May: The Telegraph Book of the Countryside) chose Four Fields by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape) as one of his nature books of the year. I think it’s going to be one of mine, too.

The fields of the title are the Cambridgeshire fens, a colonial farm in Zambia, the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, and a former cow meadow near the exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in Ukraine: “a few hundred acres standing for the world”. There are digressions and diversions, too, into other plots and acreages, other examples of this “best thing of man, and the thing of his that is nearest to becoming nature”. Dee wants us to look through these places at the wild and how we have messed it up, but also at how we have kept going alongside it.

So far (I’m on page 79), I’ve walked with him through the Fens and into the Maasai Mara. He’s been a compelling guide, combining the attentiveness of the birdwatcher he has been since the age of seven with the soul of a poet. He is as good on wild death as he is on wildlife:

“The new dead steamed as vultures stoked at open ribcages. The old dead liquefied under the sun in a meltdown to meaty molasses. Bones blurred in a hymn of flies. Grass grew livid from beneath, through bleached bone houses. Grass grew livid from within, pulling up from ruptured guts; a last meal germinated, juiced into life by rot. A wildebeest grazed on the grass that sprouted from the stomach of a wildebeest.”

I’ve read countless descriptions of the wildebeests’ great migration and their croc-imperilled crossing of the Mara River. Dee, as he does with fields in general, made me look at it afresh:

“Entering the slapping river they seemed stripped naked, forced to endure a swimming lesson by an instructor who, for all his severities, sits nowhere but in their own heads.”

I’m looking forward to following him further, but I’m conscious, too, that there aren’t many shopping days left before Christmas. So, from page 79, here’s a recommendation: one to buy.

Two novices head for the literary hills

The hills are alive with the footfalls of literary pilgrims, tramping in the wake of DH Lawrence and Sherlock Holmes.

Just over a century ago, DH Lawrence and the woman who would become his wife walked across the Alps. Their footsteps were retraced a few months ago by the Lawrence scholar Catherine Brown and the writer Geoff Dyer (author of that hilarious non-biography of Lawrence Out of Sheer Rage). Brown and Dyer, however, weren’t just hiking; they were also performing for the camera, which tends to complicate things. The film will be screened in January as a BBC2 Culture Show special. Meanwhile, there’s Brown’s report to enjoy, on the experience of being expert on Lawrence but a beginner to filming:

“Lawrence lived constantly in what is by the standards of most people a state of heightened reality. The presence of a huge camera and its implications of immortality helped to heighten my own consciousness, in ways that made me more open to Lawrence – his responses to mountains, flowers, Frieda, the idea of God – than ever. And then came the reality, ever bumpily intrusive…”

You can read the whole piece in the Financial Times.

On the Holmes front, there’s Michael White, in Telegraph Travel, who set off with 70 members of the Sherlock Holmes Society to re-enact, at the Reichenbach Falls,  the Dreadful Circumstances of the Death of Sherlock Holmes. Like Catherine Brown, he was a novice: he’d read scarcely a word of Conan Doyle until he got the invitation.

‘Another summer of love and ice cream’

According to the welcome page of the local authority, helpfully if prosaically translated from Italian into English, “San Benedetto del Tronto is one of the major cities on the mid coast of the Adriatic Sea and is a well known and much-visited tourist resort”. But what kind of a resort is it? Over to a poet, Maurice Riordan. In his latest collection, The Water Stealer, shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, he includes “Postcard from San Benedetto del Tronto”. At a recommended retail price of £12.99, The Water Stealer is the best winter-sun offer I’ve seen this year.