Poetry Archive

Travel books of 2017

The following are some of my favourite travel books of the year, plus coffee-table books that would make good Christmas presents for travellers. One of the objectives of Deskbound Traveller (see the “About” page) is to broaden notions of what constitutes travel writing, so you will find here a collection of poetry plus a work (Among the Summer Snows) that others might label “nature writing”. The books are in no particular order — though the first two mentioned are especially timely. I’ve already reviewed many of them on this site and/or in the pages of The Daily Telegraph.
 
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, £14.99) 
The border of the title is the zone where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey run into one another, which in Cold War days was “Europe’s southernmost Iron Curtain”. Twenty-five years after leaving Bulgaria, where she grew up under communism, Kassabova returns to see what has become of the villages and towns that were military strongholds, the rivers and forests that were off limits.
  Her account is 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. There are happenings that might be from the pages of García Márquez and there’s a cast of characters that wouldn’t disgrace Dickens: border guards and people smugglers, refugees and ritual fire-walkers, spymasters who have retired and faith healers who are never out of work. Border is not just a topical book but an urgent one, for it spells out the human consequences of nationalism and totalitarianism; of a narrow focus on identity and ethnicity; of divisions and fences and walls designed to keep “them” from “us”.
 
The Rule of the Land by Garrett Carr (Faber & Faber, £13.99)
In the run-up to that referendum on EU membership, Carr, who is a mapmaker as well as a writer, walked and canoed the currently barely noticeable division between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It’s a border that, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, has lost watchtowers and bunkers and softened. Post Brexit, though, it will be not just an Irish frontier but a European one, and no one seems to know how that can be made to work. Carr suggests that Ireland is more divided than any of us suspected — not in two but in three: north, south and borderland. That third state, with its frontier-slipping people, springs to life in his pages.
 
Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt (Nicholas Brealey, £16.99)
All travelling, Nick Hunt argues, is an act of following something: coastline, trading route, border — or footprints, as he did for his debut, retracing the 1930s walk of Patrick Leigh Fermor from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. He decided to follow four named winds across Europe because their routes seemed to be the only ones that hadn’t been written-out. There are reasons for this, the obvious one being that it’s damned hard to describe the invisible. And what do you do if the wind doesn’t blow? Hunt, on his journey through landscape and legend, science and superstition, proves more than equal to the challenge. He dares, and he wins.
 
Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson (September Books, £14.99)
Christopher Nicholson admits that “Snow has no quantifiable value; if you hold a piece in your hands it soon tells you what it’s worth by turning to water and running away.” For him, though, its survival in the Highlands in summer, its rareness and improbability, has become a singular passion. He chronicles walks on which he seeks it out under cliffs and crags, in clefts and corries, and ponders its meaning. A glorious little book (just over 160 pages), beautifully produced by an independent publisher. 
 
Islander by Patrick Barkham (Granta,
£20)
Inspired by a DH Lawrence short story about a rich idealist seeking peace on successively smaller islands, Barkham travels through 11 outposts of the British Isles, moving from large to medium to tiny, in pursuit of “the essence of what it is to be an islander”. It’s an illuminating and instructive tour d’horizon, one that could be read with profit by MSPs currently considering a Bill designed to ensure a sustainable future for Scotland’s islands. Snappy, too: Scilly is memorably summed up as “a small archipelago mostly owned by the Duchy of Cornwall; struggling to make its way in the modern world, permanently obscured by forecasters’ bottoms on the weather map of Britain.”
 
The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life by André Naffis-Sahely (Penguin, £7.99)
Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, says that most of his work is voiced by a reclusive fellow who likes to look out the window: “I do quite a bit of travel, but I keep writing poems about the bird-feeder.” If André Naffis-Sahely is looking out a window, it’s likely to be on a train or a plane. He’s a travelling poet, a border-crossing bard. This impressive first collection, in which he takes us from his birthplace of Venice to Abu Dhabi, where he grew up, and then from London to North America, is both an admission of wanderlust and an acknowledgment of the insecurities it brings. 
 
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Portfolio 27 (Natural History Museum, £25)
As Lewis Blackwell, chair of the judges, puts it, the pictures his team have selected, 100 from nearly 49,000 entries, constitute “a book of wonders…and sometimes horror”. The wonders  include a lobster larva, just half an inch across, perched like a jockey on a stinger jellyfish; two bear cubs, eyes on the salmon in their mother’s mouth, waiting for their share; and an image of the lower nine-tenths of an iceberg dwarfing a team of divers, made over three days and of 147 frames stitched together. Among the horrors are the winning image, of a black rhino — a species critically endangered — lying in a park in South Africa after being shot and having its horns hacked off.
 
Dronescapes: The New Aerial Photography from Dronestagram Edited by Ayperi Karabuda Ecer (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) 
Aerial photography is not exactly new: the photographer known as “Nadar” (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) went up in a balloon to document the rooflines of the French village of Petit-Bicêtre in 1858. But it has never been as  widespread or as cheap to practise as it is today, thanks to the development of the drone and the quadcopter. This book is a collection of the best images submitted to the website Dronestagram, set up in 2013 by another French pioneer, the entrepreneur Eric Dupin. Embracing locations from Antarctica to Vietnam, and subjects from wildlife to weddings, it is curated by the renowned picture editor Ayperi Karabuda Ecer, who doesn’t dodge the question of the threat posed by drones to privacy, safety and security.
 
Landscape Photographer of the Year: Collection 11 (AA Publishing, £25)
All winning and commended entries in the annual competition for the best photographs of the British landscape are included in this 224-page book, along with the photographers’ accounts of how their images were made. Among the customary reports of repeated visits, early-morning climbs and frozen fingers, there are references to “flying over the field” or “up to 100 metres”. A striking number of entries were taken using drones, revealing, for example, trees planted in such a way that they  form a giant “X” and fields that look like circuit boards.
 
Travel Photographer of the Year: Journey Nine (TPOTY, £9.95) 
One of the two portfolios that won Joel Santos, from Portugal, the title of Travel Photographer of the Year 2016 — depicting the landscapes of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression — was the first TPOTY winner to be shot using a drone-mounted camera. The other, a series of portraits of a Ghanaian fisherman, was from ground — or, rather, water — level. Both are included here, with the best of the work submitted by professional and amateur photographers from more than 120 countries, ranging in subject from desert dunes in Egypt to a snow storm in New York; from a Cuban taxi driver to Sámi reindeer racers. 
 
Afghanistan by Steve McCurry (Taschen, £59.99) 
McCurry, whose portrait of the green-eyed refugee “Afghan Girl” is one of the best-known images of 20th-century photography, has been travelling regularly to Afghanistan since 1979, when he documented the fight of the mujahideen against a pro-Soviet government. This book gathers the best of his work over more than 40 years in a country at war and at uneasy peace: the boys toting Kalashnikovs and the girls juggling tennis balls; the bombed buildings and the roadside barbers. As William Dalrymple notes in an afterword, “it is a testament to McCurry’s longstanding love of Afghanistan, his solidarity with its people, and his commitment to recording their wondrous diversity. The book also stands as a peerless record of the Afghan landscape and its magnificent buildings.”
 
Journey: An Illustrated History of Travel (Dorling Kindersley, £25) 
This survey of mankind on the move, which starts with the ancient world and finishes with the age of flight, has already been overtaken by events. Its consideration of forced movements ends with the Second World War, but by the end of 2016 the number of people seeking safety across international borders as refugees had topped 22.5 million, the highest number seen since the UN High Commission for Refugees was founded in 1950. Otherwise, apart from a slightly tabloid tone (“Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca”), it’s a beautifully produced introduction, embracing everything from the trading voyages of the Minoans to the Hippie Trail, with digressions on topics from slave ships to souvenirs.
 
Chasing Light by Stefan Forster (te Neues, £29.95) 
At 18, Stefan Forster, who is Swiss, set off with his first camera, a tent, a sleeping bag and 13 days’ provisions to photograph the southern plateau of Iceland. In the 10 years or so since he has kayaked along the west coast of Greenland, camped in the forests of Alaska and Canada, and come close to being killed by a volcano in Indonesia.
  With this book, which includes landscape, wildlife and astounding images of the northern lights, he hopes to “demonstrate to all beholders the wonders of our planet, and to show what needs protecting.”
 
  As one of my aims on this site is to promote not just what’s topical but what’s timelessly good, let me remind you of one of my favourite books from 2013: Four Fields by Tim Dee (now in Vintage paperback); you can still read an extract on Deskbound Traveller
 
* A shorter version of this roundup appeared in the travel section of The Daily Telegraph 

Peripatetic poet

If it had been published earlier, I’d have included The Promised Land (Penguin), the debut poetry collection of André Naffis-Sahely, in my roundup of recommended reading for this summer. Out this week, it’s a slim volume that’s portable and transporting at the same time.

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.

Win all six books from the 2016 RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

“The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions”: that was a remark Peter Pomerantsev heard time and again from producers while he was making reality-TV shows in Moscow. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Faber and Faber), his electrifying portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, won him the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize last year, for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”.

It’s a book that seems, if anything, more timely than it did on publication, given how many world leaders are demanding benediction from the media.

The judges for this year’s prize — Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland), Henry Hitchings and Mimi Khalvati — are due to reveal their short list of six books on April 26; the winner will be announced at a dinner at the Travellers Club in London on May 8. Meanwhile, courtesy of the Royal Society of Literature, I have a prize of my own to offer: all six of the books that were short-listed last year.

The five others were:
The River by Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books), a debut poetry collection rooted in family life and on the farm where Clarke grew up in the west of Ireland.
The Great Explosion by Brian Dillon (Penguin), an exploration of the marshlands of north Kent and their military-industrial past;
Weatherland by Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson), an account of how weather has been written and painted in England through the centuries;
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (Allen Lane), a bestselling account of Lake District farming that began as a Twitter feed; and
This Divided Island (Atlantic Books) by Samanth Subramanian, in which the Indian Tamil writer examines the scars left on Sri Lanka by its 26-year civil war.

To be in with a chance of winning the six books, just retweet my tweet about the prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and  @kerraway.

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet the mention of the RSL prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and @kerraway by midnight on Wednesday, April 18. Only one copy of each of the six short-listed titles is available to the winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom. The winner will be selected at random and notified by Monday, April 24. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more information about the Ondaatje Prize, please see the Royal Society of Literature’s website.

Poetry: ‘A lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime’

What is Poetry? “It’s just a lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime.” So I discovered yesterday, when I searched for “poetry” and “journeys” on the Soundcloud site.

Having enjoyed the latest edition of Poetry Please on Radio 4, on the theme of “Dusk ’til Dawn” (perfect listening for a post-run bath), I searched for “Poetry Please journeys”, and discovered that Roger McGough did hit the road, in March 2015, in the company of Tennyson, Arnold and Cavafy, among others. Unfortunately, that episode is not available on the BBC iPlayer. (Note to BBC: please add it asap.)

So I tried the same search on Soundcloud, couldn’t find the journeys episode, but did turn up Poetry, Texas, in which a Danish poet, Pejk Malinovski, went all the way to the Lone Star State because he’d seen a picture online; a picture of a water tower with the word “Poetry” on it: Poetry, Texas. His programme is gently revealing of rural life, and the voices are wonderful. It was made by the innovative team at Falling Tree Productions and went out on Radio 4 in May 2013 —  but again isn’t available on iPlayer. I’ve put the Soundcloud link in below.

The poem and the journey

The winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award will be announced at a dinner in London on Thursday. Geoff Dyer, who has been shortlisted for White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, was musing in the review section of The Guardian at the weekend on what constitutes travel writing. The poet Billy Collins, he says, “considers himself a travel writer even though the experience of foreign travel plays no part in his work”. I can’t link from here to Dyer’s piece because, for some reason, it hasn’t gone online, but I did come across a revealing interview with Billy Collins on the WorldHum site.

Poetry, says Collins, is “travel writing of the highest order because it provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of consciousness. The poem’s music and its rhythms combine to form the soundtrack to these mental excursions, which carry us in two directions at once: out into the world and back into ourselves, for we read poetry not so much to discover who the poet is as to discover who we are.”

Gone for a Burton

There’s long been a kinship between poets and pints, says Jean Sprackland. It’s particularly strong in her case: she grew up in Burton-on-Trent, a town synonymous with brewing, and had a summer job in the maltings. In Gone for a Burton, on Radio 4 earlier this week, she led a lyrical tour of the trade and the town. In the process, she learnt a new explanation of the phrase she’s borrowed for her programme’s title…

On Heaney’s home ground

The Seamus Heaney HomePlace, a new centre in Bellaghy, County Derry, that will celebrate the life and work of the poet, is due to open at the end of this month. Helen Mark went to the village for Radio 4’s Open Country programme to hear how plans are proceeding. The priest, Father Dolan, says that Heaney has made the local landscape “sacred and immortal”; the teacher who first took Heaney’s work into the classroom says the poet has helped children value what they took for granted. Even those with little interest in poetry know that the legacy of “Famous Seamus” could be good for business.

Not too good, I hope. I’m reminded of a fine piece Fionnuala McHugh wrote a couple of years ago for Telegraph Travel, in which she observed: “Heaney tours are currently at that happy stage where people are still tickled by visitors. May that never change.”

Poetry and shepherding on the RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

The short list for the Royal Society of Literature’s prize this year includes James Rebanks’ bestseller The Shepherd’s Life and a debut poetry collection rooted in rural Ireland. See my story for Telegraph Books.

A wintry look at Edinburgh

Making reference to “a city of contrasts” isn’t the freshest way to introduce a piece of scene-setting, but the poet Stewart Conn recovers swiftly in Edinburgh at the Year’s Midnight: A Winter Journey in Poetry through Scotland’s Capital City, which was aired yesterday on Radio 4 and is due to be repeated at 11.30pm next Saturday. He reads alongside the actors Siobhan Redmond and Gordon Kennedy, with music arranged and played by Aly Macrae, all under the direction of Marilyn Imrie.

I particularly enjoyed Conn’s poem giving voice to the Camera Obscura in the Outlook Tower, one of the city’s earliest tourist attractions, which moans that even in winter there’s “no let-up in the tourist season, a hullabaloo all year round, the sticky-fingered hordes lapping up every minute, even those with iPhones or entwined in one another’s arms… How I pray for a blanket of snow capable of blotting out everything!”