Americas Archive

Travel editor to the world-weary

Thomas Swick, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, looks back on his career as a travel writer, and his stint as a travel editor in the United States  —  “a society that is weary of a world it has never gotten to know.”

Travel editors were an absurdity in a nation of workaholics; the consumer-driven travel section appeared on Sunday more as a taunt than an escape. By bringing to it some of the qualities of travel literature — by giving subscribers something to read as well as to reference — I was trying to make it less ridiculous and more useful, the very thing top editors periodically grumbled it wasn’t.

Deep South to cyberspace

As I mentioned last month, there’s a new edition out of Sitting Up with the Dead, Pamela Petro’s account of a trip she made through the American South in search of its storytellers. You can read more about Petro and her work on her website, which has just gone live.

Novel ideas in Mississippi

Hari Kunzru’s forthcoming novel, White Tears, had its genesis in a road trip that took him through Mississippi and a subsequent immersion in the blues, he disclosed in a piece for The Guardian at the weekend. In the course of that piece, he mentioned the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which was one of the most destructive in the history of the United States. The flood itself was central to another recent novel set in the Deep South, Southern Cross The Dog (2013), the debut of Bill Cheng. Cheng, a Chinese-American born in New York, was also inspired by the blues, but unlike Kunzru he didn’t take to the road. He had never set foot in Mississippi when he wrote his book, which is a remarkable feat of imagination.  You can still read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

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 world of John McPhee

It’s 40 years since the appearance of John McPhee’s travel book about Alaska, Coming into the Country. To mark the occasion, Work in Progress, the excellent website of his American publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has put an extract up online.

On this side of the pond, there’s a lovely recent (2015) edition from Daunt Books, which is not just one of the best travel bookshops in London but also a publisher in a small way, dedicated to introducing works by fresh voices or reissuing lost classics. Coming into the Country falls into the latter category, having been published in Britain in 1977, the year the first barrel of oil was taken from what McPhee calls “America’s ultimate wilderness”. It began life as a series for The New Yorker — where McPhee has been a staff writer since 1963 — and is really three books in one: the story of a river journey he made in 1975; an exploration of “urban” Alaska; and sketches of people, from American Indians to oil drillers, who had “come into the country” around the town of Eagle. In our time, as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction, it reads “like a combination of prophecy and elegy”.

Last autumn Daunt published a second title by McPhee, Oranges, about growers and traders of the world’s most popular fruit. Later this month it is due to bring out a third, The Crofter and the Laird, for which he moved his family from New Jersey to the land of his forefathers: the island of Colonsay, “17 square miles of dew and damp” off the west coast of Scotland.

A revealing question: ‘Where are you going?’

In her “Pick of the Week” column on radio for The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, Charlotte Runcie recommended The Documentary: Where Are You Going? (tomorrow on the World Service at 7.30pm), for which Catherine Carr travels to the Mexican city of Tijuana, just south of where Donald Trump is promising to build a wall. Runcie says it “reveals compelling stories of transition, identity and politics by, simply, stopping people and asking them where they are going.”

The programme, recorded in November following Trump’s election victory, turns out to be part of a series — all available on the BBC iPlayer — in which Carr has asked the same question of people in Amsterdam, Kolkata (Calcutta), New York and “The Jungle” refugee camp in Calais.

Sitting up with the storytellers of the South

suwtdjktI’m delighted to hear that a new edition has been published today (by Arcade, in the United States) of Sitting Up with the Dead, Pamela Petro’s account of her first trip to the southern United States, and her encounters with the great storytellers who live there. She travelled from the Atlantic seaboard across the high country of Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, seeking out people who were keeping alive the narrative tradition and saying to them, “Tell me your tales.”

“Two covers, a spine, and a few hundred pages,” she writes in the prologue, “do not have nearly as much personality as living, cussing, dancing, spitting, smoking, eating, drinking humans.” She’s too modest: turn her pages and you’re with her on the journey — which is why I was so keen to buy an extract for The Daily Telegraph when the book first appeared in Britain in 2001.

The new edition has a foreword from Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the National Storytelling Festival. It also has a plug on the cover from Paul Theroux, who recently travelled to the same part of the country for his own book, Deep South: “The origins of Southern literature are its folktales and local stories,” he says, “and the South is full of storytellers. Pamela Petro has found the best of them. This book is both important as scholarship and great fun as a trip.”

Water that flows in the veins

A beautiful intro to an excellent piece, by Peter Kujawinksi, in The New York Times about Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, which is much more to the locals than a body of water:

Thousands of years ago, every lake was like Great Bear Lake. So pure you could lower a cup into the water and drink it. So beautiful that people composed love songs to it. So mysterious that many believed it was alive. Today, of the 10 largest lakes in the world, it is the last one that remains essentially primeval.

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.

24 Hours of Sunset

On my first visit to the United States, around 1980, I ended up riding the Space Mountain roller coaster in Disneyland in California with a bunch of off-duty police officers. Having gone into journalism to be a rock critic, I’d somehow ended up starting my working life on Police Review, the independent journal for coppers, which had organised a trip to Los Angeles with a policing theme, including a visit to the FBI academy and a women’s prison. While I was there, staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (which, judging by its website, is a lot funkier than it was then), I went for a stroll one evening along Sunset Boulevard — just for the hell of it, just to see how far it would go. I didn’t know: I hadn’t yet got into the habit of reading guidebooks and making notes on maps before a trip. I walked and walked, until I got conscious that it was getting dark and — this being a city in thrall to the automobile — there was no one else walking, and then I turned back for the hotel.

Laura Barton is made of sterner stuff. She has walked all 22 miles of Sunset, from the city to the coast, for a Radio 4 programme being broadcast in two parts, starting on Thursday morning at 11.30. Her aim, according to the previews I’ve read, is to see what the street, and the portrayals made of it over the years by writers and artists, can tell us about America.  If 24 Hours of Sunset is anything like her Notes from a Musical Island, which was broadcast earlier this year, it should be well worth a listen.