Travel books Archive

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.

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.

Five of the best books on…

I don’t know why I hadn’t come across it before, but I happened on FiveBooks.Com this week while searching for something else. It’s a site where experts are asked to recommend the five best books on their subject and explain their selection in an interview. Among the 1,000-plus interviewees in the archives are Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron and Tim Mackintosh-Smith on travel books and Amy Liptrot on nature writing. It’s a great resource for travellers (and travel writers) keen to brief themselves in advance of a trip. On Turkey, for example, it has books recommended by the novelist  Elif Shafak; on Pakistan, suggestions from Anatol Lieven, who worked there as a journalist for The Times and is the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country; on the American West, there’s the novelist Jonathan Evison, author of All About Lulu and West of Here. Should you need to get up to speed on Ulster unionism, fairy tales or political economy, you’ll find suggestions on those, too. Highly recommended.

What’s new in travel books

I’ve already mentioned a few of my favourites among books published in the first half of the year. Here are some of the travel-related books due over the next few months, ranging in subject from Nazi Germany to Japanese cuisine, and in place from Pakistan to the British Isles.

While his fellow graduates from Princeton set off to be “corporate conquistadors”, Kushanava Choudhury went to Calcutta  — which he had left with his family at the age of 12 for New Jersey — to work on the local paper. After postgraduate studies at Yale, he went back again, determined to “make sense of the city that had escaped and defied me [while I was] a journalist.” The Epic City: The World On the Streets in Calcutta (Bloomsbury, August 10) is the result. According to the writer and historian William Dalrymple, it “marks the arrival of a major new talent”.

How did Germany look to visitors — and there were many of them, particularly Britons and Americans — in the run-up to the Second World War? That’s a question Julia Boyd sets out to answer with Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People (Elliott & Thompson, August 10), which draws on scores of previously unpublished diaries and letters. Drawn together, she says, “they generate an extraordinary three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler”.

Stories evoking Amsterdam’s pre-war past, before the dismantling of Jewish culture by the Nazis, feature in Amsterdam Tales (Oxford University Press, August 24), a collection of fiction, memoirs and anecdotes ranging in time from the 17th century to the 21st. Translated by Paul Vincent and edited by Helen Constantine, it is part of a series from OUP that has already included anthologies from Paris, Copenhagen and Vienna.

For his debut Walking the Woods and the Water, which was short-listed for the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award, Nick Hunt retraced the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor on his epic 1930s trek from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. In Where The Wild Winds Are (Nicholas Brealey, September 7), he is borne along by the very forces he is pursuing, starting with the roaring Helm through the Pennines and finishing with the Mistral in the south of France. It’s a book, his publishers say, “that makes the invisible visible”.

What news we hear in the West about Pakistan is rarely good, a fact reflected in the Foreign Office’s advisory page about the country, which is not exactly an encouragement to visit. In Travels in a Dervish Cloak (Eland, September 28), Isambard Wilkinson, who worked there as a foreign correspondent during the “War on Terror”, sets out to explore the land behind the headlines, for what his publishers promise will be “a funny, hashish- and whisky-scented travel book from the front line”.

In his last book, Coastlines, Patrick Barkham beat the bounds of the National Trust’s seaside holdings. In Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago (Granta, October 5), he heads offshore. Inspired by a DH Lawrence story about a man seeking peace on successively smaller islands, he travels through 11 outposts of the British Isles, moving from large to medium to tiny, “seeking… the essence of what it is to be an islander”.

Ten years after their first visit to Japan, which led to the award-winning Sushi and Beyond, Michael Booth returns with his family “to delve deeper into the country’s food culture, to see what we’d missed, and [to] get to know the Japanese a little better”. He tells all — including a story about a chef who sacrificed a limb in pursuit of the ultimate bowl of ramen — in The Meaning of Rice — and Other Tales from the Belly of Japan (Jonathan Cape, October 12).

What to read this summer

Wondering what to read on holiday? Here are a few suggestions in a piece I wrote for Telegraph Travel. They take in some of the best new travel books, plus books that touch, in one way or another, on a few of the destinations most popular with British holidaymakers.

So… ‘there’s not much to say about airplane journeys’

Gatwick airport in London is expecting its busiest day of the year for outbound passengers this Friday, with 84,000 heading off. Given the security queues they’re likely to join, most of those passengers will understandably be thinking  of the flight as a necessary inconvenience en route to the beach, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Could they be persuaded to change that view? Maybe by reading some of the following…

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage)
If you’ve made expensive journeys to the far north and been denied a sighting of the aurora borealis, you might want to skip the chapter on night flights. “Sometimes,” Vanhoenacker writes, “I find it hard to remain interested… because [the northern lights] appear so regularly; because they are routine to pilots, ordinary by definition.” Flying, on the other hand, which for most of us means a long wait followed by a cramped seat, is for him a thing of wonder, and a pair of wings “this most charmed of our creations”.

Vanhoenacker, who flies 747s for British Airways, was born in America – to be a pilot, clearly. Taken to Disney World as a child, he couldn’t wait to get back on “the magical vessel” that had brought him there. Having worked as a management consultant (with time to stare out aircraft windows) to pay off student debts, he began flight training in 2001 and is now a senior first officer with BA – and one of those lucky people who can change the weather. If he wakes to an overcast sky in London, he knows he’ll be rising above it.

Join him on his journey, and you’ll see immediately that he’s anything but the aviation equivalent of a petrolhead. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, he touches on Joni Mitchell as well as Mach 1, on T S Eliot as well as tailwinds. In the pages of his book, if not necessarily on your next outing in the economy cabin of his 747, you will find yourself agreeing that “The ordinary things we thought we knew… become more beautiful.”

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)

Through the lives of a fictional family, McCann links three episodes from history: the first non-stop transatlantic flight; the visit of a freed American slave to Ireland; and Senator George Mitchell’s peace-broking in 1990s Belfast. In a cat’s cradle of journeys, the most powerful passages are probably those on the flight in 1919, by Alcock and Brown, in their Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Clifden, in Connemara. It’s a sustained feat of imagination in which McCann inhabits not just the cockpit but the minds of the aviators.

Aloft by William Langewiesche (Penguin Modern Classics)
Before he was a writer for Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, Langewiesche worked as a pilot for 15 years from the age of 18, so editors have pushed him towards aviation. In this collection of essays, he considers how we move about the earth and how we view our place within it. Some are frightening, some reassuring, but all of them are “suffused with the wonder I still feel that as a species we now find ourselves in the sky”.

West With The Night by Beryl Markham (North Point Press/Macmillan)
Beryl Markham (1902-1986) grew up in Kenya, hunting with the Maasai, worked as a bush pilot and became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west. Her memoir culminates with that feat and her Zen-like response when, somewhere over Cape Breton, her engine cut out. Hemingway, who was no fan of hers, said: “[she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers… it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Penguin Modern Classics)
Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) might not have been a model pilot, prone as he was to day-dreaming at the controls and near-fatal crashes, but he made poetry of his experience. This book, which recounts his years flying airmail routes across the Sahara and the Andes, culminates with the story of his miraculous survival following a crash in the Liyban desert in 1936 while he was trying to break the Paris-Saigon record.

Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater (Penguin)

Alexander Frater’s first flight, on December 31, 1946, a few days before his ninth birthday, was on an Empire flying boat from Sydney to the Fiji Islands. In the mid-1980s, he set out to try to recapture the romance of it, following as closely as possible the route taken by Imperial Airways from London to Brisbane in the 1930s. His booklet of tickets was “probably the largest ever issued on British Airways coupons”.

The Wild Blue Yonder: The Picador Book of Aviation edited by Graham Coster (Picador)
This 1997 anthology (edited by my friend and former publisher) includes extracts from Saint-Exupéry, Markham and Frater. If Coster were asked to update it, I’d urge him to add pieces from Langewiesche, Vanhoenacker and McCann. As it stands, though, taking in everyone from WB Yeats to Tom Wolfe by way of Biggles, it’s the perfect rejoinder to Paul Theroux’s assertion (in The Tao of Travel) that “there is not much to say about airplane journeys”.

Hitting the trail with Robert Moor

On Trails, the wonderful debut of the American writer Robert Moor, is now out in paperback (Aurum Press). The book is “on” trails in two senses: it’s the fruit of miles of walking and years of research. He starts with the trails left by organisms of the Ediacaran biota, which became extinct about 541 million years ago, and ends with the longest hiking trail in the world, a global footpath, a collective effort, that’s very much the offspring of the internet. (It’s the International Appalachian Trail — I’d never heard of it until I read his book).

In between, he considers the trails made by insects, animals and man, and the purposes to which they have been put, from finding food to building empires. While the Appalachian Trail, which prompted his inquiry, provides a main line, he branches off it, hiking everywhere from Canada to Morocco and considering the trail as everything from a means of recreation to a metaphor for life. You can now read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

Of men and mules and boats

Among books I’m reading at the moment is One Man and  a Mule by Hugh Thomson (Preface). The title’s a little economical with the truth, as the author has human company much of the way, and the mule’s a bit of a contrivance, given that it shoulders less baggage than its master, but the book is still a companionable account of a coast-to-coast walk across England, from the Lake District to the Yorkshire Moors. (Since writing this post, I’ve done a review.)

Anyway, I’ve just come across a brief reference in it to the Falklands War, which was fought in the South Atlantic just over 35 years ago. I’m reminded that two travel writers in that same year, 1982, were taking a close look at Britain.

One was Jonathan Raban,  who wrote Coasting after spending four years slowly circling Britain in a 32-foot ketch. His aim: to get the measure of home by putting into port as a visitor. His penultimate chapter is headed “Voyage to the Far North”, a gentle joke on the southerner’s habit of putting the other end of the country at the other end of the earth. (Thomson, who refers to himself as “a soft southerner” but has always liked the North, wonders if his writing about it could be considered, in the PC terms of American intellectuals, “‘voice appropriation’. Could you only write about the North if you came from there?”)

Raban writes:

It took three weeks to reach the Humber from the Thames — about the same time as most small boats take to cross the Atlantic. This made excellent sense: it put Hull at a distance of approximately 2,400 miles from Tower Bridge, which sounds just about right.

As Raban was sailing clockwise around the coast, a fellow author from a really big country, the American Paul Theroux, was travelling in the other direction, by train and on foot. Their friendship, already strained, wasn’t helped when each discovered what the other was planning, but they met anyway, in Brighton. Here are the two literary heavyweights trading exploratory jabs.

Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea (Chapter 4):

It was strange to see a typewriter and a TV set on board, but that was the sort of boat it was, very comfy and literary, with bookshelves and curios.
“This must be your log,” I said, glancing down. The entries were sketchy (“… light rain, wind E S E…”) — nothing very literary here, no dialogue, no exclamation marks.
He said, “I keep planning to make notes, but I never seem to get round to it. What about you?”
“I fiddle around,” I said. It was a lie. I did nothing but make notes…

Raban in Coasting (Chapter 5):

It took Paul less than five minutes to sum up the boat…
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s kind of… tubby and… bookish.”
The phrase rattled me. I rather thought that somewhere I had written it down myself.
“You making a lot of notes?”
“No,” I lied. “I seem too busy with things like weather and navigation to notice anything on land…”

On the Falklands War, Raban proves the more reliable (secondhand) reporter. Theroux writes:

“She put my plate of bacon and eggs in front of me and went to another table and smoked and drank her tea and read her Sun. The headline was SUNK! It referred to the General Belgrano and the 1200 dead men. It was the first of many gloating headlines.

“SUNK” as Raban records, was actually the headline of the Daily Express, which “had an honourable front page”. The Sun’s headline was “GOTCHA!”

On the trail again with Robert Moor

On Trails by Robert Moor, which has just appeared in paperback (Aurum Press), impressed me on its first appearance last year.  It’s a book in which he considers the trail as everything from a means of recreation to a metaphor for life. I see there’s an extract from it on the website of The Guardian.