Travel books Archive

Fellow travellers

Most roundups I’ve read of the most anticipated books of 2019 have included, among the non-fiction, Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane, which Hamish Hamilton is due to publish on May 2. A publisher’s note with the advance copy I’ve been sent describes it as “a time-travelling journey into wonder, fear and the worlds beneath our feet”.

  Understandably, as it marks a debut, I’ve seen fewer mentions of a book by the American writer Will Hunt, coming at the end of this month from Simon and Schuster. It’s titled: Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet. The blurb on Hunt’s website says it’s “a panoramic study of how we are all connected to the underground, how caves and other dark hollows have frightened and enchanted us through the ages”.

  I’ve yet to see a copy of Underground, and the books are under embargo, but both writers, I know, have burrowed beneath the streets in Paris. If they didn’t bump into each other in a tunnel there, or in some other region of the subterranean world, I’m presuming they sighted each other and their respective projects at some stage in cyberspace. 

  I’m reminded of two writers who ran away, separately, to sea a few years ago and returned with great books. In September 2013, Rose George published Deep Sea and Foreign Going (Portobello Books), an inside story of the cargo trade and its crews. Four months later came Down to the Sea in Ships (Vintage) by Horatio Clare. Both writers had travelled with Maersk, the largest container-shipping company in the world — but neither had been told about the other, perhaps because George’s trip was arranged by the London office, and Clare’s by the Copenhagen one. You can imagination their consternation when they found out. They put their heads down, got on with the writing and never got in touch. Publication schedules initially would have had the two books appearing around the same time; then Clare’s publisher delayed and left some some space between them. Both were acclaimed, both won prizes, and the authors have since appeared together at events and become good friends.

  Jonathan Raban and Paul Theroux, each taking a close look at Britain in 1982, the year of the Falklands War, did run into each other while doing the legwork. Raban wrote Coasting (republished last year by Eland Books) after spending four years slowly circling the country in a 32-foot ketch, aiming to get the measure of home by putting into port as a visitor. As he was sailing clockwise around the coast, Theroux, an American, was travelling in the other direction round The Kingdom by the Sea (Penguin), 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 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…”

Unsung queens of adventure

In the travel section of The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, the journalist and presenter Mariella Frostrup introduced Wild Women (Head of Zeus), her new anthology of writing by 50 female adventurers “fuelled by wanderlust and all but forgotten by history”. There are familiar names from the past (Gertrude Bell, Vita Sackville-West, Mary Wollstonecraft) and present (Dervla Murphy, Sara Wheeler, Lois Pryce), but also plenty I had never encountered before.

  Among the latter are the Canadian Aloha Wonderwell, who as a teenager in the 1920s hopped into a Ford Model T and raced across 75 countries. Having run out of fuel in Brazil, she combined bananas and animal fat to power her car. In later life, after her husband died in mysterious circumstances, she chopped off her hair and joined the French Foreign Legion. Also new to me were Junko Tabei,  from Japan, the first woman to summit Everest, and Juanita Harrison, an African-American who set out, “with minimal funds but enormous resolve”, to explore the world just 40 years after the abolition of slavery.

When she first began reading travel writers, Frostrup says, she was happy “riding pillion on the exploits of Norman Lewis, Eric Newby, Redmond O’Hanlon… it didn’t occur to me to stop and wonder if women like me had also ventured forth and lived to tell similar tales. In some ways, little has changed. Decades later, and much advanced in terms of gender equality, it’s still predominantly the same well-to-do men who are invited to embark on far-fetched escapades across the world in that least daring of formats, the TV travelogue.”

Frostrup’s piece is available online, but you’ll have to register to read it.

Antarctic pages

Writing about the Antarctic is “the aesthetic equivalent of scaling Everest”, the British-based Canadian writer Jean McNeil says in the Review section of The Guardian today. She names a few people who have been up to the task, ranging from Ernest Shackleton to Jenny Diski. McNeil herself has been writer-in-residence with the British Antarctic Survey. Ice Diaries (published in 2016 by ECW Press) tells of that stint and her subsequent travels in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard; you can read an extract on her website.

Stanford Dolman short list announced

The short list was announced tonight for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. The six titles on it are:

The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins (Faber & Faber)
The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps by Ben Coates (Nicholas Brealey)
The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas (Chatto & Windus)
Ottoman Odyssey by Alev Scott (Riverrun, Quercus)
Dancing Bears: True Stories about Longing for the Old Days by Witold Szablowski (Text Publishing)
Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe by Daniel Trilling (Picador, Pan Macmillan).

  The prize, formerly the Dolman prize, after the Rev William Dolman, a member of the Authors’ Club, who had been sponsoring it through the club since 2006, was rebranded in 2015. It is now the centre-piece of a scheme run in association with the club by the bookseller Stanfords —  a friend to generations of travellers and travel writers — and named after its founder: the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. 

  Prize money had been doubled to £5,000 when Stanfords got involved, but half of that was still provided by the generous Dolman. I understand that he felt he could not longer make that commitment, and Stanfords, in these uncertain times, has decided that this year’s prize will be £2,500. The amount will be “reconsidered for the 2020 awards and beyond”.

  Judging has also been curtailed. In the past, judges arrived at a short list over several meetings; this year they have been presented with one by Stanfords, which, I was told, had consulted reviewers and booksellers. The winner will be announced on February 28.

  The awards scheme as a whole embraces travel-related books in various categories, from cookery to children’s travel via fiction with a sense of place (though one might argue that books in that bracket are already better promoted by the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize). The Stanford Dolman is the only award that comes with a cash prize.

  Some of my own favourites from the past year pop up in categories: Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine and The Crossway by Guy Stagg in travel memoir of the year; Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth under adventure travel; and The Writer’s Map edited by Huw Lewis-Jones under photography/illustrated book.

The judges for the scheme as a whole include Benedict Allen, the explorer; Horatio Clare (who won the Stanford Dolman prize in 2015);  Michelle Jana Chan, travel editor of Vanity Fair; and Phoebe Smith, editor-at-large of Wanderlust magazine. 

Win a copy of the acclaimed ‘Lands of Lost Borders’

Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’s frontier-crossing, genre-defying account of her cycle trip along the Silk Road, was one of my favourite books of 2018. It’s been critically acclaimed both in her native Canada and the United States. It’s received rather less attention in Britain, mainly because it didn’t appear until late in the year, when literary desks and reviewers were preoccupied with compiling Christmas lists of books already read. Having won its author the Banff Mountain Book Award for Adventure Travel, it was last night short-listed for Canada’s RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction.

  Thanks to Kate Harris’s publisher, HarperCollins, I have four copies to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, all you have to do is retweet my pinned tweet about the prize (“Win a copy of the acclaimed Lands of Lost Borders…”) on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and @kerraway. While you’re waiting to hear whether you’ve been lucky, you can read a brief extract here on Deskbound Traveller

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet the mention of the prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and @kerraway by midnight on Thursday, January 17, 2019. Each winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom, will receive one copy of the book. Winners will be selected at random and notified by Monday, January 21, 2018. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more about Kate Harris and her work, see her website.

Back to Chile

Sara Wheeler (see earlier post) will give a talk at Stanfords in London on February 12 about her travels in Chile.

Stanford Dolman short list due tomorrow

The short list is due tomorrow evening for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. 

  The prize, formerly the Dolman prize — after the Rev William Dolman, a member of the Authors’ Club, who had been sponsoring it through the club since 2006 — was rebranded in 2015 and is now the centre-piece of a scheme run in association with the club by Stanfords, the bookseller, and named after its founder: the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. 

  Short lists for all the awards in the scheme — embracing travel-related cookery books, memoir and fiction with a sense of place — will be announced at the opening of Stanfords’ new shop in Mercer Street in Covent Garden, London. 

    Judging has been curtailed this year. Judges for the Stanford Dolman prize, for example, who in the past have arrived at a short list over several meetings, will be presented with one by Stanfords. I was told there had been about 60 submissions for each category in the awards and that the company was  “using reviewers and booksellers” to whittle them down.

Chile and me, by Sara Wheeler

This month brings the silver anniversary of the publication of Travels in a Thin Country, Sara Wheeler’s account of her love affair with Chile. In a piece today for the Review section of The Observer, she reflects on how the country, and she herself, have changed in 25 years. Wheeler, who made her third visit to Chile a few months ago, is due to talk about her experience in a members-only event at the Royal Geographical Society in London tomorrow evening.

Losing weight, and girlfriends, in the Grand Canyon

In my roundup of books of the year, I mentioned The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim by Pete McBride (Rizzoli, £40), who trekked the length of the canyon with his friend Kevin Fedarko. I’ve just been alerted by the Twitter feed of The New Yorker to a piece the magazine published in September, by Nick Paumgarten, who was invited to join McBride and Fedarko — and found reasons to say no. From his summary of what they went through, it sounds as though he was wise…

On the trek, they each carried packs that averaged about fifty pounds, containing eight days or so of food, as much water as they could hold, and not much in the way of accommodations. They carried a plastic syringe to draw water from potholes in the rock. McBride carried just one camera, one lens, and a solar charger; on cold nights, he kept the batteries warm in his armpit. The temperature ranged from a hundred and twelve degrees Fahrenheit to five degrees. There were hardly any trails, save for those made by game. “Sheep shit was our G.P.S.,” McBride said. They climbed over a hundred thousand vertical feet. “We went through seven pairs of shoes, four ankles”—they each sprained both—“and two girlfriends” (both McBride’s). There were broken fingers, and surgery to remove a cactus spine. McBride, still a bull of a man at forty-seven, lost thirty-five pounds, and, just five days into the first leg, nearly perished of hyponatremia, salt depletion from over-hydration, which is the leading cause of death in Grand Canyon. Once the project was complete, he needed heart surgery.

Up, up and away

A while ago I recommended some books that, even in these days of frills-free, bag-measuring airlines, can restore some of the wonder to flying. There are a couple more I would now add to my list. One is Skybound (Picador), Rebecca Loncraine’s hymn to gliding, which was one of my books of 2018. The other book I would add is due out in the New Year, and I’ve just started reading an early copy.

  My friend Graham Coster, who commissioned several travel anthologies I edited while he was at Aurum Press, is now running his own imprint, Safe Haven, where his quirky offerings include titles on everything from urban birding to unsent letters. On January 10 he’s republishing a book of his own, The Flying Boat That Fell to Earth (which first appeared in Penguin, in 2000, as Corsairville: The Lost Domain of the Flying Boat, and was read on Radio 4 and praised by reviewers as various as William Boyd and Jeremy Clarkson).

  It tells the story of an Imperial Airways flying boat, Corsair — one of a fleet carrying pre-war passengers in lap-belt luxury from the UK to Africa and Australia — which  made a forced landing in the Belgian Congo. Coster tracks down the “air mariners” who went to Central Africa in the extraordinary salvage operation that followed, traces the old mail route the flying boats flew through Africa, and travels to the Bahamas and Alaska to fly on the last flying-boat services left in the world. His book is a love-letter to a mode of transport that is simultaneously improbable and fabulous: “an aeroplane walking on water; a boat defying gravity — as magical as a flying pig”.

  In a poignant afterword for the new edition, he points out that it’s a book he couldn’t write now: there are no flying boats left to catch anywhere. So the nearest you can come to sharing his experiences is to read his book…