Travel books Archive

Into the autumn with Iyer

Pico Iyer prefaces the third chapter of his latest book, Autumn Light (Bloomsbury), with a remark made in an interview in 1982 by what he calls “the very English poet” Philip Larkin: “I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time. Some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way — making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.”

    Iyer (who spends part of the year in California, where his mother lives, and part in Japan) has done a lot. Born to Indian parents in England who took him to the United States and then sent him to boarding school in Oxford, he has since travelled the world as a writer for newspapers and magazines — a “global soul” as the title of one of his earlier books had it. In Autumn Light, he’s at home, observing  “the season of fire and farewells” in the sleepy old city of Nara. There he and his Japanese wife, Hiroko, have shared an apartment for more than 20 years, initially with her two children from her first marriage, who are now grown up.

   Far from ignoring the passing of time, Iyer is dwelling on it, prompted by the death of his father-in-law, the increasing frailty of his mother-in-law and the decline in joints and limbs of the energetic pensioners with whom he plays ping-pong. He himself (in his early sixties now, according to his website, but only fifty-six in the book) is feeling intimations of mortality. Hardly surprising, when his friend the Dalai Lama, as soon as they meet, remarks on added pounds and thinning hair.

  The book is a tender account of the literal autumn in Japan, with its glorious-but-nearly-gone foliage, its rites, rituals and signs offering “Maple Lattes”, and the metaphorical one as it affects the writer, family, friends and neighbours. Occasionally Iyer’s striving after the great truth yields only the small platitude (“Death can be hardest on the living”), but at his best he leaves the reader with what he felt on his first visit to Japan in the autumn of 1987: “the mingled pang of wistfulness and buoyancy”.

Harris among Kobo prize winners

I’m delighted to hear that Kate Harris has won yet another prize for her debut, Lands of Lost Borders, which was one of my travel books of the year for 2018. This week, she was among three women named winners of the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, run by the company that makes the Kobo e-reader.

Lines on the landscape with Dan Richards

Dan Richards’s latest book, Outpost (Canongate), is a sprightly tour of places on the edge — among them the bothy, the writer’s retreat, the fire lookout tour and the lighthouse — and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. The author was invited by the excellent Five Books site to name his favourite works of landscape writing. His quirky selection, offered in an interview shortly before Alice Oswald was elected Oxford professor of poetry, includes her Dart, which she herself has described as “a river map of voices, like an aboriginal song line”.

A voice for the silenced in Burma

Burma is a country where minority groups have long been silenced, but David Eimer gives them a voice in his new book, A Savage Dreamland (Bloomsbury). I wrote a review of it for The Daily Telegraph that appeared at the weekend but isn’t (so far, anyway) online. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Rosita Boland on bravery and fear

In The Guardian recently, Rosita Boland, senior features writer at The Irish Times, wrote about solo travel: “Why is it that a woman travelling alone, as I have often done for months at a time, is perceived to be ‘brave’, whereas men who travel alone are entirely unremarkable? Besides, in my case at least, it’s not true. You are only brave or courageous when you are afraid of something but still do it anyway. I have never been afraid of travelling alone. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things along the way that cause me deep fear, such as overloaded buses with bald tyres on mountain roads with sheer drops, but being by myself out in the world has never scared me.”

  In Elsewhere (Doubleday Ireland), she reflects on journeys from nine different moments in her life, including a particularly hairy one on the grandly (and misleadingly) named Indus Highway in Pakistan:

Before this journey, my fears of travelling on a local bus in Asia had been of ending up under a rockfall, or of the over-loaded bus toppling over, or of our bus crashing in the dark because the headlights weren’t on and some truck had run into us. On this particular bus journey, I realized I had wasted so much energy in the past worrying about the bad things that might happen. They were just possibilities. Whereas this – this ghastly, unprotected vertical drop to the Indus far below – was a reality, just mere inches from the edges of tyres I knew would be bald.

  Amanda Bell has reviewed Elsewhere for the Dublin Review of Books.

Lines on the landscape with Macfarlane and Lopez

Thanks to the Twitter feed of the writer Julian Hoffman, I was directed yesterday to a recording of a conversation last Thursday between Robert Macfarlane and Barry Lopez at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Macfarlane — who is currently promoting his new book, Underland, in the United States — has said that it was reading Lopez’s Arctic Dreams at the age of 21 that turned him into a writer. Lopez has been similarly complimentary about Macfarlane’s work. The pair have long been writing to each other, but this was their first meeting. There’s an element of the mutual admiration society, but this is still a conversation worth hearing, in which two masters of writing on place talk about their craft and the ends to which they have turned it in this overheated age of the Anthropocene.

  On June 27, incidentally, Julian Hoffman is due to publish Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places (Hamish Hamilton), for which he set out “to explore loss in a way that wasn’t simply elegiac but defiant”.

Timeless travel

When I was working as a travel editor for a national newspaper and a writer approached me with an idea for a piece, I would expect him or her to have a peg on which to hang it. On Deskbound Traveller, I can admit the timeless as well as the topical. The latter approach has long been one of the guiding principles of Slightly Foxed, the London-based literary magazine “for people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing”. On its latest podcast, dedicated to travel writing, the guests are the writer Sara Wheeler and the publisher (and writer) Barnaby Rogerson, of Eland Books, who have plenty of recommendations drawn from travel’s back catalogue.

  There’s brief mention, too, of Wheeler’s latest book, due out next month. For Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), she travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age — from Pushkin to Tolstoy — as her guides.

‘Far corners and deepest depths’

The latest podcast of The New York Times Book Review takes listeners into “far corners and deepest depths”, featuring Robert Macfarlane, talking about his latest book, Underland (which you can read more about on Deskbound Traveller), and Julia Phillips, whose debut novel, Disappearing Earth, is set on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia. The Book Review also has a review of Underland by Terry Tempest Williams.

On the bill for Penzance festival next month

Speakers at the Penzance Literary Festival (July 3-6) will include Horatio Clare, who will be discussing his “love-hate relationship” with borders with Philip Marsden, whose new book, The Summer Isles: A Sea Voyage, is due to be published by Granta in October. Clare will also be reading from Something of His Art, about his walk in the footsteps of JS Bach, his readings interspersed with music by other composers played on period instruments by the Heinichen Ensemble.

  Also on the bill are Nicholas Jubber, whose latest book, Epic Continent, is inspired by poems — from The Odyssey to the Kosovo Cycle — telling the story of Europe; Philip Hoare, author most recently of RisingTideFallingStar, about his obsession with the sea; and Anna Pincus, founder and co-editor of Refugee Tales, who will be discussing with the novelist Patrick Gale, a contributor to her latest volume, the project she began to tell the stories of people trapped in indefinite detention.

‘One hundred of the best travel books’?

“One hundred of the best travel books”: that’s how publicists for Citizen M Hotels describe a project in which Seb Emina, editor of The Happy Reader magazine, has chosen a library for one of the company’s properties, at Bankside in London. The project, opened this week, is supported by the bookseller Stanfords, which is selling the titles included on a special page through its website. 

 Emina’s choice takes in fiction as well as non-fiction, ancient (The Odyssey) and modern (Afropean, Johnny Pitts’s exploration of black Europe, is included — though it still hadn’t officially been published at the time I was sent the list, on May 28). As well as narrative works it embraces guidebooks, maps and atlases. It’s organised in 18 categories, most self-explanatory (Rivers, Roads, Hotels, Interstellar), though “Dogs, donkeys, fridges” brackets the work of Martha Gellhorn, John Steinbeck and Robert Louis Stevenson with that of travel comic turns including Tony Hawks, who wrote Round Ireland with a Fridge).

  Half the point of such lists, presumably, apart from encouraging reading and book sales, is to prompt argument and amendment. So… it’s great to see new talent, including Adam Weymouth (Kings of the Yukon) and Monisha Rajesh represented (though her latest book, Around the World in 80 Trains, is stronger than her first, which makes the list). It’a also good to see an  acknowledgement that poetry — Derek Walcott’s Omeros — can be powerfully evocative of place. But how can a list of the 100 best travel books have nothing at all from Jonathan Raban? And how come it doesn’t have even one winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award, which has been Britain’s main prize for narrative travel since 2006? Robert Macfarlane is included in Emina’s list — but for Underland, published last month, rather than for The Old Ways, with which he won the Dolman prize (as it then was) jointly in 2013 with Kathleen Jamie (Sightlines).