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Up a mountain in Mongolia

The photographer and film-maker Timothy Allen (winner in 2013 of the Travel Photographer of the Year competition) has been making regular trips in recent years to Mongolia, where he runs photographic expeditions. He is due to release shortly his latest film, made with Thom Cytry. The Circle, which will be free to watch on YouTube, tells how the pair of them, helped by a group of Mongolian friends, tried to carve out a virgin route across the Altai Mountains to climb Mongolia’s tallest peak.

Deserts and the end-times

In Desert Notebooks (Counterpoint Press), Ben Ehrenreich, who writes about climate change for that venerable American weekly The Nation, urges us to rethink our relationship with the planet, with one another and with time. William Atkins, who has spent some time in deserts himself, has reviewed the book for The New York Times.

Johnny Pitts on the book that set him travelling

Johnny Pitts, winner last month of the Jhalak Prize for Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, writes on the Penguin website of the book that inspired him: 
  “It wasn’t until I read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s astonishing An African in Greenland… that as a working-class writer with brown skin I tentatively began to imagine myself as a travel writer. I can say, plainly and clearly, that without it my book… would not exist.”

*Update, July 3: I’ve just seen that Afropean was short-listed on June 30 for the £500 Bread and Roses Award for “radical political non-fiction”, run by the Alliance of Radical Booksellers.

To Channel and Camino, Cuba and Peru

Restrictions are being eased and bookshops opening, but literary sections are slimmer than they were and reviews fewer, and launches are still down virtual slipways. The writer and broadcaster Charlie Connelly, author of Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast, will be taking to Facebook tonight to introduce his latest book: The Channel: The remarkable men and women who made it the most fascinating waterway in the world (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

  In his first chapter, he visits three concrete sculptures facing the sea at Denge, in Kent: two giant scallop shapes and a long concrete wall. They were built in the late 1920s and early ’30s, in the days before radar, and designed to pick up the sound of approaching aircraft or artillery. Though now redundant, they are, he says, “still listening to the English Channel, still picking up its stories”. Since he moved to live in Deal, at the mouth of the Channel, his own antennae have become similarly tuned to this narrow strip of sea that separates Britain from Europe and which has been a shipping lane, a barrier to invasion and a challenge to be conquered.

  Join him on his journeys, the jacket promises,  and you will uncover the tragic fate of the first successful Channel swimmer, learn that Louis Blériot was a terrible pilot, and “discover how — if a man with buttered head and pigs’ bladders attached to his trousers  hadn’t fought off an attack by dogfish — we might never have had a Channel Tunnel”.

  Thanks to coronavirus, fewer pilgrims have been tramping this year across Europe to Santiago in northern Spain, to the supposed tomb of the apostle St James. If you have had to postpone a trip, or you’re still planning one, Camino: Pilgrims to Paradise by Adam Hopkins (through Amazon) ought to be on your reading list. 

  Hopkins, a journalist who has long specialised in Spain (and is now living in the rural west), has been walking “The Way” in spring and autumn for three decades, sometimes with his wife, sometimes as a tour leader. In this new cultural companion he looks into “the force of the legends and the vehemence of the beliefs” associated with the Camino; shows how the walk became central to Christian pilgrimage; and, drawing on his own experience, paints a vivid picture of what happens on the road here and now. Motivations are as numerous as the pilgrims (more than 300,000 in 2019), and while many are still intent on quest, quietness and meditation, there’s the odd one plotting a stock-market takeover. 

  Ronald Wright is an English-born writer who went to Canada as a graduate student of archaeology and stayed on. He is best known, perhaps, for his fiction (he won the David Higham Prize in 1997 with his first novel, A Scientific Romance, which his publishers bill as a story of “love, plague and time travel”), but his early books were travel books, and two grew out of his interest in the native civilisations of the Americas. Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru (first published in 1984) and Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico (1989), are due to be reissued next month (July 23) by Eland, that loving caretaker of travel classics. (Eland will add his third travel book, On Fiji Islands, in October.)

  Anthony DePalma worked for 22 years as a journalist on The New York Times, much of that time in Mexico and Cuba. In The Man Who Invented Fidel, he examined how Castro had come to power. In The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times (Bodley Head, July 16), he tells how five Cuban citizens and their families have lived through the moments that made headlines. Unlike Castro, he says, whose millions of words have been broadcast and regularly replayed, these people have never been heard from. “But it is their complicated lives, their personal histories of living with an interminable revolution… that tell the remarkable story of Cuba best.” The book appeared in the United States in May, and has won praise from reviewers in publications including The New York Times and the Harvard magazine ReVista.

  The restrictions we’ve had to live with since the end of March have made many people more appreciative of the world outside their windows; of skies clear of jet contrails during the day and mad with stars at night. The conductor and writer Lev Parikian had got his eye in well before lockdown started. He rediscovered his childhood passion for birding in middle age, and wrote a book about it, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?. Birding made him look more closely at the natural world in general, and how others interact with it. In Into the Tangled Bank (Elliott & Thompson, July 9), he sets out to explore the way that he, and we, experience that world, “beginning face down on the pavement outside his home, then moving outwards from garden to wildlife reserve and as far afield as the dark hills of Skye. He visits the haunts of famous nature lovers… to examine their insatiable curiosity and follow in their footsteps.”

A future without travel?

In The Washington Post, Henry Wismayer, a travel writer who hasn’t been able to travel, reflects on what he’s learnt:

… I couldn’t shake the creeping sense that so much of what we call travel is extractive, the commodification of someone else’s sunshine, culture and photogenic views. In my most cynical moments, I had started to see travel as something monstrous, a vector of humanity’s infestation that has evolved out of all proportion with what the planet can sustain.

On a world without tourism

The journalist and author Christopher de Bellaigue, in a thought-provoking piece in The Guardian today, on the pros and (mainly) cons of the tourist trade:

The virus has given us a picture, at once frightening and beautiful, of a world without tourism. We see now what happens to our public goods when tourists aren’t clustering to exploit them. Shorelines enjoy a respite from the erosion caused by cruise ships the size of canyons. Walkers stuck at home cannot litter mountainsides. Intricate culinary cultures are no longer menaced by triangles of defrosted pizza. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of tourism’s effects than our current holiday away from it.

Win a copy of ‘The Summer Isles’

When the anthropologists arrive, so the saying goes, the gods depart. There are places, though, where myth and magic held out; where phantom islands on the horizon and fairies under the earth endured for longer. Among them are the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, which Philip Marsden (who has a degree in anthropology) explores from the sea in The Summer Isles, which is out this week in paperback.

  It’s a wonderful book, and was one of my favourites of 2019. Like one of those doorways so popular in Irish myth, it’s a portal not just to other places but to other times. It’s a reminder, too, as Marsden puts it, that “the imagination is the oddest of human faculties, and also perhaps the greatest”.

  Thanks to the author, you can read an extract from the book here on Deskbound Traveller. And thanks to his publisher, Granta, I have five copies to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just retweet my mention of the competition on Twitter from either @kerraway or @deskboundtravel, or like and share my post about it on

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet a mention of the competition on Twitter from @deskboundtravel or @kerraway, or like and share the post about it on the Deskbound Traveller Facebook page, by midnight on June 26, 2020. Each winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom or Ireland, will receive one copy of the book. Winners will be selected at random and notified by July 1. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more about Philip Marsden and his other books, see his website.

Talking about Tangier Island

Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem (Dey Street) has been mentioned a few times here. It’s a superlative account of a place where the effects of climate change are already evident (at least to outsiders). That place is Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where a 240-year-old crabbing community is going under the water. You can hear the author talk about his time there, and his book, on the latest episode of Broken Ground, a podcast dedicated to “digging up environmental stories in the [US] South”.

Tune in for Ondaatje winner Robinson

Roger Robinson, winner of this year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize for A Portable Paradise (Peepal Tree Press), will be among contributors tonight to The Verb on Radio 3 (10pm), which looks at writing from the Caribbean diaspora. He is also the first guest to offer his choices in a new series of Poetry Please, starting this Sunday on Radio 4 (4.30pm).

Barton heads ‘Down By The River’

Laura Barton, who has presented some of the programmes I’ve enjoyed most on radio in recent years (Notes from a Musical Island, 24 Hours of Sunset and Laura Barton’s American Road Trip), takes to the water tomorrow. At 9am (with a repeat at 7pm) on Radio 4 Extra, she presents Down By The River: “From the squelchy trickle at the source of the Tyne, to the vast expanse of the Severn estuary… she explores the rivers of Britain to discover how they’ve shaped our stories and lives.” For details, see the programme page on the BBC website.

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