Peter Hessler, one of the finest chroniclers in English of modern China, is currently living with his family in Chengdu, where he is teaching writing at a local university. Chengdu is not only separated by several hundred miles from Wuhan, where the epidemic started; in the aftermath of the outbreak, he says in a piece for The New Yorker, the two cities “seemed to belong to different worlds, different eras”. His piece begins:
On the twenty-seventh day of the coronavirus lockdown in Chengdu, in southwestern China, five masked men appeared in the lobby of my apartment building in order to deliver a hundred-inch TCL Xclusive television.
Deskbound Travelleris a site dedicated to literary journeys. But these are exceptional times, and I’m conscious that opening a good book is but one of the ways in which we can carry on travelling. I’d like to introduce you to some friends of mine in Madrid…
I feel I’ve got to know Ben Curtis and Marina Diez pretty well over the past eight or nine years. He’s from Oxford and she’s a Madrileña, a native of Madrid, the city where they are raising their two children.
Right now, because of the Coronavirus emergency, they’re home-schooling the children and not getting out much. They used to talk a lot about the museums, galleries and tapas bars (Madrid had mucha marcha — great nightlife), though they did grumble sometimes about the noise and the traffic jams.
As an occasional visitor to Madrid, I can understand Marina’s fondness for the shady paths of the Retiro Park (where her parents, in Franco’s time, were threatened with a fine for kissing in public), though I’m puzzled by Ben’s liking for the brutalist Plaza de España.
Away from the city, I know that she’s drawn to the mountains and he to the beach; that he’s a big fan of Radiohead but she prefers the raspy voice and poetic lyrics of Joaquín Sabina. I know, too, that Marina’s favourite film (which also happens to be one of mine) is La Lengua de las Mariposas — The Butterfly’s Tongue, a story of a boy growing up as Spain is breaking apart in the Spanish Civil War.
And yet I’ve never met Ben and Marina. Everything I’ve come to know about them I’ve picked up from the podcasts and videos on their website NotesinSpanish.com. It’s one of those entirely enriching outposts of the internet; a place where you can get a feel not just for a language but for the life of the people who speak it all day and the country they live in.
I alternate between using the site regularly and occasionally; more regularly at the moment, because I can’t travel and I’ve got more free time on my hands. But anyway, tengo que practicar (I need to practise).
Since 2005, when the coupleput up their first podcast, they have seen more than 40 million downloads of their conversations, touching on everything from Don Quijote to la violencia domestica; from the tyranny of the mobile phone to the death of the siesta. They have 10,000 subscribers to their “Real Spanish” newsletter, most of them in Britain, North America and other English-speaking parts of the world.
Language learning brought Ben, now 47, and Marina, 44, together. Having tried to make a living in London as a photographer, he decided to go to Madrid in 1998to teach English. He and Marina met on una cita a ciegas con excusa – a blind date with an excuse: a session known as an intercambio in which he improved his Spanish while she improved her English.
They made their first podcasts — 31 in 31 days — to raise money for charities as part of a sponsored motorcycle ride Ben was planning with his father across India. They would sit on the bed in their flat recording straight into the built-in microphones in a digital recorder, “with our wardrobe doors open,” says Ben, “so that the clothes hanging inside would dampen the sound of the room a little bit.” (You can read more about how they did it in Ben’s self-published book, Notes on the Internet Dream.)
Since then, they have developed their site in line with the so-called “freemium model” of online enterprises: giving away their best material, the audio, but charging for transcripts and worksheets so that the keenest learners can get more from that free material. Within a couple of years they were able to give up their day jobs — Marina had been working as an IT consultant — and a few years later they had paid the mortgage on their flat. She has since retrained as a yoga teacher and he has developed a series of online projects, including a site on mindfulness.
Having taken a break from adding fresh podcasts in 2013, they restarted in 2017, and last week released new podcasts and worksheets for the advanced section of their course. Their back catalogue, one of the net’s best resources for students of Spanish, continues to attract new users, and they email subscribers at intervals with news, phrases, hints and tips and offers on worksheets.
One strength of their recordings is that, while they did some preliminary research and talked from a list of subject headings, they didn’t write a script. The conversations are natural, unforced. In the early ones, too, where Marina is gently correcting Ben’s mistakes, and he is introducing her to such English expressions as “swot”, you have a sense that thepeople teaching you Spanish are on a learning curve themselves.
Ten more great sites for language learners
Lindsay Does Languages
Lindsay Williams, based in Milton Keynes, says she eats, sleeps and breathes languages. Whichever you’re learning, even if you don’t quite share her commitment, you’ll benefit from visiting her site, which is full of hints, tips and resources for both independent learners and online teachers. Following a degree in French and Spanish, plus studies that have included German, Italian and Mandarin, she started a business in 2012 offering private tuition to individuals and groups, and says she found her niche teaching via Skype. She blogs, vlogs and offers coaching packages and online courses for both learners and teachers. In response to the coronavirus lockdown, she is offering free classes for children on YouTube, an “isolation kit” for language teachers going online for the first time, and a great list of resources for learners in general.
News in Slow…
Listening to current-affairs programmes in the language you are learning can be a great way to broaden your vocabulary — if you can keep up with the speed at which newsreaders and journalists tend to speak. Linguistica 360, a US-based company, makes it easier, producing weekly shows in slow-paced French, Spanish, Italian and German, with discussions of the news, grammar and expressions. You can listen to the recordings free online as you read a transcription; for printouts or downloads you have to subscribe.
Radio Lingua Network
RLN (radiolingua.com), based in Kilmarnock, Scotland, was founded by Mark and Catriona Pentleton, both language teachers, who work with a team of native speakers and teachers around the world producing audio and video courses in short, manageable chunks.
Free podcasts are available in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish and Chinese. The next step is a paid-for Coffee Break Course, offering video, lesson notes and bonus audio content. If you get seriously bitten by the language bug, you might want to try their “espresso shots”, available in more than 30 languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu, and each comprising 10 lessons of just two to three minutes (£10).
A blog post on the site says: “Throughout the world the impact of Coronavirus… is being felt, and here at Radio Lingua we are aware that schools are closing. In an attempt to help parents, carers, teachers and learners to minimise disruption, we have gathered a collection of our free resources for primary and secondary on a single page which can be easily shared.”
Talk in French
Founded by Frédéric Bibard, who lives in the suburbs of Paris, as a small blog catering to busy learners of the language, Talk in French has grown into a fully fledged website offering not just a blog and podcasts but e-books and audio books for language learners and francophiles alike. Bibard says: “Teaching French is just the beginning for me. I want to create a tool or framework to help people form a learning habit. I believe that if everybody spends 30 minutes each day learning something… instead of watching TV, good things can happen in their lives.”
The Iceberg Project
Cher Hale, an American from Las Vegas, went to Viterbo, north of Rome, in 2012, in her second year at university, and fell in love with Italy. She lived for six months in Viterbo, then for three months in Rome in 2015. Her site is aimed at others who are similarly smitten but find themselves “swimming endlessly in an ocean of Italian”.
She’s not a qualified teacher, but an enthusiast, possessed of “an intense curiosity, a whole lotta patience, and the willingness to make mistakes over and over again as my team of native editors gently correct and redirect me”. She is now back in the United States, running her own public relations company in Spokane, Washington, but after a break has returned to updating her website.
Larissa Vassilian (aka Annik Rubens), a German journalist based in Munich, started the prize-winning Slow German (paced as its name suggests) as a hobby and on her own in 2007. Each episode consists of a sound file with accompanying transcript. In the “Absolute Beginner” category (where topics range from transport to make-up), recordings are in English, with just a few words and phrases in German. Premium membership (€40 a year) offers everything that’s already in the archive, learning materials in PDF form, episodes spoken at a faster pace and extra lessons.
Talk To Me In Korean
The team behind this site, based in Seoul, South Korea, started up in 2009 to help people around the world “learn Korean more effectively through fun and simple lessons”. They say they now have more than 300,000 students around the world. A basic course, including PDF lesson notes, is free. Premium membership (US$12.99 a month, $US$7.75 if you sign up for a year) brings additional materials, including sample dialogue videos and comprehension quizzes.
Serge Melnyk, a Russian who has studied Mandarin for more than 25 years, spent 17 years in China, has a master’s degree in Chinese linguistics and used to work as an academic director in the International School in Shanghai. On Melnyk’s Chinese he offers theme-based lessons for beginners consisting of practical conversations — recorded with Summer, a native Chinese speaker from Beijing, and Pauline, a native of Taiwan — and everyday vocabulary. The site doesn’t appear to have been added to recently, but it has more than 270 lessons. Audio can be listened to free, but if you want the accompanying PDF transcripts and worksheets you have to sign up and pay ($77 for six months, $97 for a year).
Learn Japanese Pod
Alex Brooke, an English musician and composer who first visited Japan as an exchange student in 1995, started Learn Japanese Pod to brush up his own language skills. He’s now living in Tokyo, teaching guitar and, on this website, has been introducing others to language and culture with the help of his friends Ami, Asuka and Beb. The blog hasn’t been updated since last December, but there’s an archive of podcasts and videos, and you can download PDF “cheat sheets” if you sign up to a free members’ area.
Language Transfer is a marvellous open-hearted project led by Mihalis Eleftheriou, from Cyprus, a linguist with a passion for sharing language. It offers courses designed for beginners in nine languages (including English for Spanish-speakers). All are made with the help of volunteer teachers and offered free. LT is sustained entirely by donations made by its users, funds raised through workshops given by Eleftheriou, and purchases made in its online shop. Instead of memorising and scribbling, learners are encouraged to build on any connections between the language (or languages) they know already and the one they are learning and to speak from the very start.
In a Facebook post on March 17, Eleftheriou said: “If you know anyone in quarantine, remind them that this is a great time to learn a language; we might just save some folks from insanity!”
I’m just back from a run in Nonsuch Park, my nearest expanse of greenery, where I was free of phones, screens and the watch and could run with a head full of nothing but Masefield, Larkin, Oliver and Frost. (Greenery, incidentally, is the title of the latest book from Tim Dee, which I mentioned a while back. I’ve not had time yet to read it myself, but it’s generating rave reviews — see The Guardian, The Observer and the Caught by the River website.)
Anyway, all the car parks on the edge of Nonsuch had been closed, presumably to deter people arriving in groups and getting close to one another as they got in and out of cars. More elbow room for us locals, for runners and cyclists, but I do feel sorry for those people who like the space but now won’t be able to enjoy it because they’re not capable of getting there under their own steam.
I’m guessing the last time anything with an engine presented a threat in Nonsuch Park was during the Second World War, when Brian Jackman, that great observer of the African bush, was growing up nearby and there were Spitfires and Messerschmitts overhead. The Blitz was at his height, and at the age of eight he was evacuated to a farm near Bude in Cornwall.
In his book Wild About Britain, a collection of his writing about landscapes and wildlife, he recalls the park of his boyhood:
Nonsuch… had once been the site of a great palace built by Henry VIII and subsequently demolished to pay off the gambling debts of the Countess of Castlemaine, into whose hands it had passed the following century. But of course we knew nothing of this. Instead, enclosed by fleets of blowsy elms, its unshorn meadows were our prairies, its hawthorn hedges our African savannas. In one field a landmine had fallen, blowing a deep crater in the clay that quickly filled with rain; and nature, always swift to exploit a niche, soon transformed it into a wildlife haven…
Nonsuch was the perfect adventure playground, where I swung like Tarzan through the trees, made Robin Hood bows from young ash staves and built Apache dens among the cow parsley…
If you’d like to keep company with Jackman, you can find a couple of contributions from him on Deskbound Traveller: on the peregrines of Cornwall and on the last great wilderness of Southern Africa, Namibia.
There’s a piece here too by Tim Dee, on the Masai Mara, in Kenya. Read that, and then buy his new book (from an independent bookshop if you can).
* Update, March 29, 2020: When I posted the paragraphs above, I was trying to remember something Brian Jackman had told me once about having seen a dogfight close to home, but I didn’t have a note of it and didn’t want to get it wrong. He has since emailed to say:
“It took place over Briarwood Road [where he lived]. The Messerschmitt pilot was hanging over the cockpit, having tried and failed to bale out. After it crashed, the Spitfire came past in a victory roll and we all ran out into the street to cheer.
“Another time, my mate and I were walking home down the London Road (near Nonsuch Park gates on the other side) and we heard — and then saw — a buzz-bomb coming straight towards us. We dived for cover into someone’s front garden and lay down until we heard it explode in the adjoining fields. Then we rubbed the dirt off our knees and went home for tea. No counselling in those days.”
*I started reading Greenery (Jonathan Cape) last night, and it’s as good as I expected; you can find an extract on the Caught by the River site.
The long list was announced yesterday for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 for a book — fiction, non-fiction or poetry — that best evokes “the spirit of a place”. (And you’d have read that here yesterday had something not gone wrong with a post I scheduled to go live at midday.) Now, more than ever, the society says, we are looking for literature to transport us somewhere else. The 18 titles (including several of my own favourites from last year) can be found on the society’s website.
Each writer has been asked the following two questions:
Why is place important in your book?
Which book best evokes the spirit of place for you?
The short list for the prize will be announced on April 20 and the winner on May 4. The judges this year are Peter Frankopan, historian and author of the bestselling The Silk Roads: A New History of the World; Pascale Petit, poet and winner of the Ondaatje in 2018 for her seventh collection, Mama Amazonica; and the novelist (and bookseller) Evie Wyld, author of the prizewinning titles After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and All the Birds, Singing.
The London-based Haus, whose imprints include Armchair Traveller, will continue sending out books for as long as it can. Over the coming weeks, all its titles will be discounted by 30 per cent, and 10 per cent of whatever you pay will be donated to NHS charities. Postage and packaging is free for UK residents. Call the office (020 3637 9729) between 1pm and 4pm, Monday to Friday, to order, and your book will be sent through the post.
Writers and publishers were invited this morning to submit entries for the Wainwright Prize, for books on nature, the outdoors and UK travel.
The prize has been extended this year to include a second category to cover writing about global conservation and climate change. “The books in this category will reflect efforts in or studies relating to conservation or climate change as it affects nature and the outdoors. They should be narrative-driven and could be global in scope.”
I decided last year that I would try to avoid flying as a travel writer. I didn’t want to be encouraging readers — directly or indirectly — to burn more oil at a time when we should all be burning less. In acknowledgement of the cumulative depth of my carbon footprint, I promised not to fly at all in 2020, and signed up to Flight Free UK. When I did that, I didn’t expect that I would soon find myself being discouraged from taking trains and ships as well.
I’m still travelling, though. I’ve recently been to Istanbul and the Balkans, to the Ukraine and St Petersburg, and even as far as the Black Hills of South Dakota. All thanks to what DH Lawrence, in Mornings in Mexico, summed up as “one little individual, looking at a bit of sky and trees, then… making little marks on paper”.
The body hasn’t been crossing oceans, but the mind has been roaming where it will, and a few hundred pages between covers have taken it an awfully long way. If you’ve had to abandon your travel plans or, worse still, lock yourself away, the books below will help you break free. And if you’re going to buy one, please do it through an independent bookshop and not an online giant that doesn’t really need the trade.
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage)
“I’m grounded,” you’re thinking. “I don’t want to read aviation’s equivalent of a petrolhead.” And you won’t. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, Vanhoenacker 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.”
Old Glory: An American Voyage by Jonathan Raban (Eland)
Wishing you were out on the water? Jonathan Raban is better equipped than any living writer I know to take you there. Reading Huckleberry Finn at seven, he dreamt the brook at the end of his Norfolk street into the wide waterway of the Mississippi. Thirty years later, he followed the river for most of its length in a 16ft aluminium skiff, all the while illuminating the America and Americans of the late 1970s.
Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris (HarperCollins)
Harris, an academic high-flyer from Canada, had ambitions to be an astronaut, then decided there was exploring enough to be done on planet Earth. Cycling the Silk Road with a childhood friend, she pedals to places where authorities don’t want her to go, including Tibet. On the page, she flits easily across supposed boundaries between travelogue and memoir, science and poetry. The result is a marvellous debut by a wanderer and wonderer, an author with boundless curiosity and a zest for life that enthuses every page.
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin)
Macfarlane’s Underland was recently named Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, but tunnels may not be what you’re looking for right now. Join him, instead, in some leg-stretching, mind-expanding hikes on The Old Ways. Inspired by the poet Edward Thomas, “who thought on paths and of them, but also with them”, Macfarlane walks ancient routes everywhere from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of north-west Scotland; from the disputed territories of Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas.
Venice by Jan Morris (Faber & Faber)
Jan Morris avoids the label travel writer, on the basis that she doesn’t go on journeys, but she is one of the greatest conjurors of place. She published this portrait of the city in 1960, and though it has gone into numerous editions it has never really been revised. But then it’s not a guidebook; it’s a love letter. Contemporary Venice, she says, is “a grand (and heavily over-booked) exhibition”; let her show you the city as it used to be.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (Penguin)
Hankering for the heat that comes earlier in Spain? Then join Lee on his journey there in the 1930s. He wasn’t a trust-fund tourist; he paid his way with busking and labouring, sailing for Vigo with a knapsack, a fiddle and enough Spanish to ask for water: “I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen then, for already I saw myself there, brown as an apostle, walking the white dust roads through the orange groves.”
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine (Picador)
Confinement to avoid Coronavirus is scary enough, but what if you were given a diagnosis of cancer? That’s what Rebecca Loncraine faced in 2009 at the age of 35. She took up gliding, and her “private love letters to the wind” were the beginnings of Skybound, which appeared in 2016, a couple of years after her death. It’s an extraordinary book, one in which the writer, for whom the world had closed down, feels it reopen, and carries the reader up on the thermals with her.
How to Travel Without Seeing by Andrés Neuman (Restless Books)
If you’ve had to put a gap-year trip on hold, here’s a chance to take in Latin America in a rush. A tour Neuman was sent on after winning a literary prize had him pinballing from place to place — 19 countries in all — so the writing, he decided, should reflect that; the journal should take on the form of the journey. The result is not so much a travel book as a travelling one: instant, impressionistic, written from a need “to trap small realities on the go and interpret them in real time”.
Chesapeake Requiem by Earl Swift (Dey Street)
A health emergency has, for the moment, drawn attention away from the climate emergency. One spot where the latter is evident (at least to outsiders) is Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where a 240-year-old crabbing community is going under the water. Swift lived among the islanders, and his book, at once affectionate and inquiring, is a superb account of a singular place and its people.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Vintage Classics)
Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a travel book that will make you count your blessings to be stuck at home. This one should do it. The journey was Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic — beaten to the Pole by Amundsen’s — and Cherry-Garrard was one of its members. His account, of freezing, soaking,blubber-eating hardship, is written with unfailing good humour. “Polar exploration,” he declares at the outset, “is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”
The cover story of last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend was an interview with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He used to be a comedian, and played a man who becomes president of Ukraine; now he is president of Ukraine.
As Shaun Walker and Andrew Roth put it in their Guardian article, Zelenskiy is now “running a country of 42 million people that in the past few years has seen a revolution, a land-grab [of Crimea] by Vladimir Putin and an ongoing war in its eastern regions”. It’s a country that figured, too, in the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.
I’ve recently become more familiar with the place behind the headlines, having read Black Earth, a pacey and populous book by the German journalist Jens Mühling. It was published in English (under Haus Publishing’s imprint The Armchair Traveller) last August, but hasn’t had the attention it deserves. Like his last book, it was prompted by a feeling that he didn’t really know a place where he had long been working as a reporter, and by an urge to make good the deficiency.
A Journey into Russia, which was short-listed for the Stanford Dolman prize in 2015, was an attempt to get at “the soul of Russia” — a topic on which Mühling was regularly asked to speak at editorial meetings but which he felt ill-equipped to address. It was a book that barely mentioned the name “Putin” or the word “oligarch”, and which conveyed powerfully the grip that religion still has on the country.
Similarly, Black Earth (translated as the last book was by Eugene H Hayworth) was sparked by Mühling’s realisation that in his journalistic work he had really only skimmed the surface of Ukraine. So he set out to get the measure of it, travelling through it from the Polish border to the Russian one. Along the way, he talked to nationalists and old communists, Crimean Tatars and Cossacks, smugglers, archaeologists and soldiers, gathering stories “of life and of grief and of love”. You can read an extract here on Deskbound Traveller.
Thanks to Haus Publishing, I have four copies of Black Earth to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just retweet my mention of the book from either @kerraway or @deskboundtravel, or like and share my post about the book on facebook.com/deskboundtraveller.
Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet a mention of the prize on Twitter from @deskboundtravel or @kerraway, or like and share the post about the prize on the Deskbound Traveller Facebook page, by midnight on March 17. 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 March 23. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more about Haus Publishing’s travel books, see the company’s website.