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Remembering Dervla Murphy

In the latest newsletter from the travel publisher Eland, Barnaby Rogerson remembers the writer Dervla Murphy, who died last May. “Like a cautious treasury minister”, he writes, she reserved money “for education and health, which were the two absolutes, plus beer and a roof over her head. Otherwise money could become a barrier, protecting you from full engagement with life, the one life, the only life, which should be lived well enough that you aspired to no other.”

On the bill for the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival

Iain MacGregor, author of The Lighthouse of Stalingrad, and Tom Parfitt, a reporter for The Times, whose High Caucasus: A Mountain Quest in Russia’s Haunted Hinterland is due out in May, will be comparing notes on their travels in Russia at the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival, part of the Destinations show at Olympia, London, next week. Other writers on the bill include James Crawford (The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World), Mary Novakovich (My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland), Karen Edwards (The Responsible Traveller) and Nicholas Crane (Latitude).

‘Soundings’ out in paperback

Soundings, a brilliant debut in which Doreen Cunningham, travelling with her son, tracks the migration of grey whale mothers and their calves from the lagoons of Mexico to the glaciers of the Arctic, is out in paperback (Virago) on February 2. The author will be in conversation with the writer and editor Erica Wagner at the Review bookshop in Peckham, London, on February 6.

More new books on travel and place

Since I compiled my roundup on forthcoming books on travel and place I’ve been alerted to a few more titles:

The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd by Merryn Glover (Polygon, £14.99, March 2)
Glover, an Australian who grew up in the Himalayas, explores the high and rocky heart of Scotland in the footsteps of the author of The Living Mountain. Her book, the publisher says, is “a conversation between two women across nearly a century that explores how entering the life of a mountain can illuminate our own”. Glover was interviewed this week in The Scotsman.

All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the Places Between by Mike Parker (HarperCollins, £20, March 30)
Parker, who was born in England and settled in Wales, takes a scenic journey along a great divide. “Picking apart the many notions and clichés of Englishness, Welshness and indeed Britishness,” he “plays with the very idea of borders, our fascination with them, our need for them, and our response to their power. In his hands, the England–Wales border is revealed to be a border within us all, and it is fraying, fast.”

Wounded Tigris: A River Journey Through the Cradle of Civilisation by Leon McCarron (Corsair Books, £20, April 6)
The Tigris, which has been the lifeblood of ancient Mesopotamia and modern Iraq, is threatened by both geopolitics and climate change. Wounded Tigris, McCarron says on Twitter, is “the story of what humanity would lose with the death of a great river, and of what can be done to try to save it”.

The Seaside: England’s Love Affair by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, £20, May 4)
Bunting — whose Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey was short-listed in 2017 for the Wainwright Prize and for the non-fiction category in Scotland’s National Book Awards — journeys clockwise through the country’s biggest resorts, from Scarborough to Morecambe, to explore the enduring appeal of salt air, and “to trace an extraordinary national phenomenon of boom and decline, reinvention and struggle”.

Words from the road in 2023: new books on travel and place

Journeys through Cambodian pop and in search of paradise; new explorations of Wales and Cornwall: these are some of the books on travel and place coming in 2023…

Away from Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia by Dee Peyok (Granta, £16.99, January 5)
On her first trip to Cambodia 10 years ago, Peyok, a former session singer, heard a local cover version of the Procol Harum hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. She bought a set of CDs including that song, retitled “Away From Beloved Lover”. Thus began a journey across the country and back to “the golden age” of Cambodian pop, which started in the early 1960s — a decade after independence — and ended in the mid-1970s, when the genocide of the Khmer Rouge wiped out 90 per cent of the young musicians.

The Half Known Life: Finding Paradise in a Divided World by Pico Iyer (Bloomsbury, £16.99, January 19)
Pico Iyer has 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 The Half-Known Life, he explores some of the world’s holiest sites — from Iran to North Korea, and from the Dalai Lama’s Himalayas to the ghostly temples of Japan — and asks how we might find that place where earthly cares fall away. (Jeremy Bassetti will be interviewing Iyer for a Travel Writing World podcast, to be published on January 11; Iyer will also be in conversation with the author and podcaster Katherine May in a 5×15 event on January 24.)

Elixir: In the Valley at the End of Time by Kapka Kassabova (Jonathan Cape, £20, February 2)
In her prize-winning books Border and To the Lake, Kassabova travelled through the southern Balkans, looking into the damaging legacies of fences on the ground and in the head. In Elixir, she returns to her native Bulgaria, to explore the valley of the river Mesta, and the connections between people, plants and place. The new book, her publisher says, is “an urgent and unforgettable call to rethink how we live — in relation to one another, to the Earth and to the cosmos”.

Grounded: A Journey into the Landscapes of Our Ancestors by James Canton (Canongate, £18.99, February 2)
Canton, director of the MA in wild writing at the University of Essex, takes us on a journey through England “seeking to see through more ancient eyes, to understand what landscape meant to those that came before us”. If we can recapture our ancestors’ sense of wonder and veneration, he argues, we might do more to protect the places we live in.

River of the Gods by Candice Millard (Swift Press, £20, February 2)
Richard Burton and John Speke set out together in 1857 to find the source of the Nile, but during their search became sworn enemies. In Millard’s account of their story, a third man is given his due: Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who had been born in East Africa, sent as a slave to India, and made his way back after 20 years to forge a living as a guide. Without Bombay and men like him, she argues, neither Englishman would have come close to the headwaters, or perhaps even survived.

Sarn Helen: A Journey Through Wales, Past, Present and Future by Tom Bullough, with illustrations by Jackie Morris (Granta, £16.99, February 2)
Following the route of a Roman road from south to north, the novelist Tom Bullough (who has twice been arrested for his involvement with Extinction Rebellion) explores the political, cultural and mythical history of Wales, and looks into the likely effect on this one small country of a climate crisis that’s engulfing the world.

Stone Will Answer by Beatrice Searle (Harvill Secker, £18.99, February 9)
At 26, Beatrice Searle, who is an artist and stonemason, made a journey of 1,300 miles from Orkney across Norway and back, with a 40-kilo piece of Orkney stone. Her book, the publisher says, “is framed around this journey and the people she encounters along the way, as the stone becomes a talisman of sorts, a bedrock of home, inspired by the ancient ‘Kingship’ stone, St Magnus’s Boat.”

Between the Chalk and the Sea: A journey on foot into the past by Gail Simmons (Headline, £22, February 16)
An antique map in the Bodleian Library in Oxford shows a faint red line threading through towns and villages between Southampton and Canterbury, a line medieval pilgrims are thought to have travelled to the shrine of Thomas Becket. Over four seasons the travel writer Gail Simmons walks this old way, “to rediscover what a long journey on foot offers us today”. 

Glowing Still: A Woman’s Life on the Road by Sara Wheeler (Little Brown, £22, March 16)
Wheeler, whose work has taken her to both Poles (Terra Incognita and The Magnetic North), across Russia and America and through Chile, looks back on a career she embarked on in her twenties, at a time when “role models were scarce in the travel-writing game”. She’ll be journeying, she jokes, from Nubility to Invisibility, leaving Immobility for the next volume.

Real Dorset by Jon Woolcott (Seren, £9.99, April)
This addition to Seren’s “Real… ” series, which takes in places from Swansea to Glasgow, is from one of the team at the Dorset-based publisher Little Toller. Like the rest of the series, Woolcott says, “it’s (very loosely) pyschogeographic”, mixing “history, literature, music, film, riot and rebellion, lost settlements and buildings, standing and lying stones, etc”. He also promises “a dash of memoir and, I hope, a few jokes”.

Goodbye Eastern Europe by Jacob Mikanowski (Oneworld, £20, April 27)
Jacob Mikanowski is a writer and historian based in Portland, Oregon, but comes from a family of Polish-speaking Jews. In Goodbye Eastern Europe he offers “an intimate history of a divided land”. Rather than try to summarise it here, I’ll point you to his 2017 piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Granite Kingdom: A Cornish Journey by Tim Hannigan (Head of Zeus, £9.99, May 11)
In The Travel Writing Tribe, Hannigan journeyed from wintry Scotland to the sun-scorched Greek islands, in search of the people intent on summing up place. In his new book he doesn’t stray so far from his birthplace of Penzance. His aim, his publisher says, is to “discover how the real Cornwall, its landscapes, histories, communities and sense of identity, intersect with the many projections and tropes that writers, artists and others have placed upon it”.

  And here’s a couple of books published late in 2022 that I’ve not had a chance to mention before: The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania and Mutiny in the South Pacific (Icon Books, £20), in which Brandon Presser tells the story of the Bounty mutineers and their modern-day descendants; and Genius Loci (Reaktion Books, £20), in which John Dixon Hunt examines how places gain meaning “through the myriad ways we see, talk about and remember them”.

Update, January 26: Publication of River of the Gods has been delayed until February 16.

Rock on the rails down under

Platform songs: (from right) Mark Seymour, James Reyne and Cameron McKenzie, with local schoolchildren at Sydney station before the train set off

My family got back to the old normal this Christmas, with 11 of us throwing our arms around one another before lunch. Two years ago, it was just my wife and myself at the table. Then, as this year, I’d been playing music I first heard in the run-up to Christmas 2010 — in Australia

There are songs that never meant what we thought they did. Among them is Paul McCartney’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”, which expressed not what he felt on first meeting a singular woman but, as he disclosed in a biography in 1997, what he felt when he “had first been introduced to pot”.

  There are songs that aren’t as straightforward as the chorus, and its rousing delivery, might suggest. One of the best-known in that category is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, in which a Vietnam veteran tells how they “Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man”, and how, when he got home, he ended up jobless and hopeless.

  And there are songs that acquire new meaning in new times. A fine example of the last is Paul Simon’s “American Tune”, which was released when Nixon was in the White House, in 1973, but spoke powerfully to the Covid-worried world of 2020: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered / I don’t have a friend who feels at ease.” 

  Another song of the last kind, for me, at least, is “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, which was written by the Australian singer-songwriter Mark Seymour and other members of the band he led for nearly two decades from 1981, Hunters and Collectors. In its opening lines it’s less of a love song than a lust song (“I will come for you at night time / I will raise you from your sleep…”). It’s about making the most of what time there is, and its chorus, at first a command, seems at the end (in Seymour’s acoustic version, at any rate) to be an expression of scarcely believable good luck: “You will thro-ow your arms around me.”

   I first heard it 12 years ago. It’s on an album by Seymour, The Closest Living Thing, that I’ve got into the habit of playing a few times in the run-up to Christmas. The album takes me to another Christmas, and to other places: from Sydney, in the first week of December 2010, through the Blue Mountains and the silver-mining town of Broken Hill, to Adelaide, and then on through the dusty outback stations of Watson, Cook and Rawlinna to Perth. I was on the Indian Pacific train, a “Santa Special”, with entertainment provided by Seymour and two other veterans of the Aussie rock scene: James Reyne, who led Australian Crawl before going solo, and Cameron McKenzie, long-time guitarist in Horsehead, who both played on and produced The Closest Living Thing (and who as a session musician has recorded with acts from Johnny Cash to Aerosmith).

  I hadn’t heard of any of them before I signed up for that trip. Afterwards, I bought Seymour’s album and one of Reyne’s, One Night in Melbourne. I sing along to songs by both men that I first heard inside and outside the silver carriages of the train: “Do You See What I See?”, “Holy Grail”, “When The River Runs Dry” (Seymour); “Reckless”, “Errol”, “The Boys Light Up” (Reyne). But “Throw Your Arms Around Me” (which has been covered by Pearl Jam and Crowded House) had particular resonance in 2020.

  On Friday, December 18, my wife, Teri, went to Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey — but not with our grandchildren. A place that had begun life as a zoo, and then become a theme park, had morphed (in its car park, at least) into a Coronavirus testing centre. Teri and I had signed up early to the Covid Symptom Tracker (later the Covid Symptom Study) by adding its app to our phones. Having logged on the app for several days muscle aches, a sore throat and a diminished sense of smell, she had been invited to take a test.

  Our son-in-law was due to turn 40 on December 22. As we were in a “childcare bubble”, Teri and I had agreed that we’d have the children so that our daughter could take him out to celebrate. Then we’d spend Christmas Day at their house, playing with the kids and their new presents, windows wide open, while lunch was being cooked. We’d be bringing the booze and the puddings.

It wasn’t to be. At a briefing broadcast on the evening of December 19 from Downing Street, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, having previously told us that a jolly Christmas was on but we needed to be jolly careful, cancelled seasonal gatherings. Minutes later, Teri got a text to say that her test had come back positive. 

  Where had she picked up the virus? We could only think that it had happened the previous weekend, when we had driven from Epsom to Worthing  (where we now live) for a much-needed blast of sea air and later had a meal in a restaurant — our first meal indoors in a restaurant in nine months. Teri was told she needed to self-isolate. Later that night I got a text on another app, the NHS Covid-19 one, to say: “The app has detected that you have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus. Please stay at home and self-isolate to keep yourself and others safe.” According to advice on the Gov.UK site, “If you or anyone in your household has symptoms that may be caused by Covid-19, then you should avoid contact with other household members as much as possible.”

  Teri and I, having been denied hugs with our family for much of 2020, were now being warned, whatever we did, not to throw our arms around each other. We could listen to Mark Seymour, but we shouldn’t suit action to words. 

  We ended up having a Christmas lunch with all the trimmings and none of the company, one of us sitting at either end of the dining table, but we were cautious rather than ailing. By the time Teri got her positive result, she was feeling better. I tested negative — maybe falsely, because I had what felt like a cold plus red chilblain-like marks on my toes. Those, it turned out, were among the more unusual symptoms logged by people on the Zoe Covid-19 app, and would last for a few weeks.

  A couple of days before Christmas, I’d woken with a bad headache, but after two paracetamols, three cuppas and a few slices of cranberry, raisin and cashew-nut bloomer delivered by the Tesco man, I already felt a lot better. He’d come to the door with a cheery “Hello. How are you?” When Teri answered, “I’m OK, thanks, but I’ve tested positive,” he backed off, sharpish, to ensure she didn’t breathe over him. I thought back to that run-up to Christmas in Australia in 2010, and how I’d been on trains and platforms where people were not only breathing over one another, but singing, at the tops of their voices. And the only worry was a snake…

* * * 

The snake, finger-thin and yellow-brown, slithered under Santa Claus’s battered old armchair. Santa bent as if to touch it, and for a moment it looked as if he too might get bitten. It disappeared. Where had it gone? This being outback Australia, there was a Snake Dundee at hand who had a pretty good idea. He reached down, grabbed the snake behind the head, and turned what had been a pandemonium-producing reptile into the subject for a photo-opportunity.

  Meanwhile, Lauren, a teacher in her twenties who had travelled three hours through the bush to a railway siding with her Aboriginal pupils just so that they could meet Santa, was sitting on the earth, her left leg bandaged from ankle to knee. “Aow! It’s really stinging,” she said.

  “She’s lucky,” another macho type chipped in. “If the snake bit her, she’s a special girl. The snake was attracted to her. It didn’t bite you [this to a woman who was not quite as slim as Lauren] because it if had, the snake would have died.”

  A nurse who had arrived with the children and a doctor who happened to be on the train were less convinced about Lauren’s good luck. She was carried on a stretcher to an ambulance that had been waiting as a precautionary measure – the only one within a radius of 190 miles – to be driven to Maralinga, some three hours away, and flown from there to hospital in Port Augusta, north-west of Adelaide. By this time her charges, and the rest of the Aboriginal party, were long gone. Time to get back on our silver bullet.

  We had arrived about an hour earlier, intent on bringing festive cheer. For 40 years the Indian Pacific had been crossing Australia, and for the past 10 its operating company, Great Southern Rail, had run a Christmas special as a thank-you to the communities that support the train throughout the year. As well as Santa Claus to dole out goodie bags, the company booked a nationally known musician. This year, there was a trio: Seymour, Reyne and McKenzie.

  So far, troubadours and Santa had raised the roof at stations in Sydney, Broken Hill and Adelaide. First, the local schoolchildren would take to the stage with Aussie-flavoured carols (“Oh, what fun it is to ride in a rusty Holden ute”), then Seymour and Reyne would play a few of their hits, then stars and school choir would combine in “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”. After that, it was time for the man in the white beard.

  Santa is a figure unknown in Aboriginal culture, but in the 11 years that Bruce Dent, a retired bank manager, had been playing him, he had become a familiar and eagerly awaited one in this part of the country. The night before we arrived at the railway siding of Watson, Bruce’s wife, Colleen, told me: “At the start the kids were very tentative, but over the years they have got more confident. These days, they’re in there like Flynn.”

  And so it proved. Watson doesn’t even appear on Great Southern Rail’s map of the train’s route; it’s mentioned, if at all, for its proximity to the former nuclear testing site of Maralinga. When we arrived, though, it had become a semi-circular Aboriginal encampment of minibuses and 4x4s. Teenagers waited close to the track; younger children hung back with mothers or fathers, who leaned against pick-ups or sat in the dust with their dogs.

  There was no carol singing here. Indeed, when the rockers began playing, they were met with giggling. However, when Santa stepped off the train, to sit down with his sack beneath a tinsel-hung bush, he was mobbed. For a moment, his red suit was completely lost in the scrum. It was shortly afterwards that the snake (identified by one bystander as a “yellow-faced whipsnake” and by another, with equal certainty, as “a yellow-tailed whipsnake”) made its appearance, leaving the white people in a tizzy and the black people entirely unfazed.

  Maybe we had tempted fate. Shortly after we had left Sydney, on the first evening of our three-night trip across the continent, I came back to my compartment to catch this snatch of commentary over the train’s PA system: “It’s very easy to provide statistics that make Australia sound like a dangerous place in relation to snakes…”

Looking on at Watson, where Santa 
disappeared in the scrum

  Easy, too, to get the wrong idea of the sort of landscape you are going to be seeing. Through the window of my compartment – a space with not only a fold-down bed, but a fold-down loo and fold-down sink –  it looked much greener than I had expected. Thanks to unseasonal rain in the east, Sydney was having its wettest spring for six years and its coolest for 11. We had to bypass our first scheduled stop, Bathurst, and its waiting carollers, because the track was submerged.

  “When the river runs dry” is one of the songs Mark Seymour delivered at stops along the way. No danger of that in the east. Menindee Lakes, on the approach to the silver-mining town of Broken Hill, had the air of an inland sea, a spooky one with drowned tree stumps. One of my sisters had lived in Broken Hill. She and her husband — who had worked down under before — emigrated there in the mid-1970s, partly because there was assisted passage and partly because job prospects were better than in Northern Ireland. They’d brought up their family there, but eventually divorced. I’d liked to have wandered round the town, but there wasn’t time. On the way into its station, though, I saw my first and only kangaroos of the trip: six of them on a roof, cutouts in wood hauling Santa’s sleigh north to the Pole.

  Our own Santa, Bruce, 6ft 3in with silver hair and moustache, wasn’t interested in going that far afield. “I’ve been to the furthest points north, south, east and west in Australia,” he told me. “I’m not that bothered about going abroad. I like to see my own country.”

  Most of the passengers on our 22-carriage train had boarded with similar intent, many of them pensioners taking a trip they had promised themselves for years; a chance to see the Australia celebrated in Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country”, a poem she wrote while homesick in London around 1904:

I love a sunburnt country, 
A land of sweeping plains, 
Of ragged mountain ranges, 
Of droughts and flooding rains. 

  Dr Andy Killcross, 37, a GP from Manchester, was enjoying the ride, too. But he was there to explain and promote the work of one of the few Australian institutions of which no Australian has a bad word to say: the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Having taken a job at a hospital in Sydney, intending to stay only 12 months, he saw a post advertised in the RFDS, based in Port Augusta. That was eight years earlier. He was now married to an Australian, and they were  expecting their first child.

  The service, he was keen to stress, is not just for aero-medical evacuations. Preventive medicine, from immunisation to a mental health project for teenagers, is a large part of its unsung work. It was the emergencies, though, about which people most want to hear. He talked of a flight to an injured miner in the desert in South Australia, and a landing in the dark on an airstrip lit by flares of burning kerosene. “Not the kind of thing I’d be doing if I’d carried on as a GP in Manchester.”

    He had been called out, too, when a passenger had a stroke on the Indian Pacific near Cook, a place that’s normally home to only four people who maintain a boarding house for long-distance train drivers: “Suddenly the train arrived with all these passengers. And then we came taxiing down the main street in our plane…”

  On the ground, he was told that a second woman was ill; it turned out that she had a potentially fatal heart condition. Given the narrowness of the train, it was impossible to get a stretcher in to the stroke victim. One of the staff went in on hands and knees, she was put on his back, and then he carried her to the train door. Both patients made it to hospital.

  Cook is on a 300-mile stretch of track that doesn’t have a kink, let alone a curve: it’s the longest straight in the railway world. It runs through the Nullarbor (“treeless”) Plain, where, for mile after mile, the only vegetation is bluebush and saltbush. Here, a bird on a wire was the cause of great excitement at the windows of the Queen Adelaide restaurant car, and even a birdless wire added a little variety.

  “Look!” a New Zealander said: “Big hole! What is it – an asteroid crater?

  “I think you can safely say so,” an Aussie responded. “Who’s going to be able to find it again to check?”

  We were safe, too, from the trill of the mobile. On the Nullarbor, even the smartest of smart phones had to admit that it had “No Signal”.

   Our arrival at Cook was a little more routine than Andy’s, but there were enough of us to keep half the population, one man, one woman, behind the counter in the souvenir shop for all of 20 minutes. Santa, in full gear, was dragged into several groups for a photograph. Tourist dollars were taken for “stubbie holders”, teaspoons, cuddly koalas and laminated pieces of A4 paper testifying that the holder had crossed the longest stretch of straight railway in the world. An ancient-looking notice on a blocked-off door read: “Any arsehole that steals from this camp will be gut shot and left for the eagles to feed on.”

  That’s the kind of promise I can imagine having been made by one of the tough-looking men who brought their families out to greet our Christmas caravanserai at Rawlinna. This sheep station has 70,000 sheep, but as they are spread over 2.5 million acres finding them at shearing time requires an aircraft. Mustering one paddock with the aid of motorbikes can take eight hours – and that’s assuming that they are all “in the right place”. The station hands, leaning against their 4x4s and knocking back the stubbies, looked like an audience that might be hard to please.

  Urging them to come a bit closer, Mark Seymour said: “We didn’t bring a PA. Just got our guitars, so it’s not so loud.”

  One of the hands responded with a laugh: “You did bring a train, though.”

  There were no carols here – not enough children for a choir –  and maybe a bit less singing along, but there was as much toe-tapping recognition of the Seymour-Reyne repertoire as there had been everywhere else.

  Last time he had played places this remote, Reyne had said earlier, he had been younger and thirstier. He and his band had been warned by local police not to overdo the drinking. “This time, he joked, “I’ve eaten my way across. They do feed you well.”

  They did. Dinner menus ran to four choices of main course and two of dessert – which on the last night included plum pudding. After that, Seymour, Reyne and McKenzie sang for the penultimate time in the car park behind Kalgoorlie station, while the wind whipped at the pompoms of the primary-school choir’s hats.

  After a last “Great Australian Breakfast”, we entered the outskirts of Perth, and the last stretch of a journey of 2,720 miles, from the Indian Ocean to the edge of the Pacific. Trackside maintenance work brought us to a halt on an incline. On the other side of the window were gardens mulched with bark chippings, over-tidied trees, a pre-office jogger glancing at her watch. Suburbia was swallowing a train that had crossed a continent.

The band from the silver bullet: playing for the crowd at Watson

My travel books of the year for 2022

“Pink Lake Geometry”, as seen in Heroiske, in the Kherson region, from The Beauty of Ukraine by Yevhen Samuchenko and Lucia Bondar. Picture © Yevhen Samuchenko

Many a wandering spirit, forced to hit the pause button in 2020, got back on the road this year. Raynor Winn, bestselling author of The Salt Path, strapped her backpack on again in May 2021, when lockdown was still blanketing the country “in a sense of inertia”. The health of her husband, Moth, who has an incurable brain disease, was suddenly worsening, and she hoped that nature, which had worked its magic on their trek round the south-west coast, would do so again. In Landlines (Michael Joseph, £20), she tells how they set out to tackle the 200-plus miles of the Cape Wrath Trail in north-west Scotland — and ended up walking (with a little cycling) all the way back to their home in Cornwall, a journey of 1,000 miles. Along the way, they defied doctors, logic, midges, horseflies, rain and heat.

  Landlines is an inspirational story of love and endurance; of trails offering links to ancient times. But it’s clear-eyed, too, on the future we’re shaping: “all the miles of exposed blanket bog, the glens with no trees… it feels as if there’s no way back, we’re standing on the brink”.

  That message resounded through my reading this year. The call of the north also figured large. Sarah Thomas, one of those who answered it, tells her story in The Raven’s Nest (Atlantic, £17.99). She went to the Westfjords of Iceland for the screening of a film she had made and found herself falling first for a landscape, then for a man and his family. For a while she guided tourists from visiting ships. “You must write a book,” many told her. She said she would, while wondering whether she could find words to “trace my path as insider and outsider, criss-crossing, braiding”. That’s exactly what she’s done.

  “The sea is where I’ve always run to,” Doreen Cunningham writes in Soundings (Virago, £18.99). As a young journalist reporting on climate change, she spent time with an Iñupiaq family of whalers in Utqiagvik, the northernmost town of Alaska. When she finds herself a broke single parent, she heads for the water again. With her son, Max, she sets out to follow, by bus, train and ferry, grey whale mothers swimming with their calves on one of the longest of mammalian migrations, from the lagoons of Mexico to the glaciers of the Arctic. Soundings is a wonderful debut: a memoir that’s both frank and fearless, and a plea for the whales to be allowed to live, and die, in peace.

  One of the writers Cunningham cites is the anthropologist Hugh Brody, who spent a decade living and working among the Inuit in northern Canada. His latest book, Landscapes of Silence (Faber, £20), is a hymn to the Arctic, and to the ways of the hunter-gatherers who made him feel at home there. It’s haunting in its account of things that went unsaid, both in his Jewish family in Sheffield, after the Second World War, and among the Inuit in the Canadian far north, facing the worst side-effects of “development” and “progress”. It’s also beautifully written.

  The journalist and film-maker Matthew Teller, who grew up in a Jewish family in London (but now considers himself secular), has been visiting Jerusalem since he was 11. It’s a place, he has felt for a while, whose people are seen as less important than the stones that surround them. In Nine Quarters of Jerusalem (Profile Books, £16.99), a sprightly and scholarly “new biography of the old city”, he sets out to put that right. As his title suggests, Jerusalem has many more quarters than the four that appear on maps, and many more sides than the two featured regularly in news headlines. He wants to “amplify the unlistened-to” — to bring us the voices not just of Palestinians and Jews but of Armenians, Africans and Indians, Greek and Syriac communities, Dom Gypsies and Sufi mystics. As he heads on his myth-puncturing way round another corner, through another gate or door, you’ll be flicking to the maps on the inside covers, but you’ll be confident, too, that he’ll emerge with a great story.

  Teller’s book, including notes, is just short of 400 pages. The Saviour Fish, by Mark Weston (Earth Books, £11.99), is half that length, but in it Weston explains an environmental crisis behind failing fish stocks on Lake Victoria, and offers a vivid portrait of daily life over two years on Ukerewe Island, where both witch-doctors and Christian preachers still have a powerful hold.

  Shorter still — 139 pages — is an account by Markiyan Kamysh of another singular place, one that was dangerous long before Russian shells began falling in it earlier this year: the Exclusion Zone around the former nuclear plant of Chornobyl (as it’s spelt in Ukrainian). His father, a scientist, helped shut down the plant, so he knows better than most what the risks are. Yet, in Stalking the Atomic City (Pushkin Press, £12.99), he tells of his countless illegal visits to “this land of tranquillity and frozen time”. Hardly a guide to follow on the ground, but compelling on the page.

  Some of the best non-fiction of recent years has been on travels that were forced rather than longed-for: the journeys of refugees and migrants. In The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, Matthieu Aikins (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99), a Canadian journalist, takes the smuggler’s road out of Afghanistan — not because he has to, but because his driver, translator and friend, Omar, is fleeing the country. Aikins wants to show us the refugee underground from the inside: “the cities of the world connected by a network of paths that measure not physical distance but danger: the risk of getting arrested, stuck in transit, scammed, kidnapped or killed”. It’s a brave book, and a brilliant one.

  And what must the smuggler’s road be like for a child? Imagine you’re a nine-year-old boy being raised by your grandparents and aunts in El Salvador. Your parents have fled a civil war and are living in the United States. Then they tell you on the phone that you’ll soon be taking “a trip” to join them. That trip, everybody reckons, will last two short weeks. Instead, it turns into a nine-week journey of 3,000 miles in the company of strangers. You freeze on a boat, fry in the desert, have guns pointed at you and see the adults who have been helping you get handcuffed. Imagine how that would feel…

  You don’t have to. In his memoir, Solito (Oneworld, £18.99), Javier Zamora, who made that journey in 1999, shows you exactly how it feels. It’s a gripping story, heart-breaking in some passages and heartening in others. Here and there, the prose and its rhythms remind you that you’re reading not the diary of the child but that of the writer he became. On page after page, though, there’s the authentic voice of a nine-year-old boy. The coyotes (traffickers), he says, have told him he’s got to act as if Patricia, a fellow migrant, is his mother: “…in public I call her ‘Mom’, and only to trick soldiers. I know who my real mom is. But it’s funny that they’re both super short, they both have big tempers, and they both like to keep things clean.” Solito (which I’ve written about elsewhere on Deskbound Traveller) is my travel book of the year.


Yevhen Samuchenko has won numerous international awards for his photography, but none of his projects has been quite like his new book. The Beauty of Ukraine, with text by Lucia Bondar (teNeues, £39.95), was envisaged as a tribute to the landscapes of his homeland. It has also become a testament to the determination of his publishing team in Kyiv, CP, who had to flee their office after the Russian invasion but, with the support of teNeues, continued working on the book.

  Here — seen mainly from the air — are pink salt lakes, their shapes and patterns reminiscent of the art of Kandinsky or O’Keeffe; the waterfalls and canyons of the Carpathian Mountains; and the beaches of the Black Sea. Many of the places featured have since been severely damaged by bombing and shelling. An image of a woman walking through a field of purple blossom, heavy clouds building above her, has a prescient title: “Before the Storm”.

  Travel features strongly in a superlative collection from the Sony World Photography Awards: 2022 (World Photography Organisation, £38.99) embracing everything from sport, via landscape, to still life. There’s a tribute, with an essay by the historian Simon Schama, to the Canadian Edward Burtynsky, who won an “outstanding contribution to photography” award. Through the terrible beauty of his images of waste and wreckage, Schama says, Burtynsky “calls on us to repair our only earthly home”. There are portfolios on migrants from Latin America, who had to scale fences to get into the US, and on football fans in Prague, who set stepladders against their club’s wall when Covid forced the team to play to an empty stadium.

  Perch that seem to be swimming in a soft turquoise sky rather than water — in pink clouds of an algal bloom that is probably caused by global warming; a giraffe hiding in a national park — from a train that will rattle overhead on a newly built railway: Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Portfolio 32 (Natural History Museum, £25), the latest showcase for a competition that began in 1965, combines wonders with powerful warnings. The foreword, by the conservationist Chris Packham, is blunt. Most of the natural world, he argues, “is no longer beautiful. It’s very ugly. And we need to see that… we need to look at it — long and hard.”

  My favourite image in Landscape Photographer of the Year: Collection 15 (Ilex, £35) is a glorious one of Chrome Hill in the Peak District, including not only  a rainbow but raking light along the Dragon’s Back. The photographer, Demi Oral, couldn’t believe how things had fallen into place. Jon Brook tells how he had a similar break on a sunshine-and-showers day while trying to capture a steam train on the Glenfinnan Viaduct. “I was lucky,” he says. “Sometimes, the more you plan, the luckier you get.”

  Portrait of Humanity Vol 4 (Hoxton Mini Press, £25) is the fruit of a competition designed “to celebrate that which unites us in a time of division”. Those brought together in its pages include a fur-clad young eagle huntress and her bird in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, and a suited teacher in New York’s Central Park, marking Latin papers while coaching an athletics team. Both look perfectly at home. Then there are the Syrian toddler and her baby sisters, twins born in a refugee camp in Iraq, and the two activists from the Waorani tribe in the Ecuadorian rainforest, who flew to Glasgow with their baby — their first time on a plane — to call for action on climate at Cop26.

  If you don’t live near an independent bookshop, and you order your books online, I’d recommend you do so where possible through, which supports local bookshops. Interest declared: if you buy through a link from Deskbound Traveller, I will earn a little commission.

Petal power: the image below of a street vendor in Hanoi won first place in the travel category of the Sony World Photography Awards 2022. Picture © Thanh Nguyen Phuc


Postcards from the Arctic with Bathsheba Demuth

In a series of essays next week for Radio 3, Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast, a prize-winning environmental history of the Bering Strait, looks into the interconnectedness of people and animals in the Arctic landscape. Postcards from the Floating Coast starts at 10.45pm on Monday. In the first episode, Demuth examines “the shifting historical relationship between humans and dogs and the impact of that intimacy on commerce and imperial aspiration”.

Short list for Stanford travel prize

The short list was announced earlier today for the Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year*. There are eight books on it:

The Last Overland by Alex Bescoby (Michael O’Mara)
High by Erika Fatland (Quercus)
The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River by Tobias Jones (Head of Zeus)
The Slow Road to Tehran by Rebecca Lowe (September Publishing)
Crossed Off the Map: Travels in Bolivia by Shafik Meghji (Latin America Bureau)
Walking with Nomads by Alice Morrison (Simon & Schuster)
My Family and Other Enemies by Mary Novakovich (Bradt)
In The Shadow of the Mountain by Silvia Vasquez-Lavado (Octopus).

  The winner will be announced on March 16, 2023, with the winners in other categories of the Edward  Stanford Travel Writing Awards. 

(* Until last year the prize was for the “Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year”. Is it still being run in association with the Authors’ Club? There’s no mention of that on the Stanfords site.  The prize was started by the Rev William Dolman, who sponsored it through the club from 2006 until 2015, when it was rebranded and became part of an awards scheme run by the bookseller Stanfords and named after its founder.)

Updated December 15, 2022
Stanfords told me this week that the Rev William Dolman is no longer able to offer financial support but that it is hoping to find another sponsor. It is currently organising the prize on its own, though Sunny Singh, former chair of the Authors’ Club, will be among judges this year. Stanfords has scaled back its awards scheme to concentrate on four prizes: for travel book of the year, children’s travel book of the year,  new travel writer of the year (a prize it organises with the publisher Bradt) and an outstanding contribution to travel writing.

My travel books of the year

The best books of the year on travel and place? You can find my choice in print today in the travel section of The Daily Telegraph. Here’s a little more on one of them: Solito by Javier Zamora (Oneworld, £18.99).

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