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Taking off with the atlas

In an extract on Literary Hub from his latest book, Imagine a City, the pilot Mark Vanhoenacker remembers how it used to be an atlas, rather than a 747, that transported him across the world.

New for 2022: forthcoming books on travel and place

Journeys of explorers, exiles and refugees; portraits of Jerusalem, Berlin and the Shetland Islands:  these are some of the books on travel and place coming in 2022…

Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains by Anna Fleming (Canongate, January 6)
Anna Fleming charts two parallel journeys: learning the craft of traditional rock climbing, and developing through it a greater appreciation of the natural world. Through the story of her progress over a decade from terrified beginner to confident lead climber, “she shows us how placing hand and foot on rock becomes a profound new way into the landscape”. The poet Helen Mort says that Fleming’s debut “reminds me of Nan Shepherd, only the kind of Nan Shepherd I could go for a pint with.”

Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (Penguin Classics, February 3)
A new edition of a remarkable story: how a black man from Togo made a journey over nearly a decade to the Arctic Circle. First published as An African in Greenland in 1981, Kpomassie’s book was awarded the Prix Littéraire Francophone International and shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. It reads, as the critic Al Alvarez put it, like a fairy tale, “in which the hero runs away… and ends up making his wildest dreams come true”.

Travel Your Way by Nathan James Thomas (Exisle Publishing, February 8)
Nathan James Thomas, a New Zealander who has worked as a travel writer and ghost-writer, founded the website Intrepid Times in 2014 “as a vehicle for sharing stories from the road and as an excuse to meet and interview his favourite writers”. His new book is one for our tricky times, “with barriers and restrictions coming and going at a dizzying rate”. His aim is to help you “gain more from the travel experiences that you have and connect in a deeper way with the places you go and the people you meet”.

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: A Journey Through the Refugee Underground by Matthieu Aikins (Fitzcarraldo Editions, February 15)
Aikins, a journalist who grew up in Canada and has been reporting on the conflict in Afghanistan, joins his friend Omar, who was working as a driver and translator but has fled his country. To do so, he must leave his own passport and identity behind to go underground on the refugee trail. The pair’s odyssey across land and sea to Europe brings them face to face with the people at heart of the migration crisis: smugglers, cops, activists, and the men, women and children fleeing war in search of a better life.

The Instant by Amy Liptrot (Canongate, March 3)
Liptrot leaves Orkney — where she recovered from addiction in her wonderful debut The Outrun — and books a one-way flight to Berlin. “Searching for new experiences, inspiration and love, she rents a loft-bed in a shared flat and looks for work. She explores the streets, nightclubs and parks and seeks out the city’s wildlife – goshawks, raccoons and hooded crows. She looks for love through the screen of her laptop.”

Explorer: The Quest for Adventure, Discovery and the Great Unknown by Benedict Allen (Canongate, March 3)
Benedict Allen first headed for the farthest reaches of our planet at a time when there were still valleys and ranges known only to the remote communities who inhabited them. Thirty years on, he continues exploring. His book, he says, is part memoir, part meditation. “To me personally, exploration isn’t about planting flags, conquering Nature, or going somewhere in order to make a mark – it’s about the opposite. It’s about opening yourself up, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and letting the place and people make their mark on you.”

The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell (Fitzcarraldo Editions, March 9)
When her marriage breaks down, Kirsty Bell – a British-American art critic, in her mid-forties, adrift – becomes fixated on the history of her building and of her adoptive city of Berlin. Starting with the view from her apartment window, she turns to the lives of the house’s various inhabitants, to accounts penned by Walter Benjamin, Rosa Luxemburg and Gabriele Tergit, and to the female protagonists in the works of Theodor Fontane, Irmgard Keun and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The Undercurrents is “a hybrid literary portrait of a place that makes the case for radical close readings: of ourselves, our cities and our histories”.

The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century (Summersdale, March 10)
A collection of “the 30 best travel stories published in British magazines, newspapers and journals over the last two decades”, as chosen by the writers Jessica Vincent, Levison Wood, Monisha Rajesh  and Simon Willmore.

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller (Profile Books, March 17)
The Old City has never had “four quarters”, as its maps proclaim; and beyond the principal religious sites, much of Jerusalem is  little known to visitors, its people ignored and their stories untold. Matthew Teller sets out to challenge prevailing narratives and paint a new, intimately personal picture of social and cultural diversity. He hears not only from Palestinians and Jews but from Africans and Indians, the Greek and Armenian and Syriac communities, downtrodden Dom-gypsy families and Sufi mystics.

Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain by Matthew Green (Faber, March 17)
The historian Matthew Green tells “the untold story of Britain’s lost cities, ghosts towns and vanished villages, the places that slipped through the fingers of history”, from an Orkney settlement buried in sand 5,000 years ago to a medieval city mouldering beneath the waves of the North Sea. His aim is not just to dig up physical remains but to evoke “a cluster of lost worlds, animating the people who lived, worked, dreamed and died there, and showing how their disappearances explain why Britain looks the way it does”.

Where My Feet Fall: Going for a Walk in Twenty Stories by Duncan Minshull (William Collins, March 31) 
In his latest anthology, the radio producer and “laureate of walking” (as he was called by Country Life magazine) has 20 writers “set out with old memories and new adventures”, in places from the Isle of Grain (in Kent) to Tasmania. Contributors include Tim Parks, Kamila Shamsie, Nicholas Shakespeare, Joanna Kavenna, Richard Ford, Sinead Gleeson, Pico Iyer and Jessica J. Lee.

Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia by Shafik Meghji (Latin America Bureau/ Practical Action Publishing, March).
Meghji’s book emerged from a series of research trips for The Rough Guide to Bolivia over the past decade. Blending travel writing, history and reportage, it explores how a country rarely covered by the international media helped to shape the modern world — kickstarting globalisation, influencing the industrial revolution in Europe and dynastic collapse in China — and how it is now responding to challenges that will affect all of us in the years ahead, from the climate emergency to mass migration.

Riding Out: A Journey of Love, Loss and New Beginnings by Simon Parker (Summersdale, April 21)
In March 2020, as Britain entered its first lockdown, Simon Parker’s life fell apart: his work as a travel writer disappeared and shortly afterwards he heard that a close friend had died. When a long-suppressed anxiety disorder started to trouble him again, he got on his bike. From the northernmost point of Shetland, he cycled 3,427 miles around Britain (a journey recounted in the pages of Telegraph Travel). “I figured,” he writes, “there were 67 million other people out there, on Britain’s beaches, in its small towns, on its farms and fishing boats, all with their own unique worries and concerns. Each of these people, I hoped, might help me in their own little way.”

In Search of One Last Song by Patrick Galbraith (William Collins, April 28)
Our wild places and wildlife are disappearing at a terrifying rate. Patrick Galbraith, travelling across Britain from Orkney to West Wales, meets conservationists trying to save 10 threatened bird species. Through talking to musicians, writers and poets, whose work is inspired by the birds he manages to see, he creates a picture of the immense cultural void that would be left behind if the birds were lost.

Exiles: Three Island Journeys by William Atkins (Faber, May 5)
Atkins, who won the Stanford Dolman prize for The Immeasurable World, travels to the places where three people were banished at the height of European colonialism: Louise Michel, a French anarchist (New Caledonia in the South Pacific); Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, a Zulu prince (St Helena in the South Atlantic), and Lev Shternberg, a Ukrainian revolutionary (Sakhalin Island, off the coast of Siberia). “‘Exile,’ he says, “is a word that has haunted me all my adult life; this book is my attempt to grapple with its meanings, by following the journeys of three people I came to love and admire.”

The Green Traveller: Conscious adventure that doesn’t cost the earth by Richard Hammond (Pavilion, May 5)
Many of us are increasingly aware of the downsides of travel, and keen to do what we can to minimise our impact on the planet. We could just do with some guidance on how we go about it, while avoiding the greenwashing. That’s what Richard Hammond, founder of Green Traveller, aims to deliver, offering both a steer through environmental issues and practical ideas and itineraries.

Imagine A City by Mark Vanhoenacker (Chatto & Windus, May 12)
Since he was a child, the pilot and author of the bestselling Skyfaring has had the habit of dreaming about a city that doesn’t exist. In his new book, he “shows the reader how a city, real or imagined can be a childhood escape from uncomfortable realities, a kind of urban simulation game as an adult, a vast mental dance floor on which to play your favourite music, an effective aid to sleep, or a pre-filled form for articulating hopes for a slightly improved or heightened urbanity”.

The Ponies At The Edge Of The World by Catherine Munro (Rider, May 19)
Catherine Munro transforms her life when she moves to the tiny island of Whalsay as part of her PhD, studying the hardy ponies that inhabit the Shetland Islands. Over a year, she goes through the grief of a miscarriage, the uncertainty of life as an outsider and the harsh challenges of a wild land. Yet through it all, she finds comfort, connection and hope;  the people and animals of Shetland give her the feeling of home she has always been looking for.

Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise by Jack Parlett (Granta, May)
This non-fiction debut from the British poet and essayist follows the lives of the poets, writers, artists and activists who found freedom on New York’s Fire Island — including including Frank O’Hara, Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin and Edmund White — and “is a magisterial account of queer desire in the 20th century,” according to the synopsis.

The Responsible Traveller by Karen Edwards (Summersdale, July)
Edwards, an editor and writer from London (and author of The Planet-Friendly Kitchen), examines both the environmental and social impact of tourism, offering advice on how to be more aware when travelling.

The Edge of the Plain by James Crawford (Canongate, August)
In a blend of history, travel writing and reportage, Crawford, a historian and broadcaster, traces the evolution and cultural significance of land borders. According to The Bookseller, “It is a story told in four parts, each exploring a different aspect of the lifecycle and experience of borders all around the world and throughout history — how they are created, how they can change and evolve, how they are crossed or breached, and, finally, how they are overcome or broken.”

My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland by Mary Novakovich (Bradt, August 25).
In this travelogue/memoir, Novakovich explores the sparsely populated Croatian region of Lika, birthplace of her parents and a land that has endured centuries of strife. Over visits spanning more than 40 years, she uncovers her family’s tumultuous history as well as the stories of people who survived the country’s conflicts of the 20th century. Along the way, she celebrates Lika’s distinctive culture, food and indomitable spirit.

A History of Water by Edward Wilson-Lee (William Collins, August)
Wilson-Lee, author of Shakespeare in Swahililand and The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, was on holiday when I put out a request on Twitter asking for news of forthcoming books. His new one, he said in a brief message, is “about early modern travel and cultural encounter in India, China and elsewhere”. More on that later.

Following Miss Bell: Travels Around Turkey in the Footsteps of Gertrude Bell by Pat Yale (Trailblazer, October)
Gertrude Bell, explorer, archaeologist, writer and spy, travelled through Turkey before the First World War. Yale, who has been writing about the country for a quarter of a century, blends the story of that journey with her own retracing of Bell’s routes in 2015.

Paper planes

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.”

So… ‘there’s not much to say about airplane journeys’

Gatwick airport in London is expecting its busiest day of the year for outbound passengers this Friday, with 84,000 heading off. Given the security queues they’re likely to join, most of those passengers will understandably be thinking  of the flight as a necessary inconvenience en route to the beach, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Could they be persuaded to change that view? Maybe by reading some of the following…

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage)
If you’ve made expensive journeys to the far north and been denied a sighting of the aurora borealis, you might want to skip the chapter on night flights. “Sometimes,” Vanhoenacker writes, “I find it hard to remain interested… because [the northern lights] appear so regularly; because they are routine to pilots, ordinary by definition.” Flying, on the other hand, which for most of us means a long wait followed by a cramped seat, is for him a thing of wonder, and a pair of wings “this most charmed of our creations”.

Vanhoenacker, who flies 747s for British Airways, was born in America – to be a pilot, clearly. Taken to Disney World as a child, he couldn’t wait to get back on “the magical vessel” that had brought him there. Having worked as a management consultant (with time to stare out aircraft windows) to pay off student debts, he began flight training in 2001 and is now a senior first officer with BA – and one of those lucky people who can change the weather. If he wakes to an overcast sky in London, he knows he’ll be rising above it.

Join him on his journey, and you’ll see immediately that he’s anything but the aviation equivalent of a petrolhead. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, he 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.”

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)

Through the lives of a fictional family, McCann links three episodes from history: the first non-stop transatlantic flight; the visit of a freed American slave to Ireland; and Senator George Mitchell’s peace-broking in 1990s Belfast. In a cat’s cradle of journeys, the most powerful passages are probably those on the flight in 1919, by Alcock and Brown, in their Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Clifden, in Connemara. It’s a sustained feat of imagination in which McCann inhabits not just the cockpit but the minds of the aviators.

Aloft by William Langewiesche (Penguin Modern Classics)
Before he was a writer for Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, Langewiesche worked as a pilot for 15 years from the age of 18, so editors have pushed him towards aviation. In this collection of essays, he considers how we move about the earth and how we view our place within it. Some are frightening, some reassuring, but all of them are “suffused with the wonder I still feel that as a species we now find ourselves in the sky”.

West With The Night by Beryl Markham (North Point Press/Macmillan)
Beryl Markham (1902-1986) grew up in Kenya, hunting with the Maasai, worked as a bush pilot and became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west. Her memoir culminates with that feat and her Zen-like response when, somewhere over Cape Breton, her engine cut out. Hemingway, who was no fan of hers, said: “[she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers… it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Penguin Modern Classics)
Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) might not have been a model pilot, prone as he was to day-dreaming at the controls and near-fatal crashes, but he made poetry of his experience. This book, which recounts his years flying airmail routes across the Sahara and the Andes, culminates with the story of his miraculous survival following a crash in the Liyban desert in 1936 while he was trying to break the Paris-Saigon record.

Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater (Penguin)

Alexander Frater’s first flight, on December 31, 1946, a few days before his ninth birthday, was on an Empire flying boat from Sydney to the Fiji Islands. In the mid-1980s, he set out to try to recapture the romance of it, following as closely as possible the route taken by Imperial Airways from London to Brisbane in the 1930s. His booklet of tickets was “probably the largest ever issued on British Airways coupons”.

The Wild Blue Yonder: The Picador Book of Aviation edited by Graham Coster (Picador)
This 1997 anthology (edited by my friend and former publisher) includes extracts from Saint-Exupéry, Markham and Frater. If Coster were asked to update it, I’d urge him to add pieces from Langewiesche, Vanhoenacker and McCann. As it stands, though, taking in everyone from WB Yeats to Tom Wolfe by way of Biggles, it’s the perfect rejoinder to Paul Theroux’s assertion (in The Tao of Travel) that “there is not much to say about airplane journeys”.

Ride, swim, fly, run — and write

cyclogeographyThere’s a gap in travel writing, and Jon Day has just zipped into it — like a bike courier between white van and black cab. The British capital, he says, has been written about often from the perspective of the rambler and the stroller, but not much from the saddle. He’s started to make good the deficiency with Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions).

He’s done so in a month when we have had the Thames as seen by a swimmer, Japan as seen by a runner, and the world as seen by a British Airways pilot. Novel perspectives, in the manner of buses, have all arrived at once.

Day, who teaches English literature at King’s College London, spent seven years as a courier, “paid to pass the parcel around a massive financial circuit”. If he was constrained in his navigation on the road by the demands of time and traffic, he’s freer on the page, touching on Dickens, doping scandals, Phyllis Pearsall, who paced out the A-Z street map, and The Third Policeman — created by Flann O’Brien — who found his own molecules fusing with those of his bike.

Day (who clearly has extra hands for pen and notebook as well as eyes in the back of his head), has experienced some transformations himself: “Bikes, like water, want to flow downhill… you often find yourself following the ancient ley-lines of the city’s subterranean rivers. The pull feels curiously elemental — your bicycle becomes a dousing rod. I discovered many of London’s lost rivers this way… The rivers had worn away the fabric of the city, and the bicycle made the dips and rises they left behind legible.”

downstreamA guide to wild swimming published by The Daily Telegraph in 2008, recommending a couple of stretches of the Thames, prompted this response from a columnist in The Oxford Times: “Barking mad… River swimming is a new, faddish activity. Like motorcycling and Morris dancing, it numbers many zealots among its supporters.” In Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (Aurum Press), Caitlin Davies shows that the practice is far from new, although it is undergoing a revival. In Roman times, there were military training swims. In the 17th century, the poet Robert Herrick sent his “supremest kiss/To thee, my silver-footed Thamesis” where in the “summer sweeter evenings” thousands “bathe in thee”. By the 1930s there were beaches at the Tower of London, Greenwich and Grays, in Essex.

A declaration in 1957 that the river was biologically dead, and fears that it was dangerous, put an end to racing, but thanks to improved water quality and the boom in outdoor swimming people are returning to the river in sizeable numbers. At least 10,000 a year take part in organised events, many for charity.

Davies had dipped a toe in the river once — 40 years ago — before starting on this book, and makes only three swims herself on her journey from source (a Gloucestershire meadow) to sea (Southend Pier). She’s far from a zealot, which is why she can be read with pleasure by those who wouldn’t dream of pulling on a wetsuit themselves.

skyfaringIf you’ve made expensive journeys to the far north and been denied a sighting of the aurora borealis, you might want to skip page 276 of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Chatto & Windus). “Sometimes,” he writes, “I find it hard to remain interested… because they appear so regularly; because they are routine to pilots, ordinary by definition.” Flying, on the other hand, which for most of us means security queues and cramped seats, is for him a thing of wonder, and a pair of wings “this most charmed of our creations”.

Vanhoenacker, who flies 747s for British Airways, was born in the United States — to be a pilot, clearly. Taken to Disney World as a child, he couldn’t wait to get back on “the magical vessel” that had brought him there. Having worked as a management consultant (with time to stare out aircraft windows) to pay off student debts, he began flight training in 2001 and is now a senior first officer with BA — and one of those lucky people who can change the weather. If he wakes to an overcast sky in London, he knows he’ll be rising above it.

Join him on his journey, and you’ll see immediately that he’s anything but the aviation equivalent of a petrol-head. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, he touches on Joni Mitchell as well as Mach 1, on TS 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.”

thewayoftherunnerAdharanand Finn, I suspect, is wishing his wife could have read Skyfaring before their latest expat adventure. A few years ago, she agreed they could take the children to Africa for six months so that he could write Running with the Kenyans. Second time around, when he wanted to move to Japan to experience the culture of the ekiden, a long-distance relay, for The Way of the Runner (Faber & Faber), she didn’t get “fully enthused” until she realised they could do most of the journey by train. By day seven of the Trans-Siberian (“musty…grimy…smoky”), he was “chewing the bed rails”.

Finn is a more serious runner than Davies is a swimmer, but even he has his limits. When teenagers living near his rented house in suburban Kyotanabe invite him to join their daily training run, he does it only once — because they rise at 5.30.

Unlike Richard Askwith, who puts terrain above timings (which is why his Running Free was shortlisted for a nature-writing prize), Finn is concerned with the secrets of speed, and with passing them on. But his book is incidentally revealing of facets of life that would be missed by a visitor who was staying in Japan rather than living there. The Japanese, for example, eat much less wheat than Westerners, so a supermarket loaf runs to only three slices: “For my children, who love to eat toast… it means virtually cleaning out the shelves every time we go shopping.” MK

These reviews first appeared in The Daily Telegraph


Flying into paperback

Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, now out in paperback, manages to restore some of the wonder to flying even in this age of the no-frills short hop. But don’t just take my word for it: Nicholas Lezard, in The Guardian, made it his paperback choice at the weekend.

Calm in the cockpit

“Is publication of this book timely or unfortunate?” That was a question considered by Geoff Dyer in his Guardian review at the weekend of Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Chatto & Windus), which has come out so soon after Andreas Lubitz flew his plane into a mountain. It could, says Dyer, be just what’s needed “to restore public faith in the commercial pilot as contented, calm and controlled”.

Vanhoenacker flew in business class as a management consultant before retraining to enter the cockpit with British Airways. His book was due to be Radio 4’s Book of the Week from March 30, but was postponed after the Germanwings crash and is now due to be featured from Monday April 20. It combines, says Dyer, both “the primal delight of flight” and the reassurance of routines.