Author Archive

In the Middle East, with a ‘teacher of the road’

One of the many things I’ve learnt from Quite Alone, Matthew Teller’s new collection of writing on the Middle East, is that in Hebrew “tour guide” is moreh derekh, a teacher of the road.

Teller himself is a teacher worth following. The articles gathered here are drawn from the past dozen years, but informed by an association with the region that goes back four decades. Among them is one on the rock-hewn city of Petra, in Jordan, which he has visited, he reckons, 20 times. His ambition, beautifully realised, is to see it afresh.

There are articles from every country in the region between Egypt and Oman, apart from Yemen, where he hasn’t been (but whose people’s suffering he urges us, in his introduction, not to forget). They were written for various outlets and range in subject from art and architecture, via travel, to the plight of stateless people in Kuwait. If they have a common thread, he says, it is “a desire to amplify the voices of the overlooked and the under-served” and to help “demolish” stereotypes about the Middle East.

They certainly do that. In Jordan, a country that is 95 per cent Muslim, he introduces us to Omar Zumot, who makes wine. In Dubai, he meets Father Lennie Connully, parish priest of St Mary’s, a Roman Catholic church that stands next door to a mosque and which draws 7,000 people to its Friday Mass.

He has left the articles largely unedited since they were written, and here and there I found myself wondering what had changed in the interim. How for example, has the Arabian oryx been faring since he reported, in 2009, on efforts to save it?

The travel pieces raise fewer questions of that kind. In two of the best, published in 2012 in consecutive issues of the monthly magazine Wanderlust, he reports on what it’s like to travel independently in Palestine and then in Israel. In another, from a couple of years later, he joins Breaking Bread Journeys, which was founded by Elisa Moed, an Israeli, and Christina Samara, who is Palestinian, and which aims to link sites and experiences normally cut off from each other. Their initiative, he says, “leaves you feeling that the physical barriers restricting travel in the Middle East are insignificant, compared with the mental ones”.

Lee wins Boardman Tasker prize

Jessica J Lee was named winner on Saturday of the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature for Two Trees Make A Forest, which tells of her travels in Taiwan in search of her family’s past. Lee, who is editor of The Willowherb Review, is among speakers at the Kendal Mountain Festival, which this year is online; talks and films can be accessed until the end of December.

Jan Morris off on ‘her greatest journey’

It was a weekend of tributes to Jan Morris, consummate conjuror of time and place, who died on Friday at the age of 94. Her son, Twm, announced her death: “This morning at 11.40 at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, on the Llyn, the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her lifelong partner, Elizabeth,” he wrote.

Among those celebrating Morris’s life and work were Chris Moss for The Daily Telegraph and the New Welsh Review, Tom Robbins for the Financial Times and Tim Adams in The Observer, who interviewed Morris in February. 

Archive pieces newly available online include an in-depth interview first published in The Paris Review in 1997. I’ve also chanced upon a Q&A session Morris had with a book group convened by The Guardian in 2015; the book under discussion was one of my favourites of hers: Venice. I’d also highly recommend a piece from the South China Morning Post by Fionnuala McHugh, who interviewed Morris in Hong Kong in 2001, at the time of the publication of Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere.

Some years ago, I asked Morris to contribute to a series, “Companion Volume”, in which writers nominated a favourite travel book. She chose Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1763).

Morris may have embarked on her own “greatest journey”, but we will be hearing from her again soon. She told those Guardian readers in 2015 that a final book, Allegorizings, a work of personal reflections, would go to press “the minute I kick the bucket”. She added that the book was “loosely governed by my growing conviction that almost nothing in life is only what it seems. It contains nothing revelatory at all.”

A gondola, at last, for Nooteboom

The Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has been visiting Venice since 1964. It wasn’t until his tenth visit, though, that he finally took a ride on a gondola, a convenience he had always seen as “tourism, affectation, theatre, something for other people”. In his latest book to be translated into English, Venice: The Lion, the City and the Water (MacLehose Press, £20), he reports on the experience. There’s an extract from the book on the excellent Literary Hub site.

Travel from an independent bookshop

I’ve spent less time in bookshops in 2020 than at any time in my adult life. I have, though, ordered online from shops I’ve lingered in in pre-Covid times, including No Alibis in Belfast and Sam Read in Grasmere, in the Lake District. I’ve been making a point on Deskbound Traveller of encouraging readers to support independent shops, and that support has never been more needed than it is now, with new restrictions forcing shops to close for a second time in the run-up to Christmas. 

  Doing your bit has got much easier thanks to the launch this week of Bookshop.org. If you want to support a bookshop near where you live, you can search for it on the site by entering your postcode, and see whether it has signed up as a partner to Bookshop.org. If it has, and you go on to make your order, that shop will receive the full profit. Otherwise, you can buy through the main part of the site and your order will contribute to an earnings pool shared among all the independent bookshops that have signed up. There’s more about how it all works in a piece that appeared this week in The Guardian.

  I’m signing up as an affiliate to the site, so if you buy a book as a result of a link from Deskbound Traveller to Bookshop.org, I may earn a commission.

On the lookout for forgotten classics

To coincide with the tenth anniversary of the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor (June 10, 2011), John Murray Press will next year reissue his classic travel trilogy, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water​ and ​The Broken Road. It is also planning to start a new series dedicated to overlooked travel classics, and has enlisted Nick Hunt (​Where the Wild Winds Are;​ ​Walking the Woods and the Water​) as  an editorial consultant. His brief is to look for the following:

  “Recommendations of travel books (and other non-fiction books that evoke a sense of place) that are currently out of print in the UK. Books that have been forgotten about, left to languish on dusty bookshop shelves, or that were unjustly ignored when they were first published – potentially including translated works by foreign-language writers. Books that blur genres, that open our imaginations to unfamiliar places and cultures, or that make us see familiar things through different eyes. Books that give us new perspectives not only on the times and places in which they were originally published, but on the time and place we find ourselves in today.”

If you have a suggestion, you can contact Nick Hunt through his website — but check first that the title isn’t already in the catalogue of that well-established curator of classics, Eland Books.

Gunnar and the Grand view

‘View from Yaki Point’ by Gunnar Widforss. Courtesy the Gunnar Widforss Catalogue Raisonné Project

It’s over a century since the Grand Canyon was made a national park. Hard to believe that Americans once had to be encouraged to visit this natural wonder, but they did, and one of the people who did most to attract them in the early days was a Swedish watercolour painter, Gunnar Widforss. Researching a piece for last year to tie in with the anniversary (February 26, 2019), I followed the Widforss trail for Telegraph Travel. While I was in Arizona, I was lucky enough to meet Alan Petersen, who is curator of fine arts at the Museum of Northern Arizona, in Flagstaff, and who was then appealing for funds to complete a catalogue of Widforss’s works. That catalogue, which has taken him nearly 11 years of research and preparation, has now gone online; you can find it at www.gunnarwidforss.org.

Scotland’s ‘wild histories’

In The Unremembered Places, which was short-listed last month for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, Patrick Baker explores far-flung ruins and relics — from a cemetery for dam-builders to the remains of illicit stills — that serve as archives for Scotland’s “wild histories”. It’s a haunted and haunting little book (just over 200 pages), and you can get a taste of it in a piece he wrote last week for The Guardian.

Isolation, connection and islands


The word isolate, Gavin Francis notes in Island Dreams (Canongate), comes from the adoption of the Italian isolare: to make into an island. Publication of his book, which was originally scheduled for early May, was postponed until today (October 1) because of a pandemic that has forced many people into unwanted isolation. Francis, who is both a GP and an award-winning writer, is a longstanding islophile. His book is, he says, “a simple and sincere cartography of my own obsession with the twinned but opposing allures of island and city, of isolation and connection”. The author was interviewed earlier this week by Jeremy Bassetti, who runs the website Travel Writing World.

Wade Davis on the Magdalena for 5×15

Wade Davis, author of Magdalena: River of Dreams, gave a talk recently in a session organised by 5×15, which books “world-leading figures to speak to audiences to spark ideas and inspiration”. Contributors to the same session included Helen (H is for Hawk) Macdonald, talking ahout her new essay collection, Vesper Flights, and Merlin Sheldrake, whose debut, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, has been generating rave reviews.