Author Archive

Spanish vet named Travel Photographer of the Year

‘I was attracted to the look and beauty of this young shepherd,’ says the photographer of this image made in Fada N’gourma, Burkina Faso. © KATY GÓMEZ CATALINA/TPOTY.COM

Katy Gómez Catalina, a veterinarian from Úbeda, in Spain, was last night named Travel Photographer of the Year for 2019 for a portfolio of eight black-and-white images ranging in subject from the Batwa people of Uganda to the esplanade of the Louvre in Paris. She is only the second woman to be overall winner in the 17-year history of the awards. 

© INDIGO LARMOUR/TPOTY.COM

  There was female success too in the Young Travel Photographer of the Year category. That was won by 11-year-old Indigo Larmour — who is Irish but was born in Abu Dhabi — with a portfolio depicting hands at work in India. Her caption to this image (right) says: “Chai is always part of any journey in India… So of course we had to have some on the streets of Kolkata.”

  Both winners, appropriately, were on the road making more images when the prizes were presented at a ceremony in London. Gómez, who is self-taught, says on her website that photography has become “an inseparable travel companion, to the point that my perception of the worlds I visit goes through the eye of the camera. It is then with those images that I can construct the story of my journey in the same way that a writer does it with his diary.”

  Chris Coe, who with his wife Karen founded the awards, said that Indigo was a photographer who showed real potential; she was already capable of very interesting compositions and had the ability to capture moments.

  Another category winner, of the TAPSA (Timothy Allen Scholarship Award) for Travel Documentaries, was “a very jet-lagged” Kiran Ridley, a Paris-based British photographer, who had flown in from Australia, where he had been covering the bushfires. He won for a portfolio of images of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, which began as a protest against proposed changes to extradition law and have morphed into broader demonstrations against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

  The award was started five years ago by Timothy Allen, who himself was Travel Photographer of the Year in 2013. Allen said Ridley’s photographs were “sensational”. The documentaries category had been included in the TPOTY competition, he said, because “a lot of us are starting to realise that travel photography isn’t what it used to be. It’s not shooting pictures of the Taj Mahal any more; it’s documentary photography. And I hope that more and more people are going to be entering this style of photography, because the lines between travel and documentary now are blurred beyond recognition. Kiran’s work is a classic example of that.”

  More than 20,000 images were submitted for the 2019 awards by professional and amateur photographers from 144 countries. The winners can be viewed on the Travel Photographer of the Year website and will go on display from April 7 to May 12 in Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross, a new location for TPOTY’s London exhibition.

Police arrest pro-democracy protestors during a march in Hong Kong. © KIRAN RIDLEY/TPOTY.COM

Chatwin in Patagonia, pining for veg

On this date in 1975, Bruce Chatwin, in Patagonia, was missing his veg:

I have visited a poet-hermit who lived according to Thoreau and the Georgics. I have listened to the wild outpourings of the Patagonian archaeologist, who claims the existence of a. the Patagonian unicorn b. a protohominid in Tierra del Fuego (Fuego pithicus patensis) 80cm high… Dying of tiredness. Have just walked 150 odd miles. Am another 150 from the nearest lettuce and at least 89 from the nearest canned vegetable. It will take many years to recover from roast lamb.

Letter to Elizabeth Chatwin, January 21, 1975

Sailing, phantoms and fairies

The Summer Isles (Granta), in which Philip Marsden sails up the western coasts of Ireland and Scotland in search of places real and imagined, was one of my favourite books of 2019. A review I wrote for The Daily Telegraph appeared at the weekend in print and is up on the Telegraph website. You can also read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Paul Bowles’s Tangier — and the real one

What’s a travel book? It’s a question that’s been argued over for centuries. The American writer Paul Bowles (1910-1999), author of The Sheltering Sky, gave his answer in an essay, “The challenge to identity”, published in 1958. “For me,” he wrote, “it is the story of what happened to one person in a particular place, and nothing more than that; it does not contain hotel and highway information, lists of useful phrases, statistics, or hints as to what kind of clothing is needed by the intending visitor. It may be that such books form a category which is doomed to extinction. I hope not, because there is nothing I enjoy more than reading an accurate account by an intelligent writer of what happened to him away from home.”

   Bowles wrote those words 11 years after arriving in Tangier, where — though he carried on travelling — he would live for the rest of his life. He wrote extensively about the city, in non-fiction as well as in novels and short stories, and helped to shape outsiders’ views of Morocco. So was he accurate about place and people? Hisham Aidi, a native of Tangier who met Bowles, and even ran literary tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier”, has been reassessing the man and his work for The New York Review of Books.

Getting to know ‘The Northumbrians’

If you’re planning a trip to the North East of England (and even if you’re not) I’d recommend reading The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson (Hurst), a history of the place and its people that I’ve reviewed for The Daily Telegraph: it’s an entertainment as well as an education. And the author, I’ve just noticed, has been interviewed for Dan Snow’s new History Hit podcast.

On the wing and in the rain with Alexander Frater

I never met Alexander Frater, who died last week just short of his 83rd birthday, but I know that he was both an example and a mentor to younger journalists. I was a huge admirer of his work, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of this website while I was getting it up and running. In an illustrious journalistic career, he contributed to Punch, The New Yorker, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer. At the last, he was chief travel writer for a dozen years, and for three years in a row named travel writer of the year at the British Press Awards.

  I’ve recommended a couple of his books here several times. One is Beyond The Blue Horizon, in which we’re reminded that a passenger was once a glamorous thing to be. 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”.

  Another of his books was on a more surprising subject for a travel writer: rain. Most travellers set out to avoid it; in Chasing the Monsoon, Frater goes looking for it, all the way round India, tramping through mud, slush and puddles, and joining in the rejoicing and sense of renewal that accompany the downpour.

  He kindly let me run an extract from Chasing the Monsoon, on the day in 2013 that Deskbound Traveller went live, to accompany a wonderful portfolio of pictures by GMB Akash. (Incidentally, a print of the very first picture you see on Akash’s website, of boys riding on the roof of a train, hangs over the fireplace in my living room.) Read that extract, and, if you haven’t already, read Chasing the Monsoon and Beyond the Blue Horizon. Even if, like me, you’ve signed up for a flight-free year, you’ll be transported.

Books to watch for in 2020

Books on travel, place and nature to look forward to in 2020 include new works from Kapka Kassabova and Mark O’Connell, plus an anthology of writing on the landscape of Scotland edited by Kathleen Jamie.

January
In his bestseller The Almost Nearly Perfect People, Michael Booth set out to meet the inhabitants of the Scandinavian countries and find out what they make of one another. In his new book, Three Tigers, One Mountain (Jonathan Cape), he travels through China, South Korea and Japan, three Asian tigers that have much to gain from amicable relations and yet still seem intent on brawling.

 

February
Kapka Kassabova’s 2017 book Border, an exploration of the region where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey run into one another, and of fences both on the ground and in the head, won her several prizes, including the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. In To the Lake (Granta), she turns her attention to another crossroads: the mountainous border area of North Macedonia, Albania and Greece. There sit two lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, that have played a central role in her own maternal family and helped shape the history of countless other people.

  Siberia is a land of cold and wind and permafrost; of prison and political exile. It’s one of pianos, too, which in the 19th century, the travel writer Sophy Roberts says, carried “the melodies of Europe’s musical salons a long way from the cultural context of their birth”. In her first book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Doubleday), she heads there in search of an instrument worthy of a brilliant pianist. What began as an eccentric idea becomes an obsession, taking her from Kamchatka to the Urals, from the Arctic to the Kuril Islands on Russia’s Pacific edge.

  C J Schüler is the author of three illustrated histories of cartography, Mapping the World, Mapping the City and Mapping the Sea and Stars, and co-author of the best-selling Traveller’s Atlas. In Along the Amber Route: St Petersburg to Venice (Sandstone Press), he charts the origins of amber, the myths and legends that have grown around it, and the dazzling artefacts crafted from it and traded along the way. He also reflects on the route’s violent history through the centuries, not least his own family’s experience of persecution and flight.

  Socrates and Kant may have been home-birds, but not all philosophers followed their example. George Berkeley fought off wolves in a French mountain pass; Isaac Barrow battled pirates while sailing for Turkey. Emily Thomas, professor in philosophy at Durham University, is equally keen on hitting the road. In The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad (OUP), she draws on her own trips while considering how we can think more deeply about travel. Can meeting unfamiliar peoples tell us anything about human minds? Is it ethical to visit the Great Barrier Reef when its corals are withering?

 

March
Tim Dee’s last book, Landfill, was about gulls, and how, throughout human history, they “have lived in our slipstream, following trawlers, ploughs, dustcarts”. In Greenery: Journeys in Springtime (Jonathan Cape), Dee himself is the follower, tracking migratory birds from South Africa to northern Scandinavia. Along the way, his publisher says, “We read of other determined spring-seekers: DH Lawrence and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. We hear from a Sámi reindeer herder, a barn-dwelling swallow-devotee, an Egyptian taxi driver, a chronobiologist in arctic Norway. There are bears and boars and bog-bodies too.”

  In The Accidental Countryside (Guardian Faber), the naturalist Stephen Moss travels from Shetland’s Iron Age stone structures to London’s skyscrapers, and from railway cuttings to stately-home gardens, seeking out the hidden corners of Britain where wildlife survives against the odds.

 

April
Mark O’Connell is a journalist and essayist. He won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize for To be a Machine, an exploration of transhumanism, a movement that suggests we can and should exploit technology to “improve” the human body, with the ultimate aim of making ourselves immortal. He is also the father of two young children, and constantly worrying over what sort of world he’s brought them into. Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta) is the result of a series of what he calls “perverse pilgrimages” to places where the end seems closest. He meets environmentalists fighting the ravages of climate change; billionaire entrepreneurs dreaming of life on Mars; and right-wing conspiracists yearning for a lost American idyll.

  While Lamorna Ash was working as an intern for the Times Literary Supplement, she wrote a piece about the fishing trade in Newlyn, where she had done a month’s fieldwork while studying for an MA in social and cultural anthropology. It so impressed Michael Fishwick, publishing director at Bloomsbury, that he signed her up to write a book. The result is Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town. Fishwick told The Bookseller: “It reminded me a little of taking on the young William Dalrymple after reading about his journey to Xanadu in The Times. I think this is going to be a very special book about a very special world, reminiscent perhaps of Dalrymple’s own City of Djinns.”

The journalist Jini Reddy was born in Wimbledon, to South African-born parents of Indian descent, but grew up in Montreal. Themes of identity and belonging are among those she tackles in Wanderland (Bloomsbury), in which she aims to connect with “the magical in the [British] landscape”.

 

May
Gavin Francis has somehow made time to write four books while practising as a doctor, including True North and Empire Antarctica (he spent 14 months as base-camp doctor at a British research station). In Island Dreams (Canongate), he “blends stories of his own travels with great voyages from literature and philosophical exploration, and examines the place of islands and isolation in our collective consciousness”.

  The Passenger is a new series of paperbacks from Europa Editions (publisher in Britain of Berezina by Sylvain Tesson) and the Italian publisher Iperborea that “travels the world to carry the best writing back from the countries it visits”. It will feature not only essays, investigative journalism and reportage but also photography and art.

  Volumes 1 and 2, to be published in May, will focus on Japan and Greece. The Passenger: Japan will feature writers including Banana Yoshimoto, declaring her love for her district of Tokyo, and Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of The Times and author of Ghosts of the Tsunami. The Passenger: Greece will include Andrew Anthony on the long-living residents of the island of Ikaria, and Rachel Howard on her (ultimately futile) attempts to negotiate Greek bureaucracy. Volumes on Brazil and Turkey are scheduled for the autumn.

 

August
Antlers of Water (Canongate), which is being edited by the poet Kathleen Jamie, is a collection of prose, poetry and photography on the Scottish landscape. Contributors will include Amy Liptrot, Malachy Tallack, Chitra Ramaswamy and Gavin Francis (see above).

   Jamie says the book will bring together “contemporary Scottish writers who attend to the living world around them. The natural world is not a backdrop to their human concern; it is their human concern. They write out of fear, anger, joy and chiefly love of their homeland and fellow creatures. Writing on nature and environment has never been so urgent or so necessary, as we work out how to face the future not only of Scotland but of the planet.”

Novel takes on ‘the spirit of a place’

Deskbound Traveller is dedicated to writing about travel and place in all its forms, but non-fiction tends to dominate, because reviewing it is part of my day job. Fiction tends to be something I read for pleasure, without scribbling notes. I am, though, particularly keen on novels that, in line with the chief criterion for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “evoke the spirit of a place”.

  I’ve already mentioned The Overstory by Richard Powers. Here are a few others I’d strongly recommend from my reading this year (all of them first published in 2018)…

  The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack (Canongate) is a story of crofting and community life in modern-day Shetland. Its characters are as solidly realised as the fields, the burn and the valley, and Tallach is particularly good on the relationships between the rooted and the recently arrived.

  All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury) vividly summons a period as well as a place: the inter-war years in rural Suffolk. But it’s a novel, too, very much for our times, with its warning of the ways in which patriotism can be corrupted into something much nastier.

  Middle England by Jonathan Coe (Penguin) was recently short-listed for the Costa Novel Award. If I were in a book club, I’d have been recommending we read it in the run-up to the election. It’s quite a trick to sum up the state of a country divided by the Brexit referendum and yet still offer a few laughs…

Primers on an overheated planet

I’ve flown only once this year, and I’ve promised (with others on Flight Free UK) not to fly at all in 2020. An odd thing to do when you’ve made much of your living for years as a travel writer and editor. But I’m not alone, even in my trade, in trying to fly less. Several of my colleagues have done likewise. We’ve all decided that we don’t want to encourage readers — even indirectly — to burn more oil at a time when everyone should be burning less.

  A strange time it is, when the president of the United States is denying that climate change is as dangerous as his own officials tell him, and yet an airline is asking potential passengers to consider reducing their carbon footprint — by avoiding flying. KLM is doing that right now on its own website. Why? Because, it says, “aviation is far from sustainable today, even if we have been — and are — working hard to improve every aspect of our business”. 

  In a report last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together leading scientists, gave warning that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. “It’s a line in the sand, and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts.

  The indicators haven’t improved since then, but governments still don’t seem to have got the message. The UN gathering in Madrid, which finished yesterday with a compromise deal, hardly suggests a collective resolve to save the planet.

  Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been attending climate talks since the early 1990s, told The Washington Post: “You have the science crystal on where we need to go. You have the youth and others stepping up around the world in the streets pressing for action. It’s like we’re in a sealed vacuum chamber in here, and no one is perceiving what is happening out there — what the science says and what people are demanding.” 

   Having been slow to tune in myself, I’m now trying to catch up. I’ve read almost as much on climate this year as on travel, so I’m in a position to recommend a few primers. Boris Johnson, in his victory speech last week, promised “colossal new investments in infrastructure and science, using our technological advantages to make this country the cleanest, greenest on Earth”, so I’m sure he’s already ordered a copy of each of the books below for every member of his cabinet.

  First, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Penguin), which spells out how climate change is going to touch every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the places we live in (or can no longer live in) and the stories we tell ourselves. It shows how, through “ignorance, then indolence, then indifference”, we’ve made for ourselves “a gaseous suicide, a running car in a sealed garage”.

  Nathaniel Rich, in Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (Picador), explains how, in the 1980s, our leaders squandered opportunities to lessen the damage. His book began life as an article for The New York Times Magazine, which you can still read online. 

  Then there’s There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee (Cambridge University Press). In this handbook for what he calls “the make-or-break years”, he sets out what we can and must do now. He makes it clear that systemic change is essential, and that governments and industry must lead it. But he also encourages individuals to do their bit: “We need to think beyond the immediate and direct effect of our actions and ask more about the ripples that they send out, and how the actions of one person, company or country might get multiplied rather than muffled…”

  In the video below, which went online a couple of weeks ago, Professor Berners-Lee explains some of the themes he tackles in the book. He also touches on developments that worry him, and on others that give him hope.

An Atlantic crossing — but first, a confession

On this date in 1941, Graham Greene, en route to West Africa, wrote:

Into Belfast. Little white lighthouses on stilts; a buoy that seems to have a table tied to it; a sunken ship right up in the dock. Cranes like skeleton foliage in a steely winter. The flicker of green flame in the bellies of building ships. Hundreds of dockyard workers stop altogether to see one small ship come in.

  Endless impatient waiting for the immigration officer to come on board. Why the anxiety to get ashore in so dull a place? It is the cruise-spirit perhaps. I thought it just as well to go to the Confession before the Atlantic. This hideous Catholic Church difficult to find in Protestant Belfast. At the Presbytery a tousled housekeeper tried to send me away when I asked for a confession. ‘This is no time for confession,’ trying to shut the door in my face. The dreadful parlour hung with pious pictures as unlived-in as a dentist’s waiting-room, and then the quiet, nice young priest who called me ‘son’ and whose understanding was of the simplest. In the same street the pious repository selling Woodbines from under the counter to old women.

  In the evening a dozen and a half Galway oysters and a pint and a half of draught Guinness at the Globe. Then back to the ship.

  • From Convoy to West Africa by Graham Greene (1941). This passage is anthologised in A Traveller’s Year: 365 Days of Travel Writing in Diaries, Journals and Letters, compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison (Frances Lincoln).
  • The writer Nicholas Shakespeare, at the end of a talk at a Graham Greene Festival in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 2013, reported a different version of what happened when Greene met the priest. That account was passed on to him by John Leahy, a diplomat who in the mid-1970s served as Under-Secretary of State in Northern Ireland. Leahy was sent to meet Greene after the writer asked if there was anything he could do to help end the Troubles.