Author Archive

A life-affirming book about ‘dead zones’

A review I wrote of Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn (William Collins) appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph yesterday and is also online. It’s a life-affirming book about “dead zones”, and I thoroughly recommend it.

‘Armchair trip’ to Madagascar

In a roundup at the end of last year of forthcoming books, I mentioned John Gimlette’s The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, An Island Story.  The author, prevented by lockdown from heading out on the publicity circuit, has filmed a talk for Daunt Books, “an armchair trip” in which he explains why he was drawn to the island, what he found there and what the place means to him.

Place writing from Pitlochry

A reminder that this Sunday at 5pm the Pitlochry Winter Words Festival will have a special session focused on writing about place, featuring David Gange, Kapka Kassabova and Malachy Tallack. For details on how to join their live session, and for the full programme of events, see the festival website.

At the Paisley Book Festival on February 27, Tallack will be in conversation with Cal Flynn, whose excellent new book, Islands of Abandonment (William Collins), is a life-affirming exploration of so-called “dead zones”, and Lisa Wollett, author of Rag and Bone (John Murray), addressing the subject of “What we leave behind”.

Short list for Stanford Dolman prize

The short list for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, which the bookseller Stanfords runs in association with the Authors’ Club, was announced this afternoon. The eight books on it are:

Without Ever Reaching the Summit: a Himalayan Journey by Paolo Cognetti (Harvill Secker)
The Border — A Journey Around Russia… by Erika Fatland (MacLehose Press)
Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N Khan (Chatto & Windus)
Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola (Hurst)
Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape by Jini Reddy (Bloomsbury)
The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts (Doubleday)
Along the Amber Route by CJ 
Schuler (Sandstone Press)
Owls of the Eastern Ice by
Jonathan C Slaght (Allen Lane).

Writers short-listed for the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year award, for which entrants were asked to submit an article on the theme “I’d love to go back…”, are: Mark Jones; Anisa King; Tom Swithenbank; and Jennifer Thomson. Their pieces can all be read on the Bradt Guides website.

‘Karachi Vice’ out today and on Radio 4

Samira Shackle’s Karachi Vice, which I included recently in a roundup of forthcoming books, is published today by Granta and is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. It tells the story of the city through the lives of five of its citizens.

Stephen Fabes interview

Stephen Fabes’s interview (see previous post) with Paul Blezard for the Stanford Travel Writers Festival is now online. For links to videos of other festival sessions, see the Stanfords website.

The short lists for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year — which Stanfords runs in association with the Authors’ Club — and for the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer of the Year award are due to be announced tomorrow afternoon.

The Stanfords festival — online and free

The Stanfords Travel Writers Festival, usually part of the annual Destinations show at Olympia in London, has gone digital this year. It starts today, and will run until February 4, with more than 20 talks free on the Stanfords website. All the books will be available to buy through the company, many of them signed by the authors. Speakers include Nicholas Crane, William Dalrymple, Raynor Winn, Jini Reddy, Gavin Francis, Helen Mort and Stephen Fabes (see previous post).

Stanfords has been a staunch supporter of travel writing through the Stanford Dolman prize and its own awards scheme, and the company’s central London shop — recently moved to a new location — has been a starting point for many a writer’s journey. Thanks to Covid restrictions, that shop was threatened with closure until an appeal online for donations. Vivien Godfrey, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said crowdfunding had proved more successful than anyone could have dreamt. “We said if we raised more than our target we would use the extra funds towards a few projects, including this digital version of our Stanfords Travel Writers Festival. As a thank-you to everyone, we are showing all the talks online for free.”

The awards scheme has had to be scaled back and there will be only three prizes this year: the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award, in association with the Authors’ Club; the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year award; and the Edward Stanford ​award for an outstanding contribution to travel writing.

The doctor who pedalled round the planet

Your average touring cyclist, seeking respite from “the backpacker zoo” of Bangkok, wouldn’t look for it in a museum of forensic pathology. Nor would he or she, bored with “flat and whistling” Patagonia, start reciting “all the causes of peripheral neuropathy”. Stephen Fabes isn’t your average touring cyclist. He spent six years cycling round the world, covering more than 53,500 miles. He was lighting out for the territory, but he was also looking over his handlebars at “the landscape of health”.

  Fabes left his job as a junior doctor in London because he was “longing for a less certain future” and wanted to experience that “delectable, out-of-my-depth feeling”. As he tells it in Signs of Life (Profile Books, £18.99), he wasn’t disappointed. In Peru, a gold prospector who’d been robbed a month earlier took him for another robber and pulled a gun on him. In California, he aroused the suspicions of police who were seeking a survivalist and murder suspect. That sort of thing happens when you are rough sleeping as much as rough cycling. In China, in the state of Hunan, he was stopped by cops who wanted to examine his laptop; a laptop on which, he remembered, he had pictures of young people in Hong Kong protesting over constraints on democracy.

 He has good stories, and he tells them well. He also has a gift for memorable image and pithy summary: a marmot “looks a bit like a squirrel that’s eaten three of its friends”; the Silk Road is “that intercontinental conveyor belt of religions and crossbows”. His book gains its power, though, from his realisation, once he was out on the road, that he would see more, and more deeply, if he looked at the world as a doctor.

  Signs of Life isn’t quite a busman’s holiday. Fabes doesn’t stay in any one place long enough to work or volunteer, but he seeks out mobile clinics, refugee camps and war-torn hospital wards so that he can get a sense, along his way, of how that landscape of health is “moulded and eroded”. New doctors, he observes, see disease and pathology as the threats, but experience teaches that it’s the conditions for disease that are the real enemy. “On death certificates, doctors are asked to state the ‘underlying cause’ of death, and you might include… a heart condition or an infection, for example. You do not mention poverty, a rickety healthcare system or military rule, though it occurred to me that these were modes of death too.”

  On his loops around the planet, the recipient wherever he paused of “little acts of kindness”, he crossed 102 international borders, but what struck him most forcefully were what the peoples of the world have in common: “When we obsess over identity and type, over categories and diagnoses, we’re in denial of our glorious complexity. When we care so deeply for lines on maps, inevitably something will sweep over them without noticing our obsession: a volcanic ash cloud, a contagious disease, weather, ideology, misinformation, and we’ll feel foolish for trusting so much in convenient fictions, for isolationism is not simply doomed, it is a fallacy.”

  He pedalled home in 2016, “a mildly sad, single, debt-ridden 35-year-old, more calf muscle than man”, and is now back working in the emergency department at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. As he was putting the final touches to his manuscript in 2020, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation and a “foreign virus” by the then president of the United States, that self-absorbed, self-basting advocate of “America first”.

  Signs of Life was published last August, but I didn’t hear of it until November, when the author, having seen a piece I’d written, sent me a copy. I read it over Christmas, but, busy with a lockdown project of my own, am only getting round to mentioning it now. It’s a book that hasn’t had the attention it deserves. Over the past few days, indeed, with all the talk of “vaccine nationalism”, it has seemed, if anything even more timely.

Gange, Kassabova and Tallack on writing and place

Writing and place and writing about place will be discussed by David Gange, Kapka Kassabova and Malachy Tallack in a session at this year’s Pitlochry Winter Words Festival, which will be held online from February 8 to February 14. For details on how to join their live session, and for the full programme of events, see the festival website.

Away from it all

The editor of The New York Times Book Review, guessing that people might be keen to read about somewhere other than America for just a moment, offered them two possible options at the weekend. In her email to regular readers, Pamela Paul mentioned that the cover featured two very different books:

The first, “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” by Andrea Pitzer, offers a historical Arctic adventure about the Dutch explorer William Barents (namesake of the Barents Sea). The second, “Himalaya: A Human History,” by Ed Douglas, is a social, cultural and geological portrait of the mountain range separating the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia, shaping the populations, economies, politics and landscape of the region.