Author Archive

‘Surfacing’ again

Kathleen Jamie (see earlier post) will be talking about her new book, Surfacing, on September 28 at the Hampstead branch of Daunt Books, in London.

‘The Last Whalers’

My review of The Last Whalers (John Murray), Doug Bock Clark’s tremendous debut, is now on the Telegraph site (though you’ll have to subscribe there) as well as on Deskbound Traveller.

Season of missives from the road

Whatever it throws at us politically, autumn promises to be a good season for travel writing.

  The German journalist Jens Mühling, who was shortlisted in 2015 for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award for A Journey into Russiahas followed that with Black Earth: A Journey through Ukraine, published last week in Britain by Haus Publishing. It’s a story of a country “at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and the centre of countless conflicts of opinion”. 

  Next month the poet Kathleen Jamie is due to publish a new collection of essays, Surfacing (Sort Of Books, September 17). It’s a book in which she “visits archaeological sites – a Yup’ik village at the edge of the Bering Sea, the shifting sand dunes of Westray – and mines her own memories and family history to explore what surfaces and what connects us to our past and future”. Jamie has written three acclaimed books on nature and place, including Sightlines , which was joint winner of the Dolman prize in 2013. (She will be talking about her new book to Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan and RisingTideFallingStar, at the London Review Bookshop on September 27.)

  Also next month, Pico Iyer is due to publish A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations (Bloomsbury, September 5). It’s the second book this year by the Global Soul on his adopted home: in May he published Autumn Light.

  In his new primer he “draws on readings, reflections and conversations with Japanese friends to illuminate an  unknown place for newcomers and to give long-time residents a look at their home through fresh eyes”.

  In Footnotes (Oneworld, September 5), Peter Fiennes — whose Oak and Ash and Thorn was a Guardian Best Nature Book of the Year — sets out to travel round Britain in the footsteps of a dozen writers, starting with Enid Blyton in Dorset and ending with Charles Dickens on the train that took him to his last resting place in Westminster Abbey. Along the way, he joins Somerville and Ross on their ascent of Snowdon, and retraces journeys in England made by JB Priestley in the 1930s and Beryl Bainbridge in the 1980s.

  On September 19, one of television’s best-known globetrotters, Michael Palin, publishes North Korea Journal (Cornerstone/Penguin), the diary he kept while making a documentary in the “Democratic People’s Republic” for Channel 5 over two weeks in 2018. It was the 98th country he’s visited, and he celebrated his 75th birthday while he was there. His philosophy of travel, he says in the introduction, is that “the more difficult somewhere is to get to, the greater the prize to be won by getting there. But when the prize was North Korea, I found that this was not a view shared by my wife, and a surprising number of my friends. To many of them, this was a step too far…”

  On October 3, Granta is due to publish The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden, author of several much-praised works of travel writing and other non-fiction. In his last book, Rising Ground, Marsden told how his move to a remote farmhouse in Cornwall prompted a journey through the myth-laden South-West. In the new  book, he sets sail from there in an old wooden sloop for the Summer Isles, “a small archipelago near the top of Scotland that holds for him a deep and personal significance”. The book is “an account of the search for actual places, invented places, and those places in between that shape the lives of individuals and entire nations”.

  In November, the Frenchman Sylvain Tesson, who in 2014 won what was then the Dolman Travel Book Award for Consolations of the Forest, his account of a six-month stay in a log cabin in Siberia, follows it up with Berezina (Europa Compass, September 7), the story of his motorcycle journey with three friends from Moscow to Paris, retracing the retreat of Napoleon in 1812. The Berezina is a river in Belarus, the scene of a battle during that retreat. In colloquial French, a bérézina refers to a disastrous situation.

‘The Last Whalers’: a hugely impressive debut

The Last Whalers  by Doug Bock Clark (John Murray), a debut I’ve reviewed today in print for The Daily Telegraph, is a tremendous piece of immersive reporting. The review isn’t on the Telegraph website, but you can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

In Russia — and the Fens

In the couple of weeks while I’ve been escaping the desk, several more reviews have appeared of Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), in which Sara Wheeler travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age. Julian Evans, in The Daily Telegraph, concludes that Wheeler’s “modest, ungrand tour… is far more of an epic than it at first appears”.  Alexander Larman, in a brief notice in The Observer, says that Wheeler’s “fascinating” book offers an important corrective to the image many Westerners have of Russia, and that its author is “as enthusiastic and authoritative a guide as one could wish for”. I’ve also just seen a review by Malika Browne, published in The Times in June, who says the book is “a well-researched, droll journey”.

  Francis Pryor’s The Fens (Head of Zeus), which was recently Book of the Week on Radio 4, has been reviewed by Hugh Thomson for The Spectator. Pryor, he says, “has spent most of his professional life working in the Fens and this book is a distillation of everything he has learned… His enthusiasm is infectious, whether he’s glimpsing Ely cathedral from a train, coming across John Clare’s grave or counting the bricks of Tattershall Castle.”

Macfarlane wins Wainwright Prize

The Wainwright Prize, an annual award of £5,000 for the best book of nature/UK-based travel writing, went yesterday to Robert Macfarlane for Underland (Hamish Hamilton), his “deep time” journey into the world beneath our feet. The author said he would be donating £1,000 of his prize to The Willowherb Review, “which publishes and celebrates diverse voices in nature writing”.

  I talked to Macfarlane about Underland earlier this year; you can read the interview here on Deskbound Traveller.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

A ‘painfully honest account’ of modern Russia

In The Spectator this week, Viv Groskop reviews Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), in which Sara Wheeler travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age — from Pushkin to Tolstoy — as her guides. It is, she says, “a painfully honest account, rose-tinted spectacles firmly placed to one side, and there is something compelling about Wheeler’s darkly passionate tone… It’s a complicated, bleak romance that mirrors the love-hate relationship many of the great writers had with their own country and people.”

Jan Morris on truth, imagination and Trieste

Jan Morris, in a piece drawn from the archives to mark 40 years of Granta magazine, reflects on virtual reality:

It has been a dogma of my life that truth and imagination are not simply interchangeable but are often one and the same. Something imagined is as real, to my mind, as something one can touch or eat. A fanciful fear is as alarming as a genuine one, a love conceived as glorious as a love achieved. A virtual reality may only be in one’s own mind, imperceptible to anyone else, but why is it any the less true for that? Music exists before its composer writes it down.

It is easy for writers, even writers of non-fiction, to think like this. Every sentence we create we have created from nothing, and made real, and every situation has been touched up in our memory. For years I remembered clearly how the roofs of Sydney Opera House hung like sails over the harbour when I first visited the city, until it was drawn to my attention that the Opera House hadn’t been built then. Every place I ever wrote about became more and more my own interpretation of it, more and more an aspect of myself, until in the end I determined that I was the city of Trieste, and Trieste was me, and decided it was time for me to give up.

Greenland — from last frontier to science lab

Greenland, which one 18th-century visitor saw as having “no use to mankind”, is now regarded as essential to our understanding of the threat posed by global warming. In The Ice at the End of the World (Random House), Jon Gertner tells the history of the island through a century-long parade of adventurers, explorers and scientists. His book was reviewed for The New York Times by Doug Bock Clark, who has himself recently published The Last Whalers (John Murray), a remarkable debut about a tribe of subsistence whalers on a remote Indonesian island. More on that later.