Travel books Archive

Hearing the music of Siberia

The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Transworld, £18.99), a debut in which Sophy Roberts explores “a world of snow, exile and music”, was reviewed in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend by Julian Evans. After a faltering start, he says, it’s a book in which Roberts “movingly demonstrates how a remote and limitless wilderness was transformed, for her, into the most intense, musical, intimately human space imaginable”. For links to other reviews, see the “Books in the Media” slot of The Bookseller.

Kassabova’s ‘To the Lake’ on Radio 4 this week

To the Lake (Granta, £14.99), in which Kapka Kassabova continues her sustained examination of the damaging legacies of fences on the ground and in the head, is Book of the Week on Radio 4 from today.

  Kassabova also contributes to Start the Week, in which Andrew Marr and his guests (the others are Dan Jackson, author of The Northumbrians, Emily Thomas, author of the forthcoming The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, and the economist Colin Mayer) explore “community cohesion and love of home”.

The new, longer, Stanford Dolman short list

The short list for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year has… lengthened. On December 10, there were six books on it. Now, according to a tweet posted this week by one of the judges, Benedict Allen, there are 10. Maybe the judges were unhappy with the list they were presented with by Stanfords, which, I’ve been told, uses “an academy of critics, booksellers and travel bloggers” when drawing up short lists for all its awards. Maybe the judges pointed out that the original short list included only one female writer.

  On December 10, the list was:

Last Days in Old Europe by Richard Bassett (Allen Lane)
Epic Continent by Nicholas Jubber (John Murray)
Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman (Picador)
On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton)
Lotharingia by Simon Winder (Picador).

  The four additional titles are:

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (Picador)
Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe by Rory MacLean (Bloomsbury)
Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh (Bloomsbury)
Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age by Sara Wheeler (Jonathan Cape).

  The winner will be announced on February 26.

  The most striking addition is perhaps the book by Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee and journalist, which documents life in Australia’s offshore detention system and has won him numerous awards. It was written in phone texts sent out on WhatsApp over almost five years. 

  Is it a travel book? Well, the author certainly glided over frontiers in its composition, according to his translator, Omid Tofighian:

Boochani has created a book that resists classification. It overlaps with genres such as prison literature, philosophical fiction, clandestine philosophical literature, prison narratives, Australian dissident writing, Iranian political art, transnational literature, decolonial writing and the Kurdish literary tradition.

  The Stanford Dolman, formerly the Dolman prize, after the Rev William Dolman, a member of the Authors’ Club, who had been sponsoring it through the club since 2006, was rebranded in 2015. It is now part of a scheme run by the bookseller Stanfords and named after its founder: the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards.

  The Stanford Dolman is the only award that brings a cash prize. When Stanfords first got involved that was doubled to £5,000, but it’s now back to £2,500, funded generously out of his own pocket again this time round by Dolman. At the time of rebranding the Stanford Dolman was very much the centre-piece of the awards. In the past couple of years, though, the judging process has become truncated and the prize seems to have got a bit lost in the scheme as a whole. In the press release on short lists I was sent in December, trumpeting 57 books divided into nine categories (with a 10th category for articles by new writers), it wasn’t even mentioned until the seventh paragraph.

  Books that would have been strong contenders for the Stanford Dolman in earlier years — when judges chose their own short list — are now ending up on a short list for one of the other awards. Last year, for example, Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine and The Crossway by Guy Stagg were in travel memoir of the year; Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth was under adventure travel. This year, The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden is short-listed as a travel memoir (as, initially, was Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars); Outpost by Dan Richards is in adventure travel. I’ve not read Last Days in Old Europe, but most of the reviews I’ve seen suggest it’s a memoir, so one might ask why it isn’t in the memoir category.

  One might also ask why there is a category for “fiction with a sense of place”. There is already a well-established prize for books “evoking the spirit of a place”: the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, which embraces non-fiction and poetry as well as novels and is worth £10,000.

  I’ve long been a customer of Stanfords, and I’m a huge admirer of what the company does to promote travel writing, but I do think that 57 books (61 now, at least?) in nine categories is overdoing it. Time to dwell more on the Dolman.

The word’s out on ‘Outpost’

A review I wrote some time ago appeared in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, as if it had been sent by hand from some far-flung place, got lost along the way and finally surfaced. Maybe that was appropriate, for the review was of Outpost by Dan Richards (Canongate), a sprightly tour of staging posts — from the bothy to the writer’s retreat and the fire lookout tower — and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. It’s online on the Telegraph site, and you can also find it here on Deskbound Traveller.

To Israel and Palestine, San Francisco and Liverpool

Since I compiled my roundup of books on travel and place to look out for in 2020, I’ve been alerted to a few more… 

  Julian Sayarer won the Stanford Dolman prize in 2017 for Interstate, his account of hitchhiking across the United States towards the end of the Obama administration. Ten years after breaking a world record for cycling around the world, he returns to two wheels on the roads of Israel and occupied Palestine for Fifty Miles Wide, which Arcadia will publish in April. It’s a book, he says, that had its beginning in a conversation he had with an author from Israel, whom he had told that the bicycle seemed to bring out the best in people. She told him he should ride one through Israel and Palestine.

  The publisher says his route “weaves from the ancient hills of Galilee, along the blockaded walls of the Gaza Strip and down to the Bedouin villages of the Naqab Desert. He speaks with Palestinian hip-hop artists who wonder if music can change their world, Israelis hoping that kibbutz life can, and Palestinian cycling clubs determined to keep on riding despite the army checkpoints and settlers that bar their way.”

  David Reynolds — who was one of the founders of Bloomsbury Publishing — is another writer who has spent time on the move in the US. In Slow Road to Brownsville (2015), he drove the length of Highway 83, “the Main Street of the Great Plains”. In Slow Road to San Francisco (Muswell Press, June), he travels through small-town America, from Ocean City, Maryland, all the way to the west coast. “As he moseys from east to west,” his publisher says, he “meets Trump’s countrymen and women… They talk about everything from slavery and Indian reservations to Butch Cassidy and Marilyn Monroe. Everyone has something to say about Trump, whether they love him or hate him.”

  Jeff Young, a writer whose television credits include EastEnders, Holby City and Casualty, has long been fascinated with Liverpool, its history and how that intersects with his own life. In Ghost Town (Little Toller, late February) he journeys through the city and away from it, creating new ways of mapping his home town, “layering memory, history, photography and more”.

 

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.

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.”

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.

Short list for Stanford Dolman prize

The short list was announced yesterday for the Stanford Dolman prize, which Stanfords runs in association with the Authors’ Club, and which is now part of a scheme named after the bookseller’s founder: the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. The winner will be announced on February 26. The six books are:

Last Days in Old Europe by Richard Bassett (Allen Lane)
Epic Continent by Nicholas Jubber (John Murray)
Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman (Picador)
On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton)
Lotharingia by Simon Winder (Picador).