Travel books Archive

Johnny Pitts on the book that set him travelling

Johnny Pitts, winner last month of the Jhalak Prize for Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, writes on the Penguin website of the book that inspired him: 
  “It wasn’t until I read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s astonishing An African in Greenland… that as a working-class writer with brown skin I tentatively began to imagine myself as a travel writer. I can say, plainly and clearly, that without it my book… would not exist.”

*Update, July 3: I’ve just seen that Afropean was short-listed on June 30 for the £500 Bread and Roses Award for “radical political non-fiction”, run by the Alliance of Radical Booksellers.

To Channel and Camino, Cuba and Peru

Restrictions are being eased and bookshops opening, but literary sections are slimmer than they were and reviews fewer, and launches are still down virtual slipways. The writer and broadcaster Charlie Connelly, author of Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast, will be taking to Facebook tonight to introduce his latest book: The Channel: The remarkable men and women who made it the most fascinating waterway in the world (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

  In his first chapter, he visits three concrete sculptures facing the sea at Denge, in Kent: two giant scallop shapes and a long concrete wall. They were built in the late 1920s and early ’30s, in the days before radar, and designed to pick up the sound of approaching aircraft or artillery. Though now redundant, they are, he says, “still listening to the English Channel, still picking up its stories”. Since he moved to live in Deal, at the mouth of the Channel, his own antennae have become similarly tuned to this narrow strip of sea that separates Britain from Europe and which has been a shipping lane, a barrier to invasion and a challenge to be conquered.

  Join him on his journeys, the jacket promises,  and you will uncover the tragic fate of the first successful Channel swimmer, learn that Louis Blériot was a terrible pilot, and “discover how — if a man with buttered head and pigs’ bladders attached to his trousers  hadn’t fought off an attack by dogfish — we might never have had a Channel Tunnel”.

  Thanks to coronavirus, fewer pilgrims have been tramping this year across Europe to Santiago in northern Spain, to the supposed tomb of the apostle St James. If you have had to postpone a trip, or you’re still planning one, Camino: Pilgrims to Paradise by Adam Hopkins (through Amazon) ought to be on your reading list. 

  Hopkins, a journalist who has long specialised in Spain (and is now living in the rural west), has been walking “The Way” in spring and autumn for three decades, sometimes with his wife, sometimes as a tour leader. In this new cultural companion he looks into “the force of the legends and the vehemence of the beliefs” associated with the Camino; shows how the walk became central to Christian pilgrimage; and, drawing on his own experience, paints a vivid picture of what happens on the road here and now. Motivations are as numerous as the pilgrims (more than 300,000 in 2019), and while many are still intent on quest, quietness and meditation, there’s the odd one plotting a stock-market takeover. 

  Ronald Wright is an English-born writer who went to Canada as a graduate student of archaeology and stayed on. He is best known, perhaps, for his fiction (he won the David Higham Prize in 1997 with his first novel, A Scientific Romance, which his publishers bill as a story of “love, plague and time travel”), but his early books were travel books, and two grew out of his interest in the native civilisations of the Americas. Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru (first published in 1984) and Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico (1989), are due to be reissued next month (July 23) by Eland, that loving caretaker of travel classics. (Eland will add his third travel book, On Fiji Islands, in October.)

  Anthony DePalma worked for 22 years as a journalist on The New York Times, much of that time in Mexico and Cuba. In The Man Who Invented Fidel, he examined how Castro had come to power. In The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times (Bodley Head, July 16), he tells how five Cuban citizens and their families have lived through the moments that made headlines. Unlike Castro, he says, whose millions of words have been broadcast and regularly replayed, these people have never been heard from. “But it is their complicated lives, their personal histories of living with an interminable revolution… that tell the remarkable story of Cuba best.” The book appeared in the United States in May, and has won praise from reviewers in publications including The New York Times and the Harvard magazine ReVista.

  The restrictions we’ve had to live with since the end of March have made many people more appreciative of the world outside their windows; of skies clear of jet contrails during the day and mad with stars at night. The conductor and writer Lev Parikian had got his eye in well before lockdown started. He rediscovered his childhood passion for birding in middle age, and wrote a book about it, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?. Birding made him look more closely at the natural world in general, and how others interact with it. In Into the Tangled Bank (Elliott & Thompson, July 9), he sets out to explore the way that he, and we, experience that world, “beginning face down on the pavement outside his home, then moving outwards from garden to wildlife reserve and as far afield as the dark hills of Skye. He visits the haunts of famous nature lovers… to examine their insatiable curiosity and follow in their footsteps.”

Win a copy of ‘The Summer Isles’

When the anthropologists arrive, so the saying goes, the gods depart. There are places, though, where myth and magic held out; where phantom islands on the horizon and fairies under the earth endured for longer. Among them are the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland, which Philip Marsden (who has a degree in anthropology) explores from the sea in The Summer Isles, which is out this week in paperback.

  It’s a wonderful book, and was one of my favourites of 2019. Like one of those doorways so popular in Irish myth, it’s a portal not just to other places but to other times. It’s a reminder, too, as Marsden puts it, that “the imagination is the oddest of human faculties, and also perhaps the greatest”.

  Thanks to the author, you can read an extract from the book here on Deskbound Traveller. And thanks to his publisher, Granta, I have five copies to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just retweet my mention of the competition on Twitter from either @kerraway or @deskboundtravel, or like and share my post about it on

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet a mention of the competition on Twitter from @deskboundtravel or @kerraway, or like and share the post about it on the Deskbound Traveller Facebook page, by midnight on June 26, 2020. Each winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom or Ireland, will receive one copy of the book. Winners will be selected at random and notified by July 1. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more about Philip Marsden and his other books, see his website.

Talking about Tangier Island

Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem (Dey Street) has been mentioned a few times here. It’s a superlative account of a place where the effects of climate change are already evident (at least to outsiders). That place is Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where a 240-year-old crabbing community is going under the water. You can hear the author talk about his time there, and his book, on the latest episode of Broken Ground, a podcast dedicated to “digging up environmental stories in the [US] South”.

Of whales and owls and foreign parts

I’ve just been reading of a conversation between two sisters in Portugal who are having to distance from each other. One says: “At least we can Facebook.” To which the other responds: “You can’t hug on Facebook.”

  The exchange is not from 2020 but from 2013. The sisters are being parted not by the threat of Covid-19 but by the Great Recession that followed the financial crisis of 2007-8. That forced many Portuguese, unable to find work at home, to beg for jobs in former colonies such as Angola, Mozambique and Brazil.

  The story of the sisters, told by Emma Jane Kirby, appears in From Our Own Correspondent: A Decade of Dispatches From Across the World, which is due to be published on Thursday (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Polly Hope, a producer who has edited this compilation from the long-standing BBC radio programme, notes that the financial crisis has been one of four big stories that have featured regularly over the past 10 years, along with the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the war in Syria and the surge in migration to Europe during 2014 and 2015. In addition, she says, there were larger-scale narratives that will “surely affect far more lives in their time”. Among those are the rise as a superpower of China, climate change, and the formation of “new landscapes of the earth as human consumption [threatens] entire cultures, species and ecosystems”.

  Her purpose, though, is not to provide a digest of the biggest stories. Her book, like those radio dispatches from which it springs, is “more like a compilation of personal snapshots: of those telling moments and revealing details which throw an intimate light on how the world is changing”. And sometimes on how it isn’t.

  Kim Chakanetsa, reporting from Zimbabwe in 2018, six months after Robert Mugabe was edged out of power, is struck by how many fewer roadblocks there are on the way from the airport to Harare; roadblocks at which police used to fill their pockets with “fines” levied on drivers for having dirty vehicles and even torn car seats. “Now that is a change,” she says. Pumza Fihlani, who grew up in the Eastern Cape, reports (again in 2018) on the results of a drought in Cape Town, where residents have been asked to limit their shower time to two minutes. There are still townships here, she notes, “where a shower of any length at all would be considered a luxury… the race and class divides enforced by apartheid are still evident today.”

  Contributors to From Our Own Correspondent are encouraged, Hope says, to “zero in on the moments which made the deepest impression on them. That personal touch is what makes the finest dispatches… really sing.” Here’s a perfect example, from Nick Thorpe, reporting in 2015 from a refugee camp near Lendava, Slovenia: “My nose starts streaming in the cold. A small boy notices, and hands me his little packet of tissues. I take one, hesitantly, from his five; 20 per cent, perhaps, of his worldly possessions.”

  Other books touching on travel and place and due to be published shortly include the following:

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A Kendra Greene (Granta, July 2)
Iceland is home to only 330,000 people but to more than 265 museums and public collections, most of them established in the past 20 years. They range from the Phallological Museum, which houses the penises of Icelandic mammals, to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. Greene, an essayist, printer and maker of artist’s books (who lives in Dallas, Texas), travels the country to tell the stories behind the collections. The proof I was sent came with an endorsement from Malachy Tallack, author of Sixty Degrees North: “A delightful, lyrical tribute to those who gather, record and preserve. This is a book brought to life by its own subject matter: by curiosity, obsession and the desire to share with others our own sense of wonder.” 

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C Slaght (Allen Lane, July 2)
The publisher describes this as “a breathtaking portrait of Russia’s remote far eastern forest, and of the world’s most extraordinary owl”. That forest is in the province of Primorye, where Russia, China and North Korea meet in a tangle of mountains and barbed wire. The owl is the Blakiston’s fish owl, the world’s biggest, which Slaght, a wildlife researcher and conservationist based in Minneapolis, in the United States, first saw in 2000: “Backlit by the hazy grey of a winter sky, it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in a tree.” The story of his attempt to save the bird from extinction is, the publisher says,” a timely meditation on our relationship with the natural world and on what it means to devote one’s career to a single pursuit”. 

Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology by Frances Larson (Granta, July 2)
Frances Larson describes herself as an anthropologist “who travels to places long ago rather than to places far away”. Her last book was Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. In Undreamed Shores, she tells of the lives and deaths of Britain’s first female anthropologists, who did go to places far away. All of them trained at Oxford, in the opening decades of the 20th century, and led ground-breaking research in their fields. “Katherine Routledge commissioned her own boat and sailed to Easter Island… Maria Czaplicka risked her health to trek more than 3,000 miles through a frozen Siberian winter in search of nomadic reindeer-herders who had never before seen a European woman. Winifred Blackman spent 19 consecutive field seasons living with the agricultural peasants of Upper Egypt. Barbara Freire-Marreco went to work in the pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. And Beatrice Blackwood, ignoring all advice, travelled into the New Guinea interior to live with warriors who still made their weapons from wood and stone.”
  Sarah Moss, author of Ghost Wall, says Undreamed Shores is “a vivid and moving history… sensitively told and rigorously researched”.

Literary flights from lockdown

The lockdown is being eased, whether wisely or not, so the page of literary escapes I’ve been compiling recently for Telegraph Travel has come to an end. The last one, which appeared in print on Saturday, included an extract from Nicolas Bouvier’s classic The Way of the World (Eland), plus journeys in the sky from writers as various as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Rebecca Loncraine.

On the ‘Kings of the Yukon’

In this week’s free lecture from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, Adam Weymouth talks about the 2,000-mile canoe journey he made to write his acclaimed debut, Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey (now in Penguin paperback).

Sybille Bedford: a great life

Sybille Bedford (1911-2006), who was a travel writer as well as a novelist, a biographer and a journalist who wrote about criminals and miscarriages of justice, was celebrated yesterday in the Great Lives slot on Radio 4 (due to be broadcast again on Friday at 11pm).

  Bedford was nominated by the travel writer Sara Wheeler, who described her as “a dazzling writer and a free spirit [who] had a damn good time while she was about it”. Wheeler was in her twenties when she first encountered Bedford’s writing, in an account of her travels in Mexico, A Visit to Don Otavio. You can read an extract from that book on Telegraph Travel; it was part of a page I compiled recently that was designed to offer some literary release from the lockdown.

Headphones on, and off to the Amazon

Fancy lighting out for the Amazon? You won’t need to go near an airport, never mind wear a mask. All you’ll need is a connection to YouTube and a pair of headphones. Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter, which I saw at the Barbican in London in 2016, is online until May 22. I worried it would be a huge disappointment after the stage version, but I dipped in for 45 minutes and it’s astoundingly good even on a desktop in daytime. I’d forgotten how funny the preamble was, and there’s a haircut joke that now seems made for our locked-down times. I’m going to watch the whole thing again on a big screen, in a darkened room, this evening.

Israel and Palestine, as seen from the saddle

I compiled another page at the weekend for Telegraph Travel designed to offer some literary release from lockdown. The lead was an extract from Julian Sayarer’s new book about cycling through Israel and Palestine, Fifty Miles Wide (Arcadia Books). Sayarer conveys powerfully what life is like for people on both sides of what he calls “the world’s most entrenched impasse”. At the same time, his book is full of free spirits, and the joys of free-wheeling.