Travel books Archive

Lee wins Boardman Tasker prize

Jessica J Lee was named winner on Saturday of the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature for Two Trees Make A Forest, which tells of her travels in Taiwan in search of her family’s past. Lee, who is editor of The Willowherb Review, is among speakers at the Kendal Mountain Festival, which this year is online; talks and films can be accessed until the end of December.

A gondola, at last, for Nooteboom

The Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has been visiting Venice since 1964. It wasn’t until his tenth visit, though, that he finally took a ride on a gondola, a convenience he had always seen as “tourism, affectation, theatre, something for other people”. In his latest book to be translated into English, Venice: The Lion, the City and the Water (MacLehose Press, £20), he reports on the experience. There’s an extract from the book on the excellent Literary Hub site.

On the lookout for forgotten classics

To coincide with the tenth anniversary of the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor (June 10, 2011), John Murray Press will next year reissue his classic travel trilogy, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water​ and ​The Broken Road. It is also planning to start a new series dedicated to overlooked travel classics, and has enlisted Nick Hunt (​Where the Wild Winds Are;​ ​Walking the Woods and the Water​) as  an editorial consultant. His brief is to look for the following:

  “Recommendations of travel books (and other non-fiction books that evoke a sense of place) that are currently out of print in the UK. Books that have been forgotten about, left to languish on dusty bookshop shelves, or that were unjustly ignored when they were first published – potentially including translated works by foreign-language writers. Books that blur genres, that open our imaginations to unfamiliar places and cultures, or that make us see familiar things through different eyes. Books that give us new perspectives not only on the times and places in which they were originally published, but on the time and place we find ourselves in today.”

If you have a suggestion, you can contact Nick Hunt through his website — but check first that the title isn’t already in the catalogue of that well-established curator of classics, Eland Books.

Scotland’s ‘wild histories’

In The Unremembered Places, which was short-listed last month for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, Patrick Baker explores far-flung ruins and relics — from a cemetery for dam-builders to the remains of illicit stills — that serve as archives for Scotland’s “wild histories”. It’s a haunted and haunting little book (just over 200 pages), and you can get a taste of it in a piece he wrote last week for The Guardian.

Isolation, connection and islands


The word isolate, Gavin Francis notes in Island Dreams (Canongate), comes from the adoption of the Italian isolare: to make into an island. Publication of his book, which was originally scheduled for early May, was postponed until today (October 1) because of a pandemic that has forced many people into unwanted isolation. Francis, who is both a GP and an award-winning writer, is a longstanding islophile. His book is, he says, “a simple and sincere cartography of my own obsession with the twinned but opposing allures of island and city, of isolation and connection”. The author was interviewed earlier this week by Jeremy Bassetti, who runs the website Travel Writing World.

Wade Davis on the Magdalena for 5×15

Wade Davis, author of Magdalena: River of Dreams, gave a talk recently in a session organised by 5×15, which books “world-leading figures to speak to audiences to spark ideas and inspiration”. Contributors to the same session included Helen (H is for Hawk) Macdonald, talking ahout her new essay collection, Vesper Flights, and Merlin Sheldrake, whose debut, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, has been generating rave reviews.

Borne away to Brazil

As a boy growing up in the North of England, AJ Lees was carried away by the story of a Victorian explorer, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Fawcett, who disappeared while looking for a “lost city” he called Z in the valley of the Amazon. In Brazil That Never Was (Notting Hill Editions), Lees, now a distinguished neurologist, tries to recapture something of what he felt as a child by re-reading the work of his former hero; he also learns a great deal more about the man himself. He discovers that Fawcett wasn’t just looking for a lost city; he was immersed in the occult, and searching for a place that (as Lees puts it) “lay beyond the deceptive boundary of everyday consciousness”; a place where he could set up a community involving the worship of his own son.

Lees buries himself in Fawcett’s papers, and in “a new curriculum” embracing everything from alchemy to tantra. He concludes that much of what Fawcett believed was “bunkum”, but he also declares that “the methods of reason and science that stemmed from rational consciousness were unable to provide me with a purpose to life” — and he associates Fawcett with “my longing for a time that could never return”.

  His book reminded me of The Encounter by Petru Popescu, the story of how Loren McIntyre, the otherwise solidly rational American who would go on to establish the true source of the Amazon, reported having what felt like “telepathic” conversations in 1969 with the chief of an Amazonian tribe; a tribe intent on escaping loggers, drillers and missionaries by returning to “the beginning” — to pre-Columbian times. 

  Lees has said elsewhere that, as a boy, he wanted to become “the next David Attenborough”. I happened to open Brazil That Never Was the night after the current David Attenborough, presenting Extinction: The Facts on BBC1, had reminded us — because we still need reminding — of the interconnectedness of everything in the natural world. On page 19 of Lees’s book I came upon this: “[Richard] Spruce was the purest of all the great Victorian plant-hunters… He had walked into the hell of the dark wood and come face to face with the heart of creation. Through his time with the Indians, he realised that the natural world was a sacred web of exchange of which Man was one small part.”

  Lees’s book runs to fewer than 140 pages, so I read it in one sitting. I was impatient for him to set off for Brazil himself, which he doesn’t do until 17 pages from  the end. But it’s still a compelling story, with vivid images of St Helens, where he spent his early years, and Liverpool, which he visited on weekends and school holidays: “a musical somewhere else where time and being had been created by the motion of irregular, turbulent tides”.

  All Notting Hill Editions’ books, which are beautifully produced, are linen-bound. This one’s in a dark green that’s surely a nod to the one Lees was handed as a child by his father in the Oakwood Library in Leeds: “a dog-eared book with soiled green cloth boards called Exploration Fawcett“.

‘Eat the Buddha’ on Radio 4

Book of the Week on Radio 4 from today is Eat the Buddha (Granta), Barbara Demick’s account of modern Tibet told through the lives of the people of one town.

Seeing ‘beyond the shadow of self’

Exploration, Wade Davis declares in a piece this week for the Financial Times, has too often been driven by a desire for personal glory and fame. The same, he reckons, is true of much travel writing. He urges us to follow the examples of Rasmussen and Herodotus, and to see “beyond the shadow of self”.

Davis has just published an account of what he calls “the Mississippi of Colombia”, Magdalena: River of Dreams (Bodley Head, £14.99), a book he was researching and writing for nearly five years. He says:

I came to know the river… in all its dimensions, in all months of the year, with every shift of the seasons, from the headwaters in the Macizo Colombiano to the sand and stones of the Caribbean shore. At no point, however, was I tempted to paddle the Magdalena from source to mouth, or to travel its length in a single journey, hitching rides perhaps on a series of barges and river boats. Admirable as such achievements might be, my goal was not to produce a study of self, an account of a personal journey; it was to write a biography of Colombia through the metaphor of the river that made possible the nation. When in doubt, an author should always get out of the way. Building a narrative around self is to travel writing what false heroics are to exploration.

Reviews of Magdalena have appeared in publications including The Guardian and The Spectator.

Kassabova and Francis on ‘the lie of the land’

If you missed the recent Edinburgh Book Festival online event on travel writing, “The lie of the land”, featuring Kapka Kassabova and Gavin Francis, you can catch up on YouTube. In the session, chaired by Clare English of the BBC, the two introduced their new books, reflected on the challenges of being creative during a pandemic, and talked of what they had learnt from their travels and the writing.

Update, September 3: For some reason the video is no longer available. I’ll see if I can find out why.