Travel books Archive

‘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.

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.

Ways of escape in 2021: new books on travel and place

The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story by John Gimlette (Head of Zeus, January 7)
Having transported us in previous books to places as various as Paraguay and Newfoundland, John Gimlette takes us to the fourth-biggest island in the world. Despite its size, it’s something of an unknown country to Westerners, a caricatured place of talking lemurs. Gimlette was introduced to it as a child by Durrell and Attenborough, and saw it first on a wildlife holiday, but wanted to know more about its people. There is no evidence of human life until about 10,000 years ago; and when eventually people did settle, it was migrants from Borneo — 3,700 miles away — who came out on top. The Gardens of Mars is what he calls a “walk-through” history, in which he visits every corner of the country. “Along the way he meets politicians, sorcerers, gem prospectors, militiamen, rioters, lepers and the descendants of 17th-century pirates.”

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn (William Collins, January 21)
Grey partridges wandering car parks near Cambridge; a cuckoo seen in Osterley, in west London, for the first time in 20 years: the National Trust was reporting this morning on how wildlife has been taking advantage of reduced human activity during the Covid-19 lockdowns. In Islands of AbandonmentCal Flyn chronicles that phenomenon on a larger scale. It’s a book about 12 abandoned places around the world — ghost towns and exclusion zones, no man’s lands and post-industrial hinterlands – “and what happens when nature is allowed to reclaim its place”.

Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City by Samira Shackle (Granta, February 4)
Karachi, capital of Pakistan, is a city of 20 million people. It’s riven, Samira Shackle says, by “complex and ever-evolving conflicts, sectarian and ethnic resentment mingling with politics and organised crime”. But it’s also a place where many hope to make a fortune, or at least a new life. She first went there for a year in 2012, a Londoner moving to her mother’s home town, and arrived in the aftermath of a riot, but she has been drawn back regularly ever since. In Karachi Vice, she tells of “the daily struggles taking place on these dusty streets” through the lives of some of its residents, from an ambulance driver to an activist campaigning against injustice and corruption.

A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land by Jeremy Seale (Chatto & Windus, February 4)
Jeremy Seal, a travel writer and tour guide who’s had a life-long fascination with Turkey, investigates an episode that, he says, is “key to a deeper appreciation of the ideological divisions which blight this often troubled country”. The episode is the coup of 1960 that deposed Adnan Menderes, the prime minister, who was subsequently executed by the military. Like the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Menderes made his name as a champion of democracy; and like Erdogan, Seal says, Menderes duly proved to be an autocrat. Early readers of the book have included Colin Thubron, who says: “Through the spellbinding career of a single, ill-fated leader, Jeremy Seal illumines a bitterly divided country.”

Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate; translated by Annie McDermott (Granta, February 4)
The New York Times has been running a series of pieces, “The Amazon has seen our future”, about how the people of the region are living through the most extreme versions of our planet’s problems — including Covid-19. Among contributors has been the Lima-based journalist Joseph Zárate. In Wars of the Interior, he takes three of Peru’s most precious resources — wood, gold and oil — and exposes “the tragedy, violence and corruption tangled up in their extraction. But he also draws us into the rich, surprising world of Peru’s indigenous communities, of local heroes and singular activists, of ancient customs and passionate young environmentalists.”

Speak, Okninawa: A Memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina (Granta, April)
Elizabeth Miki Brina’s parents met on the island of Okinawa. Her mother was a poor local waitress, living through the long aftermath of the Second World War; her father was a white soldier from middle-class American family. Elizabeth (now living and teaching in New Orleans) grew up in 1980s Fairport, in New York State, embarrassed by her mother and longing to be like the other kids at school. Speak, Okninawa is “her courageous and heart-breaking account of her journey home — back to herself, back to Okinawa, and back to the mother she had pushed away for so long”.

I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi (Bloomsbury, April 29)
Anita Sethi was on a train journey through northern England in the summer of last year when she became the victim of a race hate crime. Afterwards, she suffered panic attacks, but determined that she would continue travelling on her own and assert her right to exist. In I Belong Here she sets out to explore the Pennines, the backbone of Britain. “My journey,” she says in her prologue, “is one of reclamation, a way of saying, to adapt the Woody Guthrie song title, ‘this land is my land too’ and I belong in the UK as a brown woman, just as much as a white man does.” Robert Macfarlane says that Sethi’s is “a brilliant, brave and important book”.

Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes by Nick Hunt (John Murray, May 6)
Having followed Patrick Leigh Fermor (Walking the Woods and the Water) and then four of Europe’s winds (Where the Wild Winds Are) across the continent, Nick Hunt takes us through landscapes that shouldn’t be there: wildernesses that seem to belong to another part of the world. There’s a patch of Arctic tundra in Scotland; a jungle of primeval forest in Poland and Belarus; a desert in Spain; and the fathomless grassland steppes of Hungary. “Perhaps,” he says in his introduction, “the result is not a nature book, or even a travel book, so much as a book of fantasy: four small pilgrimages into imagination.”

Recently published books that I’ve not mentioned here before include: The Golden Maze: A Biography of Prague by the Australian broadcaster and writer (and former comic) Richard Fidler (HarperCollins, £20); and On Fiji Islands by Ronald Wright (Eland, £12.99).

A book that blew Jan Morris away

Newly released from the archive of the Literary Review is a review from 2017 by Jan Morris, who died last month, of Nick Hunt’s book Where the Wild Winds Are. It is, she says, “full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction. It is travel writing in excelsis...”

My travel books of the year for 2020

To reveal the underwater aquabatics of a courting humpback in the dark of the polar winter was challenging enough, but to create an image that revealed the whale in its Arctic setting was both a technical feat and a first. Picture © Audun Rikardsen, Norway, 2016, from ‘How Wildlife Photography Became Art’

Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
I’m not in the habit of recommending books before I’ve finished reading them, but I’ve done it twice with the work of Tim Dee. The first time, I was reading Four Fields, in the run-up to Christmas 2013. This year, I’ve done it again. In March, at the request of Telegraph Travel, I was looking for extracts from books that might provide readers with literary release from lockdown. I had only to read a few  pages of Greenery to know I wanted to take something from it. I knew, too, a few pages farther on, that it was likely to be my book of the year.

On the back, the publisher classifies Greenery as “Nature Writing”. It is, partly. But leaving it there is like saying that Wordsworth was a gardener and Springsteen is a harmonica player. Tim Dee can write brilliantly, beautifully, about anything, from the folk music of Transylvania (“songs cut by people from the big stories of the world”) to camels (“the bony origami of their sitting down and standing up”), and Greenery — which is travel and memoir and poetry and music and human as well as natural history — is perhaps his best book yet. Having noted that spring moves north at about the speed of swallow flight, he tracks the season and its migratory birds all the way from South Africa to Scandinavia. His book is about how spring works on people as well as birds, animals and plants; about the possibility of life growing from death. In the midst of a pandemic, it couldn’t be more timely.

Below, I’ve rounded up a few more of my favourite narrative travel books of the year, plus picture books that would make good Christmas presents. If you can’t get to an independent bookshop, and you order online, I’d recommend you do so where possible through, which supports local bookshops. Interest declared: if you buy through a link from Deskbound Traveller, I will earn a little commission.

To The Lake by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, £14.99)
Born in Bulgaria, raised in New Zealand and now living in Scotland, Kapka Kassabova is a citizen of the world, but she can’t escape the pull of the southern Balkans. With Border (2017), which won the Stanford Dolman prize, she focused on the land where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey run into one another. In To The Lake she turns her attention to Europe’s two oldest lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, which nature united but nation states have divided. A fine book in its own right, it also serves as a follow-up or companion volume to Border; part of a sustained examination of the effects of fences on the ground and in the head and their enduring legacies.

Fifty Miles Wide by Julian Sayarer (Arcadia Books, £9.99)
Julian Sayarer has been round the world by bike and across America as a hitchhiker; his account of the latter journey, Interstate, won him the Stanford Dolman prize in 2017. In Fifty Miles Wide, he’s back on two wheels in Israel and Palestine, weaving from the ancient hills of Galilee, along the walled-in Gaza Strip and down to the Bedouin villages of the Naqab Desert. He talks to Palestinian cyclists and hip-hop artists; to Israeli soldiers training for war and a lawyer who had a leading role in peace talks. Sayarer is committed to the Palestinians’ cause, but his book conveys powerfully what life is like for people on both sides of “the world’s most entrenched impasse”. At the same time, it’s full of free spirits, and the joys of free-wheeling.

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A Kendra Greene (Granta, £14.99)
“If you plant a tree,” they say in Iceland, “you’ll get more trees in the same place.” This country of 330,000 people has more than 265 museums and public collections, almost all established in the past 20 years. There’s one of stones, collected by a woman on her daily walks, one of mammal penises and one of sea monsters (or, at least, of the stories told by people who claim to have seen those monsters). Greene, an American writer and artist who has herself worked in museums, looks into what the collections tell us not just about the curators but about their country. Her wonderfully quirky book is a reminder of “all the things we might hear, if only we would ask”.

Magdalena: River of Dreams by Wade Davis (Bodley Head, £25)
Wade Davis has journeyed to the ends of the earth as a writer, photographer and anthropologist. Colombia, which he first saw at 14 on a school trip from Canada, gave him “the wings to fly”. In Magdalena, he tells the story of the country though its main artery, travelling from the headwaters to the Caribbean shore; tracing Colombia’s history from early settlement, through Spanish conquest, to the modern conflict that ended with a precarious peace deal in 2016. Along the way, he collects stories on the boats and the banks: stories of singing and dancing, of quiet lives and sudden deaths; of the drug barons who made millions of dollars, and of the field botanist who, without leaving his own turf, has discovered more than a hundred new species.

Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell (Granta, £14.99)
As a father, Mark O’Connell is worried about the world he’s brought his children into; as a writer, he’s intrigued by it. So he embarks on a series of “perverse pilgrimages” to the places where the end-times seem closest. He goes to underground boltholes in South Dakota and to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. He examines the tech billionaires’ fixation with New Zealand, mixes with the Mars Society in Los Angeles, and joins an environmentalists’ retreat in the Scottish Highlands. The result is a book that’s fretful, wise and funny, and often all three in the space of a paragraph.

Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey by James Attlee (And Other Stories, £9.99)
This is a new edition of a book that Attlee published in 2007, one perfectly in keeping with our battened-down times. When he wrote it, he was itching to travel, but couldn’t get away. Then it dawned on him that he didn’t need to. A few minutes’ walk from his front door in Oxford was the Cowley Road, lined with businesses that seemed to represent every nation on earth: from a Jamaican restaurant, via a Ghanaian fishmonger, to a Russian supermarket. As he puts it in his introduction, “Why make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?” 


The Place de la Concorde, usually the busiest square in Paris, in March 2020. Picture © Stéphane Girard, from ‘Cities of Silence’

Cities of Silence (teNeues, £15)
The subject of this swiftly produced compilation is as much absence as presence: the people missing from city centres in broad daylight in the spring of 2020, when much of the world first went into lockdown. The stones of St Mark’s Square in Venice, the cobbles of the Charles Bridge in Prague, the sinuously patterned tiles of the Rambla in Barcelona are all free of pedestrian feet. Traffic lights govern non-existent vehicles in Vancouver, Frankfurt’s runways fill with planes going nowhere, a solitary soldier gazes on the Taj Mahal, and, in the human-free hush, a fox explores the curves of a skate park on the coast of Israel.

Travel Photographer of the Year: Journey 10 & 11 (TPOTY, £14.95); Journey 12 (£12.50)
In need of being transported? The winning images from the British-based Travel Photographer of the Year show, which haven’t been published in book form for a while, should help. Journey 10 & 11, a double volume, has the best of 2017 and 2018; Journey 12 is for 2019. It’s hard to view the images of Peru’s biggest street party, where you’re drawn in among the participants, without being reminded of our current, socially-distanced world; and it’s impossible to see the one of children playing in the rain in Akua, Bangladesh, the work of 16-year-old Fardin Oyan, without sharing in their smiles.

How Wildlife Photography Became Art (Natural History Museum, London, £35)
It’s 55 years since the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition began, and this magnificent volume, published alongside the annual portfolio, is both a compilation of highlights and a history of nature photography itself. Here are all creatures great and small, from a southern right whale (14 metres long) to a snow flea (all of two millimetres), and the habitats that sustain them. What began as record-keeping has developed over the decades, aided by technology, and is increasingly celebrated as fine art, but the hope expressed at the outset of the competition remains the same: “that ultimately the awards will benefit the animals themselves, by creating greater public interest in them and in that all-important topic — conservation”.

Africa State of Mind (Thames & Hudson, £39.95)
“Tipo Passe (Passport Photo),” the Angolan photographer Edson Chagas calls one of his portrait projects. Each subject is posed against a plain background, in contemporary clothes but wearing a traditional Bantu mask. Chagas is not only playing with Western notions of what the masks are for (displaying in museums); he is hiding his subject’s individuality and identity and substituting for it the stereotype of a “typically” African face. Chagas is one of more than 50 contemporary photographers from the continent whose work is gathered in this stimulating survey by the writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun. Their images of place and people, their interpretations of memory and identity, he says, “reveal Africa to be a psychological space — a state of mind — as much as a physical territory”.

Human Nature: Planet Earth In Our Time (Chronicle Books, £35)
This book is a response to the UN’s declaration last year that the natural world was declining at an unprecedented rate. The New Zealand publishers Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday have enlisted 12 of the best photographers working “at the intersections of humanity and nature”, documenting issues from species extinction and deforestation to migration and mass consumption. The photographers show us what we have, tell us what we stand to lose, and urge us to do all we can to save it. One of them, Ami Vitale, sums it up like this: “We must not fall into the trap of thinking that this issue is too big to deal with, or that someone else will take care of it. It is up to you. It is up to me. It is up to us.”

Voyager: Photographs from Humanity’s Greatest Journey (teNeues, £45)
The robotic spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, part of a NASA mission launched in 1977, are now the farthest human-made objects from Earth, having travelled through our solar system and on into interstellar space. This volume chronicles the whys and hows of the mission, and what we’ve learnt as a result of it. It’s fascinating not just on what Voyager has sent back — including the first detailed views of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — but on what it is taking with it: a message about life on earth for any intelligent life elsewhere. That “Golden Record” includes greetings in 55 languages, images of humans eating and drinking, and a musical selection embracing Beethoven and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode.

Portrait of Britain Vol 3 (Hoxton Mini Press, £22.95)
Between lockdowns, I happened to be on the seafront in Worthing, West Sussex, where Barry Falk had an exhibition of photographs. They showed his friends and neighbours in the town looking out from their front doors, as if, maybe, they had been hopeful of escape and then new restrictions descended. One of Falk’s images is among the 200 portraits in this collection; portraits of a year when many of us have seen little of our fellow citizens except through the glass of homes or cars or the virtual windows of our screens. They are a reminder, as the historian David Olusoga puts in his introduction, “of the power of looking into the faces of those with whom we share our nation”.

‘Ann, Lockdown Day 74’, © Julia Fullerton-Batten, from ‘Portrait of Britain Vol 3’

A shorter version of this roundup appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on November 29 and is now online

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.