Travel books Archive

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.

Back to Tibet

Barbara Demick’s Eat The Buddha, which I’ve mentioned a few times, most recently in a roundup of forthcoming books, was reviewed in The Observer at the weekend by Tania Branigan, a former China correspondent for The Guardian. The Observer also had a review, by Tim Adams, of a new essay collection, Vesper Flights, from Helen (H is for Hawk) Macdonald, which is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4.

The new virtual world of the Edinburgh Book Festival

In 2017 the Edinburgh International Book Festival supported 10 writers to travel across the Americas. The idea behind the “Outriders” programme was that “in shifting, disorienting times, a writer can make a unique contribution to our understanding of the world, giving voice to untold stories and providing new insights on contemporary geopolitical contexts”. This year, 10 writers — including the poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, the poet Nadine Aisha Jassat and the writer and visual artist Amanda Thomson — were sent on international journeys in Africa, with a brief to meet writers and local people along the way and engage in discussions about “migration, colonial legacies, inequalities and the impact of globalisation and environmental change”. The work inspired by those journeys, some of which were cut short by the Covid pandemic, will be shared at this year’s festival, which begins tomorrow — online only — and continues until August 31. All events are free and can be accessed on the festival website.

  Other contributors to the festival include:
  Kapka Kassabova, author of To The Lake, and Gavin Francis, whose latest book, Island Dreams (“an exploration of isolation and connectedness based on 30 years of travel”), is due to be published on October 1 (Canongate).
  Roger Robinson, whose A Portable Paradise won both the T S Eliot Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize, with his fellow poet Kei Miller, whose latest collection, In Nearby Bushes, was short-listed for the Derek Walcott Prize and long-listed for the Polari Prize.
  Kathleen Jamie, editor of Antlers of Water, a recently published anthology of Scottish nature writing, and two of her contributors, Chitra Ramaswamy and Amanda Thomson.
  Helen Macdonald, author of H is For Hawk, discussing her new collection of essays, Vesper Flights.
  The writer and editor John Freeman, introducing his new anthology Tales of Two Planets, in which writers tell their personal stories of climate change and action around the world. He will be joined by three of his contributors, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, the Aotearoa poet Tayi Tibble and the British-Malaysian photographer Ian Teh.
  William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy, a new revisionist history charting the “relentless rise” of the East India Company, talking to the BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane.

More ways of escape: new books on travel, place and nature

I got an unusual email today; unusual because it says that a literary event hasn’t been cancelled. With the island “relatively virus-free”, the third Corfu Literary Festival is due (at the moment) to take place from September 17 until September 20. Speakers lined up include Sebastian Faulks, Peter Frankopan, Sarah Churchwell, Sabine Durrant, Evie Wyld and James Naughtie. Elsewhere, though, festivals are still being called off or going online, launches are on social media (with the virtual white wine, in London, even warmer than usual) and cash-strapped newspapers are commissioning fewer reviews. As a result, new books on travel, place and nature might not be given the space they deserve. Here are some to watch out for over the next month-or-so.

Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers and the British Landscape by Susan Owens (Thames & Hudson, £25, August 13)
British landscape painting, we’re often told, was an invention of the 18th century. But people have been writing about the land, and drawing and painting it, for as long as they have had pen and paper (or parchment). In Spirit of Place, Susan Owens, art historian and exhibition curator, aims to do justice to this long tradition. She offers a panoramic view of the landscape, as seen through the eyes of writers and artists from Bede and the Gawain-poet to Gainsborough, Austen, Turner and Constable; from Paul Nash, WG Sebald and Barbara Hepworth to Robert Macfarlane. In the view of Alexandra Harris (author of Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies), Spirit of Place is “A wonderfully deft and varied study… Owens has a gift for making the past feel so close that we might be riding over a hill with Gerald of Wales or John Leland.”

The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us by Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury Circus, £20)
Nick Hayes is an artist and writer and, for the past 10 years, has been an activist arguing for greater access to the countryside of England and Wales. In The Book of Trespass, he takes us on a journey into the thousands of square miles of rivers, woodland, lakes and meadows from which we’re usually blocked by walls and fences. In The Guardian last Saturday, the book was reviewed by William Atkins, and in The Observer on Sunday, Rachel Cooke joined the author as he went on his forbidden way in Berkshire. 

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin (Allen Lane, £30, August 27)
“If you have never visited… Ravenna, you have missed an amazing experience, an extraordinary delight, which this book aims to recreate.” Thus the historian Judith Herrin introduces her study of the unique role and significance of a city renowned for its glorious mosaics; a city that was first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then that of the immense kingdom of Theodoric the Goth, and finally the centre of Byzantine power in Italy. Peter Frankopan (author of The Silk Roads) says Herrin’s is “an outstanding book that shines a bright light on one of the most important, interesting and under-studied cities in European history. A masterpiece.”
                                
The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation by Declan Walsh (Bloomsbury, £20, September 3)
Declan Walsh covered Pakistan for a decade, for The Guardian and The New York Times, until he was expelled on the eve of the 2013 election for unspecified “undesirable activities”. In The Nine Lives…, he draws on what he calls “the offstage encounters” of his job to offers a portrait of a country whose most sensitive borders, he says, lie inside. “It was riven by ethnic, tribal, and sectarian fault lines, a place of head-spinning contradictions. One day, a street would fill with rioters protesting [over] an obscure insult to the Prophet Muhammad. The following day, rich folk would gather to party in a mansion along the same street, clinking their glasses in a Gatsby-like bubble.” Walsh’s book, says William Dalrymple, “sets a new benchmark for non-fiction about the complex palace of mirrors that is Pakistan”.

Between Light and Storm: How We Live With Other Species by Esther Woolfson (Granta, £20, September 3)
Esther Woolfson is the author of Corvus: A Life With Birds and Field Notes From A Hidden City. The latter,  short-listed for both the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Wainwright Prize, won much praise for its close study of urban wildlife, from pigeons to rats, and prompted even one or two literary critics to think better of slugs. It is also a fine portrait of Aberdeen, a place the author sums up as that “tight grey city by the sea”.
  In Between Light and Storm, Woolfson  reflects more broadly on the complex relationship between humans and animals. Her book is sweeping in scope, taking us from creation stories to climate change. It’s scholarly, too, but also anchored in her own experience. In the acknowledgements, she says her greatest debt “will always be to Chicken the rook, who was beside me during the entire writing of the book”.

English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks (Allen Lane, £20, September 3)
Social media’s most famous shepherd, author of the bestselling The Shepherd’s Life, says on his Twitter account (@herdyshepherd1) that his new book “is about everything I care about and love”. His publisher sums it up as “a stirring history of family, loss and the land over three generations on a Lake District farm”. English Pastoral tells how, “guided by the past, one farmer [Rebanks] began to salvage a tiny corner of England that was now his, doing his best to restore the life that had vanished and to leave a legacy for the future. This is a book about what it means to have love and pride in a place, and how, against the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.”

The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph, £14.99, September 3)
In The Salt Path, her bestselling and prizewinning debut, Raynor Winn told how she and her terminally ill husband, having lost their home and their livelihood, set off to walk 630 miles along the South-West coast. In The Wild Silence, they find a new home. Someone who read their story offers them the chance to breathe life back into a farmhouse in the Cornish hills; “rewilding the land and returning nature to its hedgerows becomes their saving grace and their new path to follow”. This new book, the publisher says, is “a luminous account of the human spirit’s instinctive connection to nature, and how vital it is for all of us”.

The Fresh and the Salt: The Story of the Solway by Ann Lingard (Birlinn, £25 September 3)
Ann Lingard and her husband manage a smallholding in north-west Cumbria, within sight of the Solway Firth, that crooked finger of water between Scotland and England. In The Fresh and the Salt, she tells the story of the firth, its origins and its ever-changing margins. “Sometimes,” she writes on her website, “I have been actively involved with the firth – wading across it, slithering along its mudflats, walking far out to mussel-beds on a low spring tide, flying over it, bouncing over its waves in boats – and at other times I have been an observer and listener (and I’m so grateful to all those who have shared their knowledge and stories with me over the years).” The naturalist and author Mark Cocker says she has created “a portrait of this nation-cleaving water that is as broad and deep as the estuary itself. A wonderful addition to the literature of place.”  

Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick (Granta, £18.99, September 14)
Barbara Demick is a reporter who opens up places by asking the locals what it’s like to live in them. She won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. She is also the author of Besieged: Life Under Fire on a Sarajevo Street, which won the George Polk Award and the Robert F Kennedy Award and was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. In Eat the Buddha, she turns her attention to Ngaba, a town on the edge of  the eastern Tibetan plateau, where dozens of Tibetans have shocked the world since 2009 by setting themselves on fire in protest at Chinese rule. What, she wanted to know, was it like to be a Tibetan in the 21st century living at the edge of modern China? And why were so many residents of Nagba “willing to destroy their bodies by one of the most horrific methods imaginable”?

  Books published recently that I’ve not mentioned here before include Quite Alone, in which Matthew Teller gathers his journalism on the Middle East from the past decade, “27 stories, long and short, from 13 countries between Egypt & Oman”, as he puts it on Twitter; and Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue, in which Fabrizio Soggetto, author of the blog Are We There Yet?, recounts his travels in Central Asia.

‘Eat the Buddha’: a double helping

At a time when it’s harder than ever to promote a new book, Barbara Demick must be congratulating herself on her good fortune. Her latest, Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town, was reviewed last month in The New York Times. At the weekend it featured again, as the cover story of the Sunday books section, with another review, plus a podcast including an interview with the author.

‘To The Lake’: another triumph from Kassabova

A while ago I reviewed for The Daily Telegraph Kapka Kassabova’s To The Lake (Granta). It’s a great book in its own right, but 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. That review went up this week on the Telegraph site; you can also read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Ways of escape: new books on travel, place and nature

Until the advent of Covid-19, I’d always reckoned that newspapers would survive longest in print on Saturday and Sunday, when readers still enjoy spreading plump and populous supplements all over a table. I do, anyway. Then came news last week that The Guardian, which is facing “an unsustainable financial outlook” as a result of the pandemic, is laying off up to 180 staff, including 70 in editorial, and reorganising its journalism “so that our editorial processes are truly digital-first”.
 
Saturday sections will suffer most: Review (my favourite part of the package), travel, the magazine, and the TV-and-arts guide will all close. A Guardian spokesman told Press Gazette that there were plans for a “new and exciting” Saturday supplement that will cover features, culture, books and lifestyle journalism. The result, though, can only be less space for books in general, and fewer openings for young and emerging writers — and there’s no word yet on what cuts might be coming at The Observer, which is also owned by Guardian Media Group.
  Deskbound Traveller will continue doing what it can for writing on travel and place. Here are some of the books coming up in the next month-or-so.

The Passenger: Japan; The Passenger: Greece
(Europa Editions/Iperborea, £18.99 each, August 13)
Is it a book? Is it a magazine? The Passenger is both: a new place-based magazine the size of a large-format paperback (nine inches by six; 192 pages). There will be four issues a year, each devoted to one country, “its current moment and its people”, featuring essays, investigative journalism and reportage, plus photography and art. There’s a playlist, too, chosen by a local author. It’s all produced jointly by Europa Editions (publisher in Britain of Berezina by Sylvain Tesson) and the Italian publisher Iperborea.
  The first two volumes are on Japan and Greece. Contributors to The Passenger: Japan include Yoshimoto Banana, with a love letter to her district of Tokyo; Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of The Times and author of Ghosts of the Tsunami, exploring the legacy of the natural disaster of 2011; and Murakami Ryū on “the withering of desire” in contemporary Japanese society.
  The Passenger: Greece has the crime writer Petros Makaris (creator of the Athens detective Inspector Haritos) reflecting on the last days of the traditional taverna; Andrew Anthony on the long-living residents of the island of Ikaria; and Rachel Howard on her (ultimately futile) attempts to negotiate Greek bureaucracy. 
  The third volume, on Brazil, is due to be published in October.

The Oak Papers by James Canton (Canongate, £16.99, August 6)
James Canton “sought solace from the ways of the world by stepping into the embrace of an ancient oak tree”. Over two years, he sat with and studied the Honeywood Oak, a tree that has stood for more than eight centuries on an estate in north Essex. In The Oak Papers, which is is due to be read as Book of the Week on Radio 4 from August 3, he examines our long-standing dependency on oak trees, and how that has developed and morphed into myth and legend. 
  Canton has taught the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex since its inception in 2009, exploring the ties between literature, landscape and the environment, and is the author of two previous books: Ancient Wanderings: Journeys into Prehistoric Britain, and Out of Essex: Reimagining A Literary Landscape. His latest has won praise from writers including Philip Marsden, who says it is “a book of deep knowledge, perception and love”.

Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland edited by Kathleen Jamie (Canongate, £20, August 6)
This collection brings together 21 writers and two visual artists who live, or have lived, in Scotland. Their work, Jamie says in her introduction, “addresses the realities of our times, and examines our relationships with our fellow creatures, our beloved and fast-changing landscapes, our energy futures, our ancient past”.
  Among the contributors are Amy Liptrot, Malachy Tallack, Chitra Ramaswamy, Jim Crumley, Amanda Thomson and Karine Polwart. Jamie invites their readers not to be passive recipients but to be active participants in the “vital work” of noticing what the natural world has to offer. “In a time of ecological crisis,” she says, “I would argue that simply insisting on our right to pay heed to natural landscapes and other non-human lifeforms amounts to an act of resistance to the forces of destruction.”
  The title, incidentally, comes from a poem by Norman MacCaig, “Looking Down on Glen Canisp”, in which he writes of how “two stags/ canter across the ford, splashing up before them/ antlers of water”.

Slow Road to San Francisco: Across the USA from Ocean to Ocean by David Reynolds (Muswell Press, £14.99, August 20)
For his last book, David Reynolds — who was one of the founders of Bloomsbury Publishing — drove the length of Highway 83, “the Main Street of the Great Plains”, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. In Slow Road to San Francisco, he travels through small-town America, from Ocean City, Maryland, all the way to the west coast, along Route 50, one of the few remaining two-lane highways that cross the country. “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.”

Because It’s Saturday by Gavin Bell (Pitch Publishing, £12.99, August 10)
For his debut, In Search of Tusitala, which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1995, Gavin Bell followed the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson to the South Seas. In Somewhere Over the Rainbow, he explored what Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “Rainbow Nation” of South Africa. For his latest book, Because it’s Saturday, he travels to yet more exotic places, among them Accrington, Grimsby and Blackpool. His subject is football in the lower leagues, where passionate fans “sustain teams unlikely to win anything other than their undying devotion”. That takes him into the haunts of LS Lowry (Berwick), Beryl Cook (Plymouth), Rupert Brooke (Cambridge) and Laurie Lee (Forest Green Rovers).

The Gran Tour by Ben Aitken (Icon Books, £14.99, September 3)
Ben Aitken’s third book wasn’t conceived as a memorial, but that’s how it has turned out, even if the author’s tone couldn’t be further from sombre. After Aitken travelled with the coach-tour operator Shearings (founded: 1919) on a series of trips in the British Isles and Italy, a millennial mixing with the pensioners, Shearings went into administration, a casualty of the Covid crisis. The brand — but none of the staff, coaches or hotels — has since been taken over by Leger Holidays (though that’s not immediately apparent on the website).
  Early on, Aitken says he booked the first outing because he had come to believe that his elders had more to offer than his peers — and because it cost just over a hundred quid: “I didn’t seek wisdom. I didn’t seek revelation. I didn’t seek vengeance against any baby-boomers that might have stolen my future. Simply put, I did it because I thought it might be nice.”

  Recently published titles that I haven’t mentioned here before include the following:

Walking the Great North Line by Robert Twigger (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Robert Twigger says he happened upon what he calls “the Great North Line” when he extended a line on a map from Old Sarum to Stonehenge and found that it ran through a string of historic sites (42 by his count), finishing at the holy island of Lindisfarne  on the Northumbrian coast.
  He set out to walk it, “fondly hoping to develop ideas about England’s ‘primitive’ past and to point out that ancient man was just as intelligent as we are”. Reviews have appeared in publications including The Scotsman and The Times.

Where was I again? by Geoff Hill (£9.99 via Amazon)
I Could Have Been a Stoker for a Vertical Wimple Crimper by Geoff Hill (Thunderchild Publishing, £8.90 via Amazon)
Geoff Hill is a travel writer dedicated to the cause of cheering us all up, so he has published two books in the midst of the pandemic. The first is a collection of pieces drawing on his travels since the 1990s, assembled as an A-to-Z that takes him from Azerbaijan to Zagreb (by way of “Cruising and Copenhagen”, “Dormouse hunting and Donegal”, and “Vietnam, Vermont and Venice”). The second tells of a three-month stint in 1992 in Canada, a country where, he says, “it is virtually impossible to be bored”.

Salzburg: City of Culture by Hubert Nowak (Haus Publishing, £9.99)
Marvel of Baroque architecture, birthplace of Mozart, home to a world-renowned festival: all of these aspects of the city, as you’d expect, feature in this portrait by the Austrian journalist and author Hubert Nowak (translated by Peter Lewis). But he is also intent on showing us a lesser-known Salzburg, a place that, among other things, has been a setting for crime novels and a battleground for town planners.

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