Travel books Archive

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.

Win a copy of James Attlee’s ‘Isolarion’

When I key in the title of the latest book from James Attlee, the spell-checker built into my software corrects it. The spell-checker wants to make it Isolation. The proper title is Isolarion. It’s the term for a 15th-century map that isolates an area to present it in detail — and in that detail finds a greater truth.

  Both the spell-checker and the book — which has just been reissued in a new edition by the innovative publisher And Other Stories — seem in tune with our strange times. At the moment, none us can roam as readily or as far as we used to. Some of us can’t leave home at all. Many of us are attending more closely to what’s immediately around us, and seeing it afresh — just as Attlee, like an urban Gilbert White, does in Isolarion.

  White, a country boy who went to Oxford, became the founding father of nature writing partly by adjusting to his environment. He had become a priest and was tied to a Hampshire parish; he was missing his peers, but because coach travel made him sick he couldn’t stray far. Those constraints and tensions contributed to The Natural History of Selborne (1789). As Richard Mabey, that modern-day green man, has observed*, “While Joseph Banks was exploring on the other side of the globe, [White] was out with a lantern, counting earthworms on his back lawn. White’s achievements were partly the result of using these constraints as creative opportunities. Emotionally and intellectually, he hunkered down in Selborne, and joined the world outside through writing.”

  Attlee does the same with Isolarion. When he wrote it he was itching to travel, but couldn’t find the time. There were “mouths to feed, bills to pay, deadlines to meet”. Then it dawned on him that the voyage he needed to make began a few minutes’ walk from his own front door in Oxford. Out there 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, which you can read now on Deskbound Traveller, “Why make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?”

  Attlee’s journey is allegorical as well as physical. His progress on the ground was interrupted by the demands of daily life, and his pages are full of the best kind of digressions — as Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, noted: “Anyone who can drag Lucretius, Susanna, Bathsheba and St Jerome into a Cowley Road porn shop deserves our attention and admiration.”

  The new edition has an afterword by Geoff Dyer, who was equally impressed. He writes: “The fact that it’s a book about Oxford is off-putting (I mean, who gives a toss about Oxford?) and alluring in equal measure. If he could write about this city and make it compelling, wouldn’t that be a greater tribute to his authorial prowess than if he’d written about Mogadishu? The subtitle promises ‘a different Oxford journey’, one confining itself to the Cowley Road… The attraction, for Attlee, is that the Cowley Road ‘is both unique and nothing special’; the resulting book is unique and very special.”

  Thanks to Attlee and his publisher, I have four copies of Isolarion 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 May 18. 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 May 22. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more books from And Other Stories, see the company’s website.

*Mabey’s essay on White is included in a collection of his pieces reflecting on a life in writing: Turning the Boat for Home (Chatto & Windus).

Where Suffolk heathland meets Arizona desert

Where does the heathland of Suffolk meet the desert of Arizona? In a moving essay for the latest Virginia Quarterly Review) by Francisco Cantú, former US border patrol officer, author of The Line Becomes a River, and keen reader of WG Sebald. Thanks to William Atkins — who knows a thing or two about deserts himself – for directing me to it via Twitter.

A wise and funny trip to the end-times

My review of Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta), a book that’s fretful, wise and funny, and often all three in the space of a paragraph, is now up on the Telegraph site; you can also read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

  Extracts from the book have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Slate.

RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

The short list was announced today for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 for a book that best evokes “the spirit of a place”.

  Unusually, there’s just one work of non-fiction among the six books, which also include three novels and two works of poetry.


  Surge by Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus), winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, is an extraordinary debut collection responding to the New Cross Fire of 1981 in south-east London — in which 13 young black people were killed in a house fire at a birthday party — and tracing a line from it to the Grenfell fire in June 2017.

  Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi (Bloomsbury Circus) is a novel about a woman whose mother’s death prompts her to leave her unhappy married life in the United States and rebuild her home and family back in India — where she discovers she has a sister.

  Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton), which was Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, takes us into the world beneath our feet and what we’ve made of it — physically, with mines and tombs, and metaphorically, with myths and legends.

  A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson (Peepal Tree Press) won the 2019 TS Eliot Prize. John Burnside, chair of the judges, said that the collection — which includes poems reflecting on the Grenfell Tower fire — “finds in the bitterness of everyday experience continuing evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life’”.

  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (Viking) is a Booker short-listed novel that begins when the heart of its heroine, a sex worker known as Tequila Leila, stops beating. It is dedicated “To the women of Istanbul and to the city of Istanbul, which is, and always has been, a she-city.”

  A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo (Cassava Republic) is about the regenerative power of darkness and silence. An activist professor released from prison in Nigeria decides to live the rest of his life alone in the dark — until a young woman called Desire comes knocking on his door.

  The RSL’s Twitter account has brief passages read by each author and accompanied by animations by Liang-Hsin Huang, a Taiwanese film-maker who graduated from the Royal College of Art last year.

  This year’s judges of the RSL Ondaatje Prize are Peter Frankopan, Pascale Petit and Evie Wyld. The winner will be announced on May 4.

To Mexico, with Sybille Bedford

At the end of the Second World War, Sybille Bedford was tired of being cooped up in the United States. Born in Germany into a partly-Jewish family, married briefly to an Englishman so she could secure a British passport, she had fled across the Atlantic in 1940. Now she had “a great longing to move… to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible”.

  Mexico wasn’t her first choice, but she ended up there, and it became the subject of her first published book: The Sudden View, later retitled A Visit to Don Otavio. Bedford (1911-2006) was a novelist, a biographer (of her friend and mentor Aldous Huxley), a celebrant of food and drink, a journalist who wrote about criminals and miscarriages of justice. She was a travel writer, too, and A Visit to Don Otavio makes a good introduction to her many talents. You can read an extract in a page I compiled for Telegraph Travel last weekend, part of which is now online. If you enjoy the extract, you can order the book from Eland Publishing; it’s still fulfilling orders by post, and most of its books can be downloaded.

Virtually does it

You travel, you lock yourself away to write, then you come out again to hit the publicity trail when the book’s ready. That’s how it used to be. 

  Yesterday was the publication day for Notes from An Apocalypse, in which the journalist and essayist Mark O’Connell (who won both the Wellcome Book Prize and the Rooney Prize for To Be a Machine) makes an anxious exploration of the end-times. O’Connell is a writer whose work entails travel rather than a travel writer; his preoccupations this time around take him from survivalists’ bunkers in South Dakota, by way of an environmentalists’ retreat, to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. His publisher, Granta, sent the book out into the world on Twitter, with a promise that “It’ll be just like a real launch, only you’ll have to provide your own room-temperature white wine.”

  There were snippets from the text, endorsements from early readers and reviewers, an introduction by O’Connell’s editor, Anne Meadows, and a speech from, and a Q & A with, the author. His book couldn’t be more timely — but not even O’Connell could have predicted that he’d receive copies of it from a man in a face mask, and that he would open the box using gloves.

  There was a briefer, more low-key launch for Julian Sayarer (who won the Stanford Dolman prize in 2017 with Interstate, for which he hitchhiked his way across the USA). Yesterday was the official publication day for his latest book, Fifty Miles Wide: Cycling Through Israel and Palestine (Arcadia).  In a 47-second video posted on Twitter, he thanked all those who had helped him, particularly the cyclists with whom he rode, who had explained to him the politics of their countries. “I’ve always found the bicycle an amazing way of cutting through to some truth and the humanity of a situation,” he says, “and it was definitely no exception there. I hope that people reading [the book] enjoy coming along for the ride.”

  Helen Moat is another cyclist who hasn’t been able to make her publicity round. A Time of Birds, which came out on April 9 (Saraband), tells of a journey she made with her 18-year-old son from Rotterdam to Istanbul. It was prompted by a feeling that she was in a rut, with a dulled brain and a “blunted soul”. In her account of it, she reflects on her own upbringing in a Plymouth Brethren family during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and her relationship with her bird-loving father.

  For Helen Ochyra, the launch was another online event from home. She’s a Londoner who might, perhaps, have hoped to be sending her book on its way somewhere north of the English border. In Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes (The Book Guild) she sets out to get to grips with a country she had dropped into “dozens of times” but didn’t really feel she knew. Following the death in 2016 of her mother (her father had died when she was a child), she decided it was time she got round to it.

‘Greenery’: a book for this moment

“Nature Writing”, says the classification on the back of the latest book from Tim Dee. Partly true. He’s good at that. But leaving it there is a bit like saying that Wordsworth was a gardener and Springsteen is a harmonica player. Dee is one of our best living writers of non-fiction, and Greenery: Journeys in Springtime (Jonathan Cape) — 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. It couldn’t be more timely. There’s an extract in the travel section, in print, of today’s Daily Telegraph. Buy the paper if you can and read it (there’s another extract on the Caught by the River website). Then buy the book, preferably from an independent bookshop

*Update, April 16: The extract that appeared in The Daily Telegraph has since gone online.