Travel books Archive

Back on board the container ship

In the April 3 edition of The New York Review of Books, the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff combines a review of Rose George’s book on merchant shipping (already reviewed on Deskbound Traveller) with a report on her own four-week trip from Hong Kong to Southampton on the container ship Christophe Colomb. She writes:

“Notoriously, companies including Maersk and CMA CGM do not allow armed guards on their ships. Instead, if pirates do board, best practice recommends that everybody hide out in a safe room called a citadel, lock the door, and wait for naval rescue. Christophe Colomb’s citadel was stocked with two days of bottled water and emergency food rations, a chemical toilet in a box, a pile of air mattresses with pumps, a satellite phone, and a Monopoly set. ‘Whose idea was that?’ I asked. ‘The company’s,’ said the captain, smirking. ‘The idea is that while the pirates are on board we will be here buying and selling the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Gare du Nord.’

Interesting to see how George’s book has been retitled for the American market: Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside shipping, the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything becomes Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate.

More on capturing a sense of place

The session on Friday evening at Daunt Books on “capturing a sense of place” (see previous post) was recorded, so rather than summarise it here I’ll wait for Daunt’s to make a sound file available and then link to that. Each of the writers on Barnaby Rogerson’s panel — Colin Thubron, Tracy Chevalier and Mahesh Rao — read something from one of his or her own books and then a piece from another writer. Rao chose a passage from The Great American Bus Ride by Irma Kurtz, who is best known as an agony aunt but is also a talented travel writer. Assuming you can find a copy, it might be just the thing to pack on a US trip this year — when Greyhound is marking its centenary.

Guernica in the Deep South

The online magazine Guernica has a special edition dedicated to the American South, with contributions from both Southerners and settlers. A feature in which 15 of them reflect on region, culture and mindset includes a hilarious piece from Tom Piazza (author of the post-Hurricane book Why New Orleans Matters) in which he and his dog revolt against stereotyping.

One of the shortest of the 15 pieces is from Bill Cheng, a Chinese-American from New York, who apologises for his presumption in setting a novel in the South. He needn’t, of course. In his debut Southern Cross the Dog, he transports his readers to the swamplands of Mississippi at the time of the Great Flood of 1927. It’s a remarkable feat — all the more so when you consider that Cheng had never set foot in the South.

Macfarlane and Solnit on nature writing

I’ve mentioned before here the US environmental magazine Orion. It’s dedicated to  what its editor, Jennifer Sahn, calls “the most fundamental of all relationships – the relationship between us and the rest of nature”. Sahn was joined recently by Robert Macfarlane and Rebecca Solnit for a discussion of  nature writing and how it’s evolving. It’s a conversation that will be of interest to all those who enjoy reading as much as they enjoy travel — all readers of Deskbound Traveller, in other words.

Macfarlane is a familiar name to British readers, Solnit perhaps less so, though she’s a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. If you’ve not read her work before, try her tremendous piece on the “post-American landscape” of  Detroit,  written for Harper’s Magazine before the city filed for bankruptcy.

The cover of the current print issue of Orion is a photograph of an artwork by Martin Hill, a sculptor who borrows his materials from nature. If you’ve got a spare seven-and-a-half minutes, treat yourself to the video of how he and Philippa Jones created their “Watershed Project”.

Riding ‘the Beast’ through Mexico: a journey for the desperate

Nine times out of 10, a piece of travel writing will be an encouragement to go where the writer has gone. Not this time. This week, I’m publishing an extract from The Beast by Óscar Martínez (Verso), his searing account of the journey made through Mexico every year by hundreds of thousands of Central Americans intent on una vida mejor — a better life — in the United States. For many, that journey ends in death. I’ve already reviewed Martínez’s book, which is an exceptionally courageous piece of reporting and extremely well written. Read the extract and, if you’re as impressed as I was, buy the book (preferably from an independent bookseller).

‘A sense of place’ at Daunt Books

How can a writer best capture a sense of place? That question, which is one of the preoccupations of Deskbound Traveller, will be addressed by both travel writers and novelists in a session at the first Daunt Books Festival, to be held by the London bookseller at the end of next month. On the panel will be Colin Thubron, who has written half a dozen novels but is probably best known for travel books including Among the Russians and To a Mountain in Tibet; Barnaby Rogerson, a travel writer himself and publisher at Eland Books, home of travel classics; Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, that conjuring of 17th-century Delft; and Mahesh Rao, who lives in Mysore, India, setting for his debut novel The Smoke is Rising, which Daunt Books is due to publish in March.

The festival will be held on March 27 (Thursday) and March 28 at Daunt’s Marylebone branch, a lovely place in itself with its oak galleries and stained-glass windows. Tickets for the “Capturing a sense of place” session, from 8.30 to 9.30pm on March 28, cost £5 including a glass of wine. For details and other festival highlights, see the Daunt Books website.

Bringing West Africa a little nearer

Deskbound Traveller is here to draw attention to the best in narrative travel writing — including writing that, in journalistic terms, has passed its sell-by date. The media’s attention span is short; if a book hasn’t been given space within the month (sometimes the week) of its publication, it’s unlikely to be given space at all. I don’t think Mark Weston’s The Ringtone and the Drum got the attention it deserved on its publication in Britain in October 2012. But then that’s partly my fault: short of reading time, and far from short of pieces from Africa, I glanced at it when a review copy came in to Telegraph Travel, and then put it on a shelf. It stayed there until I was having a clear-out last Christmas, dipped into it, and carried on reading. It’s a book about the far reaches of West Africa, a part of the world which, as Weston reminds us in his first chapter, is “nobody’s idea of a dream holiday destination”. A child there is fortunate to be born without losing its mother, to reach its first birthday and to survive a cold.

What keeps people going in such places? How do they not only keep body and soul together but maintain poise and spirit and summon the energy to make music? Weston, despite having spent years working in developing countries, decided that he didn’t really know, so he set off to find out, travelling through Guinea-Bisseau, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, three of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, to document the daily round. “I felt I needed a deeper understanding of this neglected corner of the planet,” he says, “and thought that perhaps, by writing about it, I might help bring its inhabitants’ lives a little closer to ours.” In The Ringtone and the Drum, he does just that. You can read an extract under “New writing”.

Life and riotous times of the Chelsea Hotel

dreampalacecoverI’m looking forward to Inside the Dream Palace, Sherill Tippins’ requiem for the Chelsea Hotel, which arrived in the post this morning. My appetite’s been whetted by a couple of reviews that have already appeared. My colleague Mick Brown’s, in print in today’s Telegraph Review but not yet online, begins:

“It is hard to think of a single building – let alone a single hotel – in the world that over 125 years could have entertained such a diverting and deranged array of residents as the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Alcoholic writers, suicidal artists, Trotskyites, drag queens, punk rockers – the Chelsea has been home to them all, and that’s before we even consider the magnificent George Kleinsinger, composer of the children’s symphony Tubby the Tuba, who transformed his room in the hotel into a tropical rainforest, with 12ft trees imported from Borneo and Madagascar and a menagerie of exotic birds, a monkey, a pet skunk and a 5ft iguana.”

Jeremy Hardy, commending Tippins’s “exhaustive, fascinating life and times of the hotel” in the London Review of Books, offers, as an aside, a novel way of dealing with bed bugs.

Tuning in to a world of sound

Trevor Cox is a man who is invariably disappointed by guidebooks. Their overriding concern is with what there is to see, and what Cox wants to know as soon as he arrives in an unfamiliar country or city is what there is to hear. He is a physicist by education and an acoustic engineer by trade. Having spent several years on the theory and practice of eradicating unwanted noise in buildings from concert halls to classrooms, he had (in a sewer of all places) what he calls an epiphany: he had become so preoccupied with removing noise that he had forgotten to listen to the sounds themselves, which could be not only surprising but sublime.

Hence Sonic Wonderland (Bodley Head), in which he documents his quest to experience and explain the world’s oddest acoustic effects, from the booming of bitterns on the Somerset Levels, by way of a joking echo in the Loire Valley, to the chirping steps of a Mayan pyramid in Mexico. It’s a book both about sounds and the effect they have on us. It’s an encouragement, too, to open our ears to the everyday ones. Read a few pages, go for a walk, and you’ll find yourself tuning into the world in a new way: yes, you hear all those sounds every morning on the way to the station; the difference this time is that you’re listening to them.

My colleague Ivan Hewett, reviewing Sonic Wonderland in The Daily Telegraph today, said it was “a charming and romantic book”, but it was a shame that the publishers hadn’t offered some of the sounds on a CD or a website. Cox himself has done so, at

The sound file below is of the burping noise Cox’s feet made in sand as he trudged up a dune in the Mojave Desert in California. “Each laboured footstep,” he writes, “created a single honk, like a badly played tuba. Towards the top of the slope, I got so tired that I resorted to scrambling up on all fours, producing a comical brass quartet.”

A farewell to Michael Jacobs

MichaelJacobsincafeMichael Jacobs had plenty still to write. When we spoke on the phone about three weeks ago he was back in his beloved Andalusian village of Frailes and hoping to find the time to finish his current project, a book inspired by Velázquez’s Las Meninas, that painting in which reality meets illusion.

I mentioned that I was reading and hugely impressed by The Beast, Óscar Martínez’s account of the hellish journey made by Central American migrants seeking a better life in el norte. Michael had already read it (and was equally impressed), but then he had read everything that was worth reading on Spain and Latin America. He said, not for the first time, that he longed to write a book about Martínez’s country, El Salvador.

But his time and energy were running out. He had been diagnosed on September 26 with cancer, which had spread from his kidneys. In between his sessions for pain relief at a hospice in London, he and his partner of many years, Jackie Rae, had married in Hackney Town Hall. During that phone call, he told me that the following day he was due to see a faith healer, and added, with a chuckle, that “there’ll be a procedure involving lots of water”. I knew then that he didn’t have long left. Last Saturday I got a message from a mutual friend in Spain saying that Michael had died. He was 61.

This was a man who had survived being held prisoner by guerrillas in Colombia; who could be out dancing till the early hours in the bars of Cartagena and then at his desk while others were still nursing their hangovers. It seemed scarcely credible that what had started a few months earlier as “terrible back pain” had seen him off.

Michael Jacobs had already embarked on what might be called his “Latin American period” when I met him about eight years ago. An art historian by education, he had established his reputation as an authority on Spain and an interpreter of the country to the English-speaking world, first with scholarly guidebooks to Barcelona, Madrid and Andalusia, and then with The Factory of Light, his playful chronicle of life in Frailes.

Fiction, family ties and the journals of New World explorers took him to the rest of el mundo hispánico. Long before he set foot in it, he had fallen in love with Latin America through the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, the memoirs of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the “personal narratives” of Alexander von Humboldt (with whom he shared what he described as “a constant wonder in the face of nature”).

His discovery of a batch of letters in an attic led to Ghost Train through the Andes, a recreation of the journey his grandfather had made in Victorian days as an engineer on a railway running from the  port of Antofagasta, in Chile, to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. That was followed by Andes, an ambitious but not wholly successful attempt to get the measure of South America by travelling the length of the mountain range.

Then came The Robber of Memories, for me his best book about the region. The robber is a figure from myth in Colombia who is said to arrive on horseback by night. The phrase also makes for a graphic description of dementia, which afflicted Michael’s mother as he set off to travel the length of the country’s longest river, the Magdalena. Memoir, travelogue and current affairs were woven seamlessly together in a book that exemplified his belief in “travel literature as a poetic transformation of reality”.

Michael was a demanding critic, but unstinting with praise when he felt it was merited. He could be withering about travel writers in general who parachuted on to his patch, and said he would “rather die of poverty” than reinforce some of the stereotypes they regurgitated, among them the notion that “the real Spain is Andalusia” or that the country as a whole is fundamentally Moorish. He had no time for mysticism, and found duende “a particularly irritating concept”. He was gentler with his fellow scribblers as individuals, generous with tips, reading suggestions and contacts.

A couple of years ago I was researching a piece about Segovia, venue for a forthcoming Hay Festival. I found plenty of material about  the poet Antonio Machado (adopted there as a literary son) but little on contemporary writers with any ties to the place. Fearful I might be overlooking some giant, I emailed Michael to pick his brains. The response was swift: “Though most of Spain’s famous writers have passed through the town,” he said, “they have mainly done so to eat suckling pig.”

Michael was a champion of narrative travel writing and an enthusiastic supporter of this website, which is one reason why there is an extract here from The Robber of Memories. Read that, if you haven’t already, then follow the links below to let him direct you to some of his favourite books from the Spanish-speaking world:
books about Colombia
novels and memoirs from Latin America.