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The traveller you don’t want to be

I’ve been thinking about a book I read as long ago as May; one I’m now wishing I’d included in my roundup of travel books of the year, even if it’s something of a radical departure from that genre.

  Travel is something to plan for, to anticipate, to savour once it’s under way. Unless, of course, it’s been forced on you, and you’re homeless, stateless and in fear of your life. In The Ungrateful Refugee (Canongate, £16.99) Dina Nayeri, who fled Iran at eight with her mother and brother, eventually finding asylum in the United States, combines her own experience of the refugee journey with reporting from today’s camps. There, she says, it takes no talent to coax out stories, for everyone wants to talk. It does, though, take talent to write them, and Nayeri, who is the author of two novels, has it in abundance.

  While doing research at a camp in Greece, she asks herself why, when she has a home of her own now in London, and a family, she’s returned to such a “wretched limbo”. She answers:

  I’ve come because the world is turning its back on refugees, because America is no longer America and Europe is going the same way: these once-Christian nations have abandoned duty in favour of entitlement and tribal instinct. I’m here because I have a skill, born out of my own idle refugee days. I’ve watched people when they’re ordered to do nothing and I know just how life reasserts itself, like that first bubble in still water before the whole pot comes to a boil. I’m here to make a few stories leap out from the tepid simmer of information and to carry those stories to the West, a mother who once adopted us, the exiles and outcasts, and now needs us to intervene as callouses harden fast around her heart.

  And there is another reason too. Now that I have a daughter, it’s time I made sense of my own story and identity so that she can be certain of hers.

  I have reservations about Nayeri’s mixing of reportage and the techniques of fiction (she declares at the outset that she brought the escape stories of others to life “using sensory details that I found and imagined”), but The Ungrateful Refugee is still an urgent and important book.

Women at war

The New York Review of Books has an excellent piece by Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News on women who are caught up in war and who go to report on it:

Any female reporter who covers the Middle East is asked if it’s a disadvantage to be a woman, but Westerners rarely ask about the advantages, which often apply even more to Arab than foreign women. In countries like Syria and Iraq, you can disappear into the background and are rarely seen as a threat in the way men may be. Wearing the hijab is useful because you look like other women, so you can get through roadblocks where you might be stopped if the gunmen suspected you of being a reporter. But there are techniques you need to learn. “Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover,” writes Hannah Allam, an Arab-American journalist who reported for McClatchy Newspapers during the Iraq war. “You use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under your chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike up the bottom to free your feet. Then you run in a zigzag pattern to avoid giving a clear shot to the snipers.”

The new Laurie Lee that isn’t by the old Laurie Lee

I’ve been reading a new book with Laurie Lee’s name on the cover. Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape is, according to the press release that came with it from Penguin, “A never-before-published collection of essays featuring lyrical, moving memories of Lee’s beloved Cotswold home”. That’s not entirely true. The jacket notes say that it’s “a writer’s tribute to the landscape that shaped him”. That is true, sort of. The chapters of this 101-page book aren’t essays, and Lee didn’t write them. 

  As an afterword makes clear, the book is a transcription of recordings made in 1994 by David Parker, who was making a film about Lee, then in his 80th year, in and around his home village of Slad in the Cotswolds. Hence the regularity of passages opening with directions — “This lane next to us…”, “Up there…”, and “This is the grave of my old chum…” — as Lee sets the scene. 

  The text is poorly edited and oddly punctuated. If you’re expecting the rhythmical prose you enjoyed in Cider with Rosie and the books on Spain, you’ll be disappointed. There are passages here, surely, that Lee — who died in 1997 — would have groaned over:
  “And this is one of the reasons, apart from its splendour, its beauty, in season and out, it’s one of the reasons that I feel I’ve inherited, just by being here, inherited this ancient, pre-Roman and pre-Iron Age, almost pre-Stone Age civilization. And I do my best to carry it on, with all its ravages and contentments; which are many.”

  You do learn a bit more about the Slad Valley and how it shaped him and why it pulled him back, and there’s the odd good joke:
  “I was sitting outside the pub recently and two girls came up to me. They were part of a school group, it was about five to eleven. They were doing ‘O’ levels and they said to me, ‘Excuse me sir, can you tell me where Laurie Lee’s buried?’ A certain shiver of mortality ran through me and I said, ‘He’s in the public bar, otherwise he’d be up in the woods.’”

  Still, this is far from vintage Lee, and it’s bizarre that it’s appearing with “Penguin Classics” on the front. There’s an audio version, I see, which according to a page on the Audible website is narrated by David Sibley but has “original audio interviews with the author, Laurie Lee”. Maybe that’s the best way to approach Down in the Valley.

A history that roams with the whales

In The New York Review of Books, Sophie Pinkham reviews Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: 

Though Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, it could also be described as a meditation on a biosphere. Demuth includes lavish descriptions of the landscape she has been admiring since she first visited as a teenager, but relatively little in the way of straightforward political or economic history. She is interested in animals—particularly whales—and Floating Coast is, to a great extent, history from the vantage point of the sea; political treaties and trade agreements, monarchs and presidents flash by on the periphery, as if seen from far away. Though centered on the Bering Strait, the book roams with the creatures whose history she documents, following whaling fleets as far as Japan and Hawaii.

  In Beringia, Pinkham writes,

Demuth has found an almost perfect case study through which to compare capitalist and Soviet approaches to the exploitation of natural resources. She finds that from the Arctic vantage point, the results were remarkably similar: ecological devastation and the immiseration of indigenous communities. Intent on maximizing “production,” neither system conceived of a moment at which economic growth was no longer possible or desirable. This left them equally ill equipped to situate human economies and societies within the limits of ecosystems that operate primarily on a cyclical rather than a linear model. The limits that Americans and Soviets discovered in Beringia—the slow reproductive cycles of whales and walruses, the delicate balance of wolves and caribou—are vivid examples of the natural boundaries that confine all human endeavors. The twentieth century imagined progress as liberation from material constraints, but to ignore these constraints is to court disaster. The harms caused by the heedless consumption of whales were a preview of the much larger dangers of the consumption of fossil fuels.

Wingless wanderers

I hate public speaking, even if the speaking is down a phone line from my house to a studio, so when I’m asked to talk about my work I usually say no, on the grounds that I have a face for radio and a voice for print. There are subjects, though, on which you can’t just file the article and then retreat to the study; subjects on which you must do the talking as well as the writing. Climate change is one of them. 

  That’s why, though I bottled out of one interview, I have agreed to four over the past fortnight, to talk about why I’ve stopped flying to work. (You can find the latest on the podcast of the Nine til Noon Show hosted by Greg Hughes on the Irish station Highland Radio: it was on Wednesday’s show, and our conversation begins at -0:40:32.)

  At the end of August I wrote a piece to try to get a few things clear in my own head: what did I think about climate change, about the contribution flying was making to it, and about the contribution I was making as a travel writer by encouraging other people to burn more oil at a time when we should all be burning less? Writing the piece was also a way of explaining to my wife why I had turned down a trip to New York on which (if we’d paid her air fare), she might have joined me. I decided, and my wife agreed, that I should stop doing jobs that entail flying. It’s easier for me to make that decision than it is for younger writers: I’m 61, I still need to pay bills, but I no longer have a mortgage and my children are grown-ups.

  At the start of September, I offered that piece to The Daily Telegraph, where, it turned out, the digital editor on the travel desk, Oliver Smith, had been asking himself the same questions. Olly has decided to limit himself to one return flight a year, and, in a forceful piece that went online on September 11, he explained why. That piece was initially behind a paywall, but it isn’t now, so please read it. 

  My own piece went online on October 3 on the Telegraph Travel site, and appeared in print a couple of days later. Among those who responded to it via Twitter was the writer Paul Miles, who said: “I stopped flying 10 yrs ago. Tricky as my niche was tropical islands. No longer. My early non-flying trips often involved ferry from UK to Scandinavia (Bergen, Esbjerg) but they’ve ceased now. It’s time to reinstate those crossings!” 

  This week, Gavin Haines, another travel writer (who, like me, used to be on the Telegraph staff and then went freelance, though he’s only 35), published a piece on the website of the campaign Flight Free UK, explaining why he had promised to avoid all flying in 2020. Please read that, and consider joining the campaign. I joined it myself yesterday, and my wife is going to sign up too. We have family commitments that will probably necessitate a return flight in 2021, but otherwise we’re aiming to be wingless wanderers.*

  At a meeting in London this week, members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators briefed journalists on what’s new in their programmes for the coming year. Later, before presentations of awards for travel writing, the association’s chairman, Derek Moore, addressed the gathering. He said his members needed to encourage their customers to fly less and stay longer, and should be looking forward to a boom in rail travel.

  Is the travel trade waking up? I hope so. Not before time. But then I’ve been shamefully dozy myself. Besides the articles mentioned above, I’d urge you to read one by Nicholas Crane, geographer, television presenter and a past president of the Royal Geographical Society. He decided as long ago as the mid-1990s, having studied the science, that he should do everything he could to avoid using aircraft. In a piece in 2006, 13 years ago, he was arguing: “There isn’t any option but to give up all non-essential flying.” I would have read that piece closely; I must have done: I was an editor on the desk that published it. Now, I’m finally heeding it.

*Update I see from a piece in The Guardian today (October 19) by Andy Pietrasik, the travel editor, that the writer Dixe Wills is another non-flyer. Pietrasik says that his team recognises “the need to help tackle the climate emergency by reducing the number of flights we all take”.

Short list for Banff prize

The category winners in the Banff Mountain Book Competition (see earlier post), which will all be in contention for the grand prize, were announced last week.  Prizes will be presented on October 31, at an event featuring contributions from the mountaineers Sharon Wood and Reinhold Messner.

The real Texas

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Texas?” Cattle ranchers, cowboys and Comanches, big hats and “the oil bidness”, maybe. What about slavery? Annette Gordon-Reed, reviewing five recent books about the state, including Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas, prompts a rethink.

Ciaran Carson’s Belfast

If you’re visiting Northern Ireland, your background reading should include the work of Ciaran Carson, who died today of cancer at the age of 70. He was a wonderful chronicler of what he called “the ongoing, fractious epic that is Belfast”.

  He grew up in the Catholic Falls Road area and, as Patricia Craig puts it in her obituary for The Guardian, “went on to transfigure his native city, and transfix his readers, with a rich accumulation of poems, metafictions and other unclassifiable prose works”.

  I’d long loved the work, and was lucky enough to meet the man when I wrote a piece about a new literary tour of Belfast in 2006 (can it really be that long ago?). I’d brought with me two paperbacks that I wanted him to sign: a poetry collection, The Ballad of HMS Belfast, and The Star Factory, which is partly autobiography and partly biography of Belfast. I muttered something about how they were only paperbacks, and he lifted, signed and then handed to me a hardback of The Star Factory. “Take that with you as well,” he said.

Why I’m trying to give up taking the plane to work

I’ve written an article — which Telegraph Travel has decided is worth publishing — on why I’m trying to stop taking the plane to work. But I’m shamefully late in following the example of one Nicholas Crane, who’s been doing everything possible since the mid-1990s to avoid using aircraft. In a piece he wrote 13 years ago, he urged the rest of us to do likewise. “There isn’t any option,” he declared, “but to give up all non-essential flying.”

Place and setting on a warming planet

Two weeks before the global climate strike, the New York Public Library held its first  “Live from the NYPL” session of the season, a conversation between two writers who have grappled with climate change in fiction and fact. They are Amitav Ghosh, whose latest novel, Gun Island (John Murray), brings together California wildfires, Venetian-lagoon tornadoes and myth and coincidence; and Nathaniel Rich, whose most recent book, Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change (Picador), began as a piece for the magazine of The New York Times.

  On the video below, their conversation begins about 14 minutes in. Just before the half-hour mark, they turn to the question of place and setting, and Ghosh says that it’s impossible, in our world, to tackle it as a 19th-century novelist would have done. 

  “For one thing, the settings have completely changed. The populations have changed, the geographies have changed. And most of all, we live at a time when, really, it’s not just people moving; we also know that entire ecosystems are moving. And we know most of all that all these changes are happening because of extended global impact. So any attempt that we have today to approach these issues has to dispense with the 19th-century idea of the setting. 

  “I really feel that John Steinbeck was the great climate novelist avant la lettreThe Grapes of Wrath, the first chapter of it, is just such a magnificent riff on climate… if today you had to be Steinbeck writing about the same sort of phenomenon — and in a way I am writing about the same kind of phenomenon — you couldn’t do it using the Oklahoma dialect, as Steinbeck did. You would have to use Spanish.

  “So already, then, you see this deep fracture entering into our literary universe. How do you deal with this… what we might call an Anthropocene of language, which is not the stable, monolingual reality of the past?”