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New memoir from Brian Jackman

I was in touch recently with the writer Brian Jackman, who, I discovered about 10 years ago, was a boy during the Second World War just down the road from where I’m living now, before being evacuated to a farm in Cornwall during the Blitz. He has long been writing for the Telegraph travel pages as a freelance (and before that was a Fleet Street messenger boy and then on the staff of The Sunday Times). Many years before he set eyes on the Maasai Mara, which he has described vividly in his books with the film-maker Jonathan Scott, The Big Cat Diary and The Marsh Lions, Brian had imagined it in the London suburb of Stoneleigh. In Nonsuch Park — named for a peerless but long-gone Tudor palace — he and his mates turned hawthorn hedges into African savannah, “made Robin Hood bows from young ash staves and built Apache dens among the cow parsley”. He remembers, too, seeing a Hurricane shoot down a Messerschmitt over his own street.

About a month ago I was scribbling about Nonsuch, and sent the copy to Brian to check something. I got an email back saying that he had just received proofs of his new memoir — West with the Light: My Life in Nature — in which Stoneleigh and Nonsuch figure large in the early pages. Later on, he’s in the real savannah: over the past 40 years or so, in his wanderings across sub-Saharan Africa, he reckons he has spent the best part of four years under canvas. As well as observing the beasts of the bush, he’s met characters including George and Joy Adamson and Richard Leakey.

The book is due to be published by Bradt in August. It’s not one I’ll be able to review as I know Brian too well, but I wanted to mention it here.

I first registered the byline “Brian Jackman” in the early 1980s, in typescript on the sub-editors’ desk of The Sunday Times, on the fifth floor of 200 Gray’s Inn Road, where I worked initially as a casual. On Saturday my colleagues and I subbed stories appearing in the early pages of the paper, which tended to be “hard” news in several senses of the word (though not necessarily as hard as in the front page from an old New York Post stuck to a partition that screened off the picture desk: “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR”). On Fridays we worked mainly on foreign-desk stories and on softer pieces from other parts of the paper. Occasionally there would be something from Brian, either for the travel section, which sent him everywhere from the Falkland Islands to Everest Base Camp, or for the later pages of the news section, where he was among writers given space for the way they told a story as much as for the story itself. Dropping the copy on my desk, the then chief sub, John Wardroper, a lean and learned Canadian, would say: “Here’s a little treat for you: another lovely piece from Brian Jackman. Just tick it up.” In other words, breathe on it, but don’t edit it.

You can read more of Brian Jackman’s work, extracted from earlier books on Africa and Britain, here on Deskbound Traveller.

On this day…

There never was such delicious weather… and there is an English cuckoo talking English — at least, he is trying, but he evidently left England as a cadet, with his education incomplete, for he cannot get further than cuck — and there is a blackbird singing. We pass our lives in gardening. We ride down into the valleys, and make the Syces [servants] dig up wild tulips and lilies, and they are grown so eager about it, that they dash up the hill the instant they see a promising-looking plant, and dig it up with the best possible effect, except that they invariably cut off the bulb. It certainly is very pleasant to be in a pretty place, with a nice climate. Not that I would not set off this instant and go dâk* all over the hot plains, and through the hot wind, if I were told I might sail home the instant I arrived at Calcutta; but as nobody makes me that offer, I can wait here better than anywhere else — like meat, we keep better here.

Emily Eden, Journal, 1838

*A Hindi name for a transport system at the time carrying mail and passengers.

Emily Eden (1797-1869), an English novelist who travelled to India with her brother, the 1st Earl of Auckland, when he was governor-general there, wrote a series of letters to her sister, later published in two volumes as Up the Country: Letters Written to her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India (Richard Bentley, 1866).

Short list for Ondaatje Prize

The short list was announced yesterday for the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, an annual award of £10,000 for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry “evoking the spirit of a place”.

The six books are:

The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan (Atlantic Books)
This Lovely City by Louise Hare (HQ)
Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Nine Arches Press)
English Pastoral by James Rebanks (Allen Lane)
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (Faber & Faber).

This year’s judges are Lola, Baroness Young of Hornsey (Chair), Helen Mort and Adam Rutherford. The winner will be announced on May 11.

Paul Theroux on fiction, travel and the post-pandemic future

Paul Theroux turned 80 this month, but he’s still behaving like a writer keen to make a name for himself. Last Train to Zona Verde, which he published in 2013, may have been, as the subtitle has it, his “ultimate African safari”, but it wasn’t his last travel book. Since then, he has driven through the southern US for Deep South and through Mexico for On the Plain of Snakes; in between, he delivered an essay collection, Figures in a Landscape, on people and places.  

  His latest book, Under the Wave at Waimea, is his 56th. It’s a work of fiction about a man who has done some travelling himself, but who never reads: Joe Sharkey, a big-wave surfer on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, who is struggling to come to terms with the dimming of fame and the advance of age. 

  Driving back drunk one night to his home on the north shore, Joe kills a homeless man on a bicycle near Waimea, and his own life takes a turn for the worse. Then his new girlfriend, Olive, an English nurse, intervenes. She makes Joe confront what he’s done and help her establish the dead man’s identity. In the process, Joe pulls himself together and gets back on his board.

  Under the Wave at Waimea is about the joys of surfing (“a rush, a feeling, a dance”), about living a lie, and about the unseen life of Hawaii. This week I talked to its author about fiction, travel and the post-pandemic future. An edited version of the interview is now up on the Telegraph website (where you’ll have to register to read it) and will be in print in the travel section of The Daily Telegraph tomorrow.

‘Greenery’ competition winners

Happy reading to my five competition winners, who will each be receiving shortly a copy of the paperback of Tim Dee’s Greenery. The five  are: Steve Birt, Ros Croe, Nathan Munday, Lesley Rawlinson and EE Rhodes. Thanks again to the publisher, Vintage, for putting up the prize. And thanks, of course, to Tim Dee, for the book, a genre-hopping, border-crossing hymn to spring.

‘Greenery’ out this week in paperback

Tim Dee’s Greenerywhich was my book of 2020, is out this week in paperback from Vintage, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

New books on travel, place and nature

Working on a lockdown project of my own has left me less time to update this site, but here are some notes on new and forthcoming books that I’ve been intending to mention:

The Wild Isles: An Anthology of the Best of British & Irish Nature Writing
edited by Patrick Barkham (Head of Zeus, £25)

For Patrick Barkham, nature writing is “any writing that considers other species or non-human places and our relationship with them”. In this 600-page introductory tour, he arranges his choices under themes — from birds, woods and coastlines to childhood, the seasons and urban nature — and juxtaposes extracts from classics with passages by contemporary writers. In a genre that historically has been “overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class”, he has been at pains to offer a rough balance between men and women (35:31) and to include the perspectives of writers from under-represented backgrounds. All the pieces, he says, from Gilbert White’s observations on swifts to Shamshad Khan’s account of exploring the Yorkshire Dales with her family, “help us see the world in a different way. We emerge from their pages bequeathed with altered vision.”

Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology
by  Frances Larson (Granta, £20)

Frances Larson describes herself as an anthropologist “who travels to places long ago rather than to places far away”. Her last book was Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. In Undreamed Shores, she tells of the lives and deaths of Britain’s first female anthropologists, who did go to places far away. All of them trained at Oxford, in the opening decades of the 20th century, and led ground-breaking research in their fields. There’s an extract on the Granta site about one of them, Maria Czaplicka; she trekked more than 3,000 miles through Siberia in winter in search of nomadic reindeer-herders who had never before seen a European woman.

Dickens on Railways: A Great Novelist’s Travels by Train
edited by Tony Williams (Safe Haven, £14.99)

By the time Charles Dickens turned 18, in 1830, the first stretch of track had been laid between Manchester and Liverpool, and the railway age had begun. By 1870 the network was well established, and had made a greater and more immediate impact than any other mechanical or industrial innovation before it. Dickens spent his adult life living through those times and recording them. He also made the most of the railways to reach his audience, with reading tours in the 1850s and 1860s in both Britain and the United States.
The compilation, including fiction and non-fiction, is edited by Tony Williams, associate editor of The Dickensian and former president of the International Dickens Fellowship. “Through Dickens’s words,” he says, “you can share in the at times dislocating experience of a new kind of travel, and like him marvel at its potential, lament its destructive capacity, but always be fascinated by it.”

Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe
edited and introduced by Duncan Minshull (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99, March 9)

Duncan Minshull refers in his introduction to “pedestrian writers”, so can I safely call his book a pedestrian anthology? It’s his fourth such compilation, following Beneath My Feet — which was a bestseller — While Wandering and The Burning Leg. Among the 60 contributors are Grand Tourers and itinerant ex-soldiers, lost explorers and expat authors. We join Henriette D’Angeville, the second woman to climb Mont Blanc, Werner Herzog on a personal pilgrimage through Germany, Rebecca Solnit reimagining change on the streets of Prague and Robert Macfarlane dropping deep beneath the streets of Paris. In Sauntering, Minshull says, he offers us “a theatre of walking types… with Europe acting as the mis-en-scène”.

by Michelle Jana Chan (Unbound, £9.99, March 18)

I was lucky enough to commission Michelle Jana Chan when I was a travel editor, and I’m listed as one of the supporters who helped back her debut in fiction with the publisher Unbound, so it’s not a book I could review. I can say here, though, that Song, the story of a boy who journeys from the rice fields of China to the rainforest of Guiana in the hope of finding his fortune, is powerfully evocative of both time (the 1850s) and place (a place where the author’s father was born in the 1940s and which she revisited with him for a travel piece in 2004). The paperback, due out next week, has endorsements from Bernardine Evaristo and Elif Shafak, who says that “Song will touch you with its remarkable odyssey and make you believe in dreams again”.

The Passenger: India (Europa Editions, £18.99, March 18)

I mentioned The Passenger last year, when the first two volumes, on Japan and Greece, came out. It’s a place-based magazine the size of a large-format paperback (nine inches by six). Writers featured in volume five, on India, include Arundhati Roy, on the caste system, Prem Shankar Jha, on Hindu nationalism, and Tishani Doshi, on women’s rights. Pictures are from Gaia Squarci, who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches at the International Centre of Photography. The next volumes will be city-focused, on Berlin and Paris.

Gone: A Search for What Remains of the World’s Extinct Creatures
by Michael Blencowe (Leaping Hare Press, £18.99, April 6)

When other little boys were sticking the faces of footballers into albums, Michael Blencowe was reading books about extinction. The stories of each animal’s life and death, of epic voyages of discovery, led him far, far away from his “suburban cul-de-sac”. After a visit to a cabinet of extinct species in the Booth Museum of Natural History, in Brighton, he finds his childhood passion reignited. He travels to the forests of New Zealand and on the ferries of Finland, from San Francisco to the Widewater lagoon in West Sussex, intent on telling the stories of animals as disparate as the great auk and Ivell’s sea anemone. Artworks from Jade They resurrecting these creatures accompany his narrative. It’s a book, his publishers say, that “inspires the hope and respect for the natural world that is needed for it to survive”.

A life-affirming book about ‘dead zones’

A review I wrote of Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn (William Collins) appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph yesterday and is also online. It’s a life-affirming book about “dead zones”, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Away from it all

The editor of The New York Times Book Review, guessing that people might be keen to read about somewhere other than America for just a moment, offered them two possible options at the weekend. In her email to regular readers, Pamela Paul mentioned that the cover featured two very different books:

The first, “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” by Andrea Pitzer, offers a historical Arctic adventure about the Dutch explorer William Barents (namesake of the Barents Sea). The second, “Himalaya: A Human History,” by Ed Douglas, is a social, cultural and geological portrait of the mountain range separating the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia, shaping the populations, economies, politics and landscape of the region.

Tributes to Barry Lopez, who explored ‘the kinship of nature and human culture’

Writers and readers have been paying tribute to Barry Lopez, who died on Christmas Day, at 75, of prostate cancer. He was a writer, as Robert D McFadden put it neatly in an obituary for The New York Times, whose work explored “the kinship of nature and human culture”.

Among those leading tributes on Twitter yesterday evening was Robert Macfarlane, who said it was Lopez (“my north star”) who had made him a writer: “Barry gave us stories to help us stay alive. Stories of love, care, generosity & land, of the grace-notes of the canyon wren, of petroglyphs carrying wisdom across deep human time. And stories of warning & horror, too — of exploitation and wreckage…”

John Freeman, executive editor of Literary Hub and editor of the literary magazine Freeman’s (and former editor of Granta), said: “Barry Lopez was so endlessly generous, the world today feels at once empty & never fuller. Now that he’s pure spirit again we can see just how many he touched, woke up. He was gentle, curious, kind, funny in a fable-y round the fire way, distressed and hopeful.”

Kate Harris, whose debut, Lands of Lost Borders, Lopez had championed, said of him: “Godspeed, Barry Lopez, you beautiful, generous, visionary human being and writer.”

I’ve already recommended here a video of a conversation between Macfarlane and Lopez. John Freeman has linked from Twitter to one he had with Lopez, in May last year (see below).

Lopez’s Horizon was one of my books of the year in 2019; you can read my review here on Deskbound Traveller.