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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?”

Travel and place at the festivals

Forthcoming festivals with events featuring writing on travel and place include the following:

Appledore Book Festival (September 20-28) 
Raynor Winn returns to the festival to talk about how the 630-mile walk she and her husband made along the South West Coast Path, recounted in The Salt Path, has influenced their lives since; Mike Thomson, the BBC world affairs correspondent, tells the extraordinary story of Syria’s Secret Library, which flourished underground in the town of Darayya during the civil war; Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who made the first crossings of South America from east to west and north to south, talks about the 40 pioneers he has brought together in The Great Explorers; and Nicholas Crane, author most recently of You Are Here: A brief guide to the world, argues that the study of geography has never been more important than it is now.

Jersey Festival of Words (September 25-29)
Contributors include the round-the-world sailor Robin Knox-Johnston, whose autobiography is Running Free; Raynor Winn (see above); the photographer Martin Toft, who in Te Ahi Kā — The Fires of Occupation explores the relationships between an ancestral river and indigenous people in New Zealand;  Bram Wanrooij, a former Jersey resident and author of Displaced, on Europe and the global refugee crisis; and Professor Alex Rogers, who recently served as a scientific consultant on the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, and has written In The Deep: The Hidden Wonders of Our Ocean and How We Can Protect Them.

Marlborough Literature Festival (September 26-29)
Contributors include Adam Weymouth, whose Kings of the Yukon was recently long-listed in the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition; Monisha Rajesh, who went Around the World in 80 Trainsand Raynor Winn, whose The Salt Path has been chosen for the Big Town Read, in which book groups discuss the selected title before having a chance to question the author.

Ilkley Literature Festival (October 4-20)
Mike Thomson (see Appledore Book Festival) talks about Syria’s Secret Library; Laurence Rose, who likes to explore “the joints between nature, culture and conservation”, talks about The Long Spring, an account of a series of journeys he undertook in 2016 to track the arrival of spring from North Africa to Arctic Norway; Ben Aitken, who went to Poland to see what the Poles who came to the UK had left behind, introduces his debut, A Chip Shop in Poznan; Richard King talks about The Lark Ascending, in which he  explores connections between music and the British landscape; David Barrie, author of Incredible Journeys, tells how animals great and small find their way; and Lara Maiklem, who has been Mudlarking on the Thames for more than 15 years, explains what her finds reveal about London and its lost ways of life.

Bewdley Festival (October 11-20)
Speakers include  the television presenter Kate Humble, whose most recent book is Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of another; the travel writer Lois Pryce, talking about her Revolutionary Ride on a motorcyle across Iran; and the naturalist and broadcaster Brett Westwood, with a session billed “Into the woods”.

Marozzi talk on ‘Islamic Empires’

Justin Marozzi will be talking about his new book, Islamic Empires, at Daunt Books’ Marylebone branch in London next Wednesday, September 18.

Broad view of the Bering Strait

Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (WW Norton), which Robert Macfarlane recommended when I interviewed him earlier this year, was reviewed at the weekend in The New York Times by the novelist Julia Phillips (author of the bestselling Disappearing Earth):

The first people to enter the Americas came through Beringia, the stretch of land and sea between what is now Russia and Alaska. That may have been 20,000 years ago. By foot, by boat, they traveled, hunted and built communities. Some of them moved south. Within a few millenniums, people had settled everywhere from the Arctic Circle down to Patagonia. All the places on this continent we know — the cities, the villages, the spot where this newspaper is printed — follow this movement out of the Bering Strait. To study that place is to know a whole hemisphere’s history.

It’s also key for understanding the present. Movement in the Bering Strait continues. In “Floating Coast,” Bathsheba Demuth, an environmental historian at Brown University, tracks the last two centuries of motion between northeastern Russia and northwestern America.

  It is, Phillips says, sometimes a challenging book, but a rich, well-researched and rewarding one.

It keeps under readers’ feet the vastness of Demuth’s expertise, as solid as a land bridge. She has made it her life’s work to learn about Beringia. In relaying her knowledge, she provides a vision not only of where we on this continent came from but where we are headed. We study the Bering Strait to learn what the future holds.

The tale of Islam in 15 cities

In The Sunday Telegraph last weekend, the historian Noel Malcolm reviewed Islamic Empires by Justin Marozzi (Allen Lane), a “deeply engaging and fascinating” history of the Islamic world as a series of accounts of 15 cities, from Mecca to Doha. Malcolm says it’s an episodic, impressionistic work, and also, here and there, a personal one. “Marozzi is an Arabic-speaking journalist with decades of experience of the Islamic world; he is good at evoking the atmosphere of these places in the present or the recent past. In Egypt, he tells us, he has been ‘pursued down narrow alleys by incandescent taxi drivers’ and has travelled up the Nile ‘in prostitute-filled riverboats’. Oh well, I concluded, on balance that must be better than being chased down the alleys by incandescent prostitutes, and finding the riverboats full of taxi drivers.”

“Surfacing’ again

Kathleen Jamie’s new essay collection, Surfacing (Sort Of Books), which I have mentioned here a couple of times, was serialised in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph at the weekend; the extracts are now online.

‘Surfacing’ again

Kathleen Jamie (see earlier post) will be talking about her new book, Surfacing, on September 28 at the Hampstead branch of Daunt Books, in London.