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Travelling with William Trevor

William Trevor, who died this week, once said: “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so; I am a storyteller.” He was a masterful one, not just in the short form but in the novel and in his work for radio and television. He was a great scene-setter, too, as I was reminded by dipping into a collection of his essays, Excursions in the Real World. This is his opening paragraph, in a piece from 1970, on one of the world’s great train rides:

‘You are really lonely,’ the anaesthetist remarks on the Orient Express, ‘when you find yourself reading your toothpaste tube.’ He pauses and then elaborates, adding that in Ethiopia a bout of homesickness had once been comforted by the address on a carton of Sterilized Plain Lint Finger Dressings. Boots, Nottingham, England, had had a lovely ring about it.

In another piece, from 1992, in the same collection, he writes of the preparations in Venice for winter:

The air is mellow now, and already the passerelle are in place — metal trestles that suppport planks to walk on — a few feet above the level of the anticipated floods. Workmen hurry over the refurbishing of boats in the Stazioni Maritime; the first creosote has been applied to the rafts of the Zattere. Grey spreads into the sky; yesterday’s evening warmth does not arrive. Long before dusk the first of the season’s fogs is hardly more than a mist on the Giudecca. Wisps of it creep eerily through the Arsenal. Gum boots are pushed to the fore in less fashionable shoe-shops.

In 1997 I invited him to contribute to a series I was commissioning for the travel pages of The Sunday Telegraph, “In A Perfect World”, in which I asked writers to  imagine they were in possession of a flying carpet and to say where it would take them between sunrise and sunset. Trevor’s day, which dawned in County Cork and finished on a night train in the Swiss Alps, took in lunch in Paris, afternoon in Sansepolcro and evening in Venice. His morning was spent in the Nire Valley in Co Tipperary, between the Monavullagh Mountains and the Comeraghs:

Like a favourite novel or painting or piece of music, the Nire is my favourite place. In winter if it has been raining for a few weeks you sink into the bog a bit, but only here and there. On a fine day or even in a summer drizzle, there is nowhere I know that matches this bleak beauty. You climb gently, taking your time, sheep staring at you, larks in the heathery undergrowth. Your landmarks are Seefin, Coumfea, Milk Hill, Knockaunapeebra, Crotty’s Rock. You pause to look back at where you’ve come from: the red barn roof is a dot, you can’t see the scarecrows any more. When you reach the first of the corrie lakes you pause also, then clamber on to the next one. Their water is dark, cold as ice, not a ripple on it. At one lake or another, intimidating rockfaces surround you. Ireland is spread below you.

Travel stories in the FPA awards

The Media Awards of the Foreign Press Association in London will be made on November 29. On the short list for travel/tourism story of the year are: Andrew Miller for “Down in the valley, up on the ridge”, in The Economist, where his piece from the Appalachians was introduced as “a timely parable of the nuanced history of race in America”; Jack Shenker for “Welcome to the land that no country wants”, a cautionary story about territory, borders and sovereignty, in The Guardian; and Duncan Staff, producer/director of “The truth about cheap flights”, an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme in which the reporter Harry Wallop went under cover to reveal tactics employed by the company Flight Centre.

Can Russia unlock its Arctic assets?

With global warming melting Arctic ice, Russia sees an opportunity: to resurrect the “Northern Sea Route” (Northeast Passage) between Europe and Asia and revive rundown settlements built in the days of the Soviet Union. But the challenges and costs are enormous. Kathrin Hille and the photographer Davide Monteleone travelled north for the Financial Times.

15 minutes — x 5 — on the Thames

As the name suggests, 5×15 arranges evenings in which five speakers are each given 15 minutes. Its offering next week at Trinity Buoy Wharf, in London, is devoted to the Thames. On the bill will be the Korean-American artist Ik-Joong Kang, on “Floating Dreams”; London’s best-known psychogeographer, Iain Sinclair, on “River of No Return”; the sculptor Richard Wilson, creator of Slipstream at Heathrow’s Terminal 2, on harnessing the creativity of the river; the playwright (and founder of The Midnight Run) Inua Ellams, on “water stories”; Orlando Seale, front man of The Swell (which Serena Davies of The Daily Telegraph says is “Like Arcade Fire with better lyrics”); and Rachel Lichtenstein, author of Estuary: Out from London to the Sea (see previous post), talking about the people of the Thames. Looks like a great bill.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

Flânerie and the LRB

Lauren Elkin, whose book Flâneuse I mentioned recently, was  interviewed at the London Review Bookshop about flânerie and her own walking life by Brian Dillon, the writer and critic (and author of The Great Explosion, which was shortlisted for this year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize). You can listen to their conversation on an LRB podcast.

London’s heart of darkness

In the 1980s, working as a freelance sub-editor in Fleet Street, I did shifts everywhere from the sports desk at The Sun to the business desk at The Guardian. For a while, I worked a couple of nights a week from midnight till six in the morning on the weekend pages of The Daily Express. One morning there, just before we finished, the night production editor asked me where  I was heading afterwards. “Victoria,” I said. “Me too,” he answered. “I’ll give you a lift.”

I meant the railway station; he meant The Victoria — the all-night pub opposite Smithfield Market, a hostelry out of Hogarth. The pub, in common with several others in the area, had a sign saying that “anyone lawfully engaged on business in the market may drink here from the hours of 5 to 8 o’clock in the morning”. Market porters in blood-spattered overalls and bus conductors with bleary eyes sat down with a pint of beer in one hand and a heart attack on a plate — a fried full English breakfast — in the other. We sat among them for a few pints, and then I walked down Farringdon Road towards the tube station, homeward-bound, breathing beer, at a time when normal, sober folk were hurrying to work.

The Victoria’s gone, flattened as part of the Crossrail development, but I was reminded of it by a special “Night issue” of the review section in The Observer yesterday, commissioned to mark the start this week of a 24-hour tube service in London. Among articles in it was one from Matthew Beaumont, author of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. The oil lamps of the 17th century may have given way to floodlit streets, he writes, but “Our cities, like ourselves, can seem alien and unfamiliar at night. And if you listen to them attentively, as though through an echo sounder, you can hear the encompassing darkness transmit from its depths the noises and pulses of the capital’s pre-modern past.”

Competition winner

Congratulations to Jolene Nell, of Quorn, Leicestershire, winner of the Deskbound Traveller competition for all six of the books short-listed for last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize. And thanks to the Royal Society of Literature for putting up the books. The winner of this year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize will be announced next Monday evening.

Dispatches from St Helena

Saturday (May 21) is St Helena Day, which marks the date in 1502 when the South Atlantic island was discovered. Since then it has been reachable only by sea, and has depended in recent years on the RMS St Helena, which takes five days to sail between Cape Town and the island. This year, May 21 was also due to be the day Prince Edward would open a new airport there — to bring, it’s hoped, tourists and economic security — but that has been postponed indefinitely over safety concerns.

Radio 4, though, is going ahead on Friday and Saturday with St Helena: Joining the Rest of Us, in which Joe Hollins, who has been a vet there for the past six months, reports on the daily round and on islanders’ views of how things might change once the airport opens.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor heads to the Hebrides.