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Of whales and owls and foreign parts

I’ve just been reading of a conversation between two sisters in Portugal who are having to distance from each other. One says: “At least we can Facebook.” To which the other responds: “You can’t hug on Facebook.”

  The exchange is not from 2020 but from 2013. The sisters are being parted not by the threat of Covid-19 but by the Great Recession that followed the financial crisis of 2007-8. That forced many Portuguese, unable to find work at home, to beg for jobs in former colonies such as Angola, Mozambique and Brazil.

  The story of the sisters, told by Emma Jane Kirby, appears in From Our Own Correspondent: A Decade of Dispatches From Across the World, which is due to be published on Thursday (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Polly Hope, a producer who has edited this compilation from the long-standing BBC radio programme, notes that the financial crisis has been one of four big stories that have featured regularly over the past 10 years, along with the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the war in Syria and the surge in migration to Europe during 2014 and 2015. In addition, she says, there were larger-scale narratives that will “surely affect far more lives in their time”. Among those are the rise as a superpower of China, climate change, and the formation of “new landscapes of the earth as human consumption [threatens] entire cultures, species and ecosystems”.

  Her purpose, though, is not to provide a digest of the biggest stories. Her book, like those radio dispatches from which it springs, is “more like a compilation of personal snapshots: of those telling moments and revealing details which throw an intimate light on how the world is changing”. And sometimes on how it isn’t.

  Kim Chakanetsa, reporting from Zimbabwe in 2018, six months after Robert Mugabe was edged out of power, is struck by how many fewer roadblocks there are on the way from the airport to Harare; roadblocks at which police used to fill their pockets with “fines” levied on drivers for having dirty vehicles and even torn car seats. “Now that is a change,” she says. Pumza Fihlani, who grew up in the Eastern Cape, reports (again in 2018) on the results of a drought in Cape Town, where residents have been asked to limit their shower time to two minutes. There are still townships here, she notes, “where a shower of any length at all would be considered a luxury… the race and class divides enforced by apartheid are still evident today.”

  Contributors to From Our Own Correspondent are encouraged, Hope says, to “zero in on the moments which made the deepest impression on them. That personal touch is what makes the finest dispatches… really sing.” Here’s a perfect example, from Nick Thorpe, reporting in 2015 from a refugee camp near Lendava, Slovenia: “My nose starts streaming in the cold. A small boy notices, and hands me his little packet of tissues. I take one, hesitantly, from his five; 20 per cent, perhaps, of his worldly possessions.”

  Other books touching on travel and place and due to be published shortly include the following:

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A Kendra Greene (Granta, July 2)
Iceland is home to only 330,000 people but to more than 265 museums and public collections, most of them established in the past 20 years. They range from the Phallological Museum, which houses the penises of Icelandic mammals, to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. Greene, an essayist, printer and maker of artist’s books (who lives in Dallas, Texas), travels the country to tell the stories behind the collections. The proof I was sent came with an endorsement from Malachy Tallack, author of Sixty Degrees North: “A delightful, lyrical tribute to those who gather, record and preserve. This is a book brought to life by its own subject matter: by curiosity, obsession and the desire to share with others our own sense of wonder.” 

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C Slaght (Allen Lane, July 2)
The publisher describes this as “a breathtaking portrait of Russia’s remote far eastern forest, and of the world’s most extraordinary owl”. That forest is in the province of Primorye, where Russia, China and North Korea meet in a tangle of mountains and barbed wire. The owl is the Blakiston’s fish owl, the world’s biggest, which Slaght, a wildlife researcher and conservationist based in Minneapolis, in the United States, first saw in 2000: “Backlit by the hazy grey of a winter sky, it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in a tree.” The story of his attempt to save the bird from extinction is, the publisher says,” a timely meditation on our relationship with the natural world and on what it means to devote one’s career to a single pursuit”. 

Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology by Frances Larson (Granta, July 2)
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. “Katherine Routledge commissioned her own boat and sailed to Easter Island… Maria Czaplicka risked her health to trek more than 3,000 miles through a frozen Siberian winter in search of nomadic reindeer-herders who had never before seen a European woman. Winifred Blackman spent 19 consecutive field seasons living with the agricultural peasants of Upper Egypt. Barbara Freire-Marreco went to work in the pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. And Beatrice Blackwood, ignoring all advice, travelled into the New Guinea interior to live with warriors who still made their weapons from wood and stone.”
  Sarah Moss, author of Ghost Wall, says Undreamed Shores is “a vivid and moving history… sensitively told and rigorously researched”.

Wainwright Prize long lists

Long lists were announced today — World Environment Day — for the Wainwright Prize, for UK-based books on nature, and for a new Wainwright Prize for writing on global conservation.

Literary flights from lockdown

The lockdown is being eased, whether wisely or not, so the page of literary escapes I’ve been compiling recently for Telegraph Travel has come to an end. The last one, which appeared in print on Saturday, included an extract from Nicolas Bouvier’s classic The Way of the World (Eland), plus journeys in the sky from writers as various as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Rebecca Loncraine.

On the ‘Kings of the Yukon’

In this week’s free lecture from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, Adam Weymouth talks about the 2,000-mile canoe journey he made to write his acclaimed debut, Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey (now in Penguin paperback).

Sybille Bedford: a great life

Sybille Bedford (1911-2006), who was a travel writer as well as a novelist, a biographer and a journalist who wrote about criminals and miscarriages of justice, was celebrated yesterday in the Great Lives slot on Radio 4 (due to be broadcast again on Friday at 11pm).

  Bedford was nominated by the travel writer Sara Wheeler, who described her as “a dazzling writer and a free spirit [who] had a damn good time while she was about it”. Wheeler was in her twenties when she first encountered Bedford’s writing, in an account of her travels in Mexico, A Visit to Don Otavio. You can read an extract from that book on Telegraph Travel; it was part of a page I compiled recently that was designed to offer some literary release from the lockdown.

Competition winners

Happy reading to my four competition winners, who will each be receiving a copy of James Attlee’s Isolarion. They are: Neal Brown, J Cavanagh, John Wyatt-Clarke and Rob Jones. Thanks again to the publisher, And Other Stories, for putting up the prize. And thanks, too, to James Attlee, who has reminded us (usefully, in these times) that you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to write an original book about a journey.

  And Other Stories, which is based in Sheffield, is a not-for-profit private company that aims to publish “innovative contemporary writing from around the world”. It does sell its books through shops, but it’s the support of subscribers that makes the books happen. It now has about 1,400 in more than 40 countries, receiving up to six books a year. During the Covid-19 crisis, it is doing what it can to support bookshops: 20 per cent of the price of each new subscription will be donated to the bookshop of your choice. For details, see the company’s website.

Headphones on, and off to the Amazon

Fancy lighting out for the Amazon? You won’t need to go near an airport, never mind wear a mask. All you’ll need is a connection to YouTube and a pair of headphones. Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter, which I saw at the Barbican in London in 2016, is online until May 22. I worried it would be a huge disappointment after the stage version, but I dipped in for 45 minutes and it’s astoundingly good even on a desktop in daytime. I’d forgotten how funny the preamble was, and there’s a haircut joke that now seems made for our locked-down times. I’m going to watch the whole thing again on a big screen, in a darkened room, this evening.

On the night train

In a fond and funny piece in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane, who took to the rails just before the global lockdown, celebrates the enduring romance of the sleeper:

Although it is unlikely, as you clatter through the night, that anything of note will befall you, the prospect that it could feels ever present, just out of sight beyond the next curve of the track. To remain awake to that possibility, even as we’re meant to be sleeping, is the privilege that beckons some of us back, year after year, to this awkward and beguiling locomotion.

Israel and Palestine, as seen from the saddle

I compiled another page at the weekend for Telegraph Travel designed to offer some literary release from lockdown. The lead was an extract from Julian Sayarer’s new book about cycling through Israel and Palestine, Fifty Miles Wide (Arcadia Books). Sayarer conveys powerfully what life is like for people on both sides of what he calls “the world’s most entrenched impasse”. At the same time, his book is full of free spirits, and the joys of free-wheeling.

Win a copy of James Attlee’s ‘Isolarion’

When I key in the title of the latest book from James Attlee, the spell-checker built into my software corrects it. The spell-checker wants to make it Isolation. The proper title is Isolarion. It’s the term for a 15th-century map that isolates an area to present it in detail — and in that detail finds a greater truth.

  Both the spell-checker and the book — which has just been reissued in a new edition by the innovative publisher And Other Stories — seem in tune with our strange times. At the moment, none us can roam as readily or as far as we used to. Some of us can’t leave home at all. Many of us are attending more closely to what’s immediately around us, and seeing it afresh — just as Attlee, like an urban Gilbert White, does in Isolarion.

  White, a country boy who went to Oxford, became the founding father of nature writing partly by adjusting to his environment. He had become a priest and was tied to a Hampshire parish; he was missing his peers, but because coach travel made him sick he couldn’t stray far. Those constraints and tensions contributed to The Natural History of Selborne (1789). As Richard Mabey, that modern-day green man, has observed*, “While Joseph Banks was exploring on the other side of the globe, [White] was out with a lantern, counting earthworms on his back lawn. White’s achievements were partly the result of using these constraints as creative opportunities. Emotionally and intellectually, he hunkered down in Selborne, and joined the world outside through writing.”

  Attlee does the same with Isolarion. When he wrote it he was itching to travel, but couldn’t find the time. There were “mouths to feed, bills to pay, deadlines to meet”. Then it dawned on him that the voyage he needed to make began a few minutes’ walk from his own front door in Oxford. Out there was the Cowley Road, lined with businesses that seemed to represent every nation on earth: from a Jamaican restaurant, via a Ghanaian fishmonger to a Russian supermarket. As he puts it in his introduction, which you can read now on Deskbound Traveller, “Why make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?”

  Attlee’s journey is allegorical as well as physical. His progress on the ground was interrupted by the demands of daily life, and his pages are full of the best kind of digressions — as Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, noted: “Anyone who can drag Lucretius, Susanna, Bathsheba and St Jerome into a Cowley Road porn shop deserves our attention and admiration.”

  The new edition has an afterword by Geoff Dyer, who was equally impressed. He writes: “The fact that it’s a book about Oxford is off-putting (I mean, who gives a toss about Oxford?) and alluring in equal measure. If he could write about this city and make it compelling, wouldn’t that be a greater tribute to his authorial prowess than if he’d written about Mogadishu? The subtitle promises ‘a different Oxford journey’, one confining itself to the Cowley Road… The attraction, for Attlee, is that the Cowley Road ‘is both unique and nothing special’; the resulting book is unique and very special.”

  Thanks to Attlee and his publisher, I have four copies of Isolarion to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just retweet my mention of the competition on Twitter from either @kerraway or @deskboundtravel, or like and share my post about it on

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet a mention of the competition on Twitter from @deskboundtravel or @kerraway, or like and share the post about it on the Deskbound Traveller Facebook page, by midnight on May 18. Each winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom or Ireland, will receive one copy of the book. Winners will be selected at random and notified by May 22. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more books from And Other Stories, see the company’s website.

*Mabey’s essay on White is included in a collection of his pieces reflecting on a life in writing: Turning the Boat for Home (Chatto & Windus).