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Travel at the Edinburgh Book Festival

The poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie — joint winner in 2013 of the Dolman prize for travel writing with Sightlines — will offer a preview at next month’s Edinburgh International Book Festival of her new essay collection, Surfacing, due to be published by Sort Of Books in September. It’s a book in which Jamie “visits archaeological sites – a Yup’ik village at the edge of the Bering Sea, the shifting sand dunes of Westray – and mines her own memories and family history to explore what surfaces and what connects us to our past and future”.

  Also on the bill at Edinburgh will be:
Robert Macfarlane (joint winner of the Dolman prize in 2013 with The Old Ways), talking about his new book, Underland;
the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to walk to both poles and climb Everest, discussing his latest book, Walking;
the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, editor of the travel anthology Wild Women;
Julia Blackburn and Simon Winder, authors respectively of Time Song, which is about Doggerland, a region that once joined the east coast of England to Holland, and Lotharingia, which tells of a long-lost area between modern-day France and Germany;
Caroline Eden, author of the prize-winning culinary tour Black Sea;
and the poet André Naffis-Sahely, editor of The Heart of a Stranger, an anthology of poetry, fiction and non-fiction about exile (Pushkin Press, August 29), featuring more than a hundred contributors from six continents.

Harris among Kobo prize winners

I’m delighted to hear that Kate Harris has won yet another prize for her debut, Lands of Lost Borders, which was one of my travel books of the year for 2018. This week, she was among three women named winners of the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, run by the company that makes the Kobo e-reader.

Lines on the landscape with Dan Richards

Dan Richards’s latest book, Outpost (Canongate), is a sprightly tour of places on the edge — among them the bothy, the writer’s retreat, the fire lookout tour and the lighthouse — and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. The author was invited by the excellent Five Books site to name his favourite works of landscape writing. His quirky selection, offered in an interview shortly before Alice Oswald was elected Oxford professor of poetry, includes her Dart, which she herself has described as “a river map of voices, like an aboriginal song line”.

A voice for the silenced in Burma

Burma is a country where minority groups have long been silenced, but David Eimer gives them a voice in his new book, A Savage Dreamland (Bloomsbury). I wrote a review of it for The Daily Telegraph that appeared at the weekend but isn’t (so far, anyway) online. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Rosita Boland on bravery and fear

In The Guardian recently, Rosita Boland, senior features writer at The Irish Times, wrote about solo travel: “Why is it that a woman travelling alone, as I have often done for months at a time, is perceived to be ‘brave’, whereas men who travel alone are entirely unremarkable? Besides, in my case at least, it’s not true. You are only brave or courageous when you are afraid of something but still do it anyway. I have never been afraid of travelling alone. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things along the way that cause me deep fear, such as overloaded buses with bald tyres on mountain roads with sheer drops, but being by myself out in the world has never scared me.”

  In Elsewhere (Doubleday Ireland), she reflects on journeys from nine different moments in her life, including a particularly hairy one on the grandly (and misleadingly) named Indus Highway in Pakistan:

Before this journey, my fears of travelling on a local bus in Asia had been of ending up under a rockfall, or of the over-loaded bus toppling over, or of our bus crashing in the dark because the headlights weren’t on and some truck had run into us. On this particular bus journey, I realized I had wasted so much energy in the past worrying about the bad things that might happen. They were just possibilities. Whereas this – this ghastly, unprotected vertical drop to the Indus far below – was a reality, just mere inches from the edges of tyres I knew would be bald.

  Amanda Bell has reviewed Elsewhere for the Dublin Review of Books.

‘Neon — the light of pure promise’

In The Spectator this week, Geoff Dyer writes about a new book of photographs by Fred Sigman, Motel Vegas (Smallworks Press):

In the 1960s especially the motel became an architectural extension of something that appears almost inconceivable except in retrospect: Las Vegas glamour. Vegas was a wonderland, and the faithful who flocked to it needed accommodation. Motel signs were a way of meeting the humdrum necessity of providing shelter without breaking the spell of the magically boozy kingdom of the Rat Pack. The essential element in this was neon: the light of pure promise (‘VACANCY’) that, if all else failed, could be filled or underwritten by naked guarantee (‘STRIPPERS’).

Rory Stewart on avoiding repetition

Is Rory Stewart a leader? He’s certainly a writer, as of course is Boris Johnson, who is reckoned at this moment to be some way ahead of him in the contest to be the next prime minister of a disunited kingdom. Either might be worth reading (once he’s been turfed out) on the experience of being inside Number 10. And Stewart — judging by a piece he wrote after winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for 2005 for his book on Afghanistan — would strive to see the place with fresh eyes:

Landscapes, like sunsets, evoke our most uniform responses: writers on places repeat each other endlessly. This is, of course, particularly true of the areas in which I have worked in Central Asia – where we are always tempted to find in a diesel-choked multi-lane highway the last traces of the Silk Road or the footsteps of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. We often do this as though we were exploring relevant recent history: a writer and friend of mine described a Pakistani in Taxila as ‘exactly the kind of man who met Alexander the Great’. (I wonder if he would feel as comfortable saying a living British butcher was ‘exactly the kind of man who met Julius Caesar’.) But we face the same problem even when we try to engage not with the historical but with [the] incongruous and the contemporary.

When I was first in Herat, for example, I remember being struck by the traffic policemen at the cross-roads – their comic-opera uniforms, the absence of traffic, their truncheons and whistles. I thought I would write about this trace of the Western city as a way of getting away from ancient oriental history. But something troubled me about the image. A little later I read Peter Levi’s The Light Garden of the Angel King (1970) and found him writing: ‘Herat…a small lonely policeman in the centre of a vast deserted square, directing two donkeys and a bicycle with a majesty more appropriate for the Champs Elysées.’

Then I went back to Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1952) and found: ‘Herat…the police directing a thin trickle of automobiles with whistles and ill-tempered gestures like referees.’

Then I read Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, written in 1933: ‘Herat…the policeman at the crossroads with a whistling fit to scare the Chicago underworld.’

These identical responses were, I found, quite different from those of the Afghans with whom I was living or travelling.

Lines on the landscape with Macfarlane and Lopez

Thanks to the Twitter feed of the writer Julian Hoffman, I was directed yesterday to a recording of a conversation last Thursday between Robert Macfarlane and Barry Lopez at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Macfarlane — who is currently promoting his new book, Underland, in the United States — has said that it was reading Lopez’s Arctic Dreams at the age of 21 that turned him into a writer. Lopez has been similarly complimentary about Macfarlane’s work. The pair have long been writing to each other, but this was their first meeting. There’s an element of the mutual admiration society, but this is still a conversation worth hearing, in which two masters of writing on place talk about their craft and the ends to which they have turned it in this overheated age of the Anthropocene.

  On June 27, incidentally, Julian Hoffman is due to publish Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places (Hamish Hamilton), for which he set out “to explore loss in a way that wasn’t simply elegiac but defiant”.

Timeless travel

When I was working as a travel editor for a national newspaper and a writer approached me with an idea for a piece, I would expect him or her to have a peg on which to hang it. On Deskbound Traveller, I can admit the timeless as well as the topical. The latter approach has long been one of the guiding principles of Slightly Foxed, the London-based literary magazine “for people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing”. On its latest podcast, dedicated to travel writing, the guests are the writer Sara Wheeler and the publisher (and writer) Barnaby Rogerson, of Eland Books, who have plenty of recommendations drawn from travel’s back catalogue.

  There’s brief mention, too, of Wheeler’s latest book, due out next month. For Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), she travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age — from Pushkin to Tolstoy — as her guides.

‘Far corners and deepest depths’

The latest podcast of The New York Times Book Review takes listeners into “far corners and deepest depths”, featuring Robert Macfarlane, talking about his latest book, Underland (which you can read more about on Deskbound Traveller), and Julia Phillips, whose debut novel, Disappearing Earth, is set on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia. The Book Review also has a review of Underland by Terry Tempest Williams.