Crossing Borders: Barnaby Rogerson selects eight books published over the last year to inspire the traveller
published by Country Life, December 14 2016
I’m a publisher first, a writer second and a journalist third. These jobs are united by a passion for travel books but I find it always pays to consult the real experts—my local bookshops. It was at Daunts in London that I discovered two travel essays that would make perfect Christmas presents. Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary (Granta, £9.99) immerses us into pre-package-tour Europe as we follow two fresh-faced cousins who travel by train down the continent for the holiday of a lifetime in 1947. They take cheap lodgings, fuss over hats, fall in love with Fra Angelico, flirt with a dashing Roman and try to avoid the company of an earnest Englishman abroad. Even as a youth, essentially writing a thank you diary to her mother, Miss Athill’s writing is elegant, teasing and assured. Venice: An Interior (Penguin £5) is also slim and beautifully evocative but in a completely different tone. The Spanish novelist Javier Marias looks back over decades of enchantment to the most tourist-ridden city of all and introduces us to the dwindling population of native Venetians.
Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration (Aurum, £16.99) took a few pages to get going, but rapidly snowballed in interest. It’s a passionate, foot on the ground exploration of long distance trails, informed by cutting edge science and a crystal clear honesty of experience. Mr Moor argues that the great explorers of the American West used the dense network of Indian tracks that themselves were adapted from ones created by deer and buffalo. Comprising a series of week-long walking interviews with half a dozen hand-picked individualists—fossil scientists, Cherokee historians, deer hunters and nomad-treckers—his book shares the same intellectual hinterland as Robert Macfarlane’s Wild Places and Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, but has an American texture and Appalachian landscape of its own.
The Hotel Years (Granta, £9.99) is a scrapbook of jobbing journalism published in the Frankfurter Zeitung by Joseph Roth. He labelled these writings ‘rainbow-coloured soap bubbles’ but they are now of ineffable worth. They offer us beautifully drawn portraits of the lost world of Mitel-Europa, complete with long train journeys, animated boulevard cafés, grand hotels and a seemingly stylish life lived out of two suitcases in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Roth’s cherished heartland was the already lost grandeur of the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His stories are bathed with alarming foreknowledge of the new emerging forms of power, yet have no political axe to grind. They are elegiac, dazzling and prescient.
In his idiosyncratic Footprints in Spain: British lives in a Foreign Land (Quartet £20), Simon Courtauld examines Spain through the footprints of British soldiers, adventurers, journalists and traders over 500 years. The pantheon of British travel writers—Laurie Lee, Gerald Brenan, George Borrow, Richard Ford—get its salute, but this is not the quarry we are after. In an old mining town outside Huelva, the forgotten capital of Valladolid and the backwater of Teruel, we catch the trail of forgotten but bloody episodes of history. A lifetime of observation has been packed into this book, which sparkles with historical anecdotes.
Elephant Complex: travels in Sri Lanka (Quercus, £25) reveals John Gimlette’s taste for the animated confusion of the tropics. The author manages the difficult double act of balancing his delight for the absurd with the stealth of an investigative journalist. So his physical tour around the sanctuaries and fleshpots of Sri Lanka is combined with a close-eyed search for the embers of the recent civil war. We learn about the legacy of the three colonial Empires that possessed Ceylon in turn—Portugese, Dutch and British. Ironically, it was Sri Lanka’s quest to recover its national identity that, unwittingly, opened the gates to its bitter internal conflict.
Tom Blass travels not by trawler, frigate or yacht, but by humble ferry-boat to explore the shore dwellers in The Naked Shore of the North Sea (Bloomsbury £20). He shows us that the great fleets of the Vikings, Norse and Romans were mere ephemera compared to the stolid dyke-building, fen-draining and cod-fishing achievements of the Dutch and Frisians. Mr Blass also excavates myths about the drowned homeland of the Aryans and conjures up the cold, muddy grip of something immutably dark, heroic and fascinating.
In The White Road; a journey into an obsession (Vintage, £9.99) Edmund de Waal traces the diffusion of the craft of porcelain while meditating on the use and abuse of beautiful objects. We start in China and journey west, following the packed crates as they arrive in Versailles, and then continue on to the Saxony of Duke Augustus the Strong, where only the scientists of Dresden and Meissen are able to recreate porcelain’s true form. From thence, the near-magical craft migrates to the hills of Cornwall and the far mountains of South Carolina, before returning to Germany with the notorious production of Nazi giftware by slave labourers at Dachau. All this is delivered with the obsessive, nerve-tightening engagement of the author-potter best known for The Hare with the Amber Eyes.
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by Barnaby Rogerson