Get out there: A round-up of the best travel books in 2018
published Country life, December 2018
Britain earns more from the export of books (some 2.6 billion pounds) and publishes more books per head of population (2,875 for every million citizens) than any other nation. Every year 180,000 new titles are published in the United Kingdom, and even in the small arena of travel publishing, this island remains absurdly over-productive. So I thought some help in choosing presents might be useful.
Alev Scott's Ottoman Odyssey is a young woman's quest, travelling through eleven neighbours of modern Turkey (all old provinces of this once vast Empire) in search of the cosmopolitan communities from this Levantine past. Her work is empowered by her mother's Turkish Cypriot identity. She has been banned from travelling in the Turkish Republic since the success of her first book, Turkish Awakening.
Sujatha Gidla's Ants Among Elephants is a family memoir woven around the struggle for Indian Independence. It is full of aspirations for freedom and social revolution set against the dark realities of her 'Untouchable' caste. She gives us stories that have to be told, without false sentimentality and fired with compassion.
Graham Robb, Adam Thorpe and Horatio Clare are amongst our most consistently acclaimed writers of place. Graham Robb's The Debatable Land is a six-year long quest into Liddesdale, the bloodiest valley in British history, battled over at different times by Celtic tribes, Dark Age kingdoms and Border Rievers. Adam Thorpe's Notes from the Cevennes is an affectionate and beautifully evoked examination of France and the French. Part rustic, part urban, half memoir and half history, it has been incubated over the last twenty-five years. Horatio Clare is a Welsh-Briton living in the Pennines with an array of talents, from BBC Radio producer to children's author. In Something of His Art, he runs with the German cult of the walker (as explored by Goethe, Herzog, Heine and Seume) and places himself as the imaginative companion to J.S. Bach who walked to Lubeck in 1705. It's a handsome ninety-page hardback from Little Toller, the Dorset-based nature publisher.
Arabia by Levison Wood is another book set to a walking pace, and of the reality check of seeing the Middle East for yourself. It could usefully be combined with Lords of the Desert by James Barr which shines a bright, investigative light on the hidden rivalry between Britain and American in the post-war Middle East. In the process Barr unearths a rich catalogue of journalists, explorers, oil-prospectors and part-time agents including some of our iconic travel-writers. A similarly rich and fascinating cast of characters is spun for us in The Warm South, Robert Holland's scholarly study of the British infatuation with the heat, light and sensuality of the Mediterranean.
Journeying is a collection of twenty-three travel pieces written between 1984-2004 by the brilliant, playful mind of Claudio Magris, the Italian professor of German at Trieste, famous for his book Danube. Another powerfully reflective book is John Freely's Stamboul Ghosts – portraits of the charismatic, Bohemian intellectuals who populated the dark streets of post-war Istanbul. Illustrated with photographs by Ara Guler, it's a doubly posthumous memoir of a city that both these men fully inhabited and lovingly observed.
My last recommendations might require you to dig a little deeper into your purse. Sir Don McCullin's The Landscape is filled with those moody, powerful photographs with which he has catalogued so many conflicts over the last sixty years. I have his previous five works on my shelves, and their price on the second-hand market makes them look like a good investment. I also want a copy of the handsome Quarto-sized history of the Travellers Club, that elegant nest where male travellers have made themselves at home in the centre of London for the last 200 years, vividly chronicled by John Martin Robinson.
I have long followed the work of a pair of anthropologist-photographers in Africa, the American Carol Beckwith and the Australian Angela Fisher. After 15 published works and a 15-year gap, they have at last produced the stunning African Twilight. Jimmy Nelson's Homage to Humanity is also visually breath-taking, and though the contrast between both these lavishly bound objects and the subsistence communities they depict is extreme, there is method in this madness. They are like wedding photographers presenting highly stylized, romantic images which may help each new generation to take a rightful pride in the continuation of their traditions.
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by Barnaby Rogerson