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A pick of the vintage: half a dozen travel books from 2003
For Country Life Travel Supplement

This summer Wilfred Thesiger and Norman Lewis died within a month of each other. They are unquestionably two of the greatest British travel writers: irreplaceable, quixotic individuals illuminated by genius, who witnessed and lovingly recorded styles of life that have been swept away by the graceless 20th century. We will not see their like again. However their work the task of celebrating diversity, courage and real culture continues to be ever more vital if the world is to resist the spread of bland monoculture: that deadly fusion of junk TV, junk food and packaged tourism. Fortunately this year's publications have proved that are some exceptional new talents have already taken up the work.

The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War by Aidan Hartley, published by HarperCollins
Aidan Hartley interweaves his appalling experiences of the killing fields of Rwanda, the clan violence of Somalia and the Ethiopian civil war with painstaking research into the careers of his colonial father and his long-dead best friend Peter Davey. He has created a gripping memoir of secret love, proud service and despair to create a book that will stand beside Ryszard Kapuscinski¹s The Shadow of the Sun as an unforgettable portrait of late 20th century Africa.

The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones, Faber
Tobias Jones moved to Italy in 1999 expecting to follow the well-trod path to a blissful expatriate life amongst the olive groves, the operatic arias and the mingled glories of Italian culture and cuisine. Instead he has produced a lively and scholarly record of the kick-back culture of Berlusconi¹s Italy, a fearful fusion of fascism, football, mafia and mobile phones. The Dark Heart of Italy has subsequently been denounced by the Italian Minister of Communications as Œa mixture of bigotry and Marxism.²

Emma's War, Deborah Scroggins, HarperCollins
On one level a journalistic investigation into the tragic death and exuberant life of Emma McCune who forsook the normal professional approach of aid workers to become the lover of one of the Sudanese warlords. On another, Deborah Scroggins¹s own more sober experience with the Sudan provides a secure intellectual and moral background by which to understand the maze of the Sudanese civil wars.

Duende by Jason Webster, Doubleday
Jason Webster escapes from the suffocating embrace of academic life to spend one year pursuing his old love for the Spanish guitar. His travels excavate the motivating passions behind Europe¹s most obsessive, gut-wrenching and mysterious musical tradition. He takes the reader on an intense journey through Alicante, Madrid and Granada into a world of adultery, male violence, love, betrayal and sudden death.

The Sword and the Cross by Fergus Fleming, Granta
Fergus Fleming, the great narrator of exploration, has turned his attention to the French conquest of the Sahara. Fleming¹s sardonic wit and withering irony fillets a hundred years of war crimes and criminal misadventures though his narrative concludes with two truly heroic figures, Laperinne of the Camel Corps and the scholar-mystic Father Foucauld whose tragic deaths have allowed them both to become identified with the desert they so loved.

The Factory of Light: Life in an Andalucian Village by Michael Jacobs, John Murray
Michael Jacobs is a respected art historian, with dozens of learned books and literary translations to his credit. He is also a man who has allowed the true, infectious zeal of southern Spain to enter into his heart and stomach. The Factory of Light is a journey that constantly threatens to derail itself with drink and a mad championing of the totally unpromising little town of Frales. The author, spinning with ever wilder and more startling schemes, takes the whole town, a film crew and the startled reader on a journey of Chaucerian richness.

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, Little Brown
Seierstad has turned her Kabul host, Sultan Khan (the bookseller of Kabul) into an iconic figure of the worlds imagination: a triumphant individual, who both encapsulates the heroic nature of Afghanistan and its self-destructive dynamic. Khan is a heroic book lover, who fights against Communist censors, Mujahdeen looters and Taliban controllers, to defend literary freedom in his city. Yet within his own family his rule mirrors the despotic regimes against which he has fought all his life.

The Gates of Africa: Death, Discovery and the Search for Timbuktu by Anthony Sattin, HarperCollins
Anthony Sattin has unearthed the startlingly brave stories of the 18th- and early 19th-century explorers of Africa, the forefathers of Livingstone and Burton. They were sponsored by the African Association, the original Geographical Society, whose initial high-minded geographical curiosity became tainted by greed and national ambition. He manages to combine, with great verve, the atmosphere of London at the time all coffee houses, political intrigue and the curiosities of international trade with the extraordinary personal stories of the collection of outsiders and misfits who donned the mantle of explorer and, at great danger to themselves, set off beyond the boundaries of the known world.

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