Some relished Travel Books of 2013
Published by Daily Telegraph, early December 2013
We may have heard too much about Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Robert Macfarlane over the last eighteen months, but don’t let that put you off their books, The Broken Road and Holloway. Even if you consign them to the spare-bedroom, for production values and the art of bookmaking alone they are glorious objects to unwrap, hold and behold. And once you decide to engage with them, they prove themselves to be endearingly open-hearted team-efforts. Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron created The Broken Road from a rejected essay on walking (fifteen times the size requested from Paddy), some failed drafts and a pair of flimsy travel journals. But on top of that the author is arguably more present in their loving editorial hand -complete with his black depressions, name-dropping snobbery, flirtatious sexuality, ridiculous anti-Turkish prejudices – than in any of his other books. There is also of course that boundless, infectious enthusiasm for the road and the lived experience, for spoken language, oral knowledge and for everything Byzantine and Greek. Macfarlane’s Holloway, on closer inspection, also reveals itself as a team product, fused with the words of his travelling companion Dan Richards and the engravings of Stanley Donwood. It is also in the nature of Macfarlane’s essential purpose as a travel writer to evoke and enthuse us with the song-line of British nature observation, awakening us to the writings of Roger Deakin, W H Hudson, Edward Thomas (and in this book Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male) in order to understand how to marvel at the particular, right there before our eyes.
It’s always seemed to me that readers of travel writing tend to fall in to two rival camps. I am an East-West reader, fascinated by differences in human culture, but bored rigid by what I think of as North-South subjects - the conquest of mountains and the exploration of polar wildernesses. So I am going to ignore all those dozens of beautifully illustrated books published to chime with the anniversary of Scott in the Antarctic or the conquest of Everest. I was, however, taken by the work of one North-South writer, Sara Wheeler, who with in O My America has left her snow-boots behind to explore the building of modern America, as seen through the eyes of six, confident, literate and clever middle-aged women most of who made it their home in the 19th-century, but ultimately return home. Part travelogue, part biography, part literary detective (we follow the mother of Antony Trollope, as well as the niece of Jane Austen) it is funny, sharp and down to earth and full of uplifting musings in life’s ‘second act’. It also proves that in the matter of books, if nothing else, we have always occupied the same bed as our American cousins, and that the Thames flows into the Mississippi.
It is a common fantasy to imagine that British travel-writers are also spies. Look at Peter Fleming, Graham Greene, Fitzroy Maclean, Bruce-Lockhart and Alexander Burnes. But in our own tecky-geek era, dominated by GCHQ listening, there are not so many opportunities for such double career paths. But I do remember with delight a general at dinner who told me that he had learned more from reading one of our authors than all his intelligence briefs put together. For the latter only allowed him to watch the physical movements of his enemy, while the former got him inside their heads. This woman, Dervla Murphy, has been at work again, using her toolbox of grit, determination, indefatigable conversation, pluck and notebooks to find out what happens in Gaza. We published A Month by the Sea this February, which is both hair-raising and gloomy by turns, like so much history in the making. Wary of becoming an outright partisan of Palestine, I went off to get some understanding of the Israeli perspective by watching The Gatekeepers, a documentary interviewing all the extant ex-directors of Shin Bet. It did this, but it also confirmed my faith in travel writing as one of the finest, quickest, most honest and most condensed forms of analysis. On this track, another book that I can heartily recommend for those wishing to understand the shape and texture of our world is Oliver Bullough’s The Last Man in Russia, a gritty, deeply embedded travelogue that investigates the culture of drinking, the decline of the Russian family and the experience of trying to remain a man in the Soviet system through a sleuth-like hunt for the real story behind Father Dmitry Dudko. This theme is partnered by Red Love, by Maxim Leo, which though arguably more of a memoir than a classic travel book, also gives us extraordinary, intimate access to East Germany when the state was not just in the family apartment but locked within the minds and aspiration of all its citizens.
I should stop now, but I also want to recommend two books which examine the ominous great cracks appearing in the inter-connected, free-market, urban identity we have built so assiduously. How and why could Calcutta (the greatest single city in India over the last two hundred years) fall into such decay during the late 20th-century, as explored by Amit Chauduri. And what can learn from the very different history and experience of another doomed metropolis, in The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli.
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by Barnaby Rogerson