Books & Audio: A Papertrail to Elsewhere – 3 books about places

Thanks to a caffeine break at Kioskafe near Paddington while cycling to work one morning last week, I stumbled across two Good Things.

The first is a journal called Elsewhere.  Founded and edited by Berlin-based Paul Scraton and Julia Stone, Elsewhere is “dedicated to involved and intelligent writing about place, whether from travel writers or local ramblers, deep topographers or psychogeographers, overland wanderers or edgeland explorers.”

One of a growing number of new print travel publications, Elsewhere is published twice a year and is now in its third year.  The latest issue has essays about places as diverse as Papua, Portugal and Prague and its fifth issue must be due fairly soon.

Curious to know more, a quick search revealed that Elsewhere‘s website has a blog featuring a regular monthly ‘postcard’, a book review and essay such as this piece about Copenhagen by Laura Harker in which she examines the preconceptions we have about places gleaned from TV, film and books and what happens to those preconceptions when we actually visit them.  

The Elsewhere blog led me to the second Good Thing, the Papertrail Podcast, a monthly podcast series in which Alex Blott, its founder, interviews authors and creatives about three of their favourite books.

Anyway, it turns out that Alex’s most recent Papertrail interview was with Elsewhere co-founder Paul Scraton who selected three books about places.  I settled in an ordered another coffee.

You can listen to the interview below or on Papertrail‘s website.


Scraton’s first choice of book was What I Saw, a collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism, written in Berlin between 1920 and 1933.  Interestingly, it is translated from a German collection, Roth in Berlin, which was subtitled ‘A Reader for Walkers’.  

Athough appearing in newspapers, the pieces are taken from the feuilleton supplement, the section which contained more literary writing and criticism than the news sections.  

The original German version of Roth in Berlin contained a practical dimension which, Scraton explains, acted as walking guides.  Those parts are omitted from the translation, largely because many places described no longer exist but, for Scraton, the book still served as an introduction to Berlin and some of its stories when he moved to Berlin about 15 years ago.  

The Guardian‘s review of What I Saw is here and The NY Times‘ review is here.

Scraton’s second choice was Jan Morris’ ‘last’ book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere in which the story of the city is intertwined with Jan Morris’ own story, looking back over 50 years.  As The New Yorker put it:

[Jan Morris] who first visited Trieste as a young soldier in 1946 and last as an elderly woman, plumbs the mysteries of the city’s melancholy, and the result is a meditation on the locus of the self and its confabulation of psychic history and accidents of geography.

In the course of an appreciative discussion about the book and Trieste itself in the Papertrail interview, Paul Scraton describes it as:

a powereful book about place, but also about writing and about how we interact with a place as individuals.

To read more about Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, see The Guardian‘s review here and The Observer‘s review here.

The last book, Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, is a novel about “the disintegration of a country and the disintregation of a family at the same time”.   In this short novel, author Vladan Borojevic tells the story of young man who believed his father to have died during the civil war following the break up of Yugoslavia but, after discovering that he is not only alive but also on the run for war crimes, embarks on a journey around the Balkans to learn the truth about his father.

Three fascinating and excellent books and some interesting insights about how we understand places in layered ways and the way that other writers have understood a place can influence our own understanding, this is a podcast worth a listen.

Other podcasts in the Papertrails series can be found here, or on iTunes.

In addition to editing and writing for Elsewhere, Paul Scraton’s writing can be found on the blogs Under a Grey Sky and Caught by the River.  He has also writen a book to be published in June 2017 by Influx Press, Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which I will be looking out for this summer along with the next issue of Elsewhere

Book: Andrew Eames on the trail of Agatha Christie

The 8.55 to Baghdad
by Andrew Eames

Published by Corgi (2005)

“She used to come here to do her shopping.
And to get her hair done.
From Nineveh.  With Max.”

It was this nugget about Agatha Christie, made to Andrew Eames while he was visiting Aleppo, that led him on his literary journey to find out what Agatha Christie was doing in the Middle East and to retrace her steps and to declare:

I had no idea that this doyenne of the drawing-room mystery had first traveled out to Iraq, alone, by train, as a thirty-something single mother.  And that thereafter she’d spent thirty winter seasons living in testing conditions 3,000 miles from home, in a land of Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, doling out laxatives to help the sheikh’s wives with their constipation.

The result is this book which mixes part travelogue, part history and part biography.

Eames sets out from London to retrace Agatha Christie’s journey.  He travels on the Orient Express across Europe from London to Venice.  He continues by train through the Balkans, across Turkey and through Syria to Damascus  where the train line ends.

Orient express map

The onward journey to Baghdad in Christie’s day and when Eames repeated the journey was by bus across the desert.  This was the only way to avoid the time consuming trip through the Suez canal and around the Arabian peninsula.

When Christie made the journey, she travelled by ‘Nairn bus’ named after the New Zealand Nairn brothers who stayed on in the Middle East after the First World War to form a successful company that revolutionised transport between Damascus and Baghdad for 30 years.  By the time Christie made the journey, the cross desert service had only been running for a few years and had reduced the journey time to just 20 hours (for more on the Nairn brothers and their company see here and here).

Nairn_Transport_Co._luggage_label

Eames then continues on to Iraq’s archaeological sites and eventually to Ur where Agatha Christie met her second husband, Max Mallowan.    

If, like me, you know little of Agatha Christie’s life, this book is an interesting introduction to certain aspects of it,and particularly her divorce and second marriage.  Eames succeeds in re-creating an aura of by gone travel and those aspects will appeal to anyone with an interest in travel between the wars.  He is a pleasant enough travelling companion bringing his travelling companions and the places he visits to life with a wry sense of humour.  He characterises his adventure as a journey back to sources; the source of Christie’s second marriage and from modern Europe to Ur, the site of one of the earliest known cities and to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Reading this book not only reminds us how much as changed since Agatha Christie made her journey.  It is also a reminder of how much has changed since Eames made his journey and how quickly those changes can take place.  At the end of his book he realises that his “interest in Agatha and her crips pieces of fiction had finally been overhauled by a far bigger story”, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which began three months after his trip ended.  His sadness at recalling Lt Col Tim Collins’ entreaty to his troops to “tread lightly” is now compounded by the knowledge that other places in his adventure, Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra, have now also been ravaged by conflict.  

Sadly, it is commonplace to read travel books and reflect on how travel to the place has changed since they were written, perhaps because of political changes or dangers; it is a truism of travel that as some places become safe to visit others become less so.  But it is particularly tragic when these changes involve such loss of life and the wanton destruction of sites which have survived the centuries.     

Read reviews of The 8.55 to Baghdad from the Independent, here, the Telegraph, here and the Chicago Tribune, here.

One of the UK’s top travel writers, Andrew Eames website is here.  It contains links to some of his published work.  Its sections ‘blog’ and ‘mags and rags’ also give an insight into the life of a travel writer and some interesting reflections on the publishing industry.

Agatha Christie’s own accounts of her travels in Syria and Iraq were published as Come Tell Me How You Live and earlier volume of travel writing about her travels to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America as part of the British trade mission for the 1924 Empire Exhibition was published as The Grand Tour: