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

Article: Road tripping, female adventurers & travel writing

Why is it that road trips, when undertaken by men in literature, seem to be about expanding one’s life and its context, about seeing the bigger world and how the man fits into it, and yet when undertaken by women, are most often in flight from dangerous situations, and seldom, if ever, for pure adventure?

Great article by Bernadette Murphy in Literary Hub examining female role models in road trip literature. 

Murphy recognises that books can provide role models to help us understand our own choices and motivations but, when planning her own road trip, wondered at the relative lack of female literary road trip role models. 

Riding a motorcycle for hours on end, days at a time will disorient you in a way that opens up new vistas. That’s what I was counting on.

In the course of the article, Murphy provides a good list of adventurous female authors who took to the road and wrote about their experiences. The comments section at the end of the article provides a few more suggestions.

Murphy has added to the list of female adventurer/writers with an account of her own 5,000 mile bike trip, Harley and Me.

That trip dilated my perception of myself, of this country, of my place in the world. In a very real and sometimes brutal way, the experience of being out in the elements day after day, enduring long and arduous miles along the nation’s roads took me apart, piece by piece—and then rebuilt me.

In addition to the titles by female authors that Murphy recommends there are, of course, others by female authors that celebrate travel and adventure.  

As well as famous examples like Gertrude Bell, Dervla Murphy and Freya Stark, there are also Emily Hahn, who wrote about driving across the US and some of her many other travels in the memoir No Hurry to Get Home, Edith Wharton’s A Motor-Flight Through France and In Morocco, the aptly named Aloha Wanderwell Baker who drove around the world in the 1920s and also Ella Maillart who, as well as keeping pace with Peter Fleming in Forbidden Journey, wrote about her road trip from Geneva to Kabul with Annemarie Schwarzenbach in The Cruel Way.   More recent examples include Robyn Davidson and Kira Salak. 

Murphy has a good point about women being underrepresented in travel literature in proportion to the journeys they have made when compared to their male counterparts.  

Even when they make the same journeys, the female perspective can be overshadowed by the male.  The Maillart/Fleming journey provides one example and Barbara Greene’s account of her African journey with her more famous cousin, Graham, another.  Many have heard of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, but Barbara Greene’s excellent Too Late to Turn Back is less well known.

However, that ought not to detract from the many fine travel narratives written by adventurous females who have undertaken journeys many others would not dare and continue to inspire those with sufficiently adventurous spirits to follow in their tracks. 

What other female travel writers would you recommend?

Book: Wanderings & excursions of a Prime Minister

The wanderlust is perhaps the most precious of all the troublesome appetites of the soul of man.

Ramsay MacDonald was the first Labour Prime Minister of the UK in 1924 and held the office on two further occasions in the period between the First and Second World Wars.  He is credited with being one of the three principal architects of the Labour Party in the UK.

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He was first elected to Parliament in 1906 but his opposition to the First World War saw him defeated, although he re-entered Parliament in 1922 in the post-war period. 

In the years following the First World War, MacDonald travelled around Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.   He wrote about his travels for a number of magazines, including the publication, Forward.   Some of those pieces (along with a number of essays from other publications) are collected together in a book published by Jonathan Cape in 1925 called Wanderings and Excursions. 

The book is split into four sections covering travels in the British Isles, travels abroad, political conferences abroad and portraits of politicians.  It is the first half of the book, covering about 200 pages which are most relevant to anyone with an interest in travel writing.

Sometimes one must flee from familiar things and faces and voices, from the daily round and the common task, because one’s mind becomes like a bit of green grass too much trod upon. It has to be protected and nursed, and it has to be let alone.

MacDonald is someone who apparently valued the escape and restorative aspects of travel and walking outdoors.  He paints a wonderful image of himself striding out across moor and mountain singing out loud before retiring to a pub with his pipe at the end of a day’s energetic walking reflecting on and comparing his physical efforts with those of his Victorian political heroes.

Travel for MacDonald did not just mean going abroad.  Proud of Scotland and its physical landscape, he could help but note that “no people doomed to remain confined within the limits of their own country have a richer storehouse of treasure to explore than have ours.” 

For the most part, he omits politics from his writing about places, confining himself to the sights, experience and his reaction to them.  

There are places – sometimes great cities like Rome, sometimes only buildings like the Tower of London or the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling – into which time and event have breathed the breath of life and they have become living souls. We think of them as brooding over their past and looking upon the generation around them with the detachment of one who endures in the midst of a world that is fussing, fuming, and passing into a shadow. They are too dignified to speak; they only muse and remember. Such is Constantinople.

He is, however, careful to point out that he is no tourist simply doing the rounds of the sights:

My readers must not assume that, though this journey brings us to new scenes day by day, scenes that revive in us childish delight, we do nothing but go from shrine to shrine. We are also trying to understand what is going on and what general drift there is in the conflicting currents of opinion, passion, and will that reveal themselves whenever we throw out a float to detect them.

When politics does creep in, he tends to be apologetic, although his observations are interesting:

One of the greatest curses of Capitalism is that it robs us of the faculty of enjoying a holiday. Keats, thinking of Burns, reflects how delicacy of feeling has to be deadened ‘in vulgarity and in things attainable,’ because, the more we are capable of knowing true joy, the more are we maddened by the poverty and emptiness of our lives. But I offend, for in worshipping the sun and the open air, one must not preach.

The essays cover travel to Egypt, Palestine and Syria by boat and motor-car, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Georgia. He makes astute observations about the post-World War One settlement in the Middle East and there is an interesting chapter about a trip to India in 1913 during which he witnessed the construction of New Delhi.  There are also short pieces on Honolulu (“the most absurd place in the world”) from 1906 and South Africa in 1902 at the end of the Boer War.

The book contains further chapters which predominantly describe political conferences in Berne, Berlin, Denmark, Belgium and in Prague, although they also contain some interesting observations about those places (“everyone who loves Edinburgh and regards its stones as precious must love Prague”). 

One of the appealing aspects of this collection is that MacDonald’s enthusiasm for travel leaps off the pages.

But the smell of the East is an incense in my nostrils, and its clatter of tongues is music to my ears. I have been wandering in the mud of the city which Alexander the Great founded, which Julius Caesar took by storm, which became the home of philosophy and religion, and which shone over the world as its Pharos shone over the Mediterranean.

For me at least, Ramsay MacDonald’s name conjures an image of an embattled politician with serious socialist views and a political zeal.  In these essays, though, another side to the politician is visible, that of a man who revelled in being outdoors and who enjoyed reawakening a child’s enthusiasm through travel and who could give into the romance of starting out on a journey or thrill at the sight of simply seeing the names of places he wanted to visit painted on the side of a train:

When you go to Clapham, there is no romance about Victoria Station. It is sordid and utilitarian. But when your journey is to be beyond the rim of the world, romance meets you, even at Victoria, and this noisy dull place becomes like the miserable doorkeeper of a palace.

How I welcome the hospitable appearance of that refuge, the Orient Express, with the places I sought painted in red letters on a white iron sheet on its sides  – ‘Milan,’ ‘Venice,’ ‘Trieste,’ andway beyond, ‘Constantinople.’ 

Wanderings and Excursions is not currently in print which is a pity, if unsurprising.  I could not find a copy of the text online even though it appears to be out of copyright but second-hand copies are available via Abebooks, here.

Book: What the Traveller Saw by Eric Newby

What the Traveller Saw
by Eric Newby

(Collins, 1989; Flamingo, 1993)
 
Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
 
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers.  Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
 

Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.

During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service.  On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
 
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding.   He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
 
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing.  In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
 
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958.  Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
 
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.  
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
 
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
 After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
 
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period.  However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
 
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy.  It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
 
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw.  Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
 
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
 
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time.  His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
 
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
 
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
 
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
 

The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely.  Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.

No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin.  His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.  
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
 
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
 
Eric Newby died in 2006.  Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below). 



Article: Alastair Humphreys busks his way across Spain in Laurie Lee’s footsteps

When you plan an adventure some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” And so you’ll often walk alone. But If you make your journeys like this you will have your reward, so long as all you want at the end is a cold, crisp beer.

Alastair Humphreys hosted an evening to promote his latest book, Grand Adventures, back in May.  The event was organised by the travel book specialists, Stanfords, and took place at the Prince of Wales pub on Drury Lane in London’s theatreland near Covent Garden. 

Being close not only to where I work but also the imposing Art Deco Freemasons Hall (no connection to my job), I normally associate the pub with after work drinks on the pavement outside and the Freemasons I have seen descending the stairs from the pub’s first floor room carrying oversized briefcases.  So, it was nice at last to have the chance to form a different association with the ‘PoW’.     

Alastair Humphreys was entertaining, enthusiastic and passionate about encouraging others to try their hands at adventures, big or small. Towards the end of the evening, he outlined the ongoing preparations for his own next adventure.  

Humphreys told the crowded upstairs room that a story about someone else’s journey can often serve as an inspiration for your own journey.  As I sat in silent, self-satisfied agreement, Humphreys name-checked Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger as inspirations, before citing Laurie Lee’s As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning as his favourite travel book (if I wasn’t already, I must surely have been smiling and nodding with approval by now).

It was for this reason, Humphreys explained, that he was currently having violin lessons. He intended to follow in Laurie Lee’s footsteps and walk across Spain supporting himself financially only with the money he earned from busking.

Alastair Humphreys seems to have forged a career largely from persuading others that they need no particular talent or skill to undertake adventures of many different kinds provided that they have the enthusiasm and desire to go out and make something happen and the determination to see it through and succeed.  Alastair Humphreys is indeed a great advert for his own philosophy of adventuring.  

Thanks to Instagram, it was easy to follow his progress as Humphreys posted regular updates from his journey throughout the summer, posting a mixture of photos, video shorts and text sharing stories and reflections about his trip.  

In his posts, Humphreys explains that it is not only Lee’s writing he admires but also his style of travel noting that he “travelled slow, lived simply, slept on hilltops, and loved conversations with the different people he met along the hot and dusty road.”

Humphreys’ wanderings in Spain were great to follow.  Overcoming his fears about playing violin in public, we follow his disappointments and triumphs as he lived from hand to mouth.  It is a story of small successes and pleasures, measured in handfuls of Euros, but also of a tough life on the road walking across Spain’s meseta in the heat of summer before crossing the mountains of the Sistema Central and arriving in Madrid.  

Along the way, Humphreys’ Instagram posts capture the joys of travelling solo, adapting to the tempo of the Spanish way of life, settling into the rhythm of his journey and enjoying the abundance of time:

Time expands when you are away on a journey. It feels voluptuous and luxurious. Back home, time is my scarcest and most precious commodity… And now here I am beneath a tree, watching the leaves, listening to the swallows…I have nothing. Nothing but time. So scarce at home, so bountiful out here that I wallow in an excess of it. I’m wilfully inviting boredom (though I’ve rarely felt it, yet). I’m allowing my brain a fallow month to wander where it wonders and to recalibrate a little. 

Tramping across Spain, Humphreys received unexpected and generous hospitality, enjoyed beautiful scenery, found idyllic places to sleep for the night and also novel places to cool off.     

Setting off solo to follow a literary hero’s footsteps with nothing but his wits and a nascent proficiency in playing the violin may be a touch quixotic but is still impressive.  In the process, Humphreys shows what determination can do, living by his creed that the expertise one needs to undertake an adventure can, to a large degree, be obtained along the way.  That must have made the final cerveza he enjoyed in Madrid just that little bit sweeter and makes you wonder, maybe, just maybe, I could… 

Follow Alastair Humphreys’ journey across Spain on Instagram – www.instagram.com/al_humphreys/ – or find out more about him on his website: www.alastairhumphreys.com.

Book: Foreign Faces by V.S. Pritchett

Foreign Faces
by V.S. Pritchett

Bloomsbury 2011 (first published 1964)

Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail because of the monotonous good luck of their authors.

This collection of travel essays by VS Pritchett has one of the best opening lines of any travel collection.  

Not many travel writers would begin by proclaiming themselves to be an offensive traveller, but Pritchett does and has a point.  However, not wishing to be misunderstood he is careful to explain that he is not prejudiced, narrow-minded or someone who travels with unrealistic expectations.  

His point is more elementary; that the nature of travel is in some way offensive.  As if that was not enough, Pritchett confesses that he compounds this by virtue of being a writer before going on to list some of the offense he has caused.  

Reading this essay, it is tempting to think that Pritchett must be talking about other travellers.  After all, our own way of travel is sensitive to local cultures and respectful to the people we meet so surely could not cause deliberate offence.  Besides, we know what Evelyn Waugh knew – “we are travellers and cosmopolitans; the tourist is the other fellow”, right?  

Wrong.  Pritchett might single out tourists as the one true source of annoyance when travelling but he makes it quite clear that we, “hypocrite lectuers”, are offensive travellers too.  It is a point with which Paul Theroux seems to agree:

Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy — being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur…

from Ghost Train to an Eastern Star 

VS Pritchett may have viewed travel as offensive but that did not mean that he disapproved of it.  Far from it.

Although famous as a critic and author of short stories, Pritchett was an avid traveller and wrote several travel books.  His life is a classic example of the link between writing and travel on the one hand and being a writer and a traveller on the other. 

Paul Theroux picked up on this when writing about Pritchett shortly after his death in 1997:

A classic way to succeed in England, if you come from the wrong class or have the wrong accent, is to leave the country and go far away. That was Pritchett’s solution — and it worked for him as it has for many other English writers…France gave him a second language and inspired his short stories. Travel in Spain came soon after.

Foreign travel was crucial to Pritchett’s literary ambitions and Theroux quotes from one of Pritchett’s short stories to illustrate the similarity between being a traveller and writer and how both inhabit a place beyond frontiers.  Susan Sontag has also written about this from her own perspective in the eulogistic essay about Richard Halliburton’s travel books in the collection Where the Stress Falls.

Pritchett’s first book was in fact a travelogue, Marching Spain.  In an interview with the Paris Review in 1990, Pritchett recalled that this book was accepted by the publisher only on the condition that he would also write a novel and so initially, it was travel and travel writing that drove his fiction even if fiction was the more commercially successful.

Obviously mindful that unfortunate events can be felicitous for travel writers, Pritchett recalled in the same interview how his first travelogue was not much than an account of a journey:

What I was really rather sorry about was that I had had no adventures…I always wondered how it was that Robert Stevenson always seemed to have adventures; why don’t I have adventures?

There is a parallel there with Foreign Faces in which Pritchett criss-crosses communist countries in eastern Europe, returns to Madrid and Seville and then goes farther afield to Turkey and Iran.  The essays are similarly marked by an absence of ‘adventure’ even though they are no less entertaining for it.

Pritchett’s essays on eastern Europe capture those places at a crucial time in the post war period between the 1956 revolution in Hungary and protests in Poland and the Prague Spring and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  His essays are not political but reveal the variety in the countries and the differences in society, culture and character.

Sociable and curious he brings the places to life through the characters he meets.  Some of his more general comments can appear blunt or actually offensive (“Romania annoys from the beginning“), but they often serve simply to grab attention.  His essays are full of sharp observation and Pritchett gets to his point with an informal but incisive and clear style.  Although he may not spare them from his pen, Pritchett writes about people and places with humour and generosity and without being a snob.  This is particularly evident in the essay on Madrid when it is clear that he is writing with affection rather than meanness.  

The result is a charming and witty collection of essays and not at all offensive.

Foreign Faces is currently available on Amazon for Kindle for only £3.99.

Article: Will Self on solving packing anxieties

The business traveler should bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble…There are very few necessities in this world which do not come in travel-size packets…Always bring a book as protection against strangers. Magazines don’t last, and newspapers from elsewhere remind you you don’t belong. But don’t take more than one book. It is a common mistake to overestimate one’s potential free time, and consequently over-pack. In travel, as in most of life, less is invariably more. And most importantly, never take along anything on your journey so valuable or dear that its loss would devastate you. (William Hurt, The Accidental Tourist)

In this short article in the New Statesman, author and self confessed bag-o-phobe Will Self takes a drastic approach to packing for a trip and heads to the US without any luggage. 

There is no shortage of advice on the internet about what and how to pack. From the type, size and weight of bag, which clothes to take and how how to fold them.  It is now even possible to have a company pack for you (you send them the bag and the items you want packed and they do the rest) or avoid luggage issues altogether by paying a company to send your bag to your destination separately to avoid excess baggage fees.  (Yes, really.)  

Everyone it seems has their packing routines and tricks, as this video shows:

Confessing to his own aversion to luggage and an obsession about continually trying to pack lighter and smaller, Will Self suggests we ditch the physical bags.  If we manage to free ourselves, he argues surely the psychological baggage and insecurities that go with them will follow and, unencumbered, we will be more receptive to the places we visit.  

As you might expect of a seasoned traveller, Rolf Potts has thought of this previously and in 2011 undertook a Round the World challenge with no bag, instead packing everything into a utility vest:

Only last year on Kickstarter, another company was trying to crowdsource funding for a similar jacket (be sure to check out the incorporated eye mask and neck pillow at 01:28):  

Rolf Potts and BauBax may have beaten him to the idea but Will Self has seen the short-lived happiness these would bring and the sleepless nights that would follow as we inevitably lie awake playing a mental version of Tetris, stuffing different combinations of objects into pockets to maximise what we can take with us on our travels.

 

Article: Paris Review interview with Jan Morris

 

I don’t consider my books travel books. I don’t like travel books, as I said before. I don’t believe in them as a genre of literature. 

Celebrated travel writer Jan Morris on not being a travel writer.  Insightful and entertaining 1989 interview from the Paris Review.

This is a broad discussion covering a range of Jan Morris’ writing from throughout her career as well as her own journeys, external and internal, encompassing parts of her military service, writing career and change of gender.     

Whether familiar with her work or not, this is an interesting interview about several of Jan Morris’ works including the Sultan in Oman, her writings about cities, Spain and, of course, Venice.   She also talks about her non-fiction writing including her experiences on Everest, Conundrum (about her change of gender) and also her works and thoughts about histories and in particular the Pax Britannica Trilogy.    

I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. 

Of particular note are Jan Morris’ observations about travel writing and the relationship between her work and fiction including her thoughts on why she doesn’t consider her own writing to be travel books and why reading travel books by others haven’t always prepared her for journeys to those places.     

Great portrait of a varied, full and fascinating life and a great author.

The interview is also available in audio on Youtube:

 

Book: A Few Perfect Hours, Josh Neufeld

A Few Perfect Hours
by Josh Neufeld (Alternative Comics, 2004)

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits…
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of he world abroad
Than, living dully sluggardized at home
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness

Heeding Shakespeare’s words, Josh Neufeld and his girlfriend Sari, left the United States and went travelling together.  Over the course of a year and half they backpacked from Hong Kong, through South East Asia and the Balkans before stopping in Prague.

As Sari explains in her foreward:

The challenge of the backpacking odyssey is unique. Stripped of the normal scaffolding of life, we must narrate our own adventures to die them weight and to give ourselves form.  When we travel, we become both actor and storyteller, hero and scribe.

Neufeld narrates their story (with additional words from Sari) in the form of the graphic novel.  While A Few Perfect Hours covers some well trodden backpacker countries and experiences, Neufeld does so with warmth, originality and honesty.  

Along the way, the pair work as extras in a Singapore soap opera, confront their fears in a Thai cave, visit an off the beaten track organic farm, get an unexpected religious experience at a Buddhist festival, have an, almost, encounter with an ice cream salesman in Serbia and travel by train through Belgrade during 1993.

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While Neufeld may be the hero of his tales, he is not afraid to lay bare and share his own fears, misgivings and reactions which bring the stories to life, tinge them with reality and bring the personal to the insights he gains from his travelling experiences.  Part of A Few Perfect Hours‘ charm lies in the insights gained from the ‘small’ or everyday in the stories and also the travellers’ tips interspersed among them.  Meanwhile, the illustrations keep the tales fresh, bringing humour and immediacy to the scenes and adding detail and elements of fantasy.

Comics or graphic novels are not everyone but this is a nice collection, well complemented by Sari’s foreward.  A Few Perfect Hours is part of a growing body of graphic travel writing, a form which lends itself well to the genre.  As Eddie Campbell (author of From Hell) sums it up on the back cover:

The travel book has a tradition both grand and frivolous.  It’s a literary form that continues to welcome the embellishment of illustration long after fiction has expunged them, whether through photographs or the author’s own sketches of the sights seen. It has always looks to me, therefore, like a waiting challenge for the so-called comic book.   

A Few Perfect Hours was self-published with a grant from the Xeric Foundation.   Learn more about Neufeld and his work at www.joshcomix.com.

 

Book: Laurie Lee on foot through Spain

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
by Laurie Lee

Published by Penguin (1969)

“Go where you will. It’s all yours.
You asked for it. It’s up to you now.
You’re on your own, and nobody’s going to stop you.”

Laurie Lee’s account of his journey through England and across Spain in the 1930s is a classic and makes the top 20 in World Hum’s list of most celebrated travel books as well as The Telegraph’s top 20 travel books of all time. 

Following the success of his childhood memoir, Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee was a best selling author as well as a poet, musician, artist and scriptwriter by the time As I Walked Out was published in 1969 as the second part of his autobiographical trilogy.  

In an interview with Phillip Oakes for the Sunday Times in 1969, Lee commented:

If you’ve written one reasonably good book, why try to follow on? There’s no real point. You’re not proving anything. The only argument for it is that what I have to write seems to fall naturally into a trilogy. Childhood, then discovering Spain, then the civil war. (published in the Sunday Times on 30 May 2010)

As Robert Macfarlane noted In an article for the Guardian in 2014, there are similarities between As I Walked Out and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Time of Gifts.   Both journeys began within a year or so of each other, 1934 and 1933, respectively.  War awaited both authors at the end of their experiences and both accounts were published later in the authors’ lives; As I Walked Out in 1969 with Time of Gifts following in 1977.

In As I Walked Out, Lee describes how he left his village of Slad in Gloucestershire to busk his way along England’s south coast before stopping to work in London.  After several months in London, Lee departed for Vigo in Spain where he began a six month journey on foot across the plains and sierras to Madrid and then on to Andalusia before reaching Almunecar as the storm of the Civil War was about to break.

In its review of As I Walked Out in 1970, the English Journal concluded that “This is a book for an adolescent its itchy feet and a bent for vicarious living” (English Journal, 1 May 1970). 

In a sense that is fair.  Writing these memoirs was, in Lee’s words, “a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations”.  What he achieves is a vivid evocation of youth, loss of innocence and youthful travel.  Lee’s style is poetic but eloquent and economical rather than florid or ornate.  His phrases are well turned and he uses striking imagery.  

Lee recalls what it was like to be young, to be in no hurry and feel no pressure (“never in my life had I felt so fat with time”).  He remembers his youthful energy and physical strength and describes them in a way that only someone who has started to miss them could.

Lee also captures the pleasures of travel: the thrill of waking up in a place which holds no memories and has an unfamiliar language and likening it to being reborn; the unease of arriving somewhere at night; the unexpected moments which make one think of and miss home; the innocent ignorance and the feeling of independence and the satisfaction of having no plan but choosing one’s own path and making a journey happen.

At the centre of this is Lee the wandering violinist, the “prince of the road, the lone ranger developing a “taste for the vanity of solitude”, and it never occurring to him that others may have done this before him.

By the time As I Walked Out was published, Lee’s Spain was already changing.  Retracing his journey for the BBC in the 1960s he lamented:  

I remember Segovia as a place of ragged almost oriental poverty, where a stranger’s face was a matter of unusual interest. Tourism has changed all that.  But the old relationship between host and visitor has been corrupted and cheapened.  Tourism always corrupts and no country can stand against it. 
Lee realised how fortunate he had been, reflecting in the book that:

I was a young man whose time coincided with the last years of peace, and so was perhaps luckier than any generation since.  Europe at least was wide open, a place of casual frontiers, few questions and almost no travellers.   

Laurie Lee and As I Walked Out were the subject of an episode of Travellers’ Century, a BBC Four documentary series presented by Benedict Allen:

You can also hear Laurie Lee reading an extract from the book describing life and lunchtime in Madrid here or read how his journey has inspired others to make the same walk, here, here and most recently, P D Murphy’s As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee.

As I Walked Out One Midsummers Morning is also available in ebook format as part of Red Sky at Sunrise, which contains all there instalments of Laurie Lee’s autobiography:


Book: Rolf Potts on being a vagabond

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts 

Published by Villard Books (2003)

“Time is your truest form of wealth.

There is no shortage of available books and blogs dispensing advice on how to break free from daily routine and travel the world on a shoestring.  The difference with Vagabonding is that it is worth reading. And re-reading.      

Rolf Potts is a widely published and highly regarded travel writer.  He started writing a regular column with Salon.com at the end of the ’90s and has since written for most (if not all) major travel publications and has published two books: Vagabonding, is the first, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a collection of essays and the second.  

As Potts playfully recognises, there is no getting away from the fact that Vagabonding is really a form of self help book.  Although it might claim to be aimed at those who are unsure how to find the time freedom and money to travel for long periods there is, however, plenty in Vagabonding for seasoned travellers. 

Vagabonding sets out to dispel several myths about travel, the main one being that you are not too poor to travel.  It does this not by explaining how you can become rich enough to travel the world in luxury.  Instead, it aims to demonstrate how, to realise the dream of travelling for long periods of time, adjusting our lives to utilise our time better is more important than having a trust fund or huge pots of money.  

Potts is clearly passionate and serious about long term travel as a deliberate choice about how to live one’s life.  Thoreau, one of Potts’ literary heroes, would approve:

True and sincere travelling is no pastime but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it.

Vagabonding can assist with that probationary period.  Vagabonding starts at home in every sense and, with the first section of the book devoted to pre-trip matters, Vagabonding helps point the way showing how the vagabonding mindset begins way before the trip from working to raise the funds, quitting work and simplifying our lives.  Potts usefully points out that pre-trip periods can be spent usefully working out why it is that we want to go, what we are looking for from our trips and what kind of traveller we want to be once we set out.  

Potts takes us through his personal philosophy of travel showing that vagabonding is not simply a consumer option, accessory, trend or something done out of obligation; nor is it a political statement, social gesture or moral high ground.  It is a personal act requiring commitment and realignment of priorities.  

Potts draws on an impressive variety of sources to illustrate his ideas, as well as to inspire and confront myths that might otherwise hold us back.  From ancient Sanskrit poetry, the teachings of the Upanishads, 19th century transcendentalists such as Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, Islamic authors and a whole range of 20th century authors, poets and travel writers as well as the voices of contemporary travel bloggers, the sheer variety of sources alone makes Vagabonding an interesting reading and worth re-visiting.   The aim of Vagabonding seems to echo that behind Sir Francis Galton’s 1855 work (although the two are very different in content):

by collecting the scattered experiences of many such persons in various circumstances, collating them, examining into their principles, and deducing from them what might fairly be called an “Art of Travel.”  

In the section On the Road, Potts’ travel experiences come into their own.  Vagabonding contains a wealth of practical advice covering issues such as  health while travelling, cross cultural interaction, what to expect when setting out travelling, and advice on socially and environmentally responsible travel.  It also helps to address angst at the difficulty of making choices in about places to visit, travellers’ ennui, forming good travel ‘habits’,  and how to deal with pitfalls and annoyances on (and off) the road.  

Despite the level of detail and the wide range of on and offline resources and tip sheets contained in Vagabonding, no advice manual can be 100% comprehensive; every seasoned traveller could add their own tips and in any event, as Potts notes, “neophyte blunders” are just part of the experience.  Nevertheless there is plenty here for anyone new to travel to get started and more than enough advice to remind more seasoned travellers of their own experiences.  It had me wistfully thinking about my own travels and itching to start another journey.  

One of the charms of Vagabonding is that Potts approaches all of this without being condescending, retaining a modesty and humility when talking about his own experiences and with a dry sense of humour, including taking the time for a side swipe at the “pseudo-counter-culture” of ‘anti-tourists’ which many ‘independent’ travellers seem keen to embrace.  

Vagabonding is something of a contemporary classic and is now in at least its tenth reprint (although Potts modestly acknowledges that the print runs are not large).  At the start of Vagabonding, Potts recalls finding a book by Ed Buryn in a used bookstore in Tel Aviv that helped him consolidate and affirm his own ideas about travel.   Should Vagabonding ever go out of print, I can’t help feeling that one day, somebody else will start a book about long term travel with a similar anecdote about how somewhere, in a second hand bookshop they found a book by this guy called Rolf Potts…    

Watch Rolf’s DO lecture on his vagabonding philosophy: 

You can listen to Rolf in conversation with Christine Maxfield on the Compassmag podcast, When in Roam, here or read Frank Bures’ profile of Rolf for Poets & Writers here

Check out Rolf Potts’ website at www.rolfpotts.com. 

Book: The Bridge by Geert Mak

The Bridge: A Journey between Orient and Occident by Geert Mak

Published by Vintage (2009) 

Without the bridge you cannot know the city

At less than 200 pages, the Bridge is not a long read, but then there are few travel books which cover such a short distance; in the case of The Bridge, the span of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge (“a journey covering no more than five hundred meters”, according to Mak’s website).

Geert Mak is a Dutch journalist and historian and the author of several books including Amsterdam, In Europe and most recently, In America, Travels with John Steinbeck.

Mak wrote The Bridge for Boekenweek (Dutch Book Week), an event celebrating Dutch literature and held annually since the 1930s.  As part of the event, well known authors are invited to write a book, a ‘Boekenweekgeschenk’ (book week gift), which is then given away at libraries and to those purchasing Dutch language books.

As research, Geert Mak explains on his website that he spent several weeks getting to know the bridge and those who use it.  The product is a book which describes the lives of the bridge’s booksellers, pickpockets umbrella salesmen, beggars, lottery ticket sellers, roasters of chestnuts, porters with rolls and baskets, shoe shine boys, gamblers, lovers and of course the fishermen. All their stories are here and they make a captivating portrait of the Galata Bridge which is melancholy but also full of life.

Reviewing The Bridge for The Telegraph newspaper, Jeremy Seal, author of Fez of the Heart and Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River, called Mak’s book “a sombre narrative […] stalked by multiple instances of yearning, failure and tragedy.” 

However, in a limited number of pages, Mak somehow manages to squeeze in much more than just observation and individual tales into The Bridge.

As its subtitle declares, The Bridge is ‘a journey between Orient and Occident’.  So, in between getting to know those who frequent the bridge, Mak invokes chroniclers of Istanbul (such as De Amicis, Joseph Brodsky, Orhan Pamuk, Pierre Loti) to examine Istanbul’s history and its position as a geographical and cultural crossroads; a “remarkable corner of the globe.”

Keeping the bridge as the focal point Mak mixes past and present and explores its role as meeting point and boundary for the “two spirits living within this city”; the eastward looking southern shore, home to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi palace and Blue Mosque and the more modern northern shore with its skyscrapers, shopping malls and more Western outlook and mentality.  Mak skilfully weaves the stories of migration, family, community, culture, poverty, hatred, honour, hope and fear with the events of Istanbul’s past as Ottoman capital through its transformation into a modern city.

Mak therefore explores the role of the Galata Bridge not only in Istanbul’s history but as a microcosm of Turkey and as a metaphor for the East’s relationship with the West.  In doing so and, unusually for a travel book, he confronts the humiliation and desperation felt by a large proportion of the world’s population resulting in what Seal writing in the Telegraph called an “anti-travelogue”.

The Bridge is full of contrasts and apparent contradictions to and the effect is a poignant portrait of a city looking towards the future with a mixture of confidence, potential and uncertainty but not cowed by past misfortunes: 

no one gets to determine his own fate. The most important thing is your dignity, that’s one thing you must never give up.

A book worth loitering around as much as the bridge itself.

Further reading: Alex Adil’s review for the Independent is here and Jeremy Seal’s review for the Telegraph is here.

Book: Back in the USSR, Maclean & Danziger

Back in the USSR, Heroic Adventures in Transnistria by Rory Maclean (with photographs by Nick Danziger)

Published by Unbound (2014)

“Friends! Comrades! Come and join us on a journey into the heart of the new age Russian Revolution.

I admit I had never heard of Transnistria until Russian troops annexed Crimea in 2014.  The region, also known as Transdniestra is an area on the east of the River Dniester between Moldova and Ukraine.  

After Moldova was annexed by the Soviets in 1940, Russsians and Ukrainians settled in the area.  Its population is split between ethnic Moldovans, Russians and Ukranians.    Following Moldova’s independenece in 1991, Transnistria seceded and fought against, and defeated, Moldovan forces with the assistance of Russian troops, who remain there as a ‘peace-keeping force’. 

Transnistria is then, in MacLean’s words, “a breakaway republic of a breakaway republic of the old Soviet Union”; unique in that it has not recognised (or at least does not appear to have accepted) the collapse of the Soviet Union and is itself unrecognised by any other country.

Rory Maclean is author of several travel books including Berlin, Stalin’s Nose, Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma and Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India.  Nick Danziger is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who has also written two travel books (Danziger’s Travels and Danziger’s Adventures).

Continuing a search he began in Stalin’s Nose, MacLean was inspired to visit Transnistria partly to look for “for the real end of Europe”.  It was also inspired by a desire to find out what happened to the archetype Soviet man following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Transnistria maybe a ‘nowhereland’ but it lies on a geopolitical faultline between NATO and the EU and Russia of historical and current importance.   MacLean and Danziger’s account of Transnistria and its Russian links was timely.  Their visit to the country took place not long before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, an event reflected in the text (MacLean had an article on Transnistria published in The Times (£) in January 2014; the annexation took place the following month). 

Back in the USSR is self-consciously tongue in cheek which will not be for everyone.  Viv Groskop, reviewing the book for the Spectator, found it pushing the book into “awkward territory between reportage and mockumentary”.   Back in the USSR already contains sufficient satire and outlandish facts and anecdotes to make it humorous, so it isn’t really necessary, even if it does add to Transnistria’s slightly Alice in Wonderland feel.  

While the tongue in cheek style didn’t distract from the narrative (or Nick Danziger’s photographs), it did sit a bit uneasily with the dark side of Transnistria the book revealed.  

On the surface, are bright, sharply drawn and obviously comic portraits of Communist party officials who espouse the party line under the watchful gaze of busts and statues of Lenin while they the check time on Patek Philiipe watches and drive Mercedes and Lexus cars (or is that ‘Lexi’?).  Meanwhile, in the shadows, we learn that former KGB men control most of the country’s profitable business and, probably, the presidency, state funds disappear, that arms deals and smuggling are commonplace and that fear pervades Transnistria’s citizens.  Soviet-era aspirations of equality have, for many, given birth to uncertainty about the future:  “freedom for the pike means death for the minnows”

MacLean and Danziger’s month long tour of Transnistria takes them round a factory, winery, orphanage and sanatorium, and also to the fantastically wealthy and successful FC Sherrif Tiraspol football club which was founded by two former KGB men.  It also has them visiting the Che Guevara High School of Political Leadership whose head cum guru has been connected in the past to arms sales but admires Gandhi and meeting ‘Shev’s chicks’, President’s Shevchuk’s young, female and Facebook-friendly ministers.     

“Vodka is best drunk in threes”, MacLean and Danziger are told, “If you drink alone, you are an alcoholic.  If two people drink, a man and a woman, it’s romance. But with three drinkers, you have the perfect number of companions”.  It seems three is the magic number for producing a book as well; the three companions in this case being the writer, the photographer and ‘New Soviet Man’, their host who along the way reveals his taste for Pierre Marcolini chocolates, bespoke cologne, expensive watches  and Bentleys.  And, like New Soviet Man, alcohol is also always present (along with fear and Vladimir Putin). 

Back in the USSR is not a long book and Danziger’s atmospheric and stunning photographs make up a significant proportion of the content.  Nevertheless, the blend of visual and text feels right, leaving the reader curious and wanting more.  

Rather than straight reportage,  Back in the USSR is a journey in the company of two people revelling in the people and contradictions they encounter among the former Communist archetypes of Transnistria “who got real” following the fall of the Soviet Union.  At the same time, the text and photographs ensure that Back in the USSR does not overlook the human stories caught up amongst the slogans and posturing of the elite.  

Some of Nick Danziger’s photos of Transnistria can be seen on his website

See Rory MacLean and Nick Danziger introduce Back in the USSR here:

 

The book itself is as different as its subject matter.  Back in the USSR is crowd sourced by publisher Unbound which is a bit like Kickstarter but for books.  Authors pitch their book ideas directly to readers in the hope that prospective readers will pledge money, allowing titles to be published which mainstream publishers might overlook.  In return, would be readers receive different tiers of rewards depending on the amount they pledge and their name appears in the published book. Check out Unbound here

Book: Kapuscinksi’s Travels with Herodotus

Kapuscinski - Travels with HerodotusTravels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Penguin Books

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the most celebrated and controversial journalists and authors of the second half of the last century.   Famous for his books on Ethiopia, Iran and Russia, it seems impossible to give an account of his long career without repeating that he had witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. 

Kapuscinski died in 2007 and Travels with Herodotus was his final book.  In Travels, we encounter Kapuscinski in Cold War Poland as a young journalist for whom the outside world was a fairy-tale.  Before his first foreign assignment to India, the young Kapuscinski is given a copy of The Histories by his editor.    

So begins a journey following Kapuscinski’s own travels as he reports from around the globe intertwined with his own pursuit of Herodotus through the pages of The Histories.  For KapuscinskiHerodotus becomes part companion and part patron saint of foreign correspondents through whom Kapuscinski articulates/formulates his own theory of reportage by celebrating Herodotus’ spirit of inquiry.

Giving the keynote speech at the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2003, Kapuscinski hailed Herodotus as “my first reporter, our father and master, the forerunner of a genre” and The Histories as an “exemplary specimen of reportage” in which the three sources of reportage could be found: travel, people and the reporter’s homework (“reading what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions, or graphic symbols”).

This last source is important for Kapuscinski as it “shows us how to be investigative and precise”.  Kapuscinski notes that Herodotus was well-read and that “he also deciphered inscriptions and symbols on temples and town walls.  Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or a new meaning”

Returning from his first foreign assignment to India, Kapuscinski recalls that he “returned from this journey, embarrassed at how ill-read [he] was” and through this “failure” set about reading voraciously about the places he was to visit realising that he needed to prepare “thoroughly and at length for such an encounter”:

With each new title I read, I felt as if I were undertaking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew.  These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one.  I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs.  What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image etc, something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.”

In his preparation and reading Kapuscinski was able to experience a more layered and multidimensional journey and so reveals an attraction of reading travel literature – to supplement the physical journey and to provide the mental tools to unlock meanings and messages where mere observation may not succeed.

This thorough preparation may also have fuelled Kapuscinski’s “literary reportage” for which his books have fuelled controversy.  

Kapuscisnki made no secret of the fact that he found the language of conventional journalism  to be inadequate “when confronting the rich, varied, colourful, ineffable reality of [third world] cultures, customs and beliefs.”  

In an interview with Bill Buford for Granta in 1987, Kapuscinski explained that “It’s not that the story is not getting expressed: It’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”

To avoid areas of reality being rendered “beyond the sphere of description”, Kapuscinski unapologetically “blurred genres”, taking as his cue Capote, Mailer and  Garcia Marquez, whose work he noted “straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle”.   The result, “is the creative result of a combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing”.  

Kapuscinski has been criticised for his lack of accuracy.  For some, his writing was “tinged with magical realism”, while for others he was just making things up.  

This was not just carelessness.  Kapuscinski kept two note books (whether metaphorically or literally); one for his journalism and the other for his literary reportage and he was amused by critical complaints of his work: 

Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events.  All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid.  If those are the questions that you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need:  the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.”

Although writing where “descriptions of real events, true stories and accidents are supplemented with the writer’s personal opinions and reactions, and often with fictional asides to add colour; with the techniques and manners of fiction” may not be regarded as “straight journalism”, it can make great travel writing.  

Paradoxically, however, despite praising Herodutus’ inquiring style and precision in Travels, the book’s central conceit may just be a literary device rather than biographical fact.  It has been noted that one will search in vain for references to Herodotus elsewhere in Kapuscinski’s work, which could be considered odd if Herodotus had been Kapuscinski’s life long companion and mentor (Bissell).   

Sara Wheeler’s review of Travels with Herodotus for the Guardian is here.  Tom Bissell’s New York Times review is here, while Tahir Shah’s review for the Washington Post is here, and Jason Burke’s for the Literary Review is here.

For an in-depth discussion of Kapuscinski’s work and where reportage ends and literature begins featuring Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslawski, at a Frontline Club event, see here:

Book: “Exterminate all the brutes”

Lindqvist Saharan JourneyExterminate all the Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist

Published by Granta as Saharan Journey (with Desert Divers)

“You already know enough.  So do I.  It is not knowledge we lack.  What is missing is he courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

In his preface, Swedish born journalist, Sven Lindqvist, sums up Exterminate All the Brutes, by stating:

“This is a story, not a contribution to historical research. It is the story of a man traveling by bus through the Saharan desert and, at the same time, traveling by computer through the history of the concept of extermination.  In small, sand-ridden desert hotels, his study closes in one sentence in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate all the brutes.””

In his 2005 Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote speechLindqvist says that his career in reportage started “with a little yellow-paged book that belonged to my Grandmother” which, when he was a boy, he saved from one of his mother’s periodic clear outs.  The book was a diary by Swedish missionary Edward Sjöblom who travelled to the Belgian Congo in 1892 and travelled by boat up the Congo searching for a suitable spot to found a mission.  

The graphic and horrific descriptions in Sjöblom’s diary of the treatment meted out to locals by colonists had a profound effect on Lindqvist (the diary “with all its imperfections, was much more powerful than anything I had read before, because it was about real people and real events”).  Lindqvist wanted to become like Sjöblom:  “[n]ot a missionary, maybe, but one who travelled the world and experienced it.  I wanted to be an eyewitness to the cruelties and injustices and report on them. Like Sjöblom, I wanted to sound the alarm and appeal to world opinion.”

Lindqvist expands this story in Exterminate All the Brutes.  The book’s central idea is that we forget uncomfortable truths: “the Germans have been made sole scapegoats of extermination that are actually a common European heritage” the reason being that “[w]e do not want to remember.  We want genocide to have begun and ended with nazism. That is what is most comforting.” 

In a Guardian profile on Lindqvist, Stuart Jeffries writes that Exterminate All the Brutes “is extraordinary for not being straightforward historical text but travel diary. [Lindqvist] wrote it while crossing the Sahara on buses and, at the same time, journeying through the history of extermination.”

Lindqvist sets out to the “desert of deserts” in Africa “carrying under one arm the core of European thought stored on an old fashioned computer”.  In what Richard Gott called “an ingeniously researched exploration of the roots of European racism and genocide, skilfully presented as a travel book though time and space”, Lindqvist disappears into this desert in an attempt to create the time and distance he needs to explore and understand the material he has collected but never has the time to go through to and which Lindqvist asserts “simply tells the truth we prefer to forget.”  

As Richard Gott says, Lindqvist is “not really a “travel writer” in the usual sense, but he uses the experience gained in unfamiliar locations to entice the reader into consideration of problems that are often a good deal nearer home.” (Gott and Lindqvist originally met in Bolivia in 1967 on the trail of Che Guevara’s guerrilla campaign and have been friends since.)

Lindqvist’s is burdened on his journey by the physical weight of his pack and laptop which could easily be a metaphor for the wright of the knowledge he is carrying in it.  Fear overshadows his journey:

Why do I travel so much when I am so terribly frightened of traveling?  Perhaps in fear we seek an increased perception of life, a more potent form of existence?  I am frightened, therefore I exist.  The more frightened I am, the more I exist.”

At times, this is the normal fear of a traveler setting out on a journey, a sensation soon to be replaced by elation (I am frightened as usual.  But when departure finally cannot be postponed any longer, as I stand there at dawn with my heavy pack, crouching before the leap – then I am again elated at being where I am”) or it is the fear of a physical danger – being buried in the sand (“Everything is covered with sand, my sleeping bag, my notebook, my suitcase, even my body.  My eyelids are lie sandpaper against my eyeballs.  The air is too thick to breathe”) or suffering from the heat. 

These fears, however, could just as easily be fear of teetering on the edge of the conclusions he will draw from his understanding of the material he carries, knowing that he cannot then un-know them.  Or they could be the claustrophobia he experiences from immersing himself so completely in the material or a fear of being buried under the sheer weight of the many textual references.  

The travelogue makes up a small proportion of the overall text, but the fragments shine through his description of the history of extermination.  And, although his prose is as sparse as the desert he describes it is no less evocative for it (“You long for trees in the desert, not just for the shade they provide, but also because they stretch up toward space”).

Making his own journey into darkness, after Conrad, Lindqvist traces a line across the blank of the heart of the Sahara.  His journey begins in El Golea (almost in the geographical centre of Algeria) and follows an overland route through the desert to the town of Zinder in southern Niger, close to the Nigerian border.   Although he does not visit obvious places associated with his subject such as Congo or Sudan, his ultimate goal becomes clear, neatly tying together both journeys with a firing parallel which I won’t spoil. 

Lindqvist acknowledged in his Lettre Ulysses lecture, that not everyone agrees with his conclusions, not least the Belgians (“The power of truth is such that it will always produce denial”).   However, there is no denying that Lindqvist tells a compelling story in an imaginative manner.

At the time of writing, Exterminate All the Brutes is published by Granta in Saharan Journey alongside Lindqvist’s other desert travelogue, Desert Divers.