It’s a hopeful time of year. The stalwart London plane trees have unfurled their leaves, and the sun is rising higher behind the City domes, towers and spires. City dwellers are beginning, as Hardy said, to ‘dream of the south and west’, and we hope that the travellers among you, armchair and otherwise, will enjoy Barnaby Rogerson’s piece on the masters of travel writing in this month’s taste of Slightly Foxed.
All the talk of travelling this month might inspire you to follow in the footsteps of great writers. This could be difficult if you go on Barnaby’s selection: the Sudan is off limits, and Zanzibar is just out of reach. But how about Ayrshire? Later this month the Boswell Book Festival will take place there, in Auchinleck House. It’ll champion the best bits of biography and travel writing, marking the 250th anniversary of when Boswell met Johnson (Samuel that is, not Boris). You can win tickets to a Boswell Festival event, so do read on.
And if travelling isn’t quite enough, then you might like to have a go at writing about it too. Barnaby has advice on this point, explaining that ‘the genius of a good travel writer is to take the reader by the hand and lead them gently, with wit and skill, into physical and mental landscapes they would never otherwise have encountered’. So if you’re keen to get writing, send your opening gambit to our First Lines competition. The prize is a place on a travel writing workshop and you’ll find more details below. Before that, though, take Mr Rogerson as a guide through the landscape of great travel writing:
In the summer of 2003 the two masters of travel writing, Norman Lewis and Wilfrid Thesiger, died within a month of each other. As Britain buried the last of her explorers and the best of her travel writers, it became clear that a literary threshold had been crossed. The obituaries were unanimous in their praise of these great men, a pair of triumphant individualists who were born with a zeal to record a vanishing world.
Despite their passionate identification with different cultures and their public championing of endangered societies, they were both also self-effacingly modest. Indeed, by the standards of today’s tabloids they might seem indecently reticent. Norman Lewis claimed he could walk into a room full of people and leave it some time afterwards without anyone realizing that he had been there. Wilfrid Thesiger could never claim such invisibility. His beak-like nose, craggy profile and taste for traditional tailoring, whether in Chelsea or Afghanistan, made him instantly recognizable, but his icy reserve kept him insulated from all but a handful of intimates. This self-discipline was not forced in either man. Rather it was an essential component of their role as travel writers. They were there to observe, to record the world dispassionately, not to paint self-portraits or to cast their shadow over the landscapes they loved.
This is not to suggest that travel writing should be considered a brood-sister to a scholarly work of anthropology. Although you may learn more about the nature of Neapolitan life from Lewis’s masterpiece Naples ’44
and more about the realities of Bedouin existence from Thesiger’s marvellous Arabian Sands
than you would if you read a dozen academic textbooks, the reader should always be cautious. Thesiger travelled with youthful outcasts of Omani society whilst Lewis spent much of his time in Naples with prostitutes. Travel writing is always at its best when it is an individual’s passionate response to a society. It seldom, if ever, aspires to a balanced viewpoint and is most famously effective when a whole culture is threatened with destruction. The writer can then pull out all the stops and indulge in a poignant elegy to a dying world.
It is one of the pleasures of a settled, comfortable life to indulge in this melancholy process of regret. It also helps prepare you for old age and death, if you can convince yourself that all the beauty of the world has been destroyed. However, if you have ever been privileged to witness the ecstatic delight of an isolated village at last being linked to the outside world, and given access to hospitals, schools and a market place, you might seriously doubt that anyone could resist such progress. That said, the skilful evocation of a destroyed world can turn a travel book into a historical document. The young Mungo Park, his hat-band stuffed with notes, could never have known that with his diaries he was creating a prime source of West African history. Thesiger would also achieve this with his book on The Marsh Arabs
(whose home in the flooded delta-land of Mesopotamia in southern Iraq was drained by Saddam Hussein). In Voices of the Old Sea
Norman Lewis wrote one of the iconic books of the twentieth century. It chronicles a self-contained Spanish fishing village with a sophisticated oral culture of verse-making, just before it is destroyed by mass tourism; Lewis is almost completely absent from the narrative. This, I feel, is one of the marks of a true travel writer. The narrator’s interest in ‘otherness’ is wholly absorbing.
Looking back at these masters and contemplating the present state of travel writing, one has to acknowledge that we are in a new era. Travel documentaries now record every corner of the world, yet they are a paradox. Travel, by its very nature, cannot easily be framed by a medium which requires, even at its most pared-down, a cameraman, a sound recorder, a director/producer and a narrator working to a script and a budgeted schedule. In practice, as the credits at the end of each programme so honestly reveal, the film crew will be much, much larger. As an experienced travel producer explained to me, one concept every half hour is all their target audience can be expected to absorb. A television audience will also expect an easy flippancy and will not normally tolerate more than ten minutes of filming in the same landscape before boredom sets in.
Such is the lucrative effect of the TV tie-in that anything with a whiff of television gets published, marketed and enthusiastically stocked by the bookshop chains. This is the world in which Michael Palin has become the best-known traveller of the day, his books selling by the hundreds of thousands. His work on the Sahara was written in the form of a continuous diary. The reality was a series of country-by-country visits based on filming needs which involved the participants being ferried over for each session. For instance ‘Day Fourteen: Tinfou to Tindouf ’ casually implies that Palin crossed the Moroccan Saharan frontier to visit the Polisario camp in Algeria. On a map they look close enough but it is in fact impossible to travel on the ground from one to the other, for this highly sensitive frontier with its unreported border war has been closed for thirty years. I like Palin better when he honestly records heading back to ‘an English summer to cool off until the Saharan summer has burnt itself out’.
Travel writing has become an annex of the entertainment industry. Fellow-publishers have confided that sexual tension between travellers is always good for sales whilst a travel writer reticent about personal relationships will not help his book’s ‘profile’. Contemporary travel writers now skip lightly along the tracks first forged by the great explorers, ever conscious that with this trip they might finally ‘break into’ film. To add a sense of achievement modern travel writers will have to invent new ways in which to cross the Sahara or to trudge across the utmost poles, or burden themselves with a half-trained string of camels, an elephant, a fridge, a mule or an unresponsive
partner. In any one year you can be reasonably sure that British publishers will be producing a book touching on elephants in India, a horse-ride across Central Asia and a camel trek. By the end I am usually damp-eyed with concern for the animals and correspondingly irritated with the writer without having learned anything of interest about the humans encountered along the way.
So has the great British tradition of travel writing been overwhelmed by the combined effects of television and the new mass market? Who are the heirs of the great master travel writers? I called in on the handful of bookshops in London where the staff actively choose their stock. There are not many of these places left, but those that we have, such as Daunt’s, John Sandoe, Heywood Hill and Hatchards have become as valuable as whole libraries.*
The depression soon lifted. Even restricting my survey to the books that had been published in the last couple of years I found myself with an impressive shortlist which I have reluctantly whittled down to five. Looking at their spines, I feel an extraordinary new confidence in the genre.
I had already unwittingly met Ghada Karmi, the author of In Search of Fatima
, when she spoke at an anti-war rally in Hyde Park, but her calm literary voice is a world removed from the fervent rhetoric of that day. She has also neatly reversed all the usual stereotypes of travel writing, for she is a woman, she is Arab, she comes from a Muslim culture and she is exploring England.
Though born in Jerusalem, her childhood was spent with embittered Palestinian exiles in a north London suburb – ironically also one of the chief Jewish neighbourhoods. This was the springboard for her passionate attachment to her adopted land and its tolerance. In Search of Fatima
is the story of her love for England which is capped by her fairytale marriage to a liberal gentleman. Disenchantment and political radicalization ultimately follow, but the domestic focus of the first half of this book is a vital aspect of its success. For I believe that it is a conscious and skilful attempt to educate the British into an emotional sympathy with a Palestinian – any Palestinian – and so help break the hostile stereotypes that still dominate the collective imagination.
The Zanzibar Chest
begins as a classic post-colonial journey of discovery as we follow its young author, Aidan Hartley, in the footsteps of his adventurous Empire-minded antecedents, especially his Odysseus-like father, who served as colonial officer, ranch-owner, agricultural adviser and finally as an aid-worker in his beloved Africa.
Each successive decade of the late twentieth century saw such ‘White Africans’ ever more marginalized from the East African power structure. Aidan clearly sees his own career – he is a journalist writing on Africa – as one more step down this ladder away from any enriching involvement with the land.
To help understand this remorseless process of exclusion he also investigates the assassination of his father’s best friend, Peter Davey, back in the days of the British-controlled Aden Protectorate. As the revelations of Davey’s secret love affair with a Yemeni woman (and his secret conversion to Islam) are unearthed, so the tempo of Aidan’s own life speeds up. His experience of the last months of the Ethiopian civil war and the implosion of state authority in Somalia, followed by the disastrous US intervention, creates a compelling, nervy and disturbing narrative. A chillingly competitive love affair with a fellow-journalist provides the right emotional setting for a final descent into the killing fields of Rwanda. Hartley has created a book fit to stand beside Conrad, Gide and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun
It also provides the perfect preparation for Emma’s War
by Deborah Scroggins. This is on one level an impeccably researched account of the short but tempestuous life of Emma McCune, an English aidworker who fell in love with Riek Machar, one of the commanders of the southern Sudanese resistance to the Muslim north. It is also a very professional survey, and within the context of this personal tale, Scroggins neatly defines the rival ethnic and linguistic groups that make the Sudanese civil war such a complicated affair, without losing sight of the classic North-South divide.
But on another, much richer level this book is a dialogue between two different sorts of relationship with Sudanic Africa. For Atlanta-based Scroggins is also an aid-worker – clearly professional, well-briefed and efficient at her job – whilst Emma often comes across as a frivolous adventure-seeker looking for fulfilment and status in Africa that she could never find in her Yorkshire homeland. On the other hand, Emma was prepared to love Africa, to love individual Africans and to leave the privileged comforts of the aid-workers’ barracks (and their Western-scale salaries) to live in a Sudanic village.
While Emma ends up defending a tribal slaughter perpetrated by her husband, her ex-colleagues (there to feed the starving) go on strike when their regular supply of air-freighted meals is suspended. As a debate about the motivations of modern aid-workers the book is totally engrossing. Scroggins also has a journalist’s eye for compelling detail, the kind that haunts the imagination and continually pricks the conscience.
If the British may feel ambivalent about their involvement in the Sudan, this is as nothing compared to the French relationship with North Africa. It is a truism of Algeria that the French are too interested, the rest of Europe is uninterested and so no one is disinterested. John Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine
is a beautiful, uplifting book that is all the more welcome because it breathes a spirit of heroism and courage into the scorched emotional landscape of French Algeria.
Like Emma’s War
, it is another example of a highly professional work by an American journalist researching the life of a maverick European who dies tragically young in Africa. This recipe again makes for a compelling combination, because both Europeans and Algerians are assessed with equal weight whilst none of the tangled background of two centuries of murderous history is taken for granted. It is also a very particular book, in part because it is about sacrifice, in part because it studies the thought processes, rivalries and secret ambitions of a group of Trappist monks.
The story is centred on the character of Christian de Chergé, whose life was saved in the Algerian War of Independence by Mohammed, a young village policeman who stepped in front of this unarmed young French soldier to protect him from resistance fighters. Mohammed insisted that de Chergé was a good man and a friend to Muslims.
The freedom fighters let them both go that day but a few days later Mohammed was found with his throat slit. Mohammed’s self-sacrifice inspired the rest of de Chergé’s life. Years later, he would become the dynamic head of a small Trappist monastery, energetically pursuing a religious dialogue with Islamists during the dangerous years of the Algerian civil war. The world needs such stories: of a Frenchman driven to follow the life of Christ to its ultimate conclusion by the self-sacrifice of a Muslim.
Although I learned a lot about Algerian politics from John Kiser, The Dark Heart of Italy
by Tobias Jones is easily the most outwardly political book in this short list. It is a scorching analysis of Berlusconi’s Italy and would be unreadable if one were not convinced that Tobias Jones adores Italy and fully intends to spend the rest of his life there.
For only someone who is prepared to enter the political struggle should be allowed to pen such a biting, crushing, but also wickedly entertaining portrait of a nation state.
Nor is it just Italian politics and Italy’s corrupt economy that are under review: even the Italians’ football, their faith and the betrayed promise of their glorious cinematic culture are taken apart. Berlusconi is clearly the villain of the piece but Tobias Jones is too analytical not to see that he is a symptom, not the cause, of the country’s troubles. Jones is also refreshingly different in not ascribing all Italy’s problems to the lawless Mafia- and Camorra-ridden south. Instead he examines the prosperous northern cities – Milan and Genoa, with their so-called White Mafia, his beloved Red Padua and the deadly legacy of the unfinished civil war that was fought in the North between the partisans and the fascists. The Dark Heart of Italy
will stand as a companion volume beside Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily
; another epic in the outside world’s obsessive love-hate relationship with Italy.
The genius of a good travel writer is to take the reader by the hand and lead them gently, with wit and skill, into physical and mental landscapes they would never otherwise have encountered. As the world divides yet again into two armed camps, the need for observant travellers remains vital.
* This article was published in 2005. We’re delighted that many more independent bookshops in London – and further afield – could be added to that list today, including Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road, of course.
Barnaby Rogerson was conceived on a yacht and spent much of his childhood following in the wake of his naval father. He has written half a dozen guidebooks, a History of North Africa, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad and an account of the early Caliphate, The Heirs of the Prophet. With his partner Rose Baring he now runs Eland Publishing which specializes in keeping the classics of travel literature in print.
Coming soon . . .
SFE No. 22
Richard Hillyer was the pseudonym used by Charles Stranks, a farmworker’s son who grew up in great poverty in a remote Buckinghamshire village in the years before the First World War.
Country Boy describes how, against all the odds, he managed to educate himself and get to university. It is an extraordinary and moving story.
Country Boy will be published in a cloth-bound, limited edition of 2000 copies on 3 June 2013. Do order now. Copies will be dispatched on publication.
UK £16; Europe £18; Rest of the World £19. All prices include post & packing
Coming up in the summer issue of Slightly Foxed . . .
Patrick Mercer joins the night-runners, Dervla Murphy travels to the Cape, Justin Marozzi visits Naples with Norman Lewis, Andrew Merrills finds himself betwixt woods and water, Tessa West sets out her stall, Paul Atterbury meets Inspector Appleby, Ysenda Maxtone Graham gets caught in the rye . . .
Not yet a subscriber? Slightly Foxed
is the quarterly book review that’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Whether you’re flying to faraway places this summer or just staying at home, we guarantee it will cheer and transport you.
UK £40; Europe £48; USA & Rest of the World £52 All prices include post & packing
Going, going . . .
In this prizewinning memoir, Ted Walker recreates with unusual vividness his secure, happy childhood in the England of the Thirties and Forties.
Most telling, perhaps, was his relationship with his father, a carpenter who had come to the Sussex coast from Birmingham in search of work before Ted’s birth. The affection between the two shines out from the tender portrait of him, cruising the last mile home from work on his Ariel motorbike, playing backyard cricket with typical concentration, or struggling to master French with Ted.
UK £16; Europe £18; Rest of the World £19. All prices include post & packing
. . . almost gone! 40 copies left.
James Lees-Milne, writer and architectural historian, is probably best remembered for his mischievously perceptive diaries, which chronicled the doings of upper-class English society from the Second World War onwards in twelve addictive volumes. Another Self
, his fanciful, funny, yet poignant account of his early years, has the same gripping quality.
Lees-Milne’s eye for detail and highly developed sense of the ridiculous, made him a wonderful comic writer. John Betjeman compared the impact of Another Self
to that of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall
UK £16; Europe £18; Rest of the World £19. All prices include post & packing
Do you dream of becoming a travel writer?
Slightly Foxed has partnered up with Travel Writing Workshops to launch the Finest First Line competition. The prize for our favourite first line for a travel book is a place on a Travel Writing Workshop day with award-winning travel writers Rory Maclean and Dea Birkett.
This day-long practical workshop is for those who are new to travel writing or who want to improve their writing skills, whether for publication or for pleasure.
Travel Writing Workshop
8 June 2013, 10.30 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.
City of London
Rory Maclean writes, ‘Where to begin a travel book? With a feeling, a memory, a quest, an obsession . . . and a horseman riding in to town. John Ford, the great American director of Hollywood westerns, advised to always start with a cowboy galloping toward the Sheriff’s office. Ford’s intention was to grab the viewer’s attention, and to draw him or her into the story. That viewer – like a reader – then starts asking questions (Why is he in a hurry? Is he wearing a white or black hat?). Answering those questions becomes part of the story, and so hooks the audience.’ One can’t always muster a cowboy and a sheriff’s office, however, so here are a few famous travel books’ first lines to inspire you:
‘“Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’ Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond
‘In my grandmother’s dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin.’ Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia
‘On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as presents and a few days later I decided to cycle to India.’ Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt
‘Winston the pig fell into Zita’s life when he dropped onto my uncle's head and killed him dead.’ Rory Maclean, Stalin’s Nose: Across the Face of Europe
To enter, just send your first line (no more than 140 characters including spaces) by email to email@example.com
Or, if you’re a Twitter user, tweet us @TravelWorkshop using the hashtag #firstlines
E.G. @TravelWorkshop ‘Take my camel, dear’, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. #firstlines
Closing date 20 May
To find out more about Travel Writing Workshops, go to www.travelworkshops.co.uk
2013 marks the 250th anniversary of Boswell's legendary first meeting with Dr Samuel Johnson, and the Boswell Book Festival is bigger than ever. It’s a celebration of biographical writing in all its forms, and there’ll be appearances from James Naughtie, Artemis Cooper, Jane Ridley and Ewan Morrison, among others. There’ll also be a children’s non-fiction day, Bozzy’s Book Buzz, and an appearance by the leading authority on the life of James Boswell, Dr Gordon Turnbull. The festival will unfurl at Auchinleck House in Ayrshire from 17 to 19 May, and those looking for an intrepid and immersive experience can pitch their tent, hire a Yurt or Tipi, and set up camp in the stately grounds for the weekend.
readers have the opportunity to win two tickets to see the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry and Tam Dalyell in conversation with James Knox, author of The Scottish Country House
. Heirs to two of Scotland's most historic families, Richard Buccleuch and Tam Dalyell will discuss their relationship with their ancestors in the houses built by them.
3.30 p.m. Sunday 19 May
Boswell Book Festival
To win the tickets, simply name the Dumfriesshire seat of the Buccleuch family and the Scottish home of Tam Dalyell. Please send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the festival and download the programme, go to
We are delighted to be able to offer our readers a set of three classic titles by Norman Lewis reissued this month by Eland Books for the special price of £33 plus £2.50 postage and packing.*
Voices of the Old Sea
These three titles would be more than £46 if bought individually so it’s quite a saving.
Our bookshop has a limited number of these sets so do order now while stocks last.
*NB Sadly we are unable to offer £2.50 postage to our overseas customers, but please do go through the checkout process on our website and we will get back to you with the most reasonable postage cost possible.
Last month’s competition was farming-related, and we enjoyed your answers to the question of what exactly a fiddle drill is. Phil Pearson’s correct answer was pulled from the farmer’s hat and appears below. His trophy comes in the form of a Slightly Foxed mug, the perfect vessel for refreshment after long days in the field. Our favourite wrong answers, also included below, will receive a tea towel each. Bravo!
‘A fiddle drill is an implement once used by farmers to sow seed evenly on to a field, before mechanisation. This involved the farmer walking up and down the field, with a container of seed, with a hole in the bottom, which dropped the seed steadily on to a spinning plate, driven by the farmer drawing a bow, to and fro, to drive the spinning plate. An even pace and rhythm once obtained, helped provide a good even coverage of seed onto the field.’
We’re glad he cleared that up. Here are our two incorrect favourites:
‘Everyone knows about the violins of Stradivarius and how wonderful they are. What might not be known is that he was a great experimenter and from time to time he explored the possibilities of putting extra soundholes on the top, back and sides of his instruments. For this task, he put his mind to work and created a new tool for luthiers, the fiddle drill. This was unique in that it had a variable sized drill bit, ideal for the job in hand. Legend has it that the sound of these experimental violins was quite extraordinary and because only a handful were ever built, none seem to have survived. Should you find a violin in a flea market with extra holes in the body (please do not confuse them with woodworm holes!) snap it up.’
‘The less-bohemian event that the Mock Turtle didn't describe.’
Thanks to all those who entered and congratulations to Phil, Mark and Catherine, your prizes are on their way to you.
This month, the fox has been spotted in a London office. We're not entirely sure what's going on, but the pig and the meerkat look as through they're about to book a holiday online.
Thanks to David Tickner (Book Club Co-ordinator for the CSRF/NHSRF charities) for the photo. We’d love to be able to travel as far and wide as our fox does, but for now we take just as much pleasure from the pictures that get sent home.
Do email Jennie
your photos of Slightly Foxed
at home and abroad.