Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Noel Barber: Trans-siberian

December 26, 2020

This is an account of a journey on the Transsiberian Railway in the winter of 1939, so a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The writer and his wife begin their journey in Dairen, part of Japanese-occupied China, formerly the Russian city of Port Arthur, and now the city of Dalian. The casual anti-Japanese racism is quite shocking to this contemporary reader. Here is a white Westerner whose nose is put seriously out-of-joint, because of the way the Japanese clearly behave in a way that makes it clear they are the racially superior and more powerful ones. Of course, the Japanese treatment of China and the Chinese was abominable at this time; equally, everyone seemed to be anticipating war between Japan and the Soviet Union, a revenge re-play for the debacle of 1905…

I’ve always found old travel books fascinating, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the actual travelling requires a real effort, unlike so much of today’s travel. Then, there are the writers’ impressions of the places through which they pass, and the often very interesting casual encounters they have as they progress. All of these aspects combine to give a much clearer picture of a past era than you can necessarily derive from a history book.

What was particularly interesting about this book was that although the journey was made in 1939, the book wasn’t published until 1942, when we are in the middle of the Second World War, and the Soviet Union is one of our allies. Throughout, I was looking at the book as part of the propaganda effort to paint Stalin and the Soviets in an acceptable light, and how this was quite subtly done. The whole account of the journey and the places the writer sees and visits is interspersed with comments that update the reader to the current war and our ally’s efforts.

Stalin is very much in the background; we don’t get much more than references to the ubiquitous portraits garnishing public buildings. There is one slightly shocking reference to awkward social elements being ‘liquidated’. What is foregrounded is the military preparedness of the country, its massive industrial capabilities, large amounts of which are beyond the Ural mountains and therefore out of the reach of Germany. Much of the heavy industry can easily be converted to the war effort. And their troops are well-trained, well-prepared for action. A fair amount of this flies in the face of what we now know: Stalin’s refusal to believe the blindingly obvious German preparations for invasion and the country’s consequent chaos when war did finally break out, and the rush to move as much industry and production away from the German advance…

The idealism and the patriotism of the Soviet people is played up, as is women’s major contribution to the economy; there is much praise for the massive and rapid industrialisation and general modernisation of the country in the previous decade, and the master-minding of this is attributed to Stalin’s foresight. The picture of the genuine idealism of many Russians, especially the young, is borne out by later stories of their heroism and their suffering during the Great Patriotic War. As propaganda, such aspects are carefully presented, and the writer is also clear to admit what he doesn’t get to see, what he is not allowed to see, what he isn’t told, and the questions which those he meets are unable to answer…

All-in-all this was a fascinating glimpse into a long-vanished world, and also a reminder of the genuine idealism of many as they strove to build a new and better society. Everyone knows of the excesses, abuses and mass repressions and murders of the Stalinist era; no-one can or should make any excuses or apologies for them, and yet the desire of, and commitment to, a different and better world, by so many ordinary people, should not have been lost…

Ella Maillart: Ti-Puss

October 23, 2020

     I’ve long enjoyed the travel writings and photography of the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart (you can find reviews elsewhere on this blog if you’re interested) and this, as far as I’ve been able to find out, is chronologically the next to last of her books, dating from her time in India during the Second World War. By this time, she had largely moved on from roaming far and wide around the globe and the focus of her personal journey had moved inwards: in India, she explored Hindu philosophy and spirituality under various teachers, and remained in the country for a number of years, and subsequently returned regularly,

Ti-Puss is a curious little book, largely focused on Maillart’s deep relationship with an Indian street cat which she adopts, and through this relationship she learns and writes much about love, affection, attachment and separation, in personal as well as spiritual ways.

She is clearly familiar with India and some of its ways, having already been there some two years before she meets and takes up with her new companion, and we see a genuine affection develop, which appears mutual – and we all know how independent cats are! The very idea of a cat as a pet or companion is a very unusual concept in India and Maillart is aware of being perceived as self-indulgent, but clearly craves and needs the closeness. From reading all her books (and I’m aware that these are not necessarily any clue to the wholeness of a life) I’m unaware of any similar attachment to another person…

What she learns at this stage of her journey is largely mediated through life with the cat. She is as descriptive as ever: in the days when travel was relatively limited, photography a complex and quite expensive process, and television in its infancy, a writer’s ability to create a real sense of being somewhere still largely depended on the skilful use of words. We also have brief accounts of some of her discussions with various sages, as well as mentions of other westerners who seem to be on variations of a similar journey to hers. Again Maillart embeds herself as far as possible in the local way of life, habits and routines, and this has always seemed natural in all of her travels. Clearly as a published writer and relatively privileged European she has sources of income, but she remains true to the way in which she had begun some twenty or more years previously, immersing herself in her surroundings and observing people and places very closely.

As I said before, the cat is at the core of the book, and when Maillart leaves her for two weeks to go climbing in the Himalayas, the cat finally asserts her independence, and the sense of loss, at leaving the cat behind and never knowing what has become of her, is genuinely moving, even painful – if you’ve ever been a cat-owner, you will know what I mean. Although it’s a good read, I would have liked to know more about the places and the spiritual quest, too…

Nicolas Offenstadt: Le Pays Disparu

October 12, 2020

     As a teenager I travelled twice through the GDR en route to Poland. It was a weird experience – almost empty motorways, which were the original autobahns built by Hitler, and certainly showing their age by the 1970s. No stopping allowed; strict border checks; enormous and beautiful transit visas in our passports; compulsory driving insurance that was completely useless to us… now you can drop in and visit the museum that was the enormous car and lorry checkpoint at Helmstedt/Marienborn, completely deserted.

Offenstadt’s book – only available in French, and I don’t imagine a translation is very likely – is a very thorough and timely exploration of how an entire country has been thrust into the 1984 memory-hole, erased deliberately from existence, and the reasons for this are also touched upon.

The GDR was not just a dictatorship; as a workers’ and peasants’ state it was conscious of, and proud of, its connections with the workers’ movements and history from the pre-Nazi days. It was very easy and convenient for the triumphalist West to label it as one dictatorship following on another, eliding Nazism and Stalinism, and to completely gloss over what the GDR achieved in forty years of existence. Clearly it ultimately failed as a state, though the final push came from outside; economically it was unable to satisfy all its citizens’ wants and needs, and it watched over them as closely as does China or North Korea today, and it killed people trying to leave ‘illegally’, but it enjoyed successes in many areas and also the loyalty of many of its citizens, as Offenstadt amply documents. But the West ‘won’, and the victors had the power to de-legitimise the predecessor.

Offenstadt is an urban explorer as well as rather obsessed by the disappeared country. His is a full, serious and thoroughly documented work, based upon personal exploration and a wide range of interviews and conversations with former-GDR citizens. It is important that he goes so much deeper than the trite Western picture of an economically failed state, and an economic system that allegedly cannot work, a picture that deliberately throws the baby out with the bathwater for its own ideological reasons. Equally, he does not slip into sentimental ‘Ostalgia’ and is conscious of his rather curious status of very interested non-German.

The GDR was not a warmongering 12-year nightmare like Nazi Germany, but a country that rebuilt after the Second World War along totally different lines from its Western counterpart, and without the massive financial support of the USA. It was a country for 45 years, for its citizens to grow up and live in, make lives and careers in, to build and be proud of, and Offenstadt catalogues the advantages it gave its citizens, particularly in terms of women’s rights, childcare, education, employment and housing, many of which were lost when the two Germanies were ‘re-united’. Increasingly there are historians who judge that actually it was another anschluss, an annexation of a weaker state by a more powerful one.

Interestingly, Offenstadt advances the idea that the Federal Republic’s drive to remove all trace of the GDR (and he catalogues the removing of plaques, statues, the re-naming of streets, schools and public buildings, the closing down of institutions, demolition of landmarks and much, much more) and play up the evils of the Stasi as reflecting back on its earlier almost complete failure in the de-Nazification process after the Second World War…

It was an interesting and useful read, though in the end perhaps a little too detailed when it came to the eradication of plaques and monuments to the various celebrities of the GDR, and it’s a shame that the photographs reproduced so poorly in what is a mass-market paperback, but these are minor gripes, and I’ve yet to come across a similar work on the GDR in English…

Sanmao: Stories of the Sahara

September 21, 2020

91Xc988sUGL._AC_UL320_      This book came with three strong recommendations – from a fellow blogger, from a former student, and the very fact that it had ‘Sahara’ in the title: I’ll go for anything that’s about deserts.

It was very different from what I’d expected. Sanmao was a young Taiwanese woman in a relationship with a Spanish man (eventually married to him) working in the phosphate mines which were the mainstay of the economy of what was the Spanish Sahara in the 1970s. She was fascinated by deserts and wanted to live in one, and these stories are about various aspects of their lives in the colony, in the years running up to the independence struggle and eventual annexation by Morocco. So there’s not a lot of actual travel in the Sahara, but a lot of detail about life there.

Sanmao observes and records just how different life is for the Sahrawi people from that of relatively wealthy and educated Westerners. She feels great sympathy with their difficult lives (especially the lives of the women), respecting local customs and behaviour and tending to remain silent at times when they behave in ways which appal her: there is a sensitivity to a culture of which she is not a part and which she is conscious she may not fully understand. She shares her misgivings with her readers.

At times she seems quite laconic in her attitude, necessarily distant in so many ways from the people she lives among, yet though the series of stories we do sense he involvement with them, a bond and an empathy with people. Though not overtly feminist, she stands up for the Sahrawi women in ways in which she can, attempting to set up a school for them, and, of course, as a woman herself she is granted insights into local life, culture and traditions which no man could access. There are times when both she and her husband seem incredibly naive in their approach to the world of the desert and its people. I got a sense of just how different a culture and a place can be from what one is used to…

The stories are short chapters, often merely tantalising glimpses of a different world. Sanmao’s love of the desert is a simple one. And yet, she is also capable of very powerful and moving accounts, particularly later on, when insurgency and warfare directly impinge on her life and on the people she is closest to. The violence and brutality are horrifying and she is unable to help or save any of her three local friends. And the narrative of her encounter with slavery was truly shocking. For her it was a cultural shock which she did not really understand and clearly could not accept, and the power of the writing came from the very powerlessness she experienced in that situation.

It was a surprise that such a different and moving relation of encounters with the Sahara and its people had taken so long to be translated into English, and I do hope it’s widely read: I certainly recommend it.

Benedict Allen: The Skeleton Coast

September 7, 2020

Although I’ve read quite widely about travellers in many deserts, accounts of the Kalahari are few and far between and hard to come by, but this companion book to a BBC series from 1997 turned up; I’ve read one or two things previously by Benedict Allen and enjoyed them, as well as his door-stopper of an anthology of exploration. My father had told me about the Kalahari when I was a boy, and I know that his journey from Siberia to this country had included several months necessary rest and recuperation from starvation and illness in South Africa, but I don’t know whether he ever got to see the actual desert.

First thing: the map is excellent and means pretty much every step of his journey along the coast of Namibia by camel can be followed on it. The diary form works well, too, bringing a sense of immediacy as well as emphasising the hardship; yes, you know he’s going to survive because he writes the book in the end, but you share the journey quite intimately.

Allen conveys the weirdness of the place in good, atmospheric descriptions, which are accompanied by some amazing photographs. There is a sense of a place lost in time, which is emphasised by all the settlements which have been abandoned to the desert. The journey he proposed to undertake was a serious challenge, even at the end of the twentieth century, and many doubted that it could actually be done.

So what you get through his daily entries is a gripping, straightforward account of a very difficult journey, his enjoyment and endurance, and the feeling that he is a part of the place through which he travels. In some ways his manner and approach remind me of the travels of Michael Asher, which you can find reviewed elsewhere in this blog. His determination is important, and the sense that he feels part of the places through which he travels comes over effectively, though he is not travelling as a seeker in the same sense as someone like Ella Maillart, for instance. He enjoys the advantages and privileges of being a relatively wealthy and sponsored Westerner, but these do not intrude, are not flaunted or obvious; here is a real traveller.

In the end, another explorer of whom I felt envious: much as I’d love to do something like that myself, I know I’m not the sort of person who could; I admire anyone who can.

Amandine Roche – Nomade sur la voie d’Ella Maillart

August 27, 2020

81a+PrLYM5L._AC_UL320_     I’ve remarked before how little the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart is known over here, despite having written most of her books in English. She is much more popular in Europe, and this book is another ‘tribute’ to her: a French traveller attempts to follow in her footsteps seventy years later, in the early years of this century, and it’s quite instructive. I read it in the hope of understanding a little more of Maillart’s philosophy of life, some of which I had gleaned from Olivier Weber’s book.    

The book is very uneven: at times Roche’s travelling and encounters appear very superficial, and some stretches of her journey are sketched at breakneck speed: Maillart she isn’t, and this isn’t her fault. Her comparisons of the places Maillart visited and how they are now are very interesting, especially when we feel she is as engaged with people and surroundings as much as Maillart was. There are major changes: there is Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits it places on the possibilities for travel; there is the disintegration of the USSR, its fragmentation into numerous barely functioning statelets (Maillart travelled through the Soviet Union in its very early days); China is now a communist empire rather than a failed state in the middle of a civil war and experiencing a Japanese invasion; travel is so much more mechanised… and then there are the places which really do seem virtually unchanged since the 1930s, particularly in Tibet and Nepal. In poorer and more remote regions of the former USSR, Roche encounters a good deal of nostalgia for the good old days of communism among ordinary who have not been on the make.

What became clearer to me was what I picture as Ella Maillart’s flight from Europe in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, a continent where civilisation and its values had either vanished or been found severely wanting. It’s almost as if she could see the future unfolding as she gravitated towards India as the Second World War approached, stopped travelling and began an interior journey instead. I feel that one of the values of Roche’s travels and writings is how, via the inevitable comparisons, Maillart’s quest becomes clearer. At times, I also felt Roche had a tendency to romanticise rather. Travel in the 2ist century is certainly very different, and much harder, in many ways.

It’s when she’s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China that Roche feels so much more immersed, more detailed and more observant; her reflections on how thing do or do not change over time show clearly that we are not necessarily progressing as a species. She happened to be in Kabul on 9-11: certainly chaos did seem to follow her about at times!

One thing was really unsatisfactory: clearly five years in India shaped the second half of Maillart’s life, and Roche did not really provide too many clues about those experiences. Nor – and this was a great surprise, especially since she mentions her intention of doing it – does she visit the places in Southern India where Maillart spent those five years of the Second World War.

I’m glad I read this book; I feel a little more informed, and the personal narrative of how things have changed over time is worthwhile. But the maps are poor…

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.


There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…


I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.


Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

Sophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

February 29, 2020

81onguNJfRL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I don’t often get to the end of a book and find myself thinking, “What a lovely book!” But with this one, I did. And I’m quite particular in my choice of travel-writing nowadays, and tend to avoid ‘easy’ travel; you can’t call Siberia ‘easy’.

Sophy Roberts’ tale is a bizarre one, of tracking musical history, and more specifically pianos, in Siberia. So weird that the Russian authorities at times think she’s either a little cracked, or else using her quest as cover for something else – she could be a spy. I found the very idea that a piano could survive a nineteenth century journey to Siberia astonishing in itself (Roberts travels to places where there are still no roads today), before even coming to consider how it would fare long-term in the climate, with its extremes of temperature and humidity. And there was clearly a great demand for culture and music among the thousands of people exiled there, for various crimes under the Tsars.

What comes across most powerfully in the book is her developing love for the place and its people: she travels widely, meets a great variety of Siberians, not all of them musical, and is drawn in by the size and the diversity of the region, its vastness and its bleakness. I imagine – never having been there myself – that this must happen to most Westerners who travel there. Her fascination matches mine, and her atmospheric language creates vivid pictures; she describes very sensitively the sadnesses of so many of the people she met there, and who shared their stories with her.

In the end, what unifies the book is her rambling quest for a suitable piano for a gifted Mongolian pianist: it’s a cross between a detective story and a history of Russia and Siberia with a focus on the musical and cultural side of things, a bizarre but quite gripping idea, which eventually reaches a successful outcome.

Given my fussiness, I must mention that the book is very well-produced and illustrated, and supplied with helpful maps, a rarity nowadays, but which allowed me to dig out my well-worn Road Atlas of the USSR, and my large atlas of the Soviet Union in order to track her travels more closely. The bibliography is also extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked for this book as a birthday present, but I’m really glad I did.

Zoran Nikolic: The Atlas of Unusual Borders

February 17, 2020

71fgJcLE8kL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Some of my regular readers will already know of my fascination with maps and atlases; if you don’t then a quick search of the blog will convince you. Here is an at the same time fascinating and utterly bonkers selection of weird borders between nations, their origins (when known) and how they have developed, and also why such anomalies haven’t been ironed out.

Despite the crucial nature of borders to the entire premise of the book, on the maps they are not always clearly enough labelled or demarcated for the reader to be able to follow the author’s explanations; the maps are somewhat stylised, and a better use of colours would have helped, I feel. Most of the enclaves and exclaves are very small, so the maps necessarily lack helpful context for one to orient oneself. A smaller cut-out map with the larger surrounding area, perhaps?

I can’t finish this post without a reference to Brexit, I’m afraid. For an entire adult life, travelling through Europe, I have pretty much been able to ignore borders; on a train you often don’t know when you leave a country, while on a road a different country is marked by the same kind of sign that tells you you have arrived in a different town or village. Now I am going to have to get used to borders again.

It was clear while reading the book that in many of the places Nikolic cites, the EU means that the significance of the borders he shows and the differences they demarcated are diminishing, if not vanishing; his examples remain as historical weirdnesses and nothing more. The EU is about co-operation across boundaries, making life simpler, sharing resources, spaces and languages. The UK has withdrawn from all this and it’s very sad…

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