Posts Tagged ‘deserts’

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

William Atkins: The Immeasurable World

January 17, 2019

41dqbism+jl._ac_us218_I asked for and received another volume of desert travel writing for Christmas and I’ve just finished it: it was really good. The first thing to say is that it is a very nicely produced book, with some integral illustrations – not many – excellent maps and a very full bibliography. I was gratified to find that I’ve read a good number of the books in my own armchair desert explorations already, and I’ve added others to my long list…

Atkins visits most of the major deserts of the world and spends time in each, not so much exploring as experiencing and reporting. The only one he misses is the Namib/Kalahari, which is a shame; it’s one of the ones I know least about, too. His fascination is evident, as is his close observation and description of the places and people he encounters.

I was horrified to read about the violence done to Aboriginal ancestral homelands in the Australian desert by British nuclear testing in the 1950s; the sheer callousness and cavalier attitude is truly shocking. I have to say I was not surprised by what I read, though, given the imperialist past of the British state. We should be truly ashamed at what was supposedly done in our name.

The Gobi and other surrounding areas of desert and wilderness are what I have read most about and yet they still remain enigmatic in many ways. The Silk Route necessarily skirted either the north or the south of these regions and so, whilst uninhabitable and desolate, were nevertheless known. Atkins is interesting and informative about current issues the Chinese state has with the largely Uighur and Muslim population of the Xinjiang region, and his journey there often seems rather perilous.

The devastation and death of the Aral Sea has been well-documented by others too, and the adjoining desert areas of Kazakhstan were also abused by the Soviets for their nuclear testing programme. As I read this book I realised that humans had contrived, by their efforts to make many of these already inhospitable areas of our planet even worse…

I learned much from Atkins’ travels in the United States, too. He visits the desert areas along the border with Mexico and recounts some dreadful tales of what refugees attempting to reach the ‘land of opportunity’ endured, and that killed many others. All this is currently hidden behind President Trump’s machinations and lies and attempts to build a wall. I was heartened to read of Americans taking risks and breaking laws in order to support and rescue refugees in danger of dying in the desert regions. In many ways the visits to the deserts of the US were the most disturbing, weird and unnatural of all.

Atkins also visits the Egyptian deserts and spends time in some of the ancient Egyptian monasteries that date from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Here he walks in similar footsteps to William Dalrymple in his excellent book From The Holy Mountain.

This was a lovely books in so many ways, written by an intelligent and enquiring traveller who taught me a lot; his evident fascination with deserts, as well as his observant and reflective approach make it a read I seriously recommend.

My travels: V for Volubilis

June 6, 2017

When I was a student and a hippy, back in the dim and distant past, a friend and I took a trip one summer to Morocco, where we did the usual hippy things, camping out in the open, living and eating as cheaply as possible, travelling around on rickety Moroccan buses along rather scary-looking winding roads overlooking precipices. We didn’t get that far on our travels, a few days on beaches before setting off for Fez, and eventually we fetched up in Meknes, which had stunningly impressive mediaeval city walls, the like of which I’ve never seen since until my recent visit to Carcassonne; from here we went to a small town called Moulay Idris, and thence to a ruined Roman town in the desert, called Volubilis

I think I did a number of daft things when I was younger, and this was probably one of the daftest. OK, we knew it would be hot – we’d been in the country for a while already, and it was so hot that it was impossible to do much at all in the afternoons – but this was the desert and we’d never been in a desert before, the middle of nowhere, with very little shade or shelter, and after we’d got back to civilisation at the end of the day someone casually remarked that it had been fifty degrees that day… We weren’t really prepared at all and I do not know how we escaped sunstroke, dehydration or grievous sunburn.

Volubilis was an entire town, a town from Roman times, in ruins in the middle of the desert, and largely untouched since those days. Yes, it was sort of on the tourist trail, and I think we may have paid to get ‘in’. I probably still have the ticket somewhere… It was astonishing. Everything was the same sandy colour – the sand, the scant vegetation, the stonework. There was a lot of it – probably on a par with the Roman site at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, if not larger. And it was hot. I lost count of the number of litres of water I drank that day, and sweated out. But it was a magical day: I got a very brief feel of what a desert actually was, and the ferocity of the conditions, and I have wondered if that experience was one of the things that sparked my lifelong fascination with deserts, which you may have noticed via quite a few of my blog posts… The Roman ruins were fascinating, because they hadn’t been tidied up and prettified the way many ruins are in more affluent countries.

Morocco was a serious culture-shock to this sheltered Western student. I saw people suffering from leprosy in the streets, and many with crippled and deformed limbs; when I mentioned this to someone who’d been in the country rather longer than me, he replied, ‘Well, in Europe if you break a limb you go to hospital and get it fixed. Here, if you’re poor and can’t afford it, you don’t…’ We came across many locals who did their best to part Westerners from their money in a range of devious ways; we also met many friendly and interesting people. The food was fascinating, the hygiene…different. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the medinas in the towns we visited, fascinated by how different everything was, what was offered for sale, how transactions were carried out, bartering… As we travelled around, I couldn’t get over the huge cacti and other desert plants which grew everywhere, and no doubt these triggered my enjoyment of growing them myself back home, though on a far more modest scale.

I suppose what has stayed with me most from that long-ago trip was the nature of the encounter with somewhere that was, in so many ways, so utterly different from what I had known up till then, and the challenge it represented to how I saw the world…

Philippe Bourseiller: Call of the Desert

November 25, 2015

51FPEHDBV6L._AA160_This is a wonderful book to browse during an English winter! It’s a series of essays about various aspects of the Sahara desert, illustrated by hundreds of stunning photographs.

I’ve thought long and hard about why I’m so fascinated by deserts, but haven’t really come up with a clear answer. I’ve been to Britain’s only desert and loved it (where? answer at the end); in my student-day travels I suppose I got close to the edges of the Sahara: a friend and I spent a day at Volubilis, a ruined Roman city in the Moroccan desert. The city was stunning, the ruins wonderfully preserved, there was plenty of sand and it was unspeakably hot… when we got back to where we were staying, we were told that it had probably hit 50 degrees out there… I have always preferred the warmth and sun of summer to any other season, as I feel more comfortable and more energetic and more alive generally; in the depths of winter, I fantasise about emigrating to the Sahara…

The photographs show simple landscapes, stark landscapes, weird shapes of rock and sand, incredible contrasts of light and dark, beautiful colours. There’s a romance about them, that I know logically I wouldn’t necessarily feel if I were actually out there, but the sense of the unknown, alien even, is captivating, breathtaking.

As I browsed, I found myself thinking, “I wish I could take photos like that!” (photography is the only creative art, after writing, that I practise). Then I thought that, actually, in such an environment, one would just need to point one’s camera and shoot: one would be guaranteed a stunning image, and at home it could be cropped until perfect. You just need to be somewhere out of the ordinary, exotic. But then I looked carefully at the credits: photos shot with a Leica, using film stock…you get out what you put in. Eat your heart out, National Geographic, I thought.

The book (originally a French production) is beautiful, and very thoughtfully put together. Because the photos are the thing, there are no page numbers and no captions on the pages: just photos. And what a difference this makes – no borders, the image is all you get on the page. So, at the end of the book, there are thumbnails of every page, with not just captions, but a rather more detailed commentary and explanation. And the printing is superb, too.

(Dungeness, on the Kent coast, if you didn’t already know.)

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