Have you ever wondered why the best narrative travel writers always seem to be British, or long-term residents of Britain? After years of wondering myself (particularly around literary festival time), I recently came upon a clever explanation for this phenomenon in Abroad, Paul Fussell's classic study of British literary traveling.
Another reason for British distinction in both traveling and travel-writing is suggested by Christopher Sykes, who imputes these impulses to the complicated British sense of "residing on the outskirts of the Roman Empire" and thus of being teased by a Germanic suspicion that "we are not wholly satisfactory". One result of this little unease, Sykes says, is the British desire to escape from oneself (cf. gardening, stamp-collecting, crossword-puzzle working): the "easiest relief ... is in foreign travel... Delight in travel has long been an English characteristic".
It is Britain in fact which (as Fussell goes on to point out) gave birth to both The Travellers Club and to that epitome of "empiricism and singlemindedness", the Railway Enthusiast.
It has also been for many years the home of the Dolman Prize, the world's only prize for "serious travel literature", now rebranded the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. Happily for the authors, the arrival of the new sponsor, Edward Stanford Ltd., owner of Stanford's maps and book stores, doubles the prize money. Luckily for us, it doesn't interrupt the association of the award with The Authors Club, and, I presume, the tradition by which the judges get together at a pub down the road from The Authors Club to decide the winner.
The prize will now become part of a suite of new Edward Stanford Travel Awards. One of these, the Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing, is destined for a living travel writer who will be chosen from a long list incorporating nominations from the public, or at least the twittering public:
And now, here's this year's short list for the best travel book of 2014, and their publishers' summaries. Not all the authors are British, just five out of six!
The land where lemons grow : the story of Italy and its citrus fruit by Helena Atlee
Just the Table of Contents has my head spinning:
Citrus crops in Italy -- The scent of lemons -- Curious fruit: citrus collectors in Renaissance Tuscany -- Cooking for the pope -- Golden apples: a case of taxonomic havoc -- A day in Amalfi -- One of the sunniest places in Europe: Sicilian lemons, 'like the pale faces of lovers ...' -- Antiscorbuticks -- A golden bowl of bitter lemons: extraordinary wealth on Sicily's west coast -- A Sicilian marmalade kitchen -- Oranges soaked in sunsets: blood oranges in the shadow of Mount Etna -- The runt of the litter: Liguria's cosseted chinotti -- The sweet scent of Zagara -- Dogged madness: limonaie on Lake Garda -- Battling with oranges in Ivrea -- Green gold: Calabria and the most valuable citrus in the world -- Unique harvest: on the Riviera dei Cebri -- Places to visit -- A citrus chronology.
Down to the sea in ships : of ageless oceans and modern men by Horatio Clare
Applause for the anonymous author of the summary for this book, for using "wuther" in its active verb form.
"Horatio Clare joins two container ships, travelling in the company of their crews and captains. Together they experience unforgettable journeys: the first, from East to West (Felixstowe to Los Angeles, via Suez) is rich with Mediterranean history, torn with typhoon nights and gilded with an unearthly Pacific peace; the second northerly passage, from Antwerp to Montreal, reeks of diesel, wuthers with gales and goes to frozen regions of the North Atlantic, in deep winter, where the sea itself seems haunted. In Clare's vibrant prose a modern industry does battle with implacable forces, as the ships cross seas of history and incident, while seafarers unfold the stories of their lives... A beautiful and terrifying portrait of the oceans and their human subjects, and a fascinating study of big business afloat, Down to the Sea in Ships is a moving tribute to those who live and work on the great waters, far from land."
"In Rising Ground, Philip Marsden sets out on foot to explore the power of the landscape and the continuing hold it has upon our imagination. Starting in Bodmin Moor and moving westward along the narrowing Cornish peninsula to Land's End with a growing awareness of the great ocean beyond, Marsden travels an ancient route of pilgrimage towards the setting sun, rehearsing the soul's passage after death. Along the way, he seeks out others whose have felt similarly compelled by the landscape, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and the inventors of the Arthurian legends to Tudor topographers and 18th century antiquarians; and from Romantic scholars to post-industrial poets, abstract painters, and new-age seekers. As he camps on clifftops, criss-crosses the moors, and digs around in the archives, Marsden reflects on the spirit of place, asks how we are shaped by our connection to the landscape, and takes us right to the heart of what it means to belong."
Walking the woods and the water: in Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn by Nick Hunt
"In 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to chance and charm his way across Europe, 'like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar'. The books he later wrote about this walk, including Between the Woods and the Water, are a half-remembered, half-reimagined journey through cultures now extinct and landscapes irrevocably altered by the traumas of the twentieth century. Nick Hunt dreamed of following in Fermor's footsteps. Eighty years later he began his own 'great trudge'—on foot all the way to Istanbul. He walked across eight countries, following two major rivers and crossing three mountain ranges. With only Fermor's books to guide him, he trekked some 2,500 miles from Holland to Turkey. Why? For an old-fashioned adventure. To discover for himself what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, the unknown, the deeper currents of myth that still flow beneath Europe's surface. This is a story worthy of Fermor's own."
Indonesia etc. Exploring the improbable nation by Elizabeth Pisani
"In 1945, Indonesia's declaration of independence promised: the details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible. Still working on the etc. seven decades later, the world's fourth most populous nation is now enthusiastically democratic and riotously diverse. It is one of the richest and most enchanting countries on earth, but is riddled with ineptitude and corruption. Elizabeth Pisani, who first worked in Indonesia as a foreign correspondent, set out to rediscover its enduring attraction, and to find the links which bind together this impossibly disparate nation. This book weaves together the stories of Indonesians encountered on her journey with a considered analysis of Indonesia's recent history, corrupt political system, ethnic and religious identities, stifling bureaucracy and traditional 'sticky' cultures. Fearless and funny, she gives a compelling and sharply perceptive account of a captivating nation."
"The recent crises in Ukraine have reminded us that Russia's interests run counter to those of many other nations, but what of the Russian and Ukrainian people themselves? What kind of lives are they leading, and what are their feelings toward the political regime that has so inflamed the West? When German journalist Jens Mühling met Juri, a Russian television producer selling stories about his homeland, he was mesmerized by what he heard. The encounter changed Mühling's life, triggering a number of journeys to Ukraine and deep into the Russian heartland on a quest for stories of ordinary and extraordinary people. Unveiling a portion of the world whose contradictions, attractions, and absurdities are still largely unknown to people outside its borders, A Journey into Russia is a much-needed glimpse into one of today's most significant regions."