Ionia: a Quest, by Freya Stark
Travel books, like others, change perspective as we grow older, and I can see now that Freya Stark’s Ionia: a Quest is an enchanting but disturbingly moralistic account of a journey that this remarkable woman took in the early 1950s along the west coast of Turkey. In those days these ancient Greek cities were virtually unvisited. In 55 sites Stark encountered only one other tourist. Relying largely on the witness of ancient writers, she mused among the ruins, deducing their cities’ character from them as if the stones themselves might speak. It all sounds too dreadful. But such was the beauty of her writing, and the delicacy of her thought, that the result is captivating. It persuaded me, at the start of my career, how richly landscape and history may interfuse, and how deeply (and sometimes dangerously) a quiet attention can fire the imagination.
• Colin Thubron’s latest book is To a Mountain in Tibet (Chatto, £16.99)
In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
When Bruce Chatwin died in 1989, at 48, he had published just five books: a small yet dazzling output. His first, In Patagonia, is a metaphysical exploration of “the uttermost part of the earth”. It is in the eyes of many his best, though it was not his most commercially successful (Songlines outsold it many times over). But it is probably the most influential travel book written since the war. Its opening page – telling of Bruce’s childhood discovery of a piece of dinosaur skin in his grandmother’s cupboard – is possibly the most imitated passage in modern travel literature.
Chatwin had three matchless gifts: he was a thinker of genuine originality; a reader of astonishing erudition; and a writer of breathtaking prose. All three talents shine brightly on almost every page of In Patagonia, but it is his bleak chiselled prose that remains his most dazzling: he had a quite remarkable ability to evoke place, to bring to life a whole world of strange sounds and smells in a single unexpected image, to pull a perfect sentence out the air with the ease of a child netting a butterfly.
The pendulum of fashion has swung against Chatwin, and it is now unhip to admire his work. Yet to his fans, Chatwin remains like a showy bird of paradise amid the sparrows of the present English literary scene, and it is impossible to reread In Patagonia without a deep stab of sadness that we have lost the brightest and most profound writer of his generation. He also knew and loved the Islamic world – and such writers are now badly in demand. God only knows what Chatwin might have produced had he still been writing, now when we need him most.
• William Dalrymple’s latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury, £8.99), won the first Asia House Literature Award, in 2010
A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark
A Winter in Arabia describes Freya Stark’s 1937 journey through the Hadhramaut, a region in today’s Yemen. A guest of the tribes, she conjures little girls in magenta silk trousers, their silver anklets frilled with bells; the drumbeats of the Sultan’s procession; and veiled women bearing gifts of salted melon seeds. The book is a heady mix of hardship and luxury, scholarship and mischief, loneliness and intimacy, and the oppositions give the prose its strength.
Stark glittered in the drawing rooms of London and loved a party; having drunk her fill, she’d run off to peek out at the world from a solitary tent. Isn’t that the best kind of life imaginable? She did not try to be an honorary man in a field still woefully dominated by that species. “There are few sorrows,” she wrote, “through which a new dress or hat will not send a little gleam of pleasure, however furtive.” Indeed.
• Sara Wheeler’s latest book is Access all Areas (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
This was Cherry-Garrard’s only book: it thrilled me when I first read it, and it still inspires me, for its quiet power to evoke a place and time, for its correction of history (the unsparing portrait of Captain Scott), most of all for its heroism. Cherry was only 23 when he joined the Scott Antarctic Expedition in 1912. Scott and four of his men (but not Cherry) died on the way back from the Pole. But in the Antarctic winter of 1911 Cherry trudged through the polar darkness and cold (-60C) to find an Emperor penguin rookery. This was “the worst journey”. He wrote: “If you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad … And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”
• Paul Theroux’s latest book is The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)
The Global Soul, by Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer was the writer who showed me how to take the Open Road (also the title of his sublime study of the Dalai Lama). Iyer’s cultural and spiritual quest is driven by his own hybridity. Of all his books, it was The Global Soul that felt like the blow to the head I needed in 2001, when grappling with my own cultural and spiritual alienation. It’s a book that launches the 21st century, and if this sounds grand, he is grand. In The Global Soul he goes to “in-between” places – airports, malls, the no-place of jet lag – and introduces the species of soul who has multiple passports, lives in several countries, and has nightmares not of the “Where am I?” variety, but of the more neurotically advanced “Who am I?” kind.
• Kapka Kassabova’s latest book, Twelve Minutes of Love is out in November (Portobello Books, £18.99)
Works of Patrick Leigh Fermor
It was not just the books of Patrick Leigh Fermor – notably Between the Woods and the Water about Romania – that inspired me, but also the man. He was the quintessential free spirit. He didn’t bother with university, but at the age of 18 set off, on foot, across Europe, hoping for the best. His journey lasted five years and led to extraordinary wartime adventures and a series of breathtaking books, which are among the masterpieces of 20th-century literature. The success he made of his brand of non-conformity should fill all would-be wanderers with hope. Read about his life, read his books, and if you are not similarly inspired and exhilarated then, as Kim said, “Run to your mothers’ laps, and be safe.”
• William Blacker’s latest book is Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (John Murray, £10.99)
Great Plains, by Ian Frazier
Reading this book for the first time, in London in 1989, inspired me to spend a summer rambling around the American west. The second time I read it 12 years later, I was stuck trying to write my first book. The subject was American nomadism. I had a box of notebooks about my encounters with modern-day nomads – freight train riders, cowboys, tramps, hippies, footloose retirees in motorhomes – and three shelves of research books about nomads in American history. How to connect all this into a whole? I saw that Frazier had solved a similar problem by using himself as a character – something I’d been resisting – and infusing his book with a sense of wonder. I sat down again with something to strive for.
• Richard Grant’s latest book is Bandit Roads: Into the Lawless Heart of Mexico (Abacus, £9.99)
Destinations, by Jan Morris
Suddenly you’re not just seeing but hearing, feeling, sensing Washington, Panama, South Africa, as they look today but also as they may seem a hundred years from now. How many writers have been able to take a place and weave a thousand details and feelings and moments into a single near-definitive portrait, which almost seems to stand outside of time? Exactly one: Jan Morris. For 60 years she’s been blending acute insights and warm intuitions into uniquely fluent, imperturbable and evocative descriptions. She’s not so much traveller as historian, witness, master of classical English prose and impressionist all at once.
You can find these graces in all of her books, of course, but for me the long-form essays in Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone offer the best (biggest) space in which her eloquence, shrewdness and wisdom can take flight. Read her on Los Angeles, Manhattan or New Delhi and you’ll never want to read anyone else on those places again.
• Pico Iyer wrote the foreword to 100 Journeys for the Spirit, a collection of writings from authors including Michael Ondaatje, Alexander McCall Smith and Andrew Motion (Watkins £14.99)
The Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller
As the second world war was breaking out, Henry Miller visited Greece at the invitation of his friend Lawrence Durrell and travelled around it for several months. The result was The Colossus of Maroussi, at once a love letter to a great world civilisation and a poetic expression of Miller’s mystical musings. There is little in the way of traditional “travel” here: the sights, smells and sounds are present only inasmuch as they trigger feelings and emotions. This book taught me that real travel writing must involve an “inner” element, either by detailing an inner journey or by creating a resonance to which the reader can respond. Take that away and you’re left with either reportage or a guidebook.
• Jason Webster’s most recent travel book is Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain (Vintage, £8.99)
Full Tilt, by Dervla Murphy
I started reading Full Tilt (Eland, £12.99) on a grey morning, wearing a grey suit, in a crowd of grey faces on the London Underground. Several Central Line stops later, I’d raced with Dervla Murphy and her bicycle, Rosinante, from Dunkirk to Delhi, and made the decision to quit my career as a lawyer and cycle round the world.
Funny, ingenuous, gently erudite and intrepid (she kept a .25 revolver in her saddlebag) Full Tilt is the best kind of adventure story, and a clarion call to “travel for travel’s sake”. I realised that you don’t need a wealth of knowledge and experience to embark on a journey like this. If you believe human wisdom may be measured by the respect we pay to the unattainable, the mysterious or simply the different, and have a flair for getting on with people, you’re ready.
• Robert Penn’s book, It’s All About the Bike (Penguin, £8.99), is out now
Journey Without Maps, by Graham Greene
Graham Greene’s first travel book, Journey Without Maps, inspired me to risk my life – by following in his footsteps. Greene was only 30 in 1935 when he chose Liberia for his first trip outside Europe. It was a wonderfully Greene-ian choice: foreboding, distant and richly seedy. The result is a twin helix of a travel book – combining the account of a fantastically hard 350-mile trek through the Liberian jungle, with a metaphysical journey back to where he came from, to primeval feelings both good and bad. Greene, travelling with his cousin Barbara, left behind his medicine chest and when he caught a fever he almost died. Unsettling in its rawness, it taught me much not just about the author but about myself, surely a hallmark of the best writing.
• Chasing The Devil (Vintage, £8.99) is Tim Butcher’s recreation of Greene’s trip
A Visit to Don Otavio, by Sybille Bedford
This account of a journey taken in the 1950s, rediscovered in the 1980s by Eland Press, encapsulates, for me, the essence of good travel writing. Never shying away from describing the frustrations and discomforts of travel, Sybille Bedford is nonetheless quick as a hummingbird to suck the sweetness from every experience. She confesses she chose Mexico because she wanted “to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past, and as little present history as possible”, but it’s her stay with Don Otavio, a bankrupt squire living in a backwater, that becomes the highlight. Her hilarious, pithy dialogues are pure genius.
• Isabella Tree’s book, Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico, is out now (Tauris Parke, £11.99)
Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
I first read Arabian Sands as a teenager. As I came to the last page, I knew that the course of my life had been altered. Thesiger had taken me on a journey through the fearful void, the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, and left me desperate to embark on a great journey of my own. Sir Wilfred never intended to write the book. He told me later that he’d spent years with the Bedouin of Rub’ al Khali, existing with them on their own terms. Without them, he said, “the journeys would have been a meaningless penance”.
A good travel book is a treasury of wisdom that seeps into your blood as you follow the author on their quest. And that’s exactly what Arabian Sands achieves so well. It doesn’t preach, but allows the reader to gently absorb the essence of the desert. Through fragments of description, the odd random fact, snippet of conversation, or observation, Thesiger conjured the interleaving layers of a bewitching land.
• Tahir Shah’s latest book, Travels with Myself (Mosaïque Books, £11.99), is out next month
Exterminate All the Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist
This book inspires by upholding the dignity of the travel genre. Taking its title and principle inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it is written as a series of short sections entwining the author’s diary of a Saharan journey with a devastating thesis on the origins of the Nazi holocaust in 19th-century colonialism. Some might think of it as essentially a tract rather than a travel book. Yet Lindqvist’s beautifully sparse accounts of bus journeys and dusty hotels help build up a mood of fear and isolation that enhances the intellectual argument. The book is a necessary reminder of the way travel can open up not only the mind but also the heart.
• Michael Jacobs’s latest book is Andes (Granta, £12.99)
The Way of the World, by Nicolas Bouvier
Nicolas Bouvier’s passionate and exhilarating stories inspired waves of young Europeans on to the road. “I dropped this wonderful moment into the bottom of my memory, like a sheet-anchor that one day I could draw up again,” he wrote while travelling across Asia in the early 1950s. “The bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say and think of you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love.”
Even Patrick Leigh Fermor considered the book a masterpiece. For me, it makes any journey, any traveller’s dream, seem possible. Yet be warned, writes Bouvier, you may “think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you, or unmaking you”.
• Rory MacLean’s new book, Gift of Time: A Family’s Diary of Cancer, is out this month (Constable, £12.99)
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
My father’s well-loved copy of Eric Newby’s classic came to me in the late 1990s. My parents, both accomplished travellers and authors, had spent the past 28 years trying to convince me that I could and should do anything but follow in their footsteps, wanting to spare me the rejection letters and overdrawn bank balances. The gift of Newby’s book signalled a change of heart in my father, who then became a fierce advocate for my writing.
It came at just the right moment. Like Newby, I was in a soulless job, desperate for change and adventure. Reading A Short Walk was a revelation. The superbly crafted, eccentric and evocative story of his Afghan travels was like a call to arms. I quit my job, secured a book contract with Penguin, and headed to the Arctic. Newby’s book continues to be my endlessly inspiring companion.
• Kari Herbert’s latest book, In Search of the South Pole, co-written with Huw Lewis-Jones, is out next month (Anova Conway £20)
Bound For Glory, by Woody Guthrie
As a teenager in rural 1970s Ireland, I found books unsettling. From Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta to Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning, books suggested that “life” lay elsewhere. The puzzling “how” of travel came from Woody Guthrie’s Bound For Glory. On his hitchhiking, train-hopping, Model-A Ford-riding adventures through Depression America, Guthrie survived by being a sign-writer, sailor and fruit-picker. And a musician and writer. His songs ranged from ballads to anthems, agit-prop, love lays and lullabies. Bound for Glory was written in a rich, demotic, playful and stirring vocabulary, as if James Joyce and John Steinbeck had collaborated with Kerouac on On The Road. Apparently an ability to turn one’s hand to any job and strum a few chords on the guitar was the key to eating and moving, and to romance and romances. And to writing, as well. Within a month of reading Bound for Glory, at 17, I was away with a guitar, a sleeping bag and a notebook.
• Jasper Winn’s book, Paddle: A long way around Ireland, is out now (Sort Of Books, £8.99)
Love and War in the Apennines, by Eric Newby
For sheer charm, there’s nothing quite like Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines. I first read it years ago, but it’s still a favourite. At one level it’s a celebration of Italy, and the title says it all (Newby, a POW, escapes to the mountains and, amid many distractions, meets Wanda, and … well, you’ll see). At a more profound level, it’s a beautifully philanthropic yet unsentimental work. However miserable the times and awkward the place, Newby’s characters are usually endearing, and often complex. That’s much how I feel about travel: that it’s more about people than places (I’d hate the Antarctic).
Happily, I met Newby once: he was shopping in Stanfords with Wanda. She still spoke the “fractured English” of their first encounter, but they were both as warm and thoughtful in real life as they are in the text. When I clumsily explained that LAWITA was my favourite book, Newby even had the modesty to blush, as if no one had ever told him that before.
• John Gimlette’s latest book is Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge (Profile, £15)
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