Part 1 of a series in which GLOSS contributors tell us about their favourite travel writers and what books provide boarding passes to different places …
I commuted to London daily throughout the lockdown. Never flouting rules, or boarding flights or boats. Only ever travelling by paper plane to 221b Baker Street, home of the easily-bored consulting detective with a serious drug problem, Sherlock Holmes. I had never previously been a particular fan but the Upside Down had me wondering why I was regressing to the kids’ section of my old library.
I reread the stories, nodded off listening to Stephen Fry – a Sherlockian to his marrow – reading the stories, milled through the movies. Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, my favourite Peter Cushing in Hammer’s trippy Hound of the Baskervilles and of course BBC’s Sherlock, first season only, before it became a knobby in-joke with every episode being The Case of the Jumping Shark. Non-stop versions of Holmes, his smarty-pants brother Mycroft, and the mirror versions of Holmes, Irene Adler and evil genius Professor Moriarty (played best by Jared Harris by the way) were my antidote to Zoomland.
Before the C word my only travel books tended to be novels, cookbooks and non-fiction with the backdrop of where I was visiting. There are exceptions – Bill Bryson is brilliant and I can’t wait to get my paws on Tony Bourdain’s last travel book – but reading Claudia Roden, Diana Kennedy, Elizabeth David and Richard Olney while eating something appropriate is my kind of virtual trip.
There are enough travel memories in the library of my mind palace for a lifetime, although my palace is more like a mind skip. A skip brimming with pages of memories, the most dog-eared being of warm sands between my toes in the Yucatán, hearing my first ezan in Istanbul or that shot of back-straightening excitement while pulling a tiny table to me in a brasserie in Paris, a city that – like another dozen in that skip – feels like home.
It wasn’t all Conan Doyle – aside from a drink-stained sad list of lockdown resolutions that never were, and the mandatory Mantel on my bedside locker, I was rereading The Invention of Nature, Guns, Germs and Steel, Peter Moore’s Endeavour, The Warmth of Other Suns and How to be an Anti-Racist. Critical but not comfort reading. Not great craic.
So it is not surprising that this London of reason filled with rational characters, where facts and deduction are put together by an authority figure made sense. Why that world of science, common sense and observation as a superpower, all taking place in a century before Twitter, was a good place to hide.
Back to some normality now and to a daily installment of The Adventure of the Illustrious Client – actually from the canon and a term I’ll steal – but one especially shitty evening recently had me retreating to the bath with Stephen Fry and a tumbler of whiskey to jump in a hansom cab in a reassuringly foggy London, escaping with my tweedy friends to see if the game was afoot. There’s no place like Holmes.
If, like me, you find getting dolled up to go to a party more fun than the party itself (and parties ain’t what they used to be, with safety protocols in place), going abroad today feels like more trouble than it’s worth. Depending on the travel vibe you’re craving, choosing a book that’ll transport you there when there’s no there there is key. Yearn to hit the road, Jack? Take a road trip through the American desert with Wildsam Field Guides: Desert Southwest. Dip into The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Molloy’s Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. Take up stargazing aided by the chunky National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky; become a birdwatcher with Peterson Field Guides illustrated Western Birds. Or navigate uncertainty, a place where we currently find ourselves marooned, with Rebecca Solnit’s modern classic book of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Longing to get lost in translation in inscrutable Japan? Alex Kerr’s vivid Lost Japan unfolds a disappearing dream of traditional Japanese culture. Or, if you’ve lost contact with your sensual self, reconnect with Italy’s earthly delights: eat, pray and love your way through memoirs penned by expats like Tim Parks Italian Education and Italian Neighbours. Pucker up with Helena Attlee’s best seller The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, which combines travel writing with history, horticulture and recipes. Get some straight up goss from a local in Beppe Severignini’s knowing La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind. A good read lets you take yourself off without leaving town; this summer, stay home and “book” a trip.
Nicolas Bouvier is probably my favourite travel writer, for his precise, poetic language, vision of humanity and humble approach to his voyages, definitely not “holidays”! L’Usage du Monde (The Way of the World, translated by Robyn Marsack) France’s equivalent to Kerouac’s On The Road – is his masterpiece, only published in English in 2007, 40 years after its first publication. Bouvier also travelled to Inishmore in the freezing winter of 1985 and chronicled his journey in the exquisite Journal d’Aran et Autre Lieux, (So it Goes in English, also translated by Robyn Marsack). Perhaps they’re not purely travel writing, but I’m just as much a sucker for a good old food + romance + ruin-restoration yarn. Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes and A Good Year by Peter Mayle hit the spot perfectly.
I pine for New York City. Ever since air travel was iced by Covid-19, my wanderlust is through the roof. I want to return to a place where I am happy, a place where I am in my element. I visited Manhattan about five times in very close succession during the first half of my 20s. You’d think I had my fill, but I’ve longed to return for years.
Naturally, my reading habits have turned in that direction. Who better to bring me there than legendary magazine editor and socialite, Tina Brown? I’m gradually making my way through The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992, a sizable tome which describes an era of outrageous luxury and excess in an industry that once had money to burn. She injected youth into British Tatler at 25 and began her “long love affair” with Manhattan at 30, where she turned a dying Vanity Fair into an iconic monthly. Tina Brown puts the ‘d’ in driven.
Viewing-wise, I’m enjoying the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, all twelve seasons of which are now on Netflix. He was a New York chef and author whose acclaimed memoir, Kitchen Confidential, led to a television career. I adore his writing, which is practically scripture to his disciples. Thanks to Bourdain’s insatiable curiosity, I have traveled to such lands as Myanmar, Quebec, Detroit, Las Vegas, Lyon, Punjab, Libya, Sicily and Tokyo, where he immersed himself in local cuisine, customs, history and politics. All of this, within my four walls.
Main featured image: The Hideaway at Dromquinna Manor: www.dromquinnamanor.com
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