Staying put until the coronavirus storm passes over? Let these books be your transports of delight
I have promised not to fly for a year (see flightfree.co.uk) in acknowledgement of the cumulative depth of my carbon footprint, but I’m still travelling. In the past month I’ve been to Istanbul and the Balkans, to Ukraine and St Petersburg, and even as far as the Black Hills of South Dakota. All thanks to what D H Lawrence, in Mornings in Mexico, summed up as “one little individual, looking at a bit of sky and trees, then… making little marks on paper”.
The body hasn’t been crossing oceans, but the mind has been roaming free, and a few hundred pages between covers have taken it an awfully long way. If you’ve had to curtail your travel plans or, worse still, lock yourself away, here are some books that will set you free.
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage)
“I’m grounded,” you’re thinking. “I don’t want to read aviation’s equivalent of a petrolhead.” And you won’t. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, Vanhoenacker touches on Joni Mitchell as well as Mach 1, on T S Eliot as well as tailwinds. In the pages of his book, if not necessarily on your next outing in the economy cabin of his 747, you will find yourself agreeing that: “The ordinary things we thought we knew… become more beautiful.”
Old Glory: An American Voyage
Jonathan Raban (Eland)
Wishing you were out on the water? Raban is better equipped than any living writer I know to take you there. Reading Huckleberry Finn at seven, he dreamt the brook at the end of his Norfolk street into the wide waterway of the Mississippi. Thirty years later, he followed the river for most of its length in a 16ft aluminium skiff, all the while illuminating the America and Americans of the late Seventies.
Lands of Lost Borders
Kate Harris (HarperCollins)
Harris, an academic high-flyer from Canada, had ambitions to be an astronaut, then decided there was exploring enough to be done on planet Earth. Cycling the Silk Road with a childhood friend, she pedals to places where authorities don’t want her to go, including Tibet. On the page, she flits easily across supposed boundaries between travelogue and memoir, science and poetry. The result is a marvellous debut by a wanderer and wonderer, an author with boundless curiosity and a zest for life that enthuses every page.
The Old Ways
Robert Macfarlane (Penguin)
Macfarlane’s Underland has just been named Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, but tunnels may not be what you’re looking for right now. Join him, instead, in some leg-stretching, mind-expanding hikes on The Old Ways. Inspired by the poet Edward Thomas, “who thought on paths and of them, but also with them”, Macfarlane walks ancient routes everywhere from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of north-west Scotland; from the disputed territories of Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas.
Jan Morris (Faber & Faber)
Morris avoids the label travel writer, on the basis that she doesn’t go on journeys, but she is one of the greatest conjurors of place. She published this portrait of the city in 1960, and though it has gone into numerous editions it has never really been revised. But then it’s not a guidebook; it’s a love letter. Contemporary Venice, she says, is “a grand (and heavily overbooked) exhibition”; let her show you the city as it used to be.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
Laurie Lee (Penguin)
Hankering for the heat that comes earlier in Spain? Then join Lee on his journey there in the Thirties. He wasn’t a trust-fund tourist; he paid his way with busking and labouring, sailing for Vigo with a knapsack, a fiddle and enough Spanish to ask for water: “I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen then, for already I saw myself there, brown as an apostle, walking the white dust roads through the orange groves.”
Rebecca Loncraine (Picador)
Confinement or quarantine for coronavirus is scary enough, but what if the diagnosis were of cancer? That’s what Loncraine faced in 2009 at the age of 35. She took up gliding, and her “private love letters to the wind” were the beginnings of Skybound, which appeared in 2018, a couple of years after her death. It’s an extraordinary book, one in which the writer, for whom the world had closed down, feels it reopen, and carries the reader up on the thermals with her.
How to Travel Without Seeing
Andrés Neuman (Restless Books)
If you’ve had to put a gap-year trip on hold, here’s a chance to take in Latin America in a rush. A tour Neuman was sent on after winning a literary prize had him pinballing from place to place – 19 countries in all – so the writing, he decided, should reflect that; the journal should take on the form of the journey. The result is not so much a travel book as a travelling one: instant, impressionistic, written from a need “to trap small realities on the go and interpret them in real time”.
Earl Swift (Dey Street)
A health emergency has, for the moment, drawn attention from the climate emergency. One spot where the latter is evident (at least to outsiders) is Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, where a 240-year-old crabbing community is going under the water. Swift lived among the islanders, and his book, at once affectionate and inquiring, is a superb account of a singular place and its people.
The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Picador)
Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a travel book that will make you count your blessings to be stuck at home. This one should do it. The journey was Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic – beaten to the Pole by Amundsen’s – and Cherry-Garrard was one of its members. His account, of freezing, soaking, blubber-eating hardship, is written with unfailing good humour. “Polar exploration,” he declares at the outset, “is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”
Or escape with a podcast
Fancy tuning into the wider world rather than reading yourself into it? Here are a few options…
The presenting of BBC Radio 4’s Excess Baggage (bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qjds) was shared by John McCarthy and Sandi Toksvig. From 173 episodes, I’ve found Colin Thubron on hiking to a sacred mountain in Tibet, Sara Wheeler on Antarctica and Lavinia Greenlaw on following the designer William Morris to Iceland.
In Something of His Art, Horatio Clare retraces a formative walk through Germany made by a 20-year-old J S Bach. The book began life as a BBC Radio 3 series, which can be downloaded from the Slow Radio slot (bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06yd1vv).
In Emergence Magazine (emergencemagazine.org), the travel writer Nick Hunt visits Bialowieza, Europe’s largest primeval forest. Other contributors include the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Powers.
Monocle magazine’s Meet the Writers podcast has Adam Weymouth on canoeing the Yukon (monocle.com/radio/shows/meet-the-writers/163/) and Julian Sayarer on hitchhiking across the United States.
Telegraph Travel’s Edgelands podcast (telegraph.co.uk/edgelands) tracks a journey along Europe’s border with Russia, from the Arctic Circle to Ukraine, visiting remote parts of the world that have shaped modern history – but whose stories remain largely untold.