Cross­ing bor­ders

Barn­aby Roger­son se­lects eight re­cent books to in­spire the trav­eller over the win­ter months

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

I’m a pub­lisher first, a writer sec­ond and a jour­nal­ist third. Th­ese jobs are united by a pas­sion for travel books, but I find it al­ways pays to con­sult the real ex­perts: my lo­cal book­shops. It was at Daunt Books in Lon­don that I dis­cov­ered two travel es­says that would make per­fect Christmas presents. Diana Athill’s

(Granta, £9.99) im­merses us into pre-pack­age-tour Europe as we fol­low two fresh-faced cousins by train down the Con­ti­nent for the hol­i­day of a life­time. It is 1947. They take cheap lodg­ings, fuss over hats, fall in love with Fra An­gelico, flirt with a dash­ing Ro­man and try to avoid the com­pany of an earnest English­man abroad. Even as a youth, es­sen­tially pen­ning a thank-you diary to her mother, miss Athill’s writ­ing is el­e­gant, teas­ing and as­sured.

(Pen­guin, £5) is also slim and evoca­tive, but in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent tone. The nov­el­ist Javier marias looks back over decades of en­chant­ment vis­it­ing the most tourist-rid­den city of all and in­tro­duces us to the dwin­dling pop­u­la­tion of its na­tives. Robert moor’s

(Au­rum, £16.99) took a few pages to get go­ing, but rapidly snow­balled in in­ter­est. It’s a pas­sion­ate, foot-on-the­ground ex­plo­ration of longdis­tance trails, in­formed by cut­ting-edge sci­ence and a crys­tal­clear hon­esty of ex­pe­ri­ence.

mr moor ar­gues that the great ex­plor­ers of the Amer­i­can West used the dense network of In­dian tracks that them­selves were adapted from ones cre­ated by deer and buf­falo. Com­pris­ing a se­ries of week-long walk­ing in­ter­views with half-a-dozen handpicked in­di­vid­u­al­ists—fos­sil sci­en­tists, Chero­kee historians, deer hunters and no­mad-trekkers—his book shares the same in­tel­lec­tual hin­ter­land as Robert macfar­lane’s The

Venice, An In­te­rior On Trails: An

Wild Places and Bruce Chatwin’s The Song­lines, but has an Amer­i­can tex­ture and Ap­palachian land­scape of its own.

The Ho­tel Years

(Granta, £9.99) is a scrap­book of job­bing jour­nal­ism orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Frank­furter Zeitung by Joseph Roth. He la­belled th­ese writ­ings ‘rain­bow-coloured soap bub­bles’, but they’re now of in­ef­fa­ble worth. Trans­lated by michael Hoff­man, they of­fer us beau­ti­fully drawn por­traits of the lost world of mi­tel-europa, com­plete with long train jour­neys, an­i­mated boule­vard cafes, grand ho­tels and a seem­ingly stylish life lived out of two suit­cases in the 1920s and 1930s.

Roth’s cher­ished heart­land was the al­ready lost grandeur of the dual monar­chy of the Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian em­pire. His sto­ries are bathed with alarm­ing fore­knowl­edge of the new emerg­ing forms of power, yet have no po­lit­i­cal axe to grind. They are ele­giac, daz­zling and pre­scient.

In his idio­syn­cratic Foot­prints in Spain: Bri­tish Lives in a For­eign Land (Quar­tet, £20), Si­mon Cour­tauld ex­am­ines Spain through the foot­prints of Bri­tish sol­diers, ad­ven­tur­ers, jour­nal­ists and traders over 500 years. The pan­theon of Bri­tish travel writ­ers— Lau­rie Lee, Ger­ald Bre­nan, Ge­orge Bor­row, Richard Ford—gets its salute, but this isn’t the main quarry.

In an old min­ing town out­side Huelva, the for­got­ten cap­i­tal of Val­ladolid and the back­wa­ter of Teruel, we catch the trail of for­got­ten but bloody episodes of his­tory. A life­time of ob­ser­va­tion has been packed into this book, which sparkles with his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes.

Ele­phant Com­plex: Trav­els in Sri Lanka

(Quer­cus, £25) re­veals John Gim­lette’s taste for the an­i­mated con­fu­sion of the trop­ics. The au­thor man­ages the dif­fi­cult dou­ble act of bal­anc­ing his de­light for the ab­surd with the stealth of an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist. Thus, his phys­i­cal tour around the sanc­tu­ar­ies and flesh­pots of Sri Lanka is com­bined with a close-eyed search for the em­bers of the re­cent civil war.

We learn about the legacy of the three colo­nial em­pires—por­tuguese, Dutch and Bri­tish—that pos­sessed Cey­lon in turn. Iron­i­cally, it was Sri Lanka’s quest to re­cover its na­tional iden­tity that, un­wit­tingly, opened the gates to its bit­ter in­ter­nal con­flict.

Tom Blass trav­els not by trawler, frigate or yacht, but by hum­ble ferry boat to ex­plore the world of shore dwellers in

The Naked Shore of the North Sea

(Blooms­bury £20). He shows us that the great fleets of the Vik­ings, Norse and Ro­mans were mere ephemera com­pared to the stolid dyke-build­ing, fendrain­ing and cod-fish­ing achieve­ments of the Dutch and Frisians. He also ex­ca­vates myths about the drowned home­land of the Aryans and con­jures up the cold, muddy grip of some­thing im­mutably dark, heroic and fas­ci­nat­ing.

In The White Road: Jour­ney into an Ob­ses­sion (Vin­tage, £9.99), Ed­mund de Waal traces the dif­fu­sion of the craft of porce­lain while med­i­tat­ing on the use and abuse of beau­ti­ful ob­jects. We start in China and jour­ney west, fol­low­ing the packed crates as they ar­rive in Ver­sailles and then con­tinue on to the Sax­ony of Duke Au­gus­tus the Strong, where only the sci­en­tists of Dres­den and meis­sen are able to re-cre­ate porce­lain’s true form.

From thence, the near-mag­i­cal craft mi­grates to the hills of Corn­wall and the far moun­tains of South Carolina, be­fore re­turn­ing to Ger­many with the no­to­ri­ous pro­duc­tion of Nazi gift­ware by slave labour­ers at Dachau. All this is de­liv­ered with the ob­ses­sive, nerve-tight­en­ing en­gage­ment of the au­thor-pot­ter best known for The Hare with the Am­ber Eyes.

‘It al­ways pays to con­sult the real ex­perts: lo­cal book­shops

Wait­ing for a re­fresh­ing glass of min­eral water. From A Florence Diary by Diana Athill

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