Tag Archives: travel

Normal service will be resumed…

… as soon as I can read properly and comfortably without hurting myself.

neckieOW. An old neck injury – which I didn’t know I had – has flared up and is giving me all sorts of problems which are far too boring to go into here. I’m in diagnostic limbo, waiting for my appointment with the neurologist (only ten days to go), and while everyone assures me it can be dealt with, they all want further investigations to make sure that no further damage is going to happen. While I applaud this – but of course – it is also extremely frustrating.

And one of the main reasons it is driving me insane is that reading has become extremely awkward as I cannot bend my head without dizziness setting in. I end up lying down with a book supported by pillows and my head by even more pillows, and then I have to change position frequently and lie on the other side. So the ‘reading what the dice select’ game has had to be suspended, as the dice kept selecting large art books. All I can manage are paperbacks. Dice not cooperating.

So what have I been reading? Well, not my comfort books, which is interesting. I’ve been travelling vicariously, since I can’t do too much of that physically, and I’ve been travelling in both space and time. At least you have to do the latter vicariously, whatever your state of health.

WreckersFirst off, Bella Bathurst’s excellent book The Wreckers.  Neatly combining history and travel (and enough accounts of stormy seas to make my dizziness appear comparatively trivial), it’s a very good, well-written read. My only quibble, really, is that the very last section on the ship breakers of Alang doesn’t sit very neatly with the rest, which is confined to the seas around the British Isles. But if you don’t know it, read it. It’s so often better to travel vicariously, and this book is a good example of why that is so.

rubiconNext, Rubicon by Tom Holland. Ah, narrative history. And for anyone who was hooked by that splendid TV romp, Rome, this is the real deal. What really happened. Maybe what really happened. Possibly – after all, can you really trust sources, especially if they were sources dependent for their living – and their life – on the emperor Augustus? But it is crammed with fascinating information (I didn’t know that Caesar was a notorious dandy; how could that have escaped me?) and – yet again – is an excellent read. Very diverting, and intelligent.

Torrid ZoneOne of my favourite authors next, and no way would I have wanted to follow Alexander Frater on this journey – series of journeys, really – neck or no neck. Tales from the Torrid Zone is a mixture of travel, autobiography and history, centred on the tropics, and I’m too much of a northern lass to really enjoy the tropics. I get off the plane somewhere excessive and I want to get right back on. Not Frater. Born there, he loves them – and this book is a paean of love and affection and exasperation. I didn’t get it at first, and this is only my second reading. Boy, have a got it now. Lovely book.

HareAnd another is The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmond de Waal, one of my more recent purchases (but before the whole dice thing kicked in). Again, this was only its second reading, but I know it’s going to merit more. De Waal tracks a family collection of netsuke – and his family, the Ephrussis – from a purchase in nineteenth-century Paris to their residence in his studio (he’s a potter), via Vienna – and being hidden from the Gestapo in a mattress – and Japan. Along the way he learns much of his own history, but also illuminates much of recent European history. Wonderful.

And now I have to choose the next book. Wonder what it will be, other than a paperback? If anyone has any tips for coping with irritating neck injuries, do let me know (head transplants and all). And, in the tones of Arnold Schwartznegger: I’ll be back…

Glorious pictures – but there has to be a ‘but’…

TEXTILES: A WORLD TOUR – Discovering Traditional Fabrics and Patterns, by Catherine Legrande, published in 2008

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 18

coverThere are some books which have been lurking in my collection for a while, and yet I’ve barely looked at them. No, let me correct myself: this tendency is largely confined to the illustrated books, where I’ve looked at the pictures but either ignored the text or just skimmed through it. In some cases, as I’ve mentioned before, this has definitely been a mistake. Reading the text has given me a lot and added to the power of the illustrations.

In other cases – nah. Unfortunately, this book is one of these.

Textiles: A World Tour is also badly titled, because this isn’t a world tour. It’s selective and can be extremely sketchy, even when it does consider an area. Yes, it covers some diverse parts of the world – Laos, Romania, Rajisthan, Guatemala – but it is by no means as global as the title implies. And though there may be something on the textiles of somewhere specific which interests you, that something will probably be confined to two double-page spreads.

However, it is also inspirational – if you concentrate on the illustrations.

inside1

There is much to enjoy, and I’ll extend my positive feedback to the image captions, as well, which are often excellent. Nor, unlike some books on this subject, is male dress ignored (that would be next to impossible, you might think, when looking at places like Rajisthan or Romania, but it has happened before in books of this type).

inside 2

I find the mix of photographs and illustrations compelling. After all, a costume illustration can reveal details of construction which a photograph cannot, and they are vital in any serious book. They are good here, and the captions often help you understand what is going on.

The shots of details are superb, whether they are of Indian embroidery or Romanian printing, and there are some lovely montages, like this one of South-East Asian traditional bags.

inside3

Perhaps I’ve been too tough on the text. It’s also acceptable where it concentrates on the textiles and dumps the ‘we saw X going to market and she said…’ gubbins. This book doesn’t go into anything in detail, though – if you want to serious information about, say, ikats or indigo, then you’re better going to a more specialist work. If you want lovely photographs and excellent drawings, you’ll get those here.

inside4So, yes, I would recommend this, and I have enjoyed getting into it – perhaps you need that grit in your oyster. Ignore what it pretends to be (especially wise in the sections of text that read like a 1950s National Geographic travelog; this tone may be partly down to translation) and concentrate on what it is, and you have something worthwhile: a collection of gorgeous photographs and illustrations of traditional textiles from some parts of the world.

Walking away…

CLEAR WATERS RISING: A MOUNTAIN WALK ACROSS EUROPE by Nicholas Crane, published in 1996

Bookcase 10, shelf 8, book 1

What a hiatus – lots of work meant that I was only reading recipe books, and they don’t make for the most exciting posts. Oh, all right, some of them do – Claudia Roden’s fabulous Jewish Food, for instance, which is as much about social history as it is about stuffing your face. But they’re outside the scope of this project – for one thing, I’d need three dice to get as far as the cookery books, and I’ve only got two. But the two dice I have got gave me a lovely read to make up for the increasing sameness of cookery books.

Clear Waters Rising is a wonderful vicarious walk from one end of Europe to the other, from Cape Finisterre and Santiago de Compostela right through to Istanbul, following the watershed over various mountain ranges as much as possible. It was undertaken in the mid-90s by a thoroughly entertaining writer, Nicholas Crane. Some people will know him from the BBC’s Coast series, always accompanied by an umbrella on his back and a TV crew. This comes from before then, and indeed starts even before the acquisition of the umbrella (though that is bought early on). When he undertook this solitary walk he hadn’t been married for long, fortunately to a very understanding person, another traveller. He’d done many other difficult journeys, but never anything by himself – and that was exactly what he decided to do in this project, which he optimistically thought might take a year.

Keeping in contact by phone – phone boxes assume a lot of importance; this is before ubiquitous mobile technology – and with some pre-arranged meetings (either with his wife or others) enabled NC to travel comparatively light in a journey that spanned the seasons. Its length, both physically and temporally, paint a changing picture. As he sets off, for instance, the mountains he travels through begin to fill with other climbers and walkers then gradually empty as the time wears on. Mountain cafés and campsites empty:

‘This is the last meal I cook at Cortalets this year,’ he announced.
‘You are going to the valley, then?’
‘Tonight…’

and rough camping (it saves him money, plus is more enjoyable – generally, except when wet, snowed upon or being thoroughly spooked in the Vercors) becomes more and more difficult. There are detours – a quick sideways trip to climb Mont Blanc, for instance – and an always entertaining commentary on the places and people he encounters. It’s a very well-written book; In some places it’s straightforwardly amusing; in others it catches a universal feeling…

‘Darkness had fallen when I walked into St Maurice Navacelles. Water shone in the light cast from a window. Inside, an elderly couple were pulling up trays of food before a fire. The warmth and sheter of their secure little haven … was on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf. I was comfortable with my tramp’s life, for it brought freedom and full-time relief from restlessness, but it was still difficult to pass a lit window at dusk without wanting to be in on the warmer side of the glass.’

And the photographs are good, as well.

As Crane moves eastwards, the nature of the people he encounters changes: there are more shepherds, for instance, and fewer people walking in the hills for pure enjoyment. And if this sounds a little like Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s journeys across pre-War Europe, then that’s hardly surprising. Their tracks converged in Vienna, where Crane’s resolve really wavered for the first time. The thought of the young Leigh-Fermor was one of the things that kept him going: as he says, ‘he wouldn’t approve’. Plus, of course, there was consistent support from his family, not least his wife, and he did manage to do most of the journey by himself, except when obliged to take a companion by the authorities in the Ukraine. One was fine, a kindred spirit; the other was not, but the problem resolved itself. And there was really only one occasion (apart from the mystery sounds of footsteps approaching a shelter in the Vercors, footsteps with no apparent owner) when he felt in any danger.

Clear Waters Rising is such a good read. There’s not a cat in hell’s, or a ghost in the Vercors, chance that I would ever be able to do something like this – certainly not now, Achilles tendon injuries being what they are, and probably never. I’d have given up at the first campsite, I suspect. But books like this broaden horizons as well as entertain, and sometimes they bring you up short with a realisation about something you may have taken for granted.

(As a spinner, I had to use this double-page spread – even though I can’t spindle-spin and never wear headscarves or – phew – socks with sandals)

Ahem. Take art, for instance. I’ve known about the glorious painted churches in Romania for years, but the sheer impact they might have had on their original audience never really occurred to me. NC, however, having been on a journey ‘where “art” had been an occasional iconostasis or the pattern on a flute barrel’, was utterly blown away by them. ‘Christianity in freeze-frame covered the entire exterior and interior … saints and priests and claocked philosophers (Plato crowned by a reliquary of bones) floated in ranks above an earthly landscape of mesas and buttes, cityscape and forests…’ In short, a ‘carnival of the grotesque, the allegorical and the saintly, reaching as tall as the trees…’. It must have felt a lot like that many centuries ago, too. And without Clear Waters Rising, I’d not really have given that fact a second thought. Not just a walking book, not just a mountain book, not ‘just’ a travel book – but a damn good read, and a very thoughtful one.

Can I go back to the beginning and read it again?

Back to the trees

MYTHIC WOODS by Jonathan Roberts, published in 2004

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 17

I do love trees. I spent a large part of my teenage years up in an old tree, reading. Now I’ve got quite a few in the garden (er, 20 at the last count, though they’re not all huge), and more than a few books about them on the shelves. Some are field guides, some focus on a particular tree, some are tours of specific trees – but this is the only one which focuses on woods. Well, on a perhaps surprising interpretation of ‘woods’.

OK, I admit it, I’m a sucker for books on trees. Some of the books I’ve bought on impulse and the strength of  a few positive words on Amazon have made their way to the charity shop fairly quickly, and for a moment this one nearly joined them. I’m not quite sure why, but it found its way back onto the shelves, where it remained unexamined until I rolled the dice and got it. Now I have read it and looked at it properly, I’m very glad that I changed my mind. This dice-rolling thing is having all sorts of unexpected benefits…

One reason why I nearly got rid of Mythic Woods was because of the fact that it is illustrated with what are, essentially, library shots. I’d hoped for a unified vision, and rather snottily decided that this wasn’t it. I was wrong. Yes, the photographs do come from a variety of photographers, but the photo editing is excellent, and there isn’t really a sour note.

I do think, though, that the title is misleading as well as being a little ‘away with the fairies’ with the ‘mythic’ tag. If it was full of legendary woods, woods like Sherwood, perhaps, redolent with stories and tales, then I wouldn’t have much of  a problem with it as an echo of the book within. But this book isn’t like that at all; it’s much more down to earth than the title implies. It’s also about forests than woods, and that’s forests in the old sense of the term – where a forest can be a bleak area of upland with a few trees dotting the hills, as in the Atlas Mountains,

or an ancient petrified / fossilized forest in Arizona, or a wilderness of kelp off the California coast. Oh, I know I’m quibbling, but I am an editor and that’s my job. Time to ignore my inner nit-picker and just enjoy the book, because it is eminently enjoyable. Here’s the kelp:

More conventionally, the book moves across the whole world in a way that some books of this type just do not. It includes, for instance, Canada’s Great Bear Forest (boy, would I like to see that some day) and the Kauri forests of New Zealand (ditto). I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the mix of photographic sources: it would have been extremely expensive as well as time-consuming – hang on, the Inner Editor is out again. Go away.

But of course it’s not just about the photographs. The text is good, even if the font size is suspiciously large (a sure sign of trying to spin text out – go away, Inner Ed, I said). There’s a strong environmental message. This wasn’t, however, what Jonathan Roberts originally intended. He is quite open about it: saying that the green agenda wasn’t what he wanted to focus on at the start. However, as work progressed, that attitude became impossible to sustain. The sound of the chainsaw rang through many of the woods he visited, and there were clear signs of destruction caused by logging (napalm has even been used to clear the ground after the removal of trees, so that’s not surprising). As he says:

‘Trees can barely keep up with axes. With chainsaws they do no stand a chance. A thousand years a-growing destroyed by fifteen minutes with a chainsaw.’

There’s also a focus on those who have fought or are fighting for the forests, people like Lyautey with his aim of re-foresting the Atlas Mountains in Morocco just after the First World War. His civil servants had protested that old-growth forest, such as that which had once covered the Atlas, would take thousands of years to establish. Re-establish. Apparently he responded with ‘That, gentelmen, is why we will start immediately’. Quite. Go out and plant trees – though I, perhaps, should stop. At least in my own garden.

But I really, really warmed to this book when I found a quote from an old, completely inspirational archaeology book, one that turned me on to the whole idea of European archaeology in the late 70s, and provoked my deep and abiding obsession with the Mesolithic.

It’s probably too small or faint to see, certainly on a mobile device, so here goes:

“‘If one could have flown,’ wrote J G Clark in 1952, ‘over northern Europe during Mesolithic times [c 5000 BCE] it is doubtful whether more than an occasional wisp of smoke from some camp fire, or maybe a small cluster of huts or shelters by a river bank or old lake bed would have advertised the presence of man: in all essentials the forest would have stretched unbroken, save only by mountain, swamp and water, the the margins of the sea…'”

Hmm. Maybe ‘mythic’ isn’t that bad a word. The forest here, by the way, is the wonderful Black Wood of Rannoch. Now that one I do know.

Op the rigging

THE LAST GRAIN RACE, by Eric Newby, published in 1956

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 3

What a winner, getting this – one of my all-time favourite travel books. One of my all-time favourite books, in fact. And in this case I am including the actual, physical book in my remark, because this is a first edition I found several years ago at a book fair when I was on holiday on the north Norfolk coast. It replaced a Picador paperback which had been read so often that it fell apart (not always that difficult with some of those white-spined Picador titles, mind).

I remember once hearing The Last Grain Race being discussed on Radio 4, and somebody dismissed it as ‘very much a bloke’s book’. Rubbish. I am most definitely not a bloke, and I adore it, so perhaps I should explain why instead of simply repeating the fact that it’s a wonderful read.

A large part of its appeal is down to Eric Newby’s attitude and the sheer style and class of his writing, writing which is never over the top or remotely purple, writing which nonetheless conveys the wonder of the world, whether that is rounding Cape Horn on one of the last grain clippers here, hiding from Nazis in Italy (Love and War in the Appenines) or trekking through Nuristan with a maniac friend (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). Lest anyone who doesn’t know Eric Newby assume he was a cross between James Bond and Richard Hannay, I’ll add that he is equally evocative describing his youth in Barnes or his work in the post-war rag trade (Something Wholesale). And of course he is also self-depreciating (the classic anecdote is one from Hindu Kush, where he and his companion encounter that legendary traveller Wilfrid Thesiger. They blew up their inflatable matresses at night, getting a predictable reaction from the Great Man: ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’…) and immensely funny.

The Last Grain Race is the story of his voyage around the world as a young apprentice on board Moshulu, one of the last of the great windjammers, in 1938-9.

(Moshulu, incidentally, has a brief role in Godfather II, where she carries the young Vito Corleone to America – watch out for it, as it gives an idea of the scale of these huge but lightly crewed grain ships.)

Newby had always been tempted by the sea and finally gave in to romanticism, bad influences (Mountstewart, an elderly friend and possibly certifiable lunatic), heredity (his father ‘had once tried to run away to sea and been brought back from Millwall in a hackney cab’) and the growing realisation that this was an opportunity which was about to disappear from the oceans of the world for ever. He kept a meticulous record during the voyage, as well as writing letters and taking many remarkable photographs, all of which enabled him to write Grain Race so evocatively nearly 20 years later.

After a laborious attempt to locate a caribou-skin sleeping bag – ‘it took up a great deal of time which I could have spent more profitably in eating’ – which he had become convinced was necessary (the salesman: ‘The last one gave the man who slept in it anthrax’), and lugging the second-hand Louis Vuitton trunk found in a lost property shop, Newby set off for Belfast, Moshulu and – eventually – the Southern Ocean. All in all, for a voyage of some 30,000 miles.

The ship finally left the unappealing docks of pre-war Belfast on 18 October, and EN began a steep learning curve in everything from getting on with his variously eccentric shipmates to climbing the rigging in all situations (above a dock, in a storm, when someone is throwing up on your head), to what happens if you lose a hammer over the side and how bad a dead dog smells when you excavate it from the ballast four months after the Belfast stevedores have amusingly placed it there.

There is a lot of detail about the organization of a sailing ship, but it can easily be skipped; in fact, Newby tells readers where to jump to at one point if they don’t want to follow his ‘technical interlude’. Even without reading that, though, you inevitably pick up a lot of vicarious knowledge – how slippery the ratlines could be, and how dangerous; how to clean the revolting heads; how to set a course in Swedish, the working language of the ship.

And so the outward journey to Australia continues, Moshulu crossing the equator (with a horrible initiation ceremony for those who had not done so before, including EN) about a month after sailing.There is some wonderful writing about the sea, evocative in the extreme:

‘On Christmas morning the weather was cold and brilliant. Big following seas were charging up astern in endless succession. They surged beneath the ship, bearing her up, filling the air with whistling spray as their great heads tore out from under and ahead to leave her in a trough as black and polished as basalt except where, under the stern post, the angle of the rudder made the water bubble jade-green, as from a spring. From the mizzen yardarm, where I hung festooned with photographic apparatus, I could see the whole midships…’

Now is the time to mention the photographs – the extraordinary photographs. They are so good, and so comparatively rare, documenting life on a windjammer, that at least one commentator has described them as the most important aspect of Eric Newby’s work. They are indeed excellent, and in my edition are reproduced particularly well. In fact a book entirely devoted to them was published in 1999 – Learning the Ropes.

The ship arrived in Australia in early January, loaded and left in March 1939, and arrived back at Queenstown (now Cobh) in June, 91 days out. Moshulu was the winner of the ’39 grain race. But this was just before the outbreak of war and everything was to change, and change extremely fast, just as EN had anticipated. One of the other ships in the race, the Olivebank, hit a German mine in early September, but Moshulu herself survived, and is now – wait for it – a floating restaurant. And occasional film location.

Throughout The Last Grain Race, as with his other books, Eric Newby’s essentially genial and humane personality comes through. Yes, he’s a romantic, but he finds that characteristic amusing and gently pokes fun at his younger self (as in the affair of the wretched sleeping bag). He genuinely likes people and finds them interesting – and that’s not something you can say for every travel writer, or indeed every writer. There’s no need to explain away undesirable attitudes as being ‘common at the time’ or ‘simply reflecting the times in which the book was written’ because there aren’t any such attitudes in evidence. Having met the man himself when I was a baby bookseller, I can testify to his genuine niceness – an often under-esteemed quality.

A wonderful book, and a wonderful author.

Riding into the recent past

STOPPING-TRAIN BRITAIN, A RAILWAY ODYSSEY by Alexander Frater, photographs by Alain Le Garsmeur; published 1983

Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 8

I have to confess a weakness for trains.

No, nothing truly embarrassing like a tendency to fondle steam engines or collect large pieces of railwayana: I just like trains. Admittedly not the 7.15 to Blackfriars, but happily those commuting days have gone since I upped sticks and left London with cries of glee and a big party. Now, when I use a train, it’s the Cambrian Coast Line. By a curious coincidence that is one of the railway lines featured in this book, which I encountered years and years before I ever dreamed of actually using the line myself.

This book grew out of  a series of articles in the Observer. Alexander Frater wrote for them and, trains or no trains, I would have picked this book up anyway because he had written it. I often reread his Beyond the Blue Horizon – following the route of Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – and Chasing the Monsoon, which does just what it says on the tin. He’s an excellent travel writer, curious and sympathetic, and his style is one I find clear and equally sympathetic.

Stopping-Train Britain was written at a time when many local railway lines were still under the shadow of more Beeching-like cuts. Cars were dominant; by and large you only used a train if there was no alternative, or if you needed to commute to school or work. Green issues were not a factor and oil would last for ever or, if not forever, for the foreseeable future. Local railways either had no future or only a limited one, and an elegiac note pervades the book. ‘Many rural railwaymen,’ says Frater in the introduction, ‘are convinced that within a decade or so, they will have no trains left to operate.’ Now, three decades on, the Settle to Carlisle line is secure; the Cambrian Coast Line is busy with people going to the doctors or out to a celebratory lunch or visiting the market in Machynlleth…

This is a journey back into a recent past.

Frater started off rather romantically – he always does; it’s one of the things I love about his writing: a realism, but a romantic realism – with Edward Thomas’s Adelstrop ringing in his ears. (‘When the country trains have finally gone, that, I suspect, is how many of us will choose to remember them – the last survivors of an age of innocence,’ he adds.) He also started rather haphazardly, which is why the lines he and Alain Le Garsmeur took are somewhat random, both the famous and the more obscure. And they’re not spread across the country either; there’s a collection in the north-west, a couple in Scotland and here in Wales, one in Norfolk and one looping around north London.

But the lines they followed weren’t always like those of Seigfried Sassoon’s or Edward Thomas’s pre-WW1 journeys. A surprising amount remained of those rural lines alive with birdsong, of small trains pottering through woods or over high moorland, but the more modern world had intruded. One line largely owed its survival to the transport of nuclear waste from Windscale (aka Sellafield); another ran though a bleak landscape of abandoned mills and dilapidated housing. And whatever the landscape, the photographs are just right.

Each journey is much more than a simple record of a trip from A to B. It’s the people as well as the lines, the people who both work and travel on rural railways.

Travelling by train gives you time to observe, time to reflect and time to chat, and it’s particularly the latter that brings this book to such vivid life. Frater discovered a community of railway people he liked and admired, people with ‘a strong sense if identity … They had good stories to tell. Patagonia? Who needs it? For a writer there are equally rich veins waiting to be worked in East Anglia or the Western Highlands.’ The other thing he discovered was a deep admiration for the railways:

‘And the more they talked, the more I became aware of the astonishing complexity and richness of railway history, lore and language. It slowly dawned on me that the little diesel rattling along between, say, Shrewsbury and Hereford, is only doing so because for a century and a half generations of engineers have been obsessively solving millions of problems in the cause of a single principle. Every artefact … has been considered, reduced to its logical elements and then resolved, often with surprising elegance and simplicity.’

Maybe I should start collecting railwayana (the spellchecker keeps changing that to ‘railwayman’ – now there’s a thought)… or maybe I should simply celebrate the fact that those railwaymen were wrong when they predicted a fairly swift end for rural rail. Thirty years on from the publication of  Stopping-Train Britain I can take a ten-minute walk down the hill, raise my hand to stop the train and go and do my shopping.

Hooray!

Slowly boating

SLOW BOATS TO CHINA by Gavin Young, originally published in 1981; my (lovely) edition 1995

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 33

I love vicarious travel.

It has so many advantages – you don’t have to worry about the water, being assaulted or offending people inadvertently; you don’t have to spend time at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases getting unlikely injections beforehand and you don’t have to spend time with the bank afterwards, trying to sort out your finances.

Some travel books, though, make you want to leap off and emulate the author immediately.

And some do not – and this is one of those.

That’s not, of course, to say that it’s a bad or even indifferent travel book, because it isn’t; it’s wonderful (or at least, I think it is). But I am deeply grateful that I wasn’t in any way involved with most of Gavin Young’s 1979/80 journey. It was a romantic dream of sea travel, of taking a succession of ships and small boats all the way from Europe to China, something that was barely possible at the time, and which is even less possible now. But Young managed it, and indeed even went on to write a sequel, Slow Boats Home. And if anyone could do it, he could.

Gavin Young was born in 1928 and worked for a large part of his life as a foreign correspondent, covering a total of fifteen wars. He started in journalism as a stringer working out of Tunis, and before he joined the Observer he worked for two years with a shipping company in Basra, and then spent a couple more years with the Marsh Arabs nearby in southern Iraq. His journalistic career was marked by revolutions and conflicts, and he was 1971 International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the traumatic birth of Bangladesh. All of this certainly prepared him for his later life as a travel writer, particularly one with a marked interest in the East. His ability to get on with a wide variety of people, and his persistence and flexibility when travelling, are certainly reflected in the journey which resulted in Slow Boats to China.

It is perhaps surprising, given such a career, that he comes over as such an incorrigible romantic…

The whole idea of the journey sprung from childhood memories of the north Cornish coast and consequent dreams of running away to sea. Young decided he would take whatever ships were available – it’s been described as ‘a sort of traveller’s roulette’ – and make his way from Piraeus to Canton as best as he could. From disgusting ferries in the Mediterranean to kumpits in the pirate-infested Sulu Sea, he managed it (and only rarely had to resort to alternative means of transport).

En route he met many interesting individuals – a cliché of the travel book, but Young’s reporter’s eye and ear make the most of all his encounters and the same cannot be said of some other books in this field – and enabled his readers to share in many experiences, but virtually: always more comfortable. I certainly hadn’t the slightest desire to spend precarious time with Moros in the Sulu Sea (though I now have a good piece of advice should I be in fear if my life in similar circumstances: keep smiling), and I still haven’t – but Young’s account makes me understand what it must have felt like. His writing is extremely evocative, and time and again the romantic surfaces, though not in purple prose: he was, after all, a war reporter.

Young died in 2001, six years after Slow Boats to China appeared as one of the Picador Travel Classics.

It’s a lovely edition, though the illustrations and clear maps have appeared in all editions – and the maps are excellent (it’s a shame that the same cannot be said of all travel books). His later book In Search of Conrad was joint winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, but I much prefer Slow Boats.

Maybe I’m something of an incorrigible romantic about the sea myself…