Reading is a favourite pastime of mine, and in my opinion there’s nothing much that beats a good travel book (it’s not for nothing that I regard the six months I spent working for Stanfords as one of the best jobs I ever had). Below are my reviews of four travel books that I’ve read recently.
To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron
I rather like Colin Thubron. He can take a while to get going at times, but he had me gripped from the start with his latest book in which he treks into Tibet to join the faithful of four different religions on the pilgrimage to Mount Kailas. Although he never quite explains why he, an agnostic, opted to undertake this highly spiritual yet physically very arduous journey (there are autobiographical snippets woven into the text which offer some clues), what is clear is that he is in his element, combining his travelogue with asides about Nepalese and (particularly) Tibetan society and descriptions of why this mountain is held sacred by so many people – around a fifth of the world’s humanity. Thubron has been described as one of the last of the gentleman-travellers – his public-school background and his obvious erudition are factors here, but there’s much more to him than that. He’s made his name by going to out-of-the-way places and providing the reader, who is frankly unlikely to visit such parts of the world, with vivid descriptions of the terrain and the people he meets. What’s more fascinating with this particular adventure is that he did this trek, which is not for the faint-hearted as several fellow-walkers discovered, when he was seventy; there are people half his age who wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.
By the way, I found this interview with Colin Thubron on the BBC recently. Fascinating stuff!
On the Shores of the Mediterranean by Eric Newby
Eric Newby was one of those writers who didn’t improve with age. His early material was very, very good and made his reputation, but his later work was largely generic stuff which failed to match his earlier standard. Compare and contrast, say, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush with Round Ireland in Low Gear. Written in the 1980s, this book is one of the later efforts – a travelogue in which he and his wife visit countries which lie on the Med, and the ‘eccentric Englishman abroad’ persona that Newby made his own is very much to the fore. A couple of the chapters are very good, and it so happens that they are the ones in which the Newbys went off the beaten track into countries that were very much closed to foreigners at the time – namely Communist Albania and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. However, much of the rest is fairly derivative, and the overall effect is not so much a travelogue as a collection of essays wrapped around a central theme. There’s never enough space for all of my books in our little flat, so I fear that this one may be on its way to the charity shop the next time I decide to purge my bookshelves.
Vroom by the Sea by Peter Moore
First of all, let me state that Peter Moore is one of my favourite writers so any review by me is probably going to be favourable. I re-read this book after my recent Italian holiday, and I read it with a smile. This is the second of Peter’s Vespa trips around Italy (Vroom with a View was the first), and the basis for this particular adventure is that Peter’s wife is expecting their first child, and with fatherhood imminent he gives his old, carefree life one last hurrah by flying out to Italy, getting astride a bright orange Vespa and heading for the coast. I’m no biker, but it’s hard not to warm to this two-wheeled trip around Sardinia, Sicily and the southern Italian mainland. He is able to describe the journey and his surroundings so well that you feel that you’re there with him – on the road, meeting the locals and eating that lovely food. Frankly, I challenge anyone to read this book and not imagine, if only for one fleeting minute, about riding round Italy on a scooter. The final chapter, in which he joins hundreds of Vespisti on a night rally in the hills outside Pisa, is a particularly fine ending not just to the book but to Peter’s time as a solo traveller.
A Season with Verona by Tim Parks
I’d not read anything by Tim Parks before, and quite frankly the appeal in this book was that it promised to show a side of Italian life that the tourists never see – and quite frankly would be shocked if they did. This is an introduction to football fandom, Italian-style, which begins with an epic description of a return journey from Verona to Bari in the company of some decidedly eccentric individuals who live for the team that is Hellas Verona. At 54 pages, it’s the longest chapter in the book and there are times when the rest of it fails to live up to such a lively introduction. That said, this is no Italian take on Fever Pitch as Parks even gets to explore things from the club’s perspective when he is invited to fly with the team to a couple of the games – a writer’s perk, it seems. Given that he was doing this during a season in which Hellas Verona were involved in a relegation dogfight, there’s an element of suspense that will keep you guessing to the final few pages whether the team will manage to avoid the drop if you don’t know what happened already (I would guess that most readers will not). This isn’t a conventional travel book as there is no almost no tourist stuff here – football fans don’t go to Rome for the sights, they go for the match and are expected to leave as soon as the game is over. However, it does present a view of Italy and the Italians that is a few steps removed from the guide books, and as such it’s something I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in that country.
Just so you know, these reviews have also been posted on Amazon.