The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England
By Hugh Thomson
Having accompanied the 18 year old tearaway Hugh Thomson on his madcap drive through Mexico in Tequila Oil (see my archived review of April 2011), it is intriguing to be guided by a decidedly grown-up version of the same writer on a gentle 400-mile walk through Southern England. Thomson still spends much of his time in Latin America leading expeditions and making documentaries. But on returning from Peru he gives an initially unconvincing reason for setting off on a long distance walk: that it will serve as a remedy for jetlag. A little later he confesses that he has lost his driving license for repeated speeding offences, though the real impetus for his journey on foot no doubt is a book contract.
England is criss-crossed with long-distance footpaths. Some are recent creations of tourist boards to boost neglected regions. Others are household names, like the walk along Hadrian's Wall. The one that the author chooses to walk is the little known Icknield Way, considered to be one of the most ancient walking routes in the country, predating the Roman occupation of Britain. It links the English Channel with the North Sea via the lovely cathedral town of Salisbury and the university town of Cambridge. (Unusually a decent map of the route graces the endpapers.)
The author brings a traveling sensibility to his home territory, casting an eye attuned to noticing the strange and the exotic over some of the most densely populated places in southern England, including his own home beside the River Thames. He rightly notes that familiarity breeds heedlessness. It is only because the wood pigeon is so common and familiar in the UK that Britons pay no attention to its song and coloring; such a bird encountered in the Amazon would be greeted with amazement. The human beings whom Thomson encounters are no less colorful—farmers, poachers, gamekeepers and publicans among a cast of interesting rural characters, many of whom seem to be safeguarding an older English way of life.
Thomson is in search of the "places in between" as identified by Rory Stewart in his book of that title about Afghanistan. He focuses on the unremarked places we rarely visit. He is interested in the historical forces that shaped the English countryside, and is especially adept at uncovering the history and literature of mediaeval times. Some sections have their longueurs but most of the stories he tells illuminate the places he visits and the culture to which he belongs.
On some destinations he is scintillating. As a World Heritage landmark, Stonehenge is not a "place in between", but a national icon. Yet it has been shamefully neglected and abused by the authorities, an issue about which the author is knowledgeable and passionate. In fact the book is recent enough to include as an appendix an outraged letter he wrote to The Times when promised government funding was withdrawn. Surrounded by "absurdly intrusive roads" and fenced off so that the ancient talismanic stones cannot be visited but only viewed from a "designated walkway", the intrepid travel writer waits until most of the coach parties have left and comes up with an impressive ploy, worthy perhaps of imitation: "In my pack, I have a tie, which I put on, and a clipboard. Experience has taught me that no one will ever question a man with a tie or clipboard in case they get questioned themselves." And then he slips quietly inside the ring of stones, taking the reader with him.
Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast
By Samanth Subramanian
Oddly enough, the relatively young writer of this quirky travel book about India is similarly mistaken for a person in authority simply by carrying a notebook as he walks round the fish market in Kolkata before it opens at 4:30am. At first he demurs when mistaken for a fish baron by some of the market porters, but soon gives up and nods noncommittally. Trained as a journalist, Subramanian sets out his travel writing credo in the Introduction: "all travel writing [should] be in its absolute essence: plain, old-fashioned journalism, disabuser of notions, destroyer of preconceptions, discoverer of the relative and shifting nature of truth". This makes his endeavor sound more grandiose than it is, for Following Fish is a captivating and witty investigation of modern-day India through a fish-eye lens (so to speak).
Diving deep below the glassy surface of a sleepy seaside town in Karnataka, an ancient enclave of fisherfolk in Mumbai and various other coastal places, Subramanian's prose darts and glides, but seldom skims. Using fish as his structuring theme, he meets a cast of characters whose lives depend on fish, whether as sellers in Kolkata's Howrah Market, as chefs who curry it, potential charlatans who peddle it as a cure for asthma, big shots who hunt it as game, and artisans who build boats to catch it.
The discrete chapters can be read independently of each other. Some are more successful as travel writing than others. I was less interested in the long ago Catholic conversion of a community of pearl fishers in Tamil Nadu (only tangentially associated with the book's theme) than to a quest for the most authentic toddy shops in Kerala where the fieriest fish dishes are traditionally served. (I had been expecting the beach-anchored cantilevered Chinese fishing nets at Cochin in Kerala to get a mention, but the choice of subject in this book is never predictable.) Subramanian has a keen eye and an original and muscular turn of phrase. On a visit to an obscure town in Gujarat with a gigantic boat building operation he remarks that "a walk down a long chain of project lots can feel like watching a vaguely obscene boat strip show". Elsewhere he contrasts the untamed sea with the land which farmers have chemically "doped" into submission.
The book is also funny. While visiting a fish kitchen in Kerala, he notes that coconut oil is the frying medium of choice, whereas elsewhere in India it is primarily a hair-care product: "The mind, of course, is aware of this vital difference, but as I discovered, the nose is not. When that karimeen hit its wok of oil, there was an overwhelming burst of smell, both very familiar and yet very wrong, as if somebody had decided to make tea with Head & Shoulders or salad dressing out of Brylcreem." Sometimes he seems closer to being a food writer than a travel writer, introducing us readers in the west to unfamiliar ingredients like kokum, the dried skin of a fruit in the mangosteen family used in certain regions' fish curries. (For the first time I understand why a South Indian restaurant not far from my home is called Cocum.)
Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn: The Great British Holiday
By Brian Viner
Returning to Britain, Brian Viner has written a light-hearted book about the British on holiday, at home and abroad. He is a wise, humorous, and level-headed guide to the foibles of the British, but most of all he is affectionate. He is a Brit addressing his own kind, inviting fellow Brits to lament the wateriness of the scrambled eggs and the tight-lippedness of the holidaying middle classes. He does this in the way that you are permitted to criticize a close family member, whereas others do not have this license. As a result this book might leave a non-British reader a bit bewildered by the many references to British television shows, brand names, and customs. For example when he refers to Butlins, a chain of post-war holiday camps, he acknowledges that the mere word is freighted with meaning and class connotations to those who have grown up in Britain. He has an acute eye for nuances of class distinction, and is disarmingly honest about his own small prejudices.
Mostly the book is worth reading because of its humor. It might not be as laugh-out-loud funny as Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, another book which tries to encapsulate the British psyche, but its wit is engaging throughout. He reminisces about one of his earliest independent trips abroad with several school friends also aged 17. They take a bus to the south of France to "drink beer, meet girls, practice our French and laze in the sun, or, more realistically, drink beer and laze in the sun." Whatever your nationality, it is easy to imagine really enjoying lazing in the sun over a beer with the author (now aged about 50), swapping your own anecdotes about the time you arrived at the airport minus your passport or when at a bed and breakfast you were served "a watery substance flecked with yellow that looked as though a small sickly bird had vomited on to the plate."
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.