The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
by Robert Macfarlane
Praise has been universal for this important book about encounters with landscape by an acclaimed British travel writer. The Old Ways is remarkably ambitious in its range and highly original in its structure. Four sections, entitled Tracking, Following, Roaming, and Homing, contain discrete chapters named for geographical and meteorological elements such as Chalk and Granite, Peat and Snow. Each chapter comprises a description of a real journey made by the author in England, Scotland, Spain, the Himalayas, and Palestine. These journeys become springboards for meditations, sometimes verging on the mystical, on the complex relationship between nature and man.
Some of the routes the author traces are exciting, dangerous and dramatically told. The memorable chapter called Silt describes a treacherous three-mile offshore walk known as the Broomway off the Essex coast of England which is possible only when the tide is out and only if you have enough nerve to continue past the signs: "Warning: The Broomway is unmarked and very hazardous to pedestrians". Macfarlane skillfully conveys the feeling of disorientation as, eerily, he and his companion walk on water and are mysteriously drawn out to the horizon. Another brilliant chapter describes an opposite topography, the high Himalaya of Sichuan province. While circumambulating the holy mountain of Minya Konka, the author realizes that his youthful desire to conquer peaks and to discover new paths has been replaced by a desire to walk on the old ways of the title, the ones that give "the sense of being connected by footfall to history and tradition."
Even knowing that Robert Macfarlane is a Cambridge academic, you would be hard-pressed after reading this book to guess in what faculty. Geography? Geology? Botany? Zoology? In fact he is in the English literature department, and the book refers to many writers, from Wordsworth --understandable since he walked tirelessly through the English Lake District--to Goethe, who apparently was a lover of granite. But Macfarlane's guiding muse is the early 20th century English poet and habitual walker Edward Thomas, who wrote about the English countryside in short lyric poems for a few years before he was killed in the first world war aged 39.
Macfarlane's own language often shades into poetry, as he paints word pictures without verbs. For example the moment at which the tide turns when he is in the Outer Hebrides is described thus: "All that paused water, unsure of its obligations, simmering, waiting for command. The lateral drive of the ebb tide canted to the vertical play of the slack tide. Gouts of water bulging up from deep down, polishing areas of ocean. Currents billowing and knotting. The light flimsy, filmy. The earth open on its hinges, unsure of its swing." A night spent under the stars in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid becomes almost as compressed as a haiku: "The night: a milk-white moon, cool air. Owls in the forests below, their hoots pushing through the dusk. The light soughing of wind in the pines. Sound drifting, two shooting stars." The effect can be incantatory.
It can also be alienating because it is so hyper-literary and self-conscious. I confess that I sometimes found myself balking at prose that seemed to shout. "Hey look at me" with overwrought constructions such as "the iamb of the I am" (about the Scottish Cairngorms) and "coastlines have become ghost-lines" (of the east coast of England). While some of the obscure technical vocabulary is included in the glossary (why use "gean" when you can say wild cherry?), many other words like boustrophedon and repristinated will require a dictionary.
by Robson Green
You would think I'd have learned the lesson by now to avoid books based on television series made for the downmarket British Channel 5, and with "Extreme" in the title. In the April 2012 issue of Perceptive Travel I was exceedingly rude about Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada, and now I am faced with Extreme Fishing by the British television actor Robson Green. The cover photo should have been a warning. It is of a giant goldfish in saturated orange which looks like it's from the Disney special effects department.
However, reading this book proved to be less of an ordeal than expected. The co-writer (ghost-writer?) Charlotte Reather is a comedy script writer and the jokes come thick and fast. Predictably the protagonist's ego is sharply to the fore, and readers may tire of the greeting card humor in jokes about his actorly vanity; on meeting his fishing guide in Papua New Guinea he says "He's intelligent, at ease with himself, and good-looking--we instantly have a lot in common." But there is also plenty of amusing banter, some of it self-mocking in the English way. If Robson Green is ever reincarnated, it will be as a clown fish.
The shenanigans and hijinks with his crew that we hear so much about make it a little hard to concur with him when about half way through the book, he opines that Extreme Fishing isn't really a fishing program, "it's a travelogue that explores different cultures and places." If that is what the book is trying to do, it has to be said that its explorations of remote places like Siargao in the Philippines, the Brazilian Amazon and the Watamu Marine Park on the coast of Kenya are not terribly revealing. Human--as opposed to piscatorial--encounters are almost exclusively with elite fishing guides and local minders. Occasionally a random stranger pops up, like Victor who wanders into the camera lens in Khabarovsk in far east Siberia long enough to scoff at the fancy equipment Robson is using to catch no fish. Later in Cuba, the team has an unscripted encounter with a local who nonchalantly catches and trusses up a pelican, to the consternation of the program's assistant producer. Moral scruples seem a little tardy when one counts the number of magnificent sea creatures that Robson hooks, spears and eats in the course of these 300 pages.
Road to Rouen: A 10,000 Mile Journey in a Cheese-Filled Passat
by Ben Hatch
Punning titles are no guarantee of a funny book. But this one is a riot. The flawed and lovable Ben Hatch takes his wife and two small children on a guidebook research trip around France. The parents' heart-warming attempts to choose activities that the children will enjoy are all doomed to failure. The author has the uncanny ability to convey affection for France while mocking the French. Take the Terra Botanica theme park ("Les Mondes du Végétal") in Angers, which eight year old Phoebe concludes is "rubbish." We have to agree with her after hearing her dad's take on it: "Spoiled by Pixar movies featuring imaginatively animated talking creatures going on epic adventures across time and space, a film about what happens to a drop of water when it gets sucked up a magnolia tree didn't quite hit the spot. They weren't that interested in the display about the correct way to cook haricot beans either." These are not the formulaic gags of a professional comedy writer but the genuine wit of someone with a highly developed sense of the absurd.
There can't be any other travel book anywhere that relies so heavily on dialogue. The most trivial aspects of a motoring trip, like choosing which lane to enter at an autoroute toll booth, give rise to light bickering which is unfailingly amusing, partly because it is so authentic. It could be us driving on the Arc de Triomphe roundabout in Paris without a GPS device or showing up at a boulangerie two minutes too late to buy a baguette or finding we have inadvertently bought a jar of truffles that cost the equivalent of a night's accommodation. Amidst the hilarity, this frank account of family life carries real emotional depth. Highly recommended.
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.