Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers
By Peter Fiennes
It can be dangerous to have one's hopes raised by the puffs in press releases and on back covers that make grandiose claims, for instance that a hitherto unheard of author is "a more literary and stylish Bill Bryson." But I think this book deserves the praise and is indeed "beautifully written, moving in its reflections and often very funny."
The author claims in the Preface that the premise is simple, to travel around Britain in the footsteps of past writers. I didn't mind in the slightest that many of the writers featured cannot legitimately claim "greatness." Among his authors are Ithell Colquhoun (who?), Gerald of Wales, and Celia Fiennes, a distant relation of the author who travelled extensively around Britain in the late 17th century. Even the better known writers like Enid Blyton, J B Priestley, and Beryl Bainbridge are hardly in the league of Charles Dickens, the book's starriest author. But the relative obscurity doesn't matter since Fiennes brings them all to vivid life as they make journeys to various corners of England and Scotland, urban and rural. Their journals, letters, and writings prompt observations and insights on what they experienced in their day reflected in what he sees now.
Fiennes adopts an easy conversational style ("What on earth was I expecting?"; "Wilkie Collins liked to live it large"; Dr Johnson threw "an absolute hissy fit" at Boswell near Loch Ness on their Scottish riding holiday). He loves the parenthetical aside (a stylistic proclivity I share). His careful researches have allowed him to get to know his subjects in detail and yet he keeps the big picture in view too. Snatches of conversation from his long dead literary heroes pepper the writing as though they are companions who refuse to stay obediently in their own chapters but pop up elsewhere ("...and here comes Enid again spreading out her tartan rug").
I particularly enjoyed the comic elements. In pursuit of Wilkie Collins in Cornwall, Fiennes has to confront his fear of heights: the ruins of Tintagel Castle are accessible across a 100ft bridge suspended over the sea and via cliff-edge paths. He contemplates the expedition with terror and wonders if "that woman in high heels, who is now sauntering up the path with her dogs and two young children, can lift and coddle me to safety" but decides the steps leading back aren't so bad "if you do them sitting down."
Later he plans to climb Mount Snowdon—the second-highest peak in the UK—this time in pursuit of two eccentric Anglo-Irish women writers, Somerville and Ross, who in 1893 spent an uncomfortable night in a hut (now gone) at the top. They concluded that views from summits are not necessarily superior to views from the base, to which our author adds "which certainly makes a pleasant change from the needy posturings of male writers, spaying their way up the mountains of the world, conquering things." In an outdoor store near Mount Snowdon, the assistant "stares at my leaky trainers, threadbare anorak and wasted, clerkish limbs with unfeigned concern." But behind the self-effacing wit, there is a serious attempt to "bring modern Britain into focus" (as he says in the Preface) which he achieves with charm and humanity.
Remarkable Road Trips
By Colin Salter
Quite a few of the 51 driving routes included in this volume would not suit Peter Fiennes or anyone else lacking a head for heights since they abound with hairpin bends, steep drops, and lanes too narrow for a bus and car to pass each other. We're told that as many as 300 people a year die on the hair-raising Road of Death in Bolivia.
Perhaps we are all beginning to feel a bit jaded by the fashion for compiling ultimate travel lists, compendia of the world's best secret places/views/beaches and so on. Many included here are the most obvious—the Garden Route of South Africa, the Ring around Iceland, the Pacific Coast Highway. The geographical distribution is uneven with 18 European routes included, nearly as many in North America, six in the British Isles, and only two or three each in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes. As always in these "Best of..." rankings, there are puzzling omissions: nothing in Switzerland for example. A few less predictable choices would have been welcome. I might have recommended driving in Malawi, a country with superb roads, marvellous scenery, and almost no vehicular traffic, only pedestrians and bicycles.
You can read the four- or five-page entries in any order, perhaps starting with the ones you've driven yourself, ones you have always longed to visit, ones you've heard of, and the ones you've never heard of (which will be quite a few). The selected road trips come in all shapes and sizes, from the 2.5-mile Passage du Gois in France, famed for being covered by the waters of the Atlantic for 18 hours in every 24, to the recently devised Wild Atlantic Way stretching 1600 miles along the whole west coast of Ireland. This is not the only "remarkable road" to be the product of a tourism marketing department. In 2015, Scotland rebranded the roads round the remote north as the North Coast 500. It has since become so popular that there is now a shortage of accommodation for those who haven't pre-booked.
The photographs are alluring, even if those aerial views of empty roads snaking across stunning landscapes sometimes look as though they're straight out of a car ad. The text sometimes has to drop hints that the road won't be as empty as pictured. For example, the chocolate box Cotswold town of Bourton-on-Water is "blessed with coachloads of tourists in the summer." One of the few routes that claim to be "almost completely untouched by tourism" is the road in the Atlas Mountains to Tizi N'Test in Morocco, which sounds wondrous.
The text is competent rather than sparkling. Inevitable in a book like this, the blurbs arise from research compiled by a pen-for-hire rather than from first-hand experience. The usual problem pertains when books that are in essence glossy coffee table books try to present themselves as practical guides. "Take the first exit of three at a complicated mini roundabout" hardly makes for gripping armchair travel. And there isn't a single map. Quibbles aside, the book is a feast for the eye and the imagination and is bound to pique a desire to plan a future road trip or two.
Dream Explore Discover
(no editor credited)
The format of this small book is a quotation per page printed on top of a photo of mountains, cliffs, rivers. After every two or three quotes, a divider (filler?) page pops up in a hodgepodge of typefaces - "Find Yourself", "Grab Life by the Horns" "Life is meant to be lived" [duh], "Say Yes to New Adventures." These seem to play no organizational function. For example we don't find Richard Branson's "Life is a helluva lot more fun if you say yes rather than no" in the "Yes to new adventures" section, but assigned randomly elsewhere. The quotations themselves are all so similar that in any case it would be pointless trying to arrange them thematically. The same sentiment is duplicated ad infinitum—"Take every chance you get", "Dare to do it", "Just go"— well, not quite ad infinitum since there can't be more than about 75 "inspirational" sayings included here.
The luminaries quoted range from Ovid to Bear Grylls, Ernest Shackleton to Steve Jobs: the thoughts and utterances of writers, artists, explorers and celebrities reduced to banalities. Almost none of these (so-called) motivational quotes contains one iota of wit. Or maybe it's just that exhortations to "stay wild and free" and to "follow your own path" ring a discordant note during a pandemic, when one really shouldn't listen to Katherine Hepburn when she says "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun."
Over the years I have enjoyed reading (and reviewing in these pages) many titles from the publisher Summersdale which used to win plaudits for being the "independent publisher of the year." A few years ago it was bought up by a mega-publisher ("home of lifestyle publishing") and one can't help cynically suspecting that the book's dimensions were chosen to fit exactly the specialty racks for mass-market pocket books displayed in gift shops. It doesn't pretend otherwise since the first page invites the purchaser to inscribe it "To" and "From" like a greeting card.
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 and Teaching English Abroad, she has also 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 hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.