What’s your favourite form of escapism in these strange and challenging times? Netflix is fine, but if you’re stuck indoors for weeks on end then nothing beats a good book – and for me, nothing beats a good travel book, particularly now we’re not allowed to travel.
What makes a good travel book? It doesn’t need to be about a remote location – some of the worst travel books have been written about the most far flung places. It doesn’t need to be about a perilous journey – lots of writers have risked their lives for the sake of mediocre memoirs. It doesn’t even need to be about somewhere you’d like to travel to. Some of the travel books I like best are about places I’d never dream of visiting.
In the end, it’s all about the personality of the writer. At its best (and worst) travel writing is autobiographical. If you like and trust the writer, it’s like going on a journey with an old friend, without any of the discomfort or inconvenience. You’re bound to have your own favourites, but if you’re looking for something new to read, here are ten of mine.
What Am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin
It’s been over 30 years since Bruce Chatwin died, aged 48, of an AIDS related illness, but he remains an object of fascination and controversy, as renowned for his life as for his writing. His travelogues occupy a strange no-man’s land on the edge of fiction – often fanciful and unreliable, but full of poetry and wisdom. The Songlines is his most famous book, about following Aboriginal walking trails in Australia. I prefer his lyrical debut, In Patagonia. If you don’t know either of them, this powerful collection is a fine starting point.
A Walk Around the Lakes by Hunter Davies
Aged 84 and still going strong, Hunter Davies is the most prolific journalist of his generation. He’s also a renowned author, with dozens of bestselling titles to his name. He’s best known as the authorised biographer of The Beatles, but it’s his travelogues that I like most of all. He divides his time between London and the Lake District, and what he doesn’t know about the Lakes isn’t worth knowing. This affable, insightful book was written in 1979, but it still feels just as fresh, and happily the places he writes about have hardly changed.
Flying Visits by Clive James
A brilliant broadcaster and a first rate critic, Clive James was also a sterling travel writer, and these funny, perceptive glimpses of unfamiliar places show first impressions can be just as revealing as deeper expertise. ‘The reader will discover, if he keeps going, that the writer became less and less inclined to wax sententious, asked fewer and fewer important people for their considered views, and grew more and more shameless about doing corny tourist things,’ he writes in the intro. It’s hard to believe he’s died.
Twelve Cities by Roy Jenkins
Roy Jenkins wasn’t the first major politician to enjoy a literary reputation, but he may be the first major politician who’ll be remembered as a writer. Disraeli’s novels are just a biographical footnote; Jenkins’ biographies of Churchill and Gladstone still loom just as large. Twelve Cities spans a dozen places Jenkins knew well, and so this book doubles as kind of memoir. His portraits of great metropoles like Paris and Berlin are astute and entertaining, but he’s even better on less fashionable places like Birmingham and Bonn.
A Journey to Nowhere by Jean-Paul Kauffmann
Subtitled ‘Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Courland,’ this book is a profound meditation on the power of the past. Like Prussia, Persia, and dozens of other vanquished nations, Courland (now part of Latvia) has long since disappeared from modern maps. Kauffmann’s journey in search of it becomes a search for all sorts of other hidden memories, most notably his first love, who was of Latvian descent. A French journalist with a light touch and a wry, laconic wit, Kauffman spent three years as a hostage in Beirut.
The Battle for Room Service by Mark Lawson
‘Journeys to all the safe places’ is the subtitle of this jolly romp, in which Mark Lawson boldly goes where lots of men have gone before – but rarely bothered to write about. His fearless quest takes him to Normal Illinois, Dead Horse Alaska, EuroDisney, Center Parcs and Milton Keynes. The hidden heroes of this book are two Englishmen with the same surname,’ he writes. ‘They are James Cook, who had the courage to discover the world, and Thomas Cook, who made it possible for others to discover it without courage.’
Journeys by Jan Morris
Alistair Cooke called her ‘the Flaubert of the jet age,’ and although I’ve never read a word of Flaubert that sounds mighty fine to me. Born in 1926, Morris spent the first half of her life as a man, James Morris, and the second half as a woman, but her calm and lucid writing transcends gender. She has a keen ear for dialogue and vivid powers of description. Her books on Venice, Spain and Trieste are all superb. If you’re coming to her anew, this collection is a good primer, ranging from Las Vegas to Aberdeen.
Eat the Rich by PJ O’Rourke
American satirist PJ O’Rourke has a rare talent for writing humorously about humourless topics. Here he writes about a topic which should be immune to humour – economics. O’Rourke travels the world to assess the pros and cons of competing economic systems: Good Capitalism (Wall Street), Bad Capitalism (Albania), Good Socialism (Sweden), Bad Socialism (Cuba), How to Make Everything from Nothing (Hong Kong), How to Make Nothing from Everything (Tanzania) and How to Have the Worst of Both Worlds (Shanghai). I learnt more about economics from this book than any book about economics I’ve ever read. Admittedly, I think it may well be the only book about economics I’ve ever read. It made me laugh a lot.
Driving over Lemons by Chris Stewart
There are far too many books by middle-aged Brits seeking better times in warmer climes, but Chris Stewart rejuvenated this tired genre with his amiable book about starting a new life in Andalucia. His Spanish adventures are enlivened by a variety of amusing mishaps, but it’s his cheerful disposition that really wins you round. ‘Stewart prepared for life on a mountain farm in Spain with jobs of doubtful relevance,’ reads his biog. Among those jobs was drumming in a band called Genesis. I wonder what became of them?
Fresh Air Fiend by Paul Theroux
Which Paul Theroux book to pick, for the lucky reader who’s yet to read him? Kingdom by the Sea, about his trek around the coast of Britain? The Pillars of Hercules, about his trek around the shores of the Mediterranean? Maybe a collection is the best place to begin. All the pieces in this book were written in just 15 years, between 1985 and 2000, but what a wealth of travel there is in here! ‘A book has the capacity to express a country’s heart,’ he writes, in an essay called Travel Writing: The Point of It, ‘as long as it stays away from vacations, holidays, sightseeing and the half-truths in official handouts.’ Theroux’s books do all these things, as do all the books on this short list