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Adventures in Isolation

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

A Shelf Stocked with the World

Now that you can no longer travel to The Granary and have your wonderful adventures on the Isle of Wight, I thought I might suggest a few of my favourite books that, for me, evoke the joy of travel and the feel of faraway places.

Herodotus is famed as the ‘father of history’, but he is also the father of travel writing. Herodotus travels, asks, listens and tells the story. What a wonderful world it would be if everyone had such a desire to learn and understand about others, their cultures and histories. This is a wondrous classic. Amusing too – I love the way Herodotus always asks people about the next people along. He always gets a tame answer; ‘oh, they are much like us!’. Until he gets to the last people in line, next to mountains or seas that have never been crossed. ‘What is beyond?’ he asks. ‘Oh, two-headed monsters live there, we have never seen them, but we know they are there!’

Formal and precise yet somehow magical. I find it so cute that Morton walks the streets of Rome by day, then, tucked up in bed, walks the routes again in his head, re-living the journey and the sights. This is actually, apparently, a great exercise in mindfulness, and is something we can all try from our isolation. You can imagine anywhere, but for me, inspired by Morton, I’ll walk Rome, that beautiful, beautiful city. I’ll re-find the turtle fountain I saw and that Morton found so delightful, then stroll across to Trastevere where we ate that amazing calamari 6 or so years ago. Rome, I hope you recover.

I pretty much love everything Diski wrote, but this book, part memoir and often harrowing, is ultimately so affirming that it will stay with anyone who reads it. For Diski it is as much about the journey as the destination, the struggle and beauty involved in getting there. In this case, Cabin 532 is every bit a destination as Antarctica.

Deakin was one of the finest writers on nature there ever was, and this is all the more beguiling to me as it is a ‘journey through trees’. Manor Bottom is practically in the wood, and I am fascinated by every tree here. Deakin knows more about trees than almost anyone and even if trees are not your thing, his prose draws you in and you will find yourself immersed in the wood.

I said Deakin knew more about trees than almost anyone…well, that is because there is Hope Jahren! I include this in my books about travel as it is a journey through one person’s life that is bound up with trees and she travels all over the world to study them. Jahren alternates a chapter of memoir, with a chapter on the science and wonder of trees. Again, this is a book that captivates, and will leave you never ignoring a tree again.

My favourite thing about Fermor is the way he just immerses himself in the travel and the place. He becomes so much a part of the place that telling a story about it just seems natural. This account written from the Mani, at the time one of the remotest regions in Greece, is just so evocative it makes you want to be immersed there too. An absolute joy of a book!

A work of fiction this, rather than travel writing, but the power of fiction is that it can totally suck you into a place too. This tells the story of six generations of the Sephardi Mani family and shows how, over the generations, a family travels too, its history moving from place to place, people bound to the environment and the environment bound to people. The writing here is simply astounding and I can never understand why this writer hasn’t won the Nobel Prize. Anyway, that aside, it is another one of those books that if everyone read, would make the world a better place.

And this is an enchanting book! An old friend of mine spent a lot of time travelling the world. When one day I asked her if there was ever a place she thought of settling, she told me ‘the hills of Transylvania’. It is easy to believe why when reading this. The place sounds truly captivating, this book too.

When Hobson considered studying for a year in Voronezh, the Russians she knew thought her crazy: ‘Have you any idea what knuckle-headed louts live in the provinces? You must go to Moscow!’ Her decision was easily made and the friendships and stories she found in Voronezh are profound, charming and sensitive. The city itself a hard, hard place. It would be a tough place to go to, but certainly not via this book.

I’ve always felt a huge connection with surfing, despite not being able to do it very well at all. It is like I’m the perfect theoretical surfer. I love the ocean and the waves, though the latter from underneath rather than on top of. There is a great description is this book about being taken by the wave, being powerless under it, yet calmly trusting it to take you back to the surface again. This is something I have experience a few times and it is humbling and exhilarating. This book is exhilarating to - a perfect adventure to share in isolated, land-locked lock-down.

Pure Fiction, pure fantasy, so real. Life in a Paris apartment block that never existed but is somehow more evocative of Paris than any piece of travel writing can ever be. The prefect book in which to lose yourself. It will take you so far away from self-isolation that you’ll want to stay there forever. And the preamble alone is worth the cover price!

Wheeler is an amazing travelling pal, wry, witty and full of vigour. Taking a journey with her is a delight and the energy in her prose makes her an adventurer who definitely takes you with her.

The migration of birds has always been a subject of fascination to me – it seemed the ultimate commute. So when Fiennes decided to migrate with a flock of Snow Geese I had to read. The result is an astonishing book musing on home, destination and everything in between. It is an honest, moving and gorgeously written piece of work. With its quiet profundity and meditative soul, it is a perfect book for the present time.

If you really want a book to take you, seemingly directly, to another place and time this is it. The detail and atmosphere is mesmerising, so evocative that you feel just like the child in that city. Istanbul, too, is one of my favourite places; the seaways, the palaces and the people so wonderful. Self-isolate yourself even further by locking yourself away from your family, in a single room, and try to read this in as few sittings as possible – you’ll come out of the room a little Turkish boy.

You can pick out any travel book by Morris and it’ll be a classic. But for some reason, she decided here to make up her own city, Hav. And though the city is not of this earth, it is so important a city its history should be read by all. Morris’ description of the place is written with love and erudition – she knows everything there is to know about the place. And it is a place so wondrous I’m surprised no one else has ever written about it.

This is a book so good it never even made it into paperback! The Hardback sold but a couple of hundred copies and though my heart sank when the decision was made to abort the paperback, in some way it kind of immortalised the book for me. I knew Halkin as Yehoshua’s translator. To be that you must have a fathomless understanding of language. And this tale of espionage in Old Palestine not only thrills with its storytelling, but it is perfectly set and because of that is a wonderful bit of escapism.

Travel Writing can sometimes seem like fiction, especially when the place described has become so much a part of the past that it is impossible to visit. This is such a piece – a vivid realisation of a part of Spain that has now been subsumed into one big tourist resort, the old village buried in time forever. Lewis is also a personal favourite as I admire his ability to put himself in the perfect position in which a travel writer needs to be; immersed but not so much as to lose objectivity, drunk but not so much you forget, friends but not so much that you cannot divorce. It is a presence that leaves little trace other than the work it produces.

I hope I have given a few good suggestions for escape and adventure. There are plenty of others if you don’t like mine, just check out Daunt’s or Stanford’s for ideas. Sadly, you cannot visit these inspiring shops right now for obvious reasons, but you can purchase online or just find inspiration. And if you want to inspire me with your own suggestions just let me know – my eyes are always focussed on the horizon.

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