Tag Archives: Travel Writing

The Sunday Times Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with the University of Warwick Shortlist: Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

Cover imageI used to read a lot of travel writing before it was taken over by authors carting kitchen appliances round with them as a gimmick. I blame Bill Bryson: enjoyable as his books were they seemed to foster a demand for comedy in the genre, not an accusation to be made of Adam Weymouth, I’m glad to say. Kings of the Yukon follows Weymouth as he traces the king salmon’s route from the Yukon’s mouth back to their spawning grounds in reverse.

Weymouth begins his journey in May 2016 at the beginning of the Arctic spring. On the first leg, he’s accompanied by Hector, a man in his seventies who could give many in their twenties a run for their money. They’re in Canada where the salmon in Weymouth’s sights are known as Chinooks; once over the border in Alaska they’re called kings. Weymouth picks up his canoe in Whitehorse and continues alone, eyes open for salmon with bears a constant concern. As he travels downriver towards the sea, he meets many as concerned as he is about the diminishing numbers and size of this fish central to the indigenous culture. Some are blow-ins, attracted to the Alaskan wilderness celebrated by the likes of Jack London just as Weymouth was; others are indigenous people who feel that strict fishing bans represent an assault on an ancient way of life. No one, it seems, entirely understands why these majestic creatures who swim upriver for almost 2,000 miles to reproduce after spending years in the sea are in decline. What all can agree is that human intervention, one way or another, is responsible.

Weymouth guides us through dramatically beautiful landscape in this epic journey along the world’s longest salmon run.  As with all good travel writing, there are personal anecdotes to enjoy but Weymouth is at his best when he lets the people he meets speak for themselves. There’s a clear message here about the dwindling salmon numbers and our part in their depletion, communicated most effectively through their voices. This is a land with a rich indigenous culture, suffering desperate unemployment and poverty with all its attendant problems: its people deserve to be heard. Weymouth’s eloquent book does just that.

Two of my fellow shadow judges have also posted their Kings of the Yukon reviews: Lizzi’s is here and Paul’s here.

This is my last review for the Young Writer of the Year Award. We shadow judges will be announcing our winner on November 29th. The judges announce theirs a week later on December 6th at the London Library. If you’d like a reminder of the other three books on the list, they’re The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Reading Cure and Elmet. Just click a title to read my review.

You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward which includes a Q &A with Adam Weymouth, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.

The Edible Atlas by Mina Holland: A tasty little post which involves Jaffa cakes

Cover imageThis may seem an unusual post from me but I enjoy eating almost as much as I enjoy reading and would do a lot more of it were I not in fear of an exploding waistline. Travel comes a close third which makes Mina Holland’s culinary atlas an attractive prospect, all the more so thanks to the puff from Yotam Ottolenghi adorning the dust jacket. It’s a clever idea – five geographical areas (Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas) are broken down into countries, some further divided into regions, with an essay about the local cuisine, maps charting indigenous ingredients and a set of recipes.

Holland kicks off with a chatty introduction discussing influences on regional cooking, from invasion and immigration to climate and geographical conditions, encouraging her readers to take a relaxed attitude to recipes and use their creativity. There are regional larder lists and an appealing inventory of kitchen equipment which steers well clear of arcane, expensive accoutrements plus a handy list of stockists for more exotic ingredients. I’m not going to catalogue all thirty-nine cuisines – that would make for a very dull post – but just to give you an idea, you’ll be visiting France, Italy, Germany (yes, I know), Scandinavia, Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, Louisiana and Brazil. Holland (bit confusing, that) has something interesting to say about all of the areas I picked out to read, often drawing on her own travels and extensive reading. Her recipes looked clear and easy to follow if a little disappointingly predictable at times – Gazpacho for Andalucia and Guacamole for Mexico – with interesting, unfamiliar dishes from the more unusual destinations such as Iranian Chicken with Barberries, Yoghurt and Orange Peel and Brazilian Shrimp Stew. I’ve a feeling I’ll be dipping into the essays rather than using it as a cookery book, though.

I bet you’re all dying to know about those German dishes so here they are: Savoy Cabbage and Caraway Seeds, Braised Red Cabbage (H’s favourite), Sauerkraut and Beery Bratwurst with Sauerkraut. Danish Dream Cake sounds more up my street. Apologies to any German readers but you know you’d make fun of British recipes featured in a German cook book, and I’m more than happy to look at any traditional German recipes you’d like to send my way, particularly in the cake department. And speaking of cakes – I met a friend in Oxford yesterday where we had lunch at Bills. We both finished of with a Jaffa cake which may sound dull but this was a Jaffa cake like no other I’ve tasted – I urge you to get your hands on one as soon as you possibly can.

The Telling Room: Cheese and Castilian charisma

Cover imageThe Telling Room’s subtitle is ‘A Tale of Passion, Revenge and the World’s Finest Cheese’ which as a connoisseur of quirkiness I found hard to resist. Michael Paterniti fell in love with the idea of Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras’ Páramo de Guzmán cheese, packed in its swanky gold and white liveried tin and selling at $22 a pound, back in 1991 when proof-reading his local deli’s newsletter. It was the cheese of monarchs, quite literally as it was enjoyed by King Juan Carlos and our own queen, and way beyond his own impoverished student’s pocket. The lure of the cheese never quite left him and a decade or so later, now a freelance journalist married to another journalist and juggling family life while travelling the world on assignment, Paterniti visited the delightfully named Ambrosio at his Castilian home and became entranced with his story. Several visits and another child later, Paterniti signed a contract to write a book, packed up his family and took off for Spain, determined to tell the story of this marvellous cheese and the man who had dedicated himself to making it. Through a long hot summer Ambrosio spins the tale of his cheese which was to embody the old Castilian ways, and how things went horribly wrong. Throw in a hefty dollop of charisma, talk of a business deal with a best friend turned toxic, a murderous revenge, a meeting which turns everything on its head and you have the ingredients for a riveting book. The problem for Paterniti was that he fell under Ambrosio’s spell – he knew he should be investigating other sources but found himself returning time and time again to shoot the breeze with Ambrosio, their families became inseparable and time slipped away along with his objectivity. He left with the book far from finished, as it was to remain for several years to come.

As someone once used to writers blithely ignoring deadlines, I felt for his publisher but it’s the long and winding road taken by The Telling Room which is part of its charm. It took Paterniti close to a decade to shrug off his enthrallment to Ambrosio and listen to the other side of the story. In between, there are a multitude of diversions, from Goya’s painting to Spanish Civil War mass graves. My only complaint is that many of these digressions appear as footnotes – I was constantly losing my place on the page and skipped some of them out of sheer exasperation. It’s a great story but perhaps the most attractive feature of Paterniti’s writing is his inability to dissemble: he’s very sorry about all those missed deadlines, about his complete subjugation to Ambrosio’s charisma and his inability to remain objective but he just couldn’t help himself.


Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss: Adventures in Iceland

Cover imageI don’t read very much non-fiction, something of a yawning gap I know but there are always so many excellent novels lined up ready and waiting. When I do it tends to be short bursts of travel writing or biography and novelist Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea neatly combines the two.

Circumstances seemed to be right for the Moss family to spend some time living abroad so when Moss spots an advertisement for a lecturer in her field at Iceland’s National University she applies, gets the job and off they go. Having toured Iceland for five weeks as a student – an unusual destination but Moss says she has a fascination with what she calls  the ‘northerly isles’ – she has an idea of what to expect but is unprepared for the culture shock of living on an island which often feels like one big village. Iceland has a population of a mere 300,000. Temperatures plummet to a dangerous level in winter and it’s volcanic – remember when European airspace closed down thanks to an eruption on the island? Moss was there – no wonder it’s tightly knit. It’s also full of contradictions: unsurprisingly, it’s an insular community but the Icelandic word for stupid means one that has not travelled. Nearly all young Icelanders jump ship for a time but almost invariably return when they want to raise a family.

Moss manages to both entertain and enlighten. She’s often very funny on both her own befuddlement and the quirks of Icelanders while avoiding the ‘let’s laugh at the funny foreigners’ tricks that some writers indulge in.  She’s a curious and insightful observer, able to keep a straight face when talking to a woman who communicates with elves – and 100-metre-tall elves at that – while writing sensitively about the effects of the financial crisis on a proud people living in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s a fascinating book and as gripping as any novel.

When a Meander Becomes a Bit of a Plod

Cover imageHaving already written the acclaimed A Fez of the Heart about Turkey and spent many years as a tour guide there, Jeremy Seal clearly has a passion for the country. Meander is a testament to that passion, charting his journey along the river which divides the district of Anatolia – the frontier between west and east – from its source at Dinar to its mouth at Miletus. On the map the Menderes which translates as Meander appears to live up to its name but the reality proves to be very different. Polluted, choked with vegetation, plagued by drought or plundered for irrigation, the poor old Meander is far from the sinuously curving river Seal had envisioned. His original plan to travel solely by canoe is soon scuppered and he frequently finds himself walking its shores rather than sailing its waters. Offers of tea along the way are in abundance, even from security guards. Reliant on the long established Anatolian tradition of hospitality, Seal is rarely disappointed often finding himself in front of an episode of Wolves’ Valley, a soap about which Turks seem to be as passionate as the British are about Eastenders. He frequently meets with amazement at what he’s up to but becomes something of a celebrity as news of his journey travels ahead of him. As Seal nears Miletus, travel becomes easier. Satisfyingly, he’s able to end his journey in the canoe he had hoped would carry him the length of the Meander and deposit the water from the jar he filled at its source into the sea. It’s a little heavy on historical detail for me but then the poor Anatolians have been subject to seemingly endless invasions, bloody battles and general mayhem from around 1700 BC to the early twentieth century mostly, it seems, from the Greeks, and now from the likes of you and me, the holiday hordes.

Spare a thought this weekend for the sixty-six managers who have departed Waterstones this week after a bout of restructuring. It saddens me to think of so much bookselling knowledge and experience walking out of the door. I remember a flowering of independent bookshops set up by ex-Waterstones managers after a major exodus well over a decade ago, perhaps the most notable of which is Jaffé & Neale in Chipping Norton, but the current climate is not so benign as it was then. I wish all sixty-six the very best of luck