I'm a travel writer who is trying to fly less. When I promised at the end of last year (on Flight Free UK) not to board any planes in 2020, I didn’t expect that I would soon find myself being discouraged from taking trains and ships as well.
I’m still travelling, though. I’ve recently been to Istanbul and the Balkans, to Iceland and Israel, and even down the Río Magdalena in Colombia. All thanks to what DH Lawrence, in Mornings in Mexico, summed up as “one little individual, looking at a bit of sky and trees, then… making little marks on paper”.
I'm currently compiling a roundup of my travel books of 2020. Meanwhile, here are a few from the shelves that will lift you out of lockdown.
Mark Vanhoenacker£9.99 £9.29
“I’m grounded,” you’re thinking. “I don’t want to read aviation’s equivalent of a petrolhead.” And you won’t. In his hymn to “the business of guiding vessels between blue-parted cities”, Vanhoenacker touches on Joni Mitchell as well as Mach 1, on T S Eliot as well as tailwinds. In the pages of his book, if not necessarily on your next outing in the economy cabin of his 747, you will find yourself agreeing that “The ordinary things we thought we knew… become more beautiful.”
Jonathan Raban£14.99 £13.94
Wishing you were out on the water? Jonathan Raban is better equipped than any living writer I know to take you there. Reading Huckleberry Finn at seven, he dreamt the brook at the end of his Norfolk street into the wide waterway of the Mississippi. Thirty years later, he followed the river for most of its length in a 16ft aluminium skiff, all the while illuminating the America and Americans of the late 1970s.
Kate Harris£10.99 £10.22
Harris, an academic high-flyer from Canada, had ambitions to be an astronaut, then decided there was exploring enough to be done on planet Earth. Cycling the Silk Road with a childhood friend, she pedals to places where authorities don’t want her to go, including Tibet. On the page, she flits easily across supposed boundaries between travelogue and memoir, science and poetry. The result is a marvellous debut by a wanderer and wonderer, an author with boundless curiosity and a zest for life that enthuses every page.
Robert MacFarlane£9.99 £9.29
In March, Macfarlane won the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award with Underland. If tunnels are not quite what you’re looking for right now, join him, instead, in some leg-stretching, mind-expanding hikes on The Old Ways. Inspired by the poet Edward Thomas, “who thought on paths and of them, but also with them”, Macfarlane walks ancient routes everywhere from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of north-west Scotland; from the disputed territories of Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas.
Jan Morris£10.99 £10.22
Jan Morris avoids the label travel writer, on the basis that she doesn’t go on journeys, but she is one of the greatest conjurors of place. She published this portrait of the city in 1960, and though it has gone into numerous editions it has never really been revised. But then it’s not a guidebook; it’s a love letter. Contemporary Venice, she says, is “a grand (and heavily over-booked) exhibition”; let her show you the city as it used to be.
Laurie Lee£8.99 £8.36
Hankering for the heat of Spain? Then join Lee on his journey there in the 1930s. He wasn’t a trust-fund tourist; he paid his way with busking and labouring, sailing for Vigo with a knapsack, a fiddle and enough Spanish to ask for water: “I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen then, for already I saw myself there, brown as an apostle, walking the white dust roads through the orange groves.”
Rebecca Loncraine£8.99 £8.36
Locking yourself away to avoid Coronavirus is hard, but what if you were given a diagnosis of cancer? That’s what Rebecca Loncraine faced in 2009 at the age of 35. She took up gliding, and her “private love letters to the wind” were the beginnings of Skybound, which appeared in 2016, a couple of years after her death. It’s an extraordinary book, one in which the writer, for whom the world had closed down, feels it reopen, and carries the reader up on the thermals with her.
Andres Neuman£13.99 £13.01
If you’ve had to put a gap-year trip on hold, here’s a chance to take in Latin America in a rush. A tour Neuman was sent on after winning a literary prize had him pinballing from place to place — 19 countries in all — so the writing, he decided, should reflect that; the journal should take on the form of the journey. The result is not so much a travel book as a travelling one: instant, impressionistic, written from a need “to trap small realities on the go and interpret them in real time”.
Doug Bock Clark£20.00 £18.60
Clark, a 30-year-old American, lived for a year among the Lamalerans, a tribe of 1,500 on a backwater Indonesian island who have survived for half a millennium by hunting sperm whales with bamboo harpoons from hand-carved boats. In this wonderfully assured debut, he shows what modernisation looks like when it arrives with the speed of a tsunami, in the shape of motorboats, drift-netting, electricity and mobile phones. It’s a rich, novelistic account based on diligent reporting, in which the story of the tribe is told through the triumphs and trials of individuals — and the author, in the manner of the great Norman Lewis, renders himself a semi-invisible man.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard£11.99 £11.15
Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a travel book that will make you count your blessings to be stuck at home. This one should do it. The journey was Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic — beaten to the Pole by Amundsen’s — and Cherry-Garrard was one of its members. His account, of freezing, soaking, blubber-eating hardship, is written with unfailing good humour. “Polar exploration,” he declares at the outset, “is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”