Armchair Travelling

It is raining yet again and so I’ve been whiling away another afternoon reading further chapters of Susan Hill’s book, Howards End is on the Landing. Despite the fact that she claims to neither be a traveller nor to be particularly interested in travel writing Hill has all the recent greats in her collection, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Like Hill, I am no traveller. I not only like my own routine, I actually need it for my medical well-being and travelling not only exhausts me it also separates me from the secret of my much needed sleep, my own bed. So, if I want to know anything of foreign parts I am reliant on the work of others, be that though the auspices of the BBC or through writers of the calibre that Hill describes.

I know Chatwin better through his novels than through his travel books. On the Black Hill, for example, is the story of twin brothers who, like me, are not travellers. They are Welsh farmers whose existence revolves round the land on which they were born and through charting their lives Chatwin also manages to evoke the life of the country itself.

Colin Thubron I once had the privilege of hearing speak and have never forgotten that calm and gentle man talking of the hazards of journeying through China at a time when the regime in power still made it difficult for a foreigner to spend even a couple of days there let alone any extended visit. I bought a copy of his book, Behind the Wall, and took it back to share with the children I was teaching who were as fascinated as only children can be by the man who kept a collection of noses in jars. Speculation as to what you might do with a nose collection kept the classroom buzzing for weeks.

But, Leigh Fermor, just the mention of his name brought back a feeling of shame. Hill speaks of his book, A Time to Keep Silence, as:

hardly a travel book at all – or if it is, the travel is inwards, a spiritual journey. Some books are balm to the soul and solace to the weary mind, a cooling stream at the end of long and tiring days and ‘A Time to Keep Silence’ is assuredly one of them.

Some years ago now, a dear friend offered me Leigh Fermor’s books at a period when balm to the soul was much needed and I failed to take him up on his suggestion. I could walk upstairs now and put my hand straight onto the copy he gave me of A Time of Gifts, but I have never so much as opened it. Hill says that Leigh Fermor is the doyen of the travel world and I can neither contest or confirm that view – as yet. Has anyone else read his works? And, if so, what do you think? Should I start with the volume I already have or are there better ways in?

And are there other travel writers to explore? Not, please Bill Bryson, who, to me, always seems to be laughing at someone. But any other writers of the calibre of Chatwin, Thubron and Leigh Fermor would be welcome suggestions.

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14 thoughts on “Armchair Travelling

  1. I love travelling, but these days our adventures happen much closer to home. With two young children who absolutely require their routine, it’s just not worth it. I do alot of armchair travelling, too, and am grateful to good travel writers who have the ability to take me away. I personally prefer memoirs for this sort of thing because they allow you to really sink into the experience. If you like the south of France, I highly recommend Carol Drinkwater’s Olive Farm series (if you’re looking them up, search by author. All the titles have Olive in there somewhere. I’m going to review one of them on my blog this week, if you’d like a summary and critique). She was the first Helen Herriot on All Creatures Great and Small, and shortly after her relationship with Chris Timothy ended, she moved to the south of France. She’s a wonderful writer who makes Provence come alive without any of that sexist Peter Mayle nonsense. From my own country, there’s Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada (I, II, and III) that are more photo essay than travelogue. Will Ferguson’s Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is hysterically funny and very, very true.

    1. Naomi, I am old enough to remember Carol Drinkwater in those early shows and I would love to read those, thank you. Douglas Coupland is a name that rings bells, but I’m not sure why? Does he also wrote fiction?

      1. Douglas Coupland came to prominence here when he coined the term “Generation X” in the novel by the same name. He’s generally considered the spokesperson for those born in the 1960s (and a few born in the 1970s like me. 🙂 ) He also wrote “All Families are Psychotic,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “The Gum Thief,” “Hey Nostradamus,” “Microserfs,” “JPod”, and a few others I haven’t read. He’s very patriotic and combines photography with text to create some compelling non-fiction. His biography of Terry Fox, for example, is a work of art.

        Glad you liked the Drinkwater recommendation. I first watched All Creatures as a girl at my grandparents’ house in Niagara, and that whole wing of my family are farmers, vets, etc., so the two are linked for me. I think All Creatures is the best tv show ever made and we’ve seen every episode on dvd. When we bought our first house in a scuzzy part of the neighbouring city and I would be in near-tears at the traffic, pollution, and petty crime, my husband would hum the theme song and tell me we lived in Darrowby in our heads. We’re now living on the edge of a forest and life is happier again, but Darrowby still holds a special place in our hearts.

        1. It was ‘Generation X’ I was thinking of, Naomi. I haven’t read it but I do remember seeing the title around. I lived near ‘Darrowby’ for three years and it is a beautiful part of the country, but living on the edge of a forest sounds pretty special too, especially as I suspect your definition of forest is rather grander than it would be in the UK.

          1. Yes, probably. On a trip to Germany when I was eighteen, our bus went through the Black Forest and I remember thinking “Really? This is it?.” Ditto for waterfalls. I love Canada and know how lucky I am to live here, but I love Britain, too, and am glad that books and television can bring Britain to me when life makes it a bit difficult to get to. 🙂

  2. It won’t surprise you to know I am not a traveller myself for all the reasons you mention! I am a big fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor though. A Time To Keep Silence is probably my favourite, but the two volumes of his first great walk (of which A Time of Gifts is one) are both fantastic. He is very slow to read, I find, so you have to be in the right frame of mind for that. But his voice is wonderful.

    1. I’ve just taken the book down from the shelf in the hope that I would find it was organised in very small sections that I could take one a day and give myself time to think about, but that isn’t the case. I seem to pulling out of my latest bout which means that I might in the near future be able to concentrate on something that isn’t entirely plot driven but I think Leigh Fermor is going to have to wait if I want to do him real justice.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Pykk. Rebecca West is an author who has been on my I must get round to list for sometime now. I’ll read the extract and see if it pushes me in her direction even faster.

  3. I would like to suggest H.V Morton’s works, if you have yet to encounter them. The books may be a bit dated, but I find his voice to be very personable and I like the sense of time and place his writing evokes. For me, his books are a kind of cozy armchair travelling. Although, I must say that I do enjoy real travelling too. Not so much the actual process of travelling (ie: strange beds, strange bathrooms, change of routines) but rather, it’s the liberating feeling that I get. To be in a new place where no one has yet any pre-conceived idea of who I am or how I ought to be. To see how big and how wide the world is. To have the feeling of ‘anything is possible’ and the sky’s the limit. This is not to imply that I am a wild, adventurous, throwing caution to the wind kind of traveller, of which I am definitely not. But I just like all these feelings that signifies travelling, for me.

    1. H V Morton is a completely unknown name to me, Michelle and I’m off to do some discovering right now, thank you. I would love to be able to travel, but unless I took a pantechnicon of luggage with me to enable me to survive I would be so ill as to have to be shipped back immediately. Not the wisest use of my finances, I’m afraid.

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