Saturday, 23 January 2010

Reading the Landscape

What do you read when you travel? The Rough Guide? That would get you to some offbeat places. The Rough Guide to Ireland took me to Coleman’s Temple in the Bog, middle of absolutely nowhere at all. I’d never have found that on my own. Feet soaking. Wrote one poem. Chased by several cows.

It has to be said, though, that I prefer to be reading something actually set in the place I’m visiting. I read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky when I first went to Morocco. Bowles’ take on the desert sands and the people who lived among them coloured everything I saw. For Sardinia I read D H Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia, a travelogue that told of mud-floored houses and brilliant sun. It was written back in 1919 – something I hadn’t clocked. By the time I got to look at the island most of what Lawrence had seen had been moved on.

For the Appalachians I had Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, the funniest travel book anywhere. His description of his overweight walking companion, Katz, throwing away his equipment and clothes as he slogged through the hard, north American greenness is difficult to beat. I came up through Tennessee and hit the trail north of Gatlinburg. Worst place on the planet, reports Bryson. The trail itself was long and tree roofed. I didn’t see anything but leaves for ten miles. When I checked with A Walk in the Woods for confirmation that I was on the same path as Bryson I discovered that Gatlinburg was the place that he came off. I’d inadvertently covered the only section on the whole 2167-mile trail that Bryson had not.

Next up will be a brief visit to Egypt and without even trying I’ve got two appropriate volumes on my hands. As a matter of professional interest I’ve been reading Ken Follett to find out just how literary this thriller-diller actually is. He’s a mega-best selling author with Welsh origins who ought to be better known in his home land. I’ve read Whiteout and found that engaging page-turner appropriately thrilling but hardly heavy weight. Now I’m into Triple, a tale of multi-national spies chasing each other over the Egyptian desert. The pages are turning like windscreen-wipers.

In my bag I have Stevie Davies’ latest, Into Suez, a novel about women “in a tumultuous world of casual racism in the run-up to Egypt’s revolt against its hated occupiers”. Stevie Davis is the Swansea-based Booker nominee with a reputation for class tale telling. Her take on Suez should be unputdownable. I propose sampling its pleasures on the banks of the Nile. You can read yours in Welsh rain if you like. Into Suez is published by Parthian.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 23 January, 2010

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