I’m just back from a holiday to Scotland and this blog explores some of the travel writing I chose for the long train journey. I began at Euston with ‘The Virago book of Women Travellers’ (910.88042) and was quickly outclassed by legions of Victorian matriarchs taking off on camels across the deserts of Arabia with nothing but a ‘no-nonsense’ approach. Whilst I got some excellent suggestions for ‘follow-up’ reading from this anthology I found that I just wanted more of extracts that I enjoyed rather than tantalising scraps. The titles of the books that the excerpts are drawn from though are delightful, they range from ‘On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers’ to my personal favourite ‘Domestic Manners of the Americans’.
My second choice proved an absolute delight. I stumbled across it by chance and had not heard of it before - it’s Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Labels’ (910.091822) a description of a journey he took in 1929 around the Mediterranean. It’s is the antidote to books about explorers plunging off with what Baudelaire called “gout du gouffre” (a taste for the abyss). It is more a sedate, sardonic ramble with an hilarious companion. I giggled my way through Waugh’s descriptions of Venice and Mount Etna and his jaundiced observations on his fellow tourists and locals. His approach to writing about travel is frank, personal and whilst it has a ‘vintage’ quality (i.e. it’s not very PC), I found it very funny.
‘Pathways’ (914.20486) by Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart is very different take on the idea of travelling - it is an introduction to the trackways around Britain. It has lovely photographs illustrating the different types of paths, trails and routes. In addition each has a well-described walkway as an exemplar and further resources to follow up areas of interest. There are also interesting asides on the history of everything from Smugglers Trails to Monks Trods, I hadn’t heard of Corpse Roads and found that chapter fascinating!
Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Wild Places’ (914.10486) is a lyrical exploration of the meaning of wildness as well as a pilgrimage to try to find and experience it. As with all his writing it is concerned with the personal, political and natural worlds all in equal measure. It contains a beautiful piece of writing about a journey on foot that has also been published separately called Holloway. Living in a city, I find just reading his work rejuvenating, it is so different from my everyday experience and the beauty of books like this is that you can travel without actually having to go anywhere.
My last pick continues the idea of travel being about seeing things differently, it is ‘Sightlines’ (914.110486) by Kathleen Jamie. She wrote a nature book previous to this one but here she adds in a range of perspectives by going down to cellular level and up to the northern lights. She moves through space but also through time as she looks across the years to explore cave paintings. Her writing is dense and poetic, and I loved it.
For example she describes being bowled over by the wind on the island of Hirta:
“The sensation is not of being tumbled like a leaf, but of being thumped by an invisible pillow. It doesn't hurt if you've got lots of clothes on; one just finds oneself on one's knees, as if beholding a miracle”.
There were many passages that have stayed with me and ‘Sightlines’ is a good choice for a train journey because I found myself stopping to think about the imagery and ideas and just staring out of the window. On a long train journey you don’t have to feel guilty about taking your time and there’s no pressure to rush because there’s nowhere to go - you can just relax and enjoy a journey within a journey.
Heroes and Villains – Monsters and Heroines!
This blog evolved through reading Heroes (398.210938), written by FoWHL's former patron, Stephen Fry, as a follow up to his earlier book, Mythos (398.20938).
Heroes is a recounting of the Greek myths in an accessible and informal way. I enjoyed the archetypal stories of jealousy, sacrifice and betrayal, but it set me thinking about heroes and villains more generally. In our library there are many biographies of exceptional people, but few which confidently describe their protagonist as an uncontested ‘hero’. Meanwhile, the search for villainy proved considerably easier!
How to Kill (364.1524), by Kris Hollington, you will be relieved to discover, is a definitive history of assassinations rather than a ‘how to guide’. Did you know that between 1950-2000 there were over 4,000 known assassinations worldwide, using methods from exploding clams to poison toilet paper? Or that only 1.4% of these killings were for money, and that most occurred on a Friday evening between 6 – 9pm!
Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy (179) forms a good companion read as it responds to Hollington's historical approach with a thoughtful and intellectual meditation on cruelty and evil – both of which he attributes to the erosion of empathy.
Oddly a library search finds that most books with ‘monster’ in the title are in the children’s section. But then if we must all face the scarier aspects of life, library books are as good an introduction as any! However this wasn’t quite what I was looking for, so I returned to the adult floor and found Scary Monsters and Super Creeps – In Search of the World’s Most Hideous Beasts (001.944). Written by Dom Joly, it’s actually a pleasant read, if a bit self-regarding, ‘Laugh inside’ rather than ‘laugh out loud’ funny. Without wanting to spoil the ending, Joly travels from the Himalayas to Loch Ness looking for everything from Bigfoot to Yeti. He talks to strange people, gets lost and doesn’t find, well, anything very much!
So if you are looking to get to grips with monsters, Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters (001.944) is a better bet; full of thought-provoking asides about why we need monsters, how we create them and whether in fact we ourselves, as humans, have become the very things we fear.
For those wanting to find inner strength in the face of villainy, Samantha Ellis offers sage advice in How to be a Heroine (809.393522). I felt for Ellis as she describes finding that whilst Lizzie Bennet has stood the test of time, other heroines like Catherine Earnshaw seem selfish to her now, rather than wild and passionate as they did when they she first encountered them in print. Ellis is rueful in her recognition that the characters we find inspiring change as we experience more of life, but celebratory in her naming of Sylvia Plath and Patti Smith as women who helped her find out who she could become.
Whether you consider villains and monsters as cautionary tales, or see heroes and heroines as sources of inspiration, there is much food for thought here in your library, not least that heroism and villainy have many characteristics that run parallel, and that most characters, real or imagined, contain elements of both.
TO READ NICKY'S RECENT BLOGS CLICK HERE
Nicky Lambert is FoWHL’s third Writer in Residence, and like her predecessors she is a big fan of libraries. After studying History and English, Nicky qualified as a mental health nurse, and is now an Associate Professor and Director of Teaching and Learning Mental Health and Social Work at Middlesex University in Hendon. She has been a member of West Hampstead Library since moving here 2011 and tweets about mental health and wellbeing under the name @niadla
TO READ NICKY'S RECENT BLOGS CLICK HERE