Category: travel

Summer Reading Choices: Helena Markou

Helena MarkouHelena Markou has the enviable title of Publishing Innovation Manager for Blackwell’s (the retail chain).

When she isn’t making or selling books she can be found in the printmakers studio covered in indigo ink, in the dojo shooting arrows, or in a karaoke-box hogging the mic.

Here are her summer reading selections:
Holiday reading is a bit of a dilemma for me. Torn between the desire to laze around doing nothing and not waste a second of the day, I tend to avoid the all engrossing page-turners if I want to get out of bed. So with me to a 17th Century Bakehouse in Devon came the following selection of non-fiction.

Ward Lock Guide inside

Ward Lock Red GuideA 1939 Ward Lock Red Guide to Torquay and South Devon purchased especially for the trip. Complete with original 1930s advertising, fold out maps (a la Jolly Postman), and eloquent descriptions of all holiday resorts accessible by rail or bicycle at the time of publication. In addition to bringing the history of a town to life, the author’s witty commentary often had us laughing out loud. I cannot recommend these Guides enough for anyone taking a UK break (NB: When buying second-hand online do ask if any maps are missing/damage and that price is discounted accordingly).

Hodgekinson How to be FreeHow to Be Free by Tom Hodgekinson This is a book that should come with a warning label. I was given a copy earlier in the year, read the first chapter, allowed myself to be persuaded by Tom that I should rid myself of all work related shackles, and spent the following day at work fighting the urge to hand in my notice. Having safely tucked the book away until I was no longer a liability to myself, I found it stimulated a well needed holiday audit of the work life balance.

Meditations Marcus AureliusMeditations by Marcus Aurelius. I have to confess I am slightly addicted to the Penguin Great Ideas series, and bought this (along with eight others) on the arbitrary basis of how much I liked the cover design. Fortunately, this lucky dip selection process throws up some gems. The calm and considered words of wisdom of Aurelius are easy to read, thought provoking, and for the most part, as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago.

“At dawn’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed” It is reassuring to know that even Roman Emperors struggled to find the motivation to get up in the morning.

38. Poland – a country in the moon

Polish Winter by Michael MoranMy guest on this week’s programme is Michael Moran, author of A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland.

Michael first visited Poland in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communism as leader of an ill-assorted crew of British teachers charged with introducing the Poles to the delights of market capitalism. As a pianist, he was attracted by the music of Chopin, but confesses that he knew little about the country. He little suspected that he would fall in love with the country and end up making it his home.

A Country in the Moon – the description is Edmund Burke’s and dates from 1795, but might still stand for a country which is very little known and all too often reduced to cliché in the West – achieves something very rare for a travel book: it manages to be genuinely funny and entertaining, and also deeply thought-provoking about the many terrible chapters in Poland’s history.

Moran: A Country in the MoonThe book has been widely praised; the Guardian called it “the best contemporary travel book on Poland, reminiscent in its finest moments of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s masterful Time of Gifts” and said “No thinking traveller interested in Poland should overlook this essential book”. The Observer admired how it  “triumphantly balanc[ed] humour with scholarship”, while the Spectator called it “well-researched and hugely entertaining…  a three-star feast”.

Click on the podcast player above to find out what Michael finds so attractive about Poland – and what it is like to tour the country in a venerable old Rolls-Royce.

36. Berlin – city of “eternal becoming”

Berlin crossing sign This week’s podcast features an interview with Heather Reyes, co-founder of Oxygen Books, and co-editor of the latest addition to their City-Lit series, which appropriately enough in the week which marks the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, paints a portrait in words of Berlin.

Although there are plenty of old favourites such as Christopher Isherwood, Alfred Döblin and Len Deighton, the emphasis of the book is on unexpected vantage points and new, less familiar voices. So there is no dutiful trot through the city’s history “from earliest times to the present day”, but instead themed sections which try to get under the skin of the city.

City-Lit BerlinOff the beaten track, some of the highlights of the book for me were: Rolf Schneider on the disappearing Berlin pub or Kneipe (it used to be said that every street crossing in Berlin had four corners and five corner pubs – but not any more); Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom‘s reflections on a city every inch of which is “steeped in history”, from the opening of his novel All Souls’ Day; Chloe Aridjis in Book of Clouds on the “ghost stations” on the underground – the deserted, embalmed stations which although on West Berlin lines, happened to lie beneath East Berlin’s territory.

Book of Clouds coverThere’s also an excellent piece by Iain Bamforth about Berlin’s sense of itself as expressed in its architecture (he coins the memorable phrase “hyperthyroid neoclassicism” for Hitler’s default style). He mentions Stephen Spender’s visit to Hitler’s Chancellery in 1945 and writes:

“Spender noted the reams of building manuals above the Führer’s bed. Hitler didn’t believe in much but he believed in architecture.”

And Berlin, it seems to me, is hard to better as an expression of what a city’s people – or its leaders – believed throughout its history rendered in stone, glass, brick and steel. One of my own favourite books on the city (not included in the City-Lit anthology) is Brian Ladd’s Ghosts of Berlin, which looks at how the city has come to terms with its past through the built environment. That may sound rather dry and specialist – it’s not, since the past that Berlin has had to come to terms with has so often been so raw and painful.

Finally, I wanted to mention Heather’s co-editor on this volume, Katy Derbyshire. Katy has contributed many new translations to the book, which adds considerably to its appeal. You can find Katy’s blog on German books (Love German Books) here. It’s well worth checking out.

To listen to the podcast, click on the link above, or go to Podularity’s iTunes page using the link in the right-hand column.

To see my photo essay on Berlin, click on the “more” link below.

Read More

27. Alice on the Indus

Empires of the Indus coverOn Monday night Alice Albinia won the Dolman Travel Book Prize for her book, Empires of the Indus, in which she traces her remarkable journey from the river delta near Karachi to its source in Tibet.

Just after the winner was announced, I spoke to Alice about her book. Click above to find out why the woman who donned a burqa to travel through Taliban country doesn’t think of herself as a particularly intrepid traveller…