Countdown

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By Ian C Smith:

In nocturnal limbo, untethered from sleep since 2.30, body aching, checklist of not-to-be-left-behinds reducing like ended experiences sintering away, months morphing into years, or waves washing below the light aircraft he boards in hours and minutes counting down, he can’t stop check-listing a spun out life.

Averse to a homecoming of smelly rot, tiny insects swarming in decomposed matter in the silence below his sink, he deposits kitchen scraps in the compost, balancing this by removing some for scabbed garden spots, trowelling through a fecund reek writhing with worms before leaving for his beloved place, a shimmer of memories.

Repositioning items in two battered bags, he mulls over squeezing in a book he is nine-tenths through, a literary heavyweight as big as a best seller with a title of reducing numbers by a favourite writer, a rich rendition of possible paths taken in an artistic life.

Immersed in its saga, he is unable to leave the book behind, checks another item off, medication, considers arithmetical probabilities, how happiness can remain a hairsbreadth away, loved photos, angled light blessing an island, shrouded reminders of a life, prowling his mind’s distant alleys, treading softly through the dark stables of the past. 

About the author: Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Live Encounters, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

Postcard from... Tarragona

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By Tim Woods:

A string of global top ten hits; a world-famous fashion icon; the star of era-defining TV shows. But when you hear ‘Minogue’, do you immediately think ‘Dannii’?

Tarragona suffers from a similarly overbearing sibling. It has everything a visitor could want from a Spanish excursion – coast, culture, cuisine and cerveses – yet for many, Catalonia means one thing: that overcrowded, football-famous metropolis up the coast. Even names such as Sitges and Salou will often chime more readily. These nearby resorts offer little more than sun, sangria and “Full English, only €15!!!”, yet still attract more tourists. Some hotels even offer trips to Tarragona as an afternoon excursion: “Only four hours there and back!!!”. Being little more than a time-killing detour from these culturally devoid upstarts must be hard for a former Roman capital to bear.

Yet could the times be changing? Barcelona’s authorities are actively turning tourists away, and there are only so many boiled-lobster beach-lovers that can be squeezed onto a beach. There is a void to be filled, a market to be served, and Tarragona is more than equipped to step up.

Late afternoon, I lose myself in the constricted alleys of its honeycomb old town, the docile ochre of the buildings disrupted by the Catalan flags that flap from every other balcony. I am hardly alone; a steady stream of tourists meander with me, and we are all eventually drawn to the steep steps of the cathedral, where perching space is at a premium. But drift along any of the streets that radiate from this central point and you have space, time, quiet; a stillness rarely found in Barca.

I head to the rambla, where I can actually ramble, rather than being jostled along with a crowd’s haste. Fish and tapas restaurants flank either side, but there are spaces to be had at the tables. The tiny bars selling home-flavoured vermouth are hidden just a couple of streets away. Later, I head to the Balcó del Mediterrani. It’s a hazy, lazy evening, perfect for outside, yet there is still ample room at the city’s prime lookout, from where you can soak up the ancient Amfiteatre to the north, or the fishing boats spinning around at sea.

Humbler Roman sites crop up unexpectedly. Next morning, in search of watermelon for a hungry toddler, we stumble upon the Teatre Romà de Tarragona. This spectacular site pops up unexpectedly; there are no signs, no tour parties, no fuss or fanfare. It’s just there, should you want to see it.

Or not. Up to you.           

Tim is an editor on Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of Love In The Time of Britpop. You’ll find him on twitter here.                 

The Library: Hard Border – Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition, by Darach MacDonald

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

The Automobile Associaton of Ireland's 1962 handbook contains six pages of guidance for people planning to cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are 18 approved roads with customs posts, and the AA warns that vehicles were liable for customs duty and purchase tax upon entering Northern Ireland, requiring motorists to 'lodge large sums of money at the frontier' or avoid doing so by providing a so-called 'triptyque' passbook for stamping at frontier crossings. The border section closes with a warning: motorists crossing on unapproved roads are 'liable to very severe penalties, including confiscation of [their] car.' Customs post also only had limited opening hours and late-night crossings incurred an additional fee of 2 shillings, usually paid in advance.

The slow train wreck of Brexit and the connected question of the future of the only land border between the European Union and the UK has in recent years increased the interest in the history of Irish partition and the 499 km-long frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Countless TV and print reports have investigated it, the border now has its own darkly funny Twitter account, and there has been a loose series of books about the border as well, first and foremost Garett Carr's 'The Rule of Land' (2017), which follows the author's trek from Carlingford Lough along the border to Lough Foyle. Darach MacDonald's 'Hard Border' is the latest addition to the loose canon of Irish border books, but this one zooms in a bit deeper than most. Despite the flashy cover which seems to indicate a more political look at the potential of a 'hard' border, instead this is a deeply personal look at the history of the border, and 'hard' here could also mean 'deadly'.

MacDonald is a veteran journalist hailing from Clones in County Monaghan, and has written extensively about his home country and the border, most recently in ' Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band' (2010). For this later border-book, he walked the 75-kilometer route of the now-defunct Ulster Canal, which was completed in 1842 to link Lough Neagh to the Erne system but proved unsuccessful, was outstripped by the railways and the subsequent partition of Ireland and finally closed in 1932. Even though there are plans to develop a greenway along its banks, to date most of it is neglected and overgrown, which forces MacDonald through dense undergrowth and on many detours – which is almost synonymous for the tangled history of the Irish border which he encounters. Following the canal from Castle Saunderson to the Moy, the author explores both the drumlin landscape and the history of the last 100 years in the border heartlands, where five counties meet: Cavan and Monaghan in the Republic and Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh in Northern Ireland. Here, the border shifts and snakes around villages and roads, forming loops that almost become enclaves and exclaves (and will cause many a Brexit headache): for example, there are eight roads in and out Clones in Monaghan – five of which run into Fermanagh.

Walking this convoluted border give MacDonald the chance to dive deep into the political reasons behind partition and also to chart the violence that spilled across the border from both sides: from the Irish Civil War over the so-called border campaign of the IRA in the 1950s to the horrors of the Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and 1998. And it is the latter which results in the strongest parts of the book, when MacDonald talks about the horrendous tit-for-tat killings that he witnessed, often perpetrated by neighbours and members of the same community:

The terror persisted and lapped to and fro across the border, as with the abduction and murder of Ross Hearst of Middletown in 1980. The 52-year old father of five was taken at gunpoint outside a friend's house in Tullylush, back near where the Monaghan Mushrooms plant stands today. His corpse with four bullet wounds was dumped at Wards Cross, a short distance away on the border. [...] Seamus Soroghan of Monaghan town was later convicted of the murder. Yet no sentence could allay the trauma of the Hearst family, which at the time of the father's death was still mourning the 1977 killing of his daughter Margaret Ann Hearst, a 24-year-old-single mother of a 3-year-old child, and part-time soldier in the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment].

As an outsider from Germany, the Irish border and its effect on the communities it historically divided and still divides often reminds me of the Berlin Wall, which had similar seemingly random nooks and crannies that meant division and death for their inhabitants. There is the 'Entenschnabel', the Duck's Bill in Glienicke/Nordbahn, where a GDR neighbourhood along one street was enclosed by West Berlin on three sides, or the Eiskeller, where three West Berlin farmer families could only get to the city along a small road four metres wide and 800 meters long. And while the Irish Border was not as tightly sealed as the Berlin one, it was at least as deadly and meant similar arrangements for those affected by it. At the height of the Troubles, the five roads out of Clones into the North were closed, and just a single main route across the border remained open in the area, and any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint, often resulting in long delays - and at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and 80s most smaller lanes leading from that main road across the border were spiked, blocked with concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army.

There's a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but this is no over-proportionate for the slice of Irish landscape and history it analyses – the terror, after all, was real. This is not a lighthearted romp, but also not a hopeless one. There's plenty of positive stories, like the history of the Leslie family of Glaslough and their (in)famous parties, or the stories of local entrepreneurship (like the aforementioned mushroom plant) that were made possible by the opening of the border after the Good Friday Agreement 1999. MacDonald is apprehensive about the potential impacts of Brexit, and rightly so, as his fine mix of memoir and history in 'Hard Border' properly put the border and its effect on the local communities into perspective. The only thing lacking is a detailed map, which would make it easy for those encountering the pitfalls of the Irish border for the first time to trace its weird loops – and a timeline would also have helped.

But otherwise, this is a fine journey through the history of the Irish border heartlands, filled with affrays, danger, hope, a soviet in the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and Oscar Wilde's sisters, burning to death on Halloween. I can thoroughly recommend it to both newcomers to the Irish border as well as veteran border writers and walkers. And especially to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Hard Border is published by New Island and is available through their website or from any independent bookshop.

Postcard from… Múli, Faroe Islands

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By Tim Woods:

There is a temptation to romanticise the lives of those in remote outposts. On the extremities of our lands, they are immersed in nature, in tune with their ecosystem; pursuing a simpler, less cluttered existence.

Yet it is not always a choice. Some inhabit these places through circumstance alone. And the other side of this coin is often hardship and poverty, loneliness and isolation. There is little romance in any of these.

Múli, near the northern tip of Borðoy, is one of several deserted hamlets scattered across the eighteen Faroe Islands. But its abandonment is more recent than most: the last inhabitants only left in 1998. There was no disaster, no seismic event that forced them away; they had simply had enough. The gravel road, built not long before then, was a noble attempt by the Faroese authorities to connect the hamlet to Norðdepil and Klaksvík; instead, it simply made it easier to get away.

I drove along that road one evening in June, the light not even close to fading during the endless days of a Nordic summer. It hugs the edge of a dramatic glacial landscape, all plunging cliffs and bowl-like valleys, plus many other features familiar to anyone with a GCSE geography textbook. After parking, I followed the path beyond the four houses of the hamlet, dodging the fractious kittiwakes leaving their cliffside nests to shoo me away. That romantic side briefly took over: what a place to live this would be.

But five minutes later, I’d reached the farthest point accessible before those fearful cliffs take hold once more. It’s not even three hundred metres from the houses; a remarkably small space from which to eke out a livelihood from farming.

Passing back past the houses, I noticed smoke from a chimney and voices inside. They are not completely abandoned, having taken on a new life as holiday lets that are regularly booked out during the summer. Landscapes such as this are, it seems, best enjoyed for a few days rather than a lifetime. Perhaps Múli has finally found its purpose.

From Travail to Travel

By Ian C Smith:

On Saturday mornings in post-war London he thrills to the idea of escape.  For sixpence he sees a hero, dressed more like a movie star than a cowboy, elude a dull-witted gang, sidling from a spot tighter than his belt and boots, while the juvenile audience, escaped from grey boredom, jeers hoarsely.

Freedom: scheming prisoner motivation, the door left unlocked, exit road snaking away to the hills, or shaking off hounds by crossing streams, or the fairground life, always moving on, appeals, his hourglass almost done, parents edging closer to learning of his shoplifting, their emigration to Australia offering him an escape tunnel.

Vanished people intrigue: a car stranded under a tree, keys no longer swaying, silence, the stars, restless wind, the only witnesses; fresh starts, no difficult goodbyes, off to find Utopias gloved in dreams.  Isolated Australians’ penchant for flying overseas triggers his idealised self as a secretive drifter who makes unscheduled stops.

Travelling light to New Zealand where the South Pacific, Tahiti, await, island hopping the Dateline, splendour beckoning beyond dock lights, then hitch-hiked highways, youth hostels somewhere in America, this yearning for other lives, his homing instinct, exempts him from worn out love, income addiction, the fetid weight of a wasted life.     

About the author:
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Antipodes, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Prole,  The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

The Library: Travellers in the Third Reich - The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People, by Julia Boyd

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

I strayed by mistake into a room full of S.S. officers, Gruppen- and Sturmbannführers, black from their lightning-flash-collars to the forest of tall boots underneath the table. The window embrasure was piled high with their skull-and-crossbones caps.
- Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts

In 1934, 18-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor walked on foot from Holland to Constantinople, which also meant that he had to cross Nazi Germany. But of contemporary political events he records little in his classic work of travel writing, 'A Time of Gifts'. Instead, the youngster is most fascinated by the palpable history in the Gothic old towns of Germany, the still-feudal society structures outside of towns, and the odd tipple. Besides a pub chat about Herr Hitler now and then, no one seems to be interested in engaging the youngster in political talk or even convince him to join their side.

Two years later, in April 1936, a group of English students between 12 and 14 years of age along with their teacher hiked up Schauinsland, a mountain in the Black Forest, a challenging hike even when undertaken in favourable conditions. Just short of the summit, the group - inadequately equipped and clothed - was engulfed in a blizzard, and severely lost. Hours later, some of the boys made it to a nearby village, from where a search party set off to rescue the scattered group from storm and darkness. By that time, four of the group of 27 were already frozen to death or had died from exhaustion. This tragic event became locally known as the Engländerunglück, literally ‘The Englishmen’s calamity’.

The Nazi propaganda machine now went into overdrive. The dead were laid out with all possible honours, the surviving members of the group pampered and feted by the local Hitler Youth, and all reports about the rescue effort suddenly credited the Hitler Youth itself with helping in the rescue. In 1938, in memory of this event, local authorities even erected a memorial for the deceased English students, with the inscription “The youth of Adolf Hitler honours the memory of these English sporting comrades with this memorial.”

These two events, the travails of an unperturbed vagabond and the tail of doomed yet innocent youngsters exploited by Nazi propaganda, are perfect examples of how visitors from the anglophone experienced holidays in Germany between 1933 and 1939. Few specifically came to see how the new Nazi state remodelled society, many came for steins full of beer, castles, deep forests and cheap accommodation. In 'Travellers in the Third Reich', Julia Boyd provides an excellent overview of the types of visitors that came to Nazi Germany before war erupted, by weaving many sources and eyewitness accounts together.

Boyd's travelogues do not begin with Hitler's rise to power, but instead record views and statements of tourists and visitors right from the end of World War 1 and the birth complications of the Weimar Republic. From there on it chronologically follows the developments in Germany up until August 1939. The 21 chapters are arrayed both chronologically and topically - there is 'Old Soldiers' about visiting veterans, 'Hitler's Games' about the Olympic Games 1936, and visitors being increasingly confronted with the growing anti-semitism in '"Peace" and Shattered Glass' in the wake of the Munich Agreement and the Kristallnacht 1938.

From an impressive array of sources, Boyd summons professional soldiers, diplomats, school children, Chinese students, pilots, nurses and 'it' girls from London that recorded their personal impression of Germany under Hitler. Among these witnessed we increasingly find resistance fighters (and those to become one), English families faced with Jewish refugees for the first time, and also Nazi sympathizers like Unity Valkyrie Mitford, of whom Boyd writes:

The story of Unity - the fifth of Lord and Lady Redesdale's famous brood of seven - is that of an unhappy, not particularly bright young woman finding glamour and purpose in a cult religion. She might have become prey to any number of eccentric beliefs or deities but unfortunately for her, and those around her, she fell for the Führer.

Whereas often the view towards Nazi Germany pre-1939 is dominated by the events playing out and being recorded in Berlin, Boyd's book is nicely balanced, presenting quotes from all over the German Reich and Austria. Student Joan Wakefield, for example, recorded an encounter from Upper Silesia on the border with Czechoslovakia in 1938:

On the road back to Rauden, they met 'hundreds' of tanks and lorries filled with soldiers. 'All a bit terrifying,' commented Joan. But anxiety melted away as she was absorbed once again into the daily pattern of riding, swimming in cold forest pools, parties, practical jokes and the inevitable tennis.

'Travellers in the Third Reich' is a hefty tome in hardcover, and surely nothing for the beach. But all the different sources and viewpoints are neatly weaved together and I almost devoured the book, eager to learn more about the many protagonists - and if the reader gets lost in all those fellow travelers, there's a handy dramatis personae at the end of the book; which also comes with a fine cover imitating a 1930s tourists add by kid-ethic.com, as well as maps and black-and-white images.  

Two things stand out: the widespread anti-semitism that prevailed also in the anglophone world before the 2nd World War, and how naive many of the visitors are when faced with obvious propaganda or even criminal machinations they witnessed. This is an important and nuanced book, one that shows that not all the people from future Allied countries perceived Nazi Germany as dangerous, and that a feeling of goodwill was quite strong especially in Britain in those years. And it shows that something we, in hindsight, might call dark tourism was not so dark for those undertaking it, as long as the streets were clean and the beer was flowing.  

Paddy Fermor made it to Istanbul, and spent the remainder of the 30s in southern Europe and Greece; only to be called back to England to join the army in 1939. Because of his knowledge of the area he became a Special Operations Executive and parachuted into Crete, where he became one of the few Englishmen aiding the local resistance fighters, famously capturing German general Kreipe in 1944.

The pupils from Strand School never returned to Germany; the father of one of the victims, Jack Eaton, led a futile legal battle against the failings of their guardian teacher, and in the end erected a private memorial to his lost child, one that was not utilised by the Hitler Youth - maybe because the story behind it was too personal, unusable for any propaganda effort.

Nazi Germany affected them all, in one or another. In her afterword, Boyd underlines the fact that the 12 years of Nazi Germany are not only still an endlessly fascinating period of time; but that these days it is imperative to look at the reasons for the rise of the Nazis and what it means for us today, still.

More than eight decades after Hitler became chancellor we are still haunted by the Nazis. It is right that we should be.

About the book:
Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People (2017) by Julia Boyd is published by Elliott & Thompson. Support your local bookshop!

About the reviewer:
Marcel is the books editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps. This November, Marcel is launching the books with a series of events in Berlin, Dublin, Belfast, Dundalk and Solingen. You can find details of Marcel’s book tour here.

Five Questions for... Brendan Walsh

IMAGE: Brendan Walsh

IMAGE: Brendan Walsh

For the next of our semi-regular series of short interviews with contributors to Elsewhere and other friends of the journal we have five questions for Brendan Walsh, whose poem 'Playing War’ appeared in Elsewhere No.05. You can find our more about Elsewhere No.05 and order your copy here.

What does home mean to you?

I've realized that home, for me, can only be determined in retrospect. Home is a memory. I can look back at times/places and say, "yes, that felt like home," but in the moment I'm not sure it can be pinned down succinctly. Oftentimes we equate "home" with "comfort," but why can't comfort exist without home? The more comfortable one becomes in the absence of a defined location, the greater comfort one can find in every single place.

Two years ago I would have said that home is wherever I am with people who accept/love me, but it isn't that easy. I have been with wonderful people in places that were definitely not my home. Before I had the ability to travel freely, this question was much simpler to answer.

Where is your favourite place?

My favorite place is Laos. I lived in Vientiane for one year, and I'm currently back visiting for a month. I won't say that there is one place within Laos that I prefer--I am simply enamored with the feeling of being here. In my life I've never encountered a collective society that is more welcoming, humble, kind-hearted, relaxed, and hilarious. The landscape is calm and brutal in the same blink. Mornings are hazy, slow, and warm.

What is beyond your front door?

Palm trees, geckos, coffee, mangoes fallen to the sidewalk, beaches, hopefully sun.

What place would you most like to visit?

Right now it's a tie between Papua New Guinea and Mozambique.

What are you reading/listening to/looking at right now?

I'm reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coatesand Become What You Are by Alan Watts, listening to thousands of motorbikes tear through Vientiane's Lane Xang Avenue, and looking at three women congregated around a cart weighed down with coconuts. 

Five Questions for... Louise Slocombe

Image: Louise Slocombe

Image: Louise Slocombe

We return to our semi-regular series of short interviews with contributors to Elsewhere and other friends of the journal. Today we have five questions for Louise Slocombe, whose essay 'Quarantine' on the Point Nepean quarantine station in Melbourne, appeared in Elsewhere No.05. You can find our more about Elsewhere No.05 and order your copy here.

What does home mean to you?

That’s always a difficult question for an immigrant. I love living in New Zealand and it was very easy to settle when I moved here from Britain ten years ago, but I find that the feeling of having uprooted myself has grown stronger over the years. So home has to be more than one place for me – it is both where I live now, but also the places and people that I reconnect with when I visit Britain.

What is your favourite place?

Wellington in New Zealand, where I live, has an ideal balance (for me anyway) between being big enough to have a happening cultural life but small enough to escape from without having to get into a car. At the same time, it is in a completely ridiculous location for a city – on a major faultline, built over rugged hills and steep valleys, and subject to crazy winds. It’s the sort of place you only live in because you want to, but these things all give it a vibe that I really like, not to mention the great views from every hilltop.  

What is beyond your front door?

Lots of native birds – I live on the edge of the city, close to a wildlife sanctuary that has been amazingly successful in bringing native birds back to the city. Watching them gives me a huge amount of pleasure. If I venture further afield I can get down to the city and the harbour, or I can head off into the bush and wander for as long as I feel like wandering.

What place would you most like to visit?

I would really love to visit the subantarctic islands, which have amazing flora and fauna, and I also like the idea of how remote and wild they are. Needless to say, they are not easy or cheap to get to, but that all adds to the attraction.

What are you reading right now?

At the moment, I’m reading about the psychology of memory. There is some really beautiful writing about memory – it seems to be a subject that invites the use of metaphors.
 

The Library: Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys

Review: Christo Hall

For those who haven’t kept abreast with recent British infrastructural projects, HS2 is a £55bn high-speed railway plan first mooted by David Cameron’s government in 2009. It’s an attempt to renew Northern England’s economic potential after years of neglect from Westminster and deindustrialisation that has accentuated a north-south divide in the country. For its advocates, including the previous chancellor, George Osborne, it will “change the economic geography of this country”, for its opponents it’s over budget and comes at a huge cost to the areas affected – the homes that require to be demolished and the environment.

It’s these various divisions that Tom Jeffreys, in his first book, Signal Failure, grapples with via his attempt to walk the length of the HS2 route – a 119-mile trek that takes him out of Central London, through endless suburbs, beautiful and ordinary countryside and into Birmingham. Along the way he wild camps—in some cases to his own better judgement—in a suburban open space, a pub garden and besides a major road; he meets people that will be affected, in some cases displaced, by HS2; and ponders the disconnect between mind and body as he suffers injury and disappointment halting his attempt to undertake the walk in one sitting.

For one thing I have learnt that I am not a nature writer.

It’s nonsense to try to categorise a book to a single genre and it’s especially so for this one as Jeffreys smoothly and deliberately blends elements of nature writing, journalistic reportage and a meta-review of writing about nature and place. Each of these strands raise compelling passages, such as his observations of how an infrastructure project’s simulations and renders fail to depict relationships with real people, conversely his portrayal of a West Midlands dairy farmer’s complex relationship with HS2’s impact on his land, and Jeffreys’ framing of his book in the context of nature writing that has preceded it, making it in part an ode to the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin. It’s a signal of how much of an admirer he is of nature writing, and it reveals a kind of imposter syndrome, that Jeffreys feels incapable to write authoritatively about nature – that’s not to say that this is a bad thing, such reverence offers a welcome subjectivity and an absorbing down-to-earth tone.

Why does building for the future so often involve destroying the past?

While born in Buckinghamshire – as it happens near enough on the route of the HS2 – Jeffreys’ fascination for cities is not disguised, neither is his comfort within them. Nature, for many city dwellers, conjures up untamed forces and barbarism yet nevertheless is apotheosised because of its embodiment of a simple, more human life. It’s a view that at times leads Jeffreys to see the city as an encroachment, continually eating away at nature’s resources and beauty, and that impresses a strong tone of regret. Is it a metaphor for something that should have been done about HS2 while there was a greater chance of impacting the plans?

Perhaps the author’s greatest contribution is the perceptive and astute power of his social commentaries throughout the book. There are many striking and quotable phrases that come to mind, such as “you can tell officially approved graffiti because the people are always happy” or his insight to point out that state and council-funded outdoor gyms erected at the time of the 2012 Olympics, encouraging exercise, coincided with McDonalds being the Olympics’ official restaurant. In other passages he asks: “at what point does psychogeography become tourism?” or notes that “what bothers me is the implication that the UK’s only landscapes worth saving are those that fit within the aesthetics of the late Romantics.”

Somebody once wrote that as the mayor he would like to see his local country lanes neat and tidy and easily passable. But as a poet he would prefer them artfully overgrown.

Signal Failure is an enthralling and irresistible read, and difficult to review because along the way Jeffreys produces a better summary and analysis of his own book and its place in the canon of nature writing better than I or any reviewer could. As such this is a thoroughly researched book, substantiated by the tomes that weigh down his backpack throughout his walk. But it’s also a vital reminder that it takes more than demographic analyses and cost-benefit models to understand the value of our environment and our place within it.

What’s a train without its passengers, a town without its residents, or any kind of journey without its traveller? – Warts, imposter syndrome, injuries and all.

Christo Hall has written for The Quietus, Prospect, Review 31, White Noise and others, often about cities and urbanism. He is online editor of the Bartlett School of Architecture’s LOBBY magazine and founding editor of Cureditor, a site that recommends arts and culture articles.

Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys is published by Influx Press

Postcard from... Samarkand

IMAGE: Tim Woods

IMAGE: Tim Woods

By Tim Woods

How did I get through 39 years – four of them studying geography – without even hearing of Samarkand? A vital stop on the Silk Road for centuries, and today one of Central Asia’s major tourist attractions, I knew nothing about it until I had to travel there for work and started reading up. How did that happen?

The answer is in its location: I’ve never had much reason to think about the countries of Central Asia. For most of my childhood, they weren’t even countries, just unmentioned parts of the USSR, then briefly the CIS. They were not part of the backpackers’ highway by the time I’d reached that stage of life, their brief heyday as a hippy route into Afghanistan long since over. Too far east to sneak into Eurovision, and too rubbish at football to qualify for the World Cup, they never crossed my frame of reference and I rarely gave a second, even a first, thought to Uzbekistan or its trickily spelt neighbours.

My loss. Samarkand is incredible, an irresistible combination of breath-taking buildings and security so lax that you can walk among these ancient sites that would be cordoned off in most places. I only stayed for one night, but was grateful for a glimpse; one day I’ll hopefully return and give the city the attention it deserves.