The Library - Babylons on the Black Sea

Fleet of whalers lying up in Odessa port:    RIA Novosti archive   , image #171693 / Vsevolod Tarasevich /    CC-BY-SA 3.0

Fleet of whalers lying up in Odessa port: RIA Novosti archive, image #171693 / Vsevolod Tarasevich / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel (Pushkin Press, 2018)
Black Sea – Through Darkness and Light. Dispatches and Recipes, by Caroline Eden (Quadrille, 2018)

Read by Marcel Krueger:

In the foyer of a hotel in Romania’s capital Bucharest a few years back, I struck up conversation with a group of English travellers. We talked about our travel plans, and when they heard that I was going to the Black Sea coast they told me to ‘watch out for the fireworks across the water’. The year was 2014, and the conflict in the Ukraine had just exploded into full military confrontation. I was saddened by that remark, as it made me realise that potentially a trip to Odessa was out of the question for the foreseeable future.

Odessa. Does that name not have a lovely ring to it? It speaks of the south, of spices and rum delivered via steamer, of gefilte fish and spices, of dark harbour taverns filled with sailors and farmers speaking a lovely mishmash of Russian, English, French, Greek, Turkish. These are all stereotypes of course, acquired over many years of never properly researching the city, only ever imagining what it must be like. To this day, Odessa and the sound of its name to me remains one of the last untainted travel ideals from my youth.

I was therefore delighted to discover that the Pushkin Press was re-issuing the stories of one of the city’s most famous sons, Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. Babel ( 1894 — 1940) was a Jewish-Russian writer, journalist, playwright and revolutionary and is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, his fictionalised account of his time with the 1st Cavalry Army of the Red Army during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, published in 1926 . Babel was born in Odessa, and the melting pot on the Black Sea had a lasting influence on his art: his Odessa Tales collection of short stories was first published in Russian in 1926. The stories shine a spotlight on Odessa roughly between 1900 and 1920, on its criminal underbelly and the life of the large Jewish community in the city. The tales gathered in Odessa Stories (a re-edition of Pushkin Press’ 2016 edition) contain the original stories in two sections entitled Gangsters and other “Old Odessans” and Childhood and Youth and also 2 more in a section entitled Loose Leaves that were not part of the original collection. Babel’s juicy prose has been newly and delightfully translated by Boris Dralyuk.   

The collection is Babel’s unflinching but tender look back at his hometown, stories about gangsters, merchants, pogroms and the antics of foreign sailors. The city however always takes centre stage:

In summertime, its beaches glisten with the bronze muscled figures of young men who live for sports, the powerful bodies of fishermen who aren’t much for sports, the meaty, potbellied and jolly trunks of “merchants”, alongside pimply and scrawny dreamers, inventors and brokers. While some distance from the wide sea, smoke rises from factories and Karl Marx does his usual work.

Odessa has a terribly poor; crowded and long-suffering Jewish ghetto, a terribly smug bourgeoisie and a terribly reactionary City Council.

Odessa has sweet and wearying evening in springtime, the spicy aroma of acacia trees, and a moon overflowing with even, irresistible light above a dark sea. 

Reading Babel’s tales today does of course nothing to dispel my ideal of Odessa, and while I will forever wonder what more stories the NKVD bullet that killed Isaac Babel on 27 January 1940 robbed us of, I am thankful that he created this wonderful snapshot of his home.

A fine complement to Babel’s fabulous tales is Caroline Eden’s Black Sea, linking the Odessa and the Black Sea of Isaac’s time to ours.  This travel book follows Eden’s journey from Odessa via Romania, Bulgaria and Istanbul along the Turkish Black Sea coast all the way to Trabzon in eastern Turkey. Her dispatches are interspersed with traditional or contemporary recipes from each of the regions she visits, or literary recipes based on some of the characters she encounters. This a beautiful book. From the lovely shimmering wave cover designed by Dave Brown over the exquisite images of both food and place to Eden’s flawless prose, it was a delight opening it and delving in.

Here Caroline Eden talks about Strandja, the mountainous border region between Bulgaria and Turkey:

Often, the edges of countries are rooted and fixed – a border crossing, a fence, a sea – here, demarcation is unfathomable. All we had were rustling oak woods as far as the eye could see, shaken by land winds and sea gales, all washed with a slightly Turkish climate and a southern, eastern air. It was a beautiful but befuddling landscape, a ‘terra incognita’ in our over-mapped world.

But sadly, the more I read the more I discovered that this book tries to be too many things at the same time, which diminished my enjoyment a good bit. The ‘dispatches’ are wonderful and induce both wanderlust and longing for all the places on the Black Sea that I visited before, but I feel that this is a book that should be stuffed into hand luggage and be read, dog-eared, on a bus trudging from Odessa to Bucharest. But due to format and heavy weight this is out of the question. For a coffee table book there are too few images, and for a book of recipes not enough of those. For me the recipes more interrupted the reading flow between dispatches than enhance it. Ideally, this is a great book for an armchair or kitchen stool traveller; but it sometimes stumbles over its own fragmentation.

That being said, the two books make an ideal pair for a Luftmensch like me: again fuelling my imagination of the Babylons on the Black Sea, their salt air and fried anchovies and kompot glasses. Maybe one day I’ll visit.

Wherever possible, we encourage readers of Elsewhere to purchase books directly from the publisher or via your nearest independent bookshop.

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


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.

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


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, 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.

The Library: Wherever the Firing Line Extends - Ireland and the Western Front, by Ronan McGreevy

Read by Marcel Krueger:

One of the interior decoration staples of many an Irish pub, or really any self-proclaimed 'quirky' beerhouse between Norway and Sardinia is the 'On this site in 1856 (or 1768 or 1699) nothing happened'-sign. There is no statement more untrue. Even though the events that took place near the sign over the last centuries may have gone mostly unrecorded in written or oral history, it does not mean that all the love stories, tragedies, atrocities that occurred there have never happened. For this exact reason, I am an advocate of memorials, regardless if they are large Victorian stone slabs in public parks, small blue plaques on buildings or even smaller, unobtrusive ones like the German Stolpersteine dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims or the Last Address plaques in Moscow remembering the victims of Stalin's purges in the 1930s. All these memorials and monuments help us to view both the past and the present in context, to provide details and names of happenings long ago that we would have otherwise passed by without thought.

Ronan McGreevy has done a similar thing in his book: through a framework of site-specific memorials, all accessible today throughout southern Belgium, the north of France and Germany, he paints a picture of the actions of Irish troops on the western front in World War I. Beginning with the first shots fired at Casteau in Belgium to, incidentally, one of the last 1918 actions near Mons (where a marble plaque remembers the 5th Royal Irish Lancers) just 12 kilometres from that first engagement. Printed in hardcover and enhanced with black-and-white and colour images as well as maps for most chapters, the book is structured along both the British troop movements and the memorials that came after. Some chapters focus on specific military actions and the units involved, like the railway station at Le Pilly and the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment; others focus on single soldiers, like poet Francis Ledwidge (remembered by a plaque from 1998 near Passchendaele) or Robert Armstrong, a World War I veteran who became the head gardener of the Valenciennes military cemetery after the war and who died in a German prison camp in 1944. One story and chapter that stood out for me is the story of the Iron 12, twelve Irish prisoners executed by the Germans after being caught hiding with Belgian civilians.  

Despite that fragmented approach, the book manages to provide an excellent overview of the Irish involvement in the British campaign 1914 - 1918 in contrast with the Easter Rising in 1916 and republicanism at home. As McGreevy puts it in the introduction: 'It is perhaps the great paradox of Irish history that more Irishmen died fighting for the Crown than ever died fighting against it.' Sometimes the fragmentation of the chapters however seems to lead McGreevy slightly astray, and in just a few paragraphs we cover decades and move from the detailed description of an action on the ground over to events in Ireland many years later and just barely find our way back to the actions on the western front. Also, due to the wealth of details presented in here the book will mainly appeal to amateur historians and other World War I enthusiasts.

And yet the strength is the concrete interface of occurrence and memory expressed as memorials, and their connection with the landscape. The writing is strongest when McGreevy explores the sometimes hidden or unobtrusive location of the memorials and their equally unobtrusive history and changing political significance, from the small plaque at Mouse Trap Farm to the large Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, opened by Irish president Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and Belgian King Albert II in 1998.  

'Wherever the Firing Line Extends' can be used as guide book on the ground, and at the same time is a fine addition to the canon of publications on the double identity of the Irish soldiers in World War I. While the book is focusing on individual stories in the face of industrial scale slaughter, it is the new approach of appreciating the memorials later generations left for these men that makes it a refreshing read. After all it is for us, the living, that these memorials exist. They remind us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

About the reviewer: Marcel Krueger is a writer, translator, and editor, and mainly writes non-fiction about places, their history, and the journeys in between. His articles and essays have been published in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Slow Travel Berlin, the Matador Network, and CNN Travel, amongst others. He has translated Wolfgang Borchert and Jörg Fauser into English, and his latest book Babushka's Journey - The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps will be published by I.B. Tauris in 2017.

Swimming in the city and country: Turning - by Jessica J. Lee

IMAGE: Katrin Schönig

IMAGE: Katrin Schönig

Read by Paul Scraton:

Early on in the pages of Turning, a swimming memoir about taking a dip in 52 lakes in Berlin and the surrounding Brandenburg countryside, Jessica J. Lee admits to fears and insecurities in the water. This is something I share. I have never been a massive fan of swimming, whether in the sea or the swimming pool, and especially when out of my depth. It has only been in the past couple of years, swimming in some of the very same lakes that Lee visits in this excellent book, that I began to conquer those fears.

It was then that I began to understand what people were talking about when they - like Lee herself - quoted Roger Deakin and his description of the ‘frog’s eye view’. As Lee describes being in the water in Brandenburg, surrounded by the pines and the sky, I can picture it exactly as I have experienced it as well. You do get a different view from the water, a different understanding of place. And that, for me at least, is ultimately the story of this book: as well as personal history sensitively and bravely told, Turning is about a person gaining a feeling for the history and the stories of the places she visits, deepening her knowledge of the geology, ecology, communities and political history of the city she lives in and the surrounding countryside, each time she takes to the water.

As someone who both shares these interests about place in general, and about Berlin and Brandenburg specifically, it is not surprising that I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition as I read. There were other elements of the story that resonated as well: the loneliness of being new in a big city and of building a personal connection to the place by getting to know and to love the landscape, the forests, the suburban S-Bahn lines and the gruff owners of rural snack kiosks.

Lee is an elegant writer; precise in her description, thoughtful in her observation, and most of all interested in the world that surrounds her. This is not always the case when it comes to memoirs, which can sometimes become so tied up in the internal emotions of the writer that there is no space for any exterior, for the world around them, and therefore context to the story they are trying to tell. In Turning, Lee’s personal journey is deeper and richer for the reader because the lakes and their surroundings are characters in the story. As is the weather. As are the seasons. The plan was to explore the 52 lakes over the course of a year, and so Lee was swimming at the height of summer and in the depths of the winter, breaking the ice with a little hammer in order to clear enough room for her to have a swim.

Indeed, one of my favourite lines in the book - one that had me reaching for a pen in order to scribble it down for later - concerned the shifting of the seasons: “It’s all too easy,” Lee writes, “to be sucked under by sadness in the autumn.” I understand that emotion only too well, even if I haven’t (yet) tried a plunge in an autumnal pool to try and alleviate the October blues.

And then, a few pages later, more recognition: “I’ve become divided, stretched across places.” At the very time I was reading this book, I was working on my own project about walking the outskirts of Berlin. One of the motivations for these walks was to try and gain a better understanding of the city I live in a time when my feelings about place, belonging and identity had been thrown into turmoil by referendum results and a series of trips “home” that made me wonder, more than I ever had before, where “home” actually is. I too have felt stretched and divided. The only question, is whether it matters. Each walk, each swim, can help the clarification process.

Walking or swimming. Building our connection and understanding of a place by interacting with the landscape, the history and the people, can be done in different ways. The strength of the book is, I believe, that it not only is a good story very well told, but that it will make readers think about their own places, their own feelings of home and belonging, of their own lakes, forests or city streets, and think a little deeper about them. Jessica J. Lee’s is a trip to the lake well worth taking, inspiring even this reluctant swimmer to reach for his swimming shorts (if not the ice hammer).

Support your local bookshop! Go and get your copy of Turning by Jessica J. Lee there. Meanwhile, here is Jessica's website.

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

The Library: Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

Read by: Marcel Krueger

I awoke on the ferry from Cherbourg to Rosslare from ferry dreams, getting lost while searching for the ferry port in a small Italian seaside village in my slumber. Outside the cabin window, in the violet early autumn dawn I could see the dark shape of Cornwall; St. Ives, perhaps, or Tintagel, across the calm and dark blue sea. I knew that the old ferry that I was sailing on, built in 1987 in Finland, was crossing one of the more busy shipping lanes in the Irish Sea, but of other ships, or the men manning them, there was nothing to be seen. For miles there was only the calm sea, the dark shape of the land and a few seagulls hanging over the waves.

To make the world of the men and their ships – the countless trade vessels and tankers crisscrossing the world’s oceans under the authority of commerce – visible for us landlubbers is the declared intention of Horatio Clare and his book. Joining two very different container ships on their journeys from Felixstowe to Los Angeles and Antwerp to Montreal, he provides us with both a vivid portrait of modern-day sailors and their ships, and an oral history of merchant sailing and its many disasters. He first boards the Gerd Maersk, a large modern container ship sailing around half of the globe under the command of Danish officers and with a mainly Filipino crew (Filipino merchantmen make up an astonishing 75% of the world’s merchant crews) and uses the many stops and locations on the route not only to paint a picture of the daily routine on merchant ships, but also to view his contemporary surroundings through the eyes of past chroniclers of the sea and to present the history of merchant sailing.

Coleridge makes an appearance, and Hayklut, and of course there is Conrad as well. Clare talks about sea battles in the Mediterranean, about grumpy Chinese pilots and all the contents of the containers, forever unseen to the men shipping them. His second journey on board the Maersk Pembroke is quite a different one, on an old ship that does not stop anywhere between leaving the berth and reaching her destination. As Clare states, 'I wanted storms and I wanted a ship nothing like the great Gerd.' This second part of the book and its somewhat narrower setting is mostly concerned with the weather, and uses Richard Woodman's brilliant book The Real Cruel Sea as groundwork to contemplate the fight of the US and UK merchant navies against both the sea and German submarines between 1939 and 1943.

After the first few pages I became somewhat apprehensive, as here Clare seems to praise the sailors and their employer (and provider of the author’s passage on the ships), the Danish shipping giant Maersk, to the skies.  But reading on, the author does not shy away from addressing all the (for us consumers unseen) issues of modern merchant sailing: the fact that Filipino merchantmen are paid 25% less than their European counterparts purely based on their nationality, and that even today stowaways are still being set adrift, sometimes. He also speaks about the environmental influences of commercial shipping and our influence on the world's oceans, about that the ships only use the crudest of fuels when on the high seas:  

'Seen from the perspective of the deep we are alien, a quasi/Martian species inhabiting a universe of almost entirely different physical and temporal conditions. As the Gerd pounds on far above it is as if she is a spacecraft, one of many in her vastly high orbit. Now and then one gropes down, blindly, with a net. Plunder and pollution are our only contributions to the worlds under the sea.'

But this is not a mere criticism of commerce and the men keeping its containers safe for us. Clare, an acclaimed journalist and writer, manages to weave personal portraits of the ship’s officers and crews, their motivation and dreams, into a wider narrative of men at sea. With its fine observations and evocative prose, Down to the Sea in Ships is one of those rare non-fiction books that the reader can get properly lost in, despite its portrait of the reality of life at sea. In here are pirates, lost fleets on a bitter lake, hundreds of birds hitching rides on ships, and the prohibition of beer on most modern merchant vessels. The Germans have a word for such a book – a Schmöker – a huge tome that is perfect to get lost in on long rainy afternoons in armchairs. Or on ferry voyages across the Irish Sea.

Down to the Sea in Ships is published in hardcover by Chatto & Windus and in paperback by Vintage.

You can read more reviews by Marcel in all four editions of Elsewhere, available via our online shop.

The Library: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović

Read by: Paul Scraton

In the departure lounge of Ljubljana airport, two hours early for our flight back to Germany, I pulled a book out of my bag and start to read. Two flights and about five hours later I read the final page as the plane made the final approach to Berlin’s Tegel Airport. I had crossed the Alps and the heart of Germany, but really I had been in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, as explored through the eyes of a narrator who has discovered, sixteen years after he believed his father was dead, that in fact that this barely remembered man who was an officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army is actually alive and living in hiding, a fugitive of the Hague as a wanted war criminal. Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović tells the story of the narrator’s journey to find his father, a journey that causes him to reflect on how the disintegration of his family is tied to the disintegration of the country, and the world, that they used to call home.

I came to this book by coincidence – the man sitting next to me on my flight out to Ljubljana a week earlier was reading (in Slovenian) a book by Goran Vojnović who was then profiled (in English) in a magazine I picked up at the airport, waiting for my bags to appear. I have long been interested in the history of the former Yugoslavia; ever since I was a student in Leeds starting out my degree only two years after the Dayton Peace Accords had brought to an end the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina that had played out on our teatime television screens throughout my teenage years. Reading about Yugoslavia, My Fatherland in the magazine was what led me to a book described by the English publishers as a work that “deals intimately with the tragic fates of the people who managed to avoid the bombs, but were unable to escape the war.”

Goran Vojnović was born in Slovenia in 1980 and is a well-respected director and screenwriter as well as being a bestselling novelist. I would love to speak to him at some point about how much of the background of his protagonist – school experiences in Ljubljana in the 1990s for instance – reflect his own, as the power of this novel is in how Vojnović manages to explore the break-up of Yugoslavia from the multitude of perspectives in the different parts of the former Federal Republic, allowing all voices to have their say without, it seems to me, judgement or bias one way or the other. One of the finest scenes in the book is when his new classmate in Ljubljana, where the teenage narrator has moved with his mother from Pula, Croatia via Belgrade and Novi Sad, explains what is happening in Yugoslavia via the nationalities of the other children in the class.

Throughout the book the narrator remembers the slow collapse of the world of his childhood through remembered scenes in apartments, the tone of the newsreaders on the evening television and the atmosphere in Ljubljana where he lives but never quite feels at home. The other strand of the story is of course the present-day search for his father, and the impact of the knowledge of the crimes he is alleged to have committed in a village in Slavonia. The story is told in a matter-of-fact, sometimes humorous tone, and Vojnović certainly has a flair for set-piece scenes, both in the description and the dialogue, but what is most impressive is how the battle of ideas that reflects battles taking place elsewhere in real life, and the complexity of personal identities both in the time of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and today, are told through the multitude of characters who appear in the book. This is impressive writing, and one of the best tellings of the Yugoslavia story that I have read.

This is a novel about place, about memory, and about how the world of our childhood can be destroyed so that it no longer exists, even if it remains a name on a map. Along the way it deals with a number of signifiers of home and belonging, from the behaviour of guests at a wedding to the differences in language, not only between the Slovene his mother insists on using when they move to Ljubljana and the Serbo-Croatian that has been the family language up to that point, but the differences within the latter, when his Bosnian classmates make fun of the narrator as he speaks the Italian-tinged version of his childhood home on the coast.

Goran Vojnović tells this story in relatively straightforward language, but the more you read the more you realise how complex the novel is as it creates this portrait of a disintegrating country through the personal story of a disintegrating family. It is a reminder of the power of literature, and of fiction, to help us come to the essential truth of history and its impact on people. Much credit must go to the translator Noah Charney and the publishers Istros Books for bringing it to an English-speaking audience as this is an important and powerful book, and one which deserves to be read as widely as possible.

Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović, translated by Noah Charney, is available via the publishers, Istros Books.

Kowloon Walled City: An extract from 'Fallen Glory', by James Crawford

Photo credit:  ‘Inside the Walled City’, 1998 , © Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

Photo credit:  ‘Inside the Walled City’, 1998 , © Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

We are extremely pleased and proud to publish on the Elsewhere blog an extract from the fascinating new book Fallen Glory by James Crawford. In it, he uncovers the biographies of some of the world’s most fascinating lost and ruined buildings in a unique guide to a world of vanished architecture. In this extract, James takes us to the Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong – Born 1843, died 1994:

In the aftermath of the Second World War, refugees flooded south to the Kowloon Peninsula. The only trace of the old city was the derelict shell of the Mandarin’s house. Yet people gravitated almost instinctively to this rough rectangle of ground. Perhaps it was the feng shui. The Walled City had originally been laid out according to the ancient principles of Chinese philosophy: facing south and overlooking water, with hills and mountains to the north. This ideal alignment, it was said, brought harmony to a ll citizens. In their desperate plight some refugees may have believed that Kowloon would be a much-needed source of luck and prosperity. Others, however, recalled that this had once been a Chinese exclave in British colonial territory. The stone walls of the ‘Walled City’ had gone, but the refugees were convinced the diplomatic ones remained. 

By 1947 there were over 2,000 squatters camped in Kowloon, their ramshackle huts arranged in almost the exact footprint of the original city. No one wanted to find themselves outside the borders – those on the wrong side of the line risked losing the protection of the Chinese government. The people kept coming, and the camp grew ever more squalid and overcrowded. 


The Library: Climbing Days, by Dan Richards – Review and Extract

Read by Paul Scraton:

We are extremely pleased to be adding to the Elsewhere Library on the blog not only a review of Climbing Days by Dan Richards but also an extract from the book. The co-author of Holloway with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood, published in 2012, in writing Climbing Days Dan Richards has been on the trail of his great-great-aunt Dorothy Pilley, a pioneering woman mountaineer and author of a 1935 memoir about her adventures in the hills with her husband I.A. Richards that shares a title with this book. Using the memoir as a starting point and a destination list, Dan Richards heads off on a journey of discovery, as he writes a portrait of a remarkable woman and the places she has guided him to, as well as a book which also asks of us the question: why do people climb mountains?

Perhaps it is my own bias of place shining through, but if you start a book with a description of Llyn Idwal in Snowdonia – one of my favourite places in the world – then you have got off to a good start, and the book continues to fascinate throughout thanks some great descriptive writing about people and places; along the way Richards heads off to Cambridge, Wales, Scotland, Catalonia, the Alps and the Lake District. He interviews people who knew her, learns about his own family, and writes a convincing portrait not only of his great-great-aunt but also the society in which she operated, all with a wonderful turn of phrase and a dry sense of humour that you need if you are going to spend a considerable amount of time on the footpaths, hillsides and slabs of British mountains.

One of the strongest elements of the book is the exploration of the position of women, both in Dorothy Pilley’s class and era, but also in the mountains themselves. As Pilley herself wrote: “One had really done something drastic by becoming a climber.” Women such as Pilley were, in Richards’ memorable phrase “stabled more like horses than people,” and in one of the digressions that makes Climbing Days such an enjoyable read, Richards explores the life of Edwardian women and how, if escape for Pilley meant heading for the hills, for one of her friends it meant the Left Bank in Paris and modernist literature. The destination might be different, as well as the means of getting there, but the result was the same: Escape. 

All the while Richards makes use not only of Pilley’s published memoir but also letters and diaries, and it is through these writings that he begins to get towards an answer of the key question of the book – if not, at first, “why do people climb mountains” but “why did she?”:

“Reading Dorothea’s letters and diaries, mountains are always framed as free egalitarian space, territories unencumbered by the ho-hum regimes or social baggage.”

Now, I did not grow up in the same class as Dorothy Pilley, in the same era or of the same gender, but I can recognise what Richards is getting at here. Why do we climb mountains? Walk the hills? Explore the clifftops? What is it about landscape that draws us there, to follow the trodden path or the empty shore? Reading Climbing Days I was provoked into asking these questions of myself, which is a great credit to the book. In the process of that journey, of Richards’ journey and of Pilley’s as well, I was also entertained along the way. Enjoyable, funny and thought-provoking. What more could you want from your mountain literature, or any other book for that matter?

Extract from Climbing Days by Dan Richards:

The Pinnacle Club is a women’s mountaineering club founded in 1921 and of which Dorothy Pilley was one of the first members. In an early chapter, Dan Richards heads to the club’s hut in Wales to meet present-day members, climb with them, and explore the pioneering role of the Pinnacle Club in the years between the wars:

We arrived at Ogwen car park in light drizzle. It was good to be back but the sky looked foreboding so we hastily unloaded our kit from the boot and regrouped in the shiny new visitor centre.

Left alone in the atrium whilst the others went to the loo, I began to mull the coming hours, automatically picking up Hazel’s rope, which she’d earlier noted was badly wound. Rewinding it about my neck, I drifted off, pondering how the slopes above would be, whether the weather would clear up, how dark the valley would be this time, should I put my over-trousers on?

I came to with a jolt to find Hazel returned and staring at me with a face like thunder. She blinked and, raking me a look somewhere between revulsion and pity, advanced and took her rope from around my shoulders, before rapidly relooping the line with the deft automatic movements of a seasoned pro. In no time at all she’d formed a neat, symmetrical, unkinked spool devoid of twists – the opposite of what I’d done. Her idea of ‘badly wound’ I now realised would have been a major accomplishment for my ham hands.

The silence that followed was loud.

Emily and Margaret had now returned too – mourners at the wake of my self-respect. Even the day trippers inspecting the scale models and video displays around us seemed to be holding their breath.

Rain spat on the roof.

‘Shall we go?’ suggested Margaret.


The four of us walked out from the tourist centre into strengthening, blustery rain.
I carried some kit in a nylon bag which got steadily saturated and heavier as we went. Margaret had already raised the question of whether I was going to carry my kit in ‘that bag, like that’ and I had replied cheerily that ‘yes, yes I was’. Now it was becoming clear that I had made a bit of an error but, determined to brazen it out, I strode on, arm aching, implausibly jaunty.

We stepped up our pace along the stone path which follows round the lake. Wind swept past like buses, pushing us off balance. It became obvious to me that, after the rope incident, someone was now going to fall into the lake and die. Probably Margaret. That was all I needed.

First the rope debacle, now a death.

Hazel would never forgive me. It would be written up in the Pinnacle journal and I would not be allowed back to the hut, or Wales, ever again.

I walked on in resigned dudgeon and drizzle.

Earlier on our group had passed a man coming down the path who knew Hazel and Margaret. Wherever were we going? he asked, bemused. ‘To climb the slabs!’ we’d chorused, brightly . . . over-brightly perhaps. ‘It’s good practice to carry the kit up and back anyway,’ said Hazel with a tight smile.

That’s it, I thought to myself as we stumped wretchedly on, that’s what they’ll write: ‘Humouring the idiot who’d already destroyed a perfectly serviceable rope, the put-upon representatives of the Pinnacle Club carried all their kit up to Hope in a monsoon, during which fool’s errand Margaret drowned, Emily froze to death from shame and only Hazel’s volcanic rage spared her serious injury . . .’


At the slabs the weather was horrendous. The wind was blasting a vuvuzela cacophony. The rain thumped about and water sluiced down the sliding face. The rocks looked slick and soapy. We were not climbing here, that was clear. Yet we still stopped and took in the scene rather than turning on our heels and I was suddenly grateful for everyone’s forbearance. Emily took a hopeful stance upon a low flake pitch but the sodden ropes stayed bagged and looped about shoulders. A Promethean Joe Brown might have shinned up the glassy rock in socks without a backwards glance, but he was not around so, stopped, we stood. Too wet to sit down, we huddled to discuss how one might have gone about the slabs on another day – were the day a better day; were the day not bloody awful. Then we turned and started down, back the way we’d come. It was too miserable for the scenic route – a bloody awful day to be out.

Climbing Days by Dan Richards, is published on 16 June by Faber & Faber (£16.99)

The Library: The Wander Society, by Keri Smith

Review: Marcel Krueger:

I chanced upon the sturdy yellow-and-grey cover of The Wander Society in the too-small English section of a German chain bookstore in a shiny suburban mall. It almost looked like an anachronism in between the Tom Clancy and Cecilia Ahern novels, and as I opened it and found a picture of Fernando Pessoa overlaid with a Ludwig Wittgenstein quote, it intrigued me even more. I also followed the instructions on the back, which talked about a secret underground movement dedicated to conducting research 'on your immediate surroundings' and 'complete a variety of assignments'.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of Keri Smith's Wreck This Journal, that mainstay of countless Urban Outfitter accessory tables around the globe. In my opinion there are better and less forced ways of making a book interactive, to entice creativity. As Tim Parks puts it in his essay 'A Weapon for Readers' where he defends the use of pencils and annotations: “We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us.” And deliberately dropping a notebook in the bath or smearing it with dirt does little for that awareness, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, following Wreck This Journal, I also purchased Smith's How to be an Explorer of the World, a book of assignments meant to stir up interest and exploration of everyday urban surroundings and found it much more to my liking - after all, I love to walk around with my eyes open and some of the exercises in here I was already undertaking, sometimes involuntarily. So I first perceived The Wander Society as a continuation of that idea, albeit one with a new visual approach, less colorful than 'How to be…', with a distinct retro touch to it: all seemingly pasted and glued-together pages and images in brown and black and white. The Wander Society is an approach to the fictional (?) Wander Society, a “nascent and continually growing group with its own aesthetics, values, art, literature, and even its own dialectic language”, as the equally fictional (?) professor J. Tindlebaum states in his introduction. Smith states that all material in the book is based on existing literature found relating to the group. Here's what I found on the first page, where the instructions on the back led me:

The book then goes on and charts the history and philosophy of the group, and also contains assignments and ideas for field research related to deceleration and exploration of what may at first seem dull and uninteresting neighbourhood areas. There is no need to follow all the assignments and activities in here, and some can be somewhat cheesy, for example 'How to Invoke the Inner Wanderer in Any Situation' or 'Create a Temenos', but then there also also many practical activities like 'How to Knit a Wrist Cuff' or 'How to Sew a Neck Pouch', things intended to help group members while exploring and something that might appeal to all those who are more versed in handicraft than I am.

But maybe it is that somewhat simple and playful approach to walking/wandering that I like most about the Wander Society and their ideas and manifestos. While key flaneurs, psychogeographers and deep topographers like Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and Will Self are mentioned throughout the book, there is never any academic approach to these themes. The Wander Society truly is for everyone, and I have the feeling everyone can do with it what they want and as they please. Maybe it is fitting then that the patron saint of the Wander Society is not an academic and critic, but a poet instead: Walt Whitman and his ‘Leaves of Grass’ are among the key works used by the society to explore our direct surroundings and guide them on their wanderings.

I tend to forget that walking and wandering in our capitalist societies around the world often is an activity no longer encouraged or even accepted. As Rebecca Solnit points out in Wanderlust, her history of walking, referring to gyms and treadmills: "In those buildings abandoned because goods are made elsewhere and First World work grows ever more cerebral, people now go for recreation, reversing the inclinations of their factory-worker predecessors to go out - to the outskirts of town or at least out-of-doors - in their free time."  So any book that encourages a reader not only to interact with the physical item ‘book’ but also with their surroundings in a playful and creative way while walking is a good book; of which too few are being published at the moment.  It is good to know that the Wander Society is out there.  

Solvitur ambulando.

The Wander Society by Keri Smith published by Penguin.


The Library: Stefan Zweig's Journeys – On memories and places

Review: Paul Scraton

Throughout his life Stefan Zweig was a traveller. The Austrian writer made numerous journeys in Europe, criss-crossing the continent by train. They began as trips of leisure and inquiry, for the summer season of 1902 in Ostend or a trip in 1904 to explore the ancient streets of Bruges. By 1934 he was travelling for a very different reason; a Jewish writer in exile following the rise to power of the Nazis. First to England and then to the United States, before one, final, journey to Brazil where he committed suicide with his wife.

This collection of travel essays does not take Zweig beyond Europe, beginning as it does with that trip to Ostend in 1902 and ending, in England, with the ‘Gardens in Wartime’ of 1940. Presented chronologically, the essays that make up Journeys comprise a journey as a whole, through time and a changing Europe, one which begins with the security and stability of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Zweig’s childhood and early adulthood and that passes through World War I, the flux of the aftermath, the rise of the Nazis and the (beginnings) of the horrors to come. 

Zweig’s own feelings about the transformation of the continent in those first decades of the 20th century can be read in his 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday - completed the day before he committed suicide – but it can also be felt in this collection, as the excellent translator Will Stone comments in his fascinating introduction to the book:

“It would probably be true to say that as Zweig gains experience as both a traveller and a writer, especially after the trauma of world war, his essays exhibit more depth and his concerns take on more urgency.”

And it does feel, as in his later memoir, that World War I is a defining period in Zweig’s life, such a violent upheaval that transformed the world he knew into the World of Yesterday, changing him as both man and a writer. On a personal level, as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about place and memory, and places that become ‘sites of memory’, it is the essay on Ypres that I return to time and again.

The essay is written in 1928, ten years after the end of World War I and in it Zweig is reflecting on the nature of how the battlefields of Flanders had become a tourist destination. The first Thomas Cook tours had begun barely months after the cessation of the hostilities, with the guns still warm and the landscape still scarred. Stefan Zweig writes:

“Presently the name of Ypres, the ville martyre, shouts from all the posters, from Lille to Ostend, from Ostend to Antwerp, and far into Holland. Organised tours, excursion by automobile, individually tailored visits; it’s a veritable bidding war. Every day some ten thousand people (perhaps more!) come to pass a few hours here: Ypres has become Belgium’s star attraction.”

This is something that I think about a lot, especially here in Berlin where it feels as if there is a memorial on nearly every corner; where it is possible to watch people climbing on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, playing hide and seek or holding fashion shoots among the columns; where it feels, like Ypres does to Zweig, that the whole city is a ‘site of memory’. I have long come to the conclusion that this is a necessary process, and indeed when I have written about the subject of tourism and sites of memory it is a Zweig quote from this collection that always comes to mind:

“Nevertheless: it is good that, in some places on this earth, one can still encounter a few horrifying visible traces of the great crime. Ultimately it is something good too when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through here annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders… All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned.”

Sadly, this is the other power of this collection. Alongside his sharp observations, well-written descriptions and thoughtful reflections, as the essays progress there is something else at work that has nothing to do with the writer and everything to do with the reader: our knowledge of what is to come, especially in the later essays. For however comfortable and carefree those visitors were in 1928, there would soon be more graves, more woods poisoned and more squares devastated. The lessons were indeed unlearned. It is perhaps this realisation that led Zweig to take his own life across the ocean as the continent he loved was consumed by war once more. And it gives these essays a melancholy power, beyond simply the nostalgia for times gone by and places changed beyond recognition. It is not so much that they have changed, but the how and the why. 

Journeys by Stefan Zweig, translated by Will Stone, published by Hesperus Classics, 2010.
Tourism and Sites of Memory, an essay by Paul Scraton appears on Traces of a Border.

Elsewhere No.03 featuring writing on place, interviews and reviews, is out now and available via our online shop.

The Library: While Wandering, edited by Duncan Minshull

Review: Marcel Krueger

Next day I rose early, cut myself a stick, and went off beyond the town gate. Perhaps a walk would dissipate my sorrows.
Ivan Turgenew, First Love (1860)

When it comes to physical activity, I am hardly ever fazed by the fact that sweating and cursing on, say, a football pitch or in a gym smelling of old socks could be beneficial for my health. I prefer to exercise in an armchair, holding a book with one hand and occasionally raising a tea cup to my mouth with the other. The only exception I make is when it comes to walking. The reason for that may be that I come from a family of walkers: my grandmother, after growing up on a farm in the 1930s and crossing half of Europe after World War II, always spurned cars, buses and trains and preferred to walk, taking me on long hikes to chapels in the middle of nowhere when I was six or seven; my father and stepmother share a love for hiking the Alps, while my mother runs forest walks for the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union.

So, I was raised a walker and have always walked since. I was also raised a book lover, and soon started reading what others thought about my favourite  - and only - physical activity. I read Fontane and about his ramblings in Brandenburg, followed Josef Martin Bauer through Russia in As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, and escaped over the Himalaya with Sławomir Rawicz in The Long Walk. Over the years, two books on walking have stayed with me, my copies now dog-eared and mud-crusted from many days on the trail: one is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, the other Duncan Minshull’s beautiful anthology While Wandering.

In this 400-page book Minshull has summoned 200 writers past and present from around the globe, all who have written about the act of walking. In here are novelists, poets, film directors; among them the Brontë Sisters on the heath, well-known flâneurs Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, hiking veterans Robert Louis Stevenson and Bruce Chatwin, and psychogeographer Ian Sinclair. Some writers are represented in excerpts from longer works, some with poems, others with whole short stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd (1841) or Daniel Boulanger’s The Shoebreaker (1963). Minshull has sorted all these excerpts topically, with chapters named “Why Walk”, “In The City”, “Tough Tracks”, or even “March Parade Procession” - all chapters posing questions to the walker that Minshull himself has answered in giving the excerpts new titles. Here an example from “Why Walk”:


I am told that when confronted by a lunatic or one who under the influence of some great grief or shock contemplates suicide, you should take the man out-of-doors and walk him about: Nature will do the rest.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922    

There are a thousand and one reasons for setting out, be they physical, psychological or spiritual. And that, for me, is the beauty of this collection (which, despite being in hardcover, has the perfect size for rucksack and duffel bags) - everyone who walks will find himself reflected in here, with all the positive and negative aspects the activity brings with it: setting out early on an autumn morning, the mountain trails waiting; the hundreds of impressions that even the shortest city stroll will convey; the misery of rain, blisters, and exhaustion. Even though I’ve read it over and over again, I know that whenever I open it anew will find something in here that connects me with other writer-walkers, reminding me that walking gives rise to thought, which in turn might lead to expression. Or sometimes just cursing on a hillside - which I prefer to cursing on a treadmill.  

As Robert MacFarlane writes in his introduction, “What I mean in sum to say is that this is the best anthology I know about an activity I cannot live without.” I do thoroughly concur.

While Wandering on the publisher’s website. Support your local bookshop!

The Library: The Moor, by William Atkins

Review: Paul Scraton

What do we read when we look at a landscape? What do we see, and perhaps as importantly, what do we feel? I have lived in Berlin for a decade and half, a move eastwards from my childhood home in West Lancashire first to Leeds and then to the German capital. Until I left England the landscapes of my imagination were always raised ones – the sea cliffs of Anglesey or the mountains of Snowdonia – and in Germany I had to learn to love the different and distinct attractions of the flatlands, the forests and lakes of Brandenburg or the big skies and low dunes of the Baltic.

Alongside the mountains and cliffs of North Wales, the other landscape of my imagination and the one that I would think of when I thought of “home”, was the moors. Living in Leeds for four years and returning ever since to visit family and friends, moorland spotted through a car window on the drive from Liverpool or Manchester airport gives me that first feeling of a sense of return… to land at Leeds Bradford is to play “spot the rocks”, searching through that tiny cabin window for a glimpse of the Cow & Calf above Ilkley and the brooding expanse of moors squatting above the towns and villages of Wharfedale below.

So it was not surprising that, standing in an English-language bookshop in Berlin, I was drawn to William Atkins’ The Moor and its cover image of boggy ground and tough grass. Subtitled A journey into the English wilderness I reached for the book as a salve to a bout of homesickness that comes every so often. What I found when I opened the pages was a captivating journey from south to north, from Bodmin Moor to the White Lands of the Otterburn Training Area, and a book that combines travelogue, history, ecology, literature, folklore and reportage in the way of the very best writing on place.

There is much that is thought-provoking about Atkins’ book, not least the fact this very “English wilderness” has been, for thousands of years, shaped by humans. From the Mesolithic tribes to the Romans, humans cleared and burned the uplands that would grow ever more hostile as global temperatures cooled. And so the people moved ever lower, felling more trees and clearing more land as they did so, the moors following them ever deeper into the valley.

It was man, then – man, with the climate, but not ‘nature’ alone – that made the moors. And it was man who continued to shape them: sheep grazing under the abbeys discouraged the resurgence of all but the least palatable vegetation: mat-grass, purple moor-grass, cotton-grass.

In recent centuries the moorland streams were dammed to create reservoirs to provide water for the ever-expanding cities of the industrial age, and heather was encouraged for the raising of grouse to be shot by guns of the great and the good. Indeed, it is only in exploring a restricted zone that had been declared around a military base over halfway through his journey that Atkins finds an expanse of moorland that has not been burned, grazed or afforested.

If man was to be eradicated, here was what would happen.

The other big question that The Moor inspires the reader to ask is that of land ownership and the impact of this human influence, not just on the moorland itself but for the communities below. I read The Moor as much of northern England was under water, as those “hundred-year floods” returned for the second or third time in recent memory, and the book explains exactly how burning and land management above, in order that a few rich folks can shoot a Land Rover’s boot-full of birds, can have catastrophic impacts on the people living below.

These are just a couple of aspects of what makes The Moor such a fascinating read. There is also plenty of literature, for one of the great gifts of the English moorland has been its inspiration for writers and poets. Atkins is no different, and as he describes the wildlife or the people he encounters, tells the stories and legends of the moors, or reflects on the politics of land and its uses, he does so with lyrical writing that certainly does justice to the melancholy and mysterious nature of these places that are, to my mind at least, both forbidding and appealing all at the same time.

William Atkins’ website

The Library: The Island that Never Was, by Robert Alcock

Review: Paul Scraton

As stories go, the building of the Zorrozaurre peninsula in Bilbao is a fascinating one. In the 1950s and 1960s a canal was dug to improve access to the Euskalduna shipyard as part of Franco’s policy of industrial expansion. Many of the residents of the area had already been rehoused when the plans changed and the project ground to a halt. The canal, that would have created an island, never reached its destination. And as Robert Alcock explains in his short but fascinating The Island that Never Was:

Instead of an island, after the economic collapse of the early eighties the peninsula had become a lost world, forgotten by the rest of the city. Most people had no idea that four hundred residents still clung on.”

It was into this forgotten neighbourhood that Alcock moved in 1999 with his partner, and overthe course of the nine chapters that make up this book he creates a portrait of a community, of his neighbours and their worries and concerns, of the graffiti and where it came from, of its plant- and wildlife, and crucially how different people – some important and listened to, others not – had plans for Zorrozaurre that would completely transform the peninsula and by definition the lives of those people who called it home. Faced with a development master plan that would see many of them evicted, the locals were finally roused into action, including forming a residents association and taking to a bit of street-art themselves to paint a mural depicting life in the neighbourhood:

“It was a reminder that the neighbourhood existed – a fact of which, even now, most people in Bilbao remained ignorant – and a collective nose-thumbing at the authorities. It wasn’t only the squatters who could paint walls.”

It is not simply the story of an anonymous neighbourhood and its struggle for recognition and self-determination that makes this book interesting, although it most certainly does. It is the fact that it reminds us once again that everywhere – every district, every estate, every village, every town – has its story and there is a value to listening to what it is. It is the fact that it reminds us once again that communities develop on what seem, on the face of it, unlikely and perhaps even unappealing locations. And that what makes a community is worth fighting to protect.

Although it is not explicitly stated, the fact the The Island that Never Was has been published in a tri-lingual edition – English, Spanish and Basque – would suggest that Alcock’s intention was to make sure his neighbours in Zorrozaurre have access to this telling of their story. I am sure that they would be very proud.

Robert Alcock is a writer and ecological designer who moved to Bilbao in 1999 to undertake fieldwork for a PhD in marine ecology. He and his partner lived in Zorrozaurre for several years and were founder members of the Forum for a Sustainable Zorrozaurre. They still keep active ties with the neighbourhood. You can order The Island that Never Was via the Abrazo House website, where it is also possible to purchase an Ebook version.

The Library: Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

Review: Paul Scraton

I began to read Imaginary Cities in a bar on a pretend High Street of a make-believe village that was actually an out-of-season holiday camp on the German Baltic coast. From the bar you looked out onto the (indoor) street scene, complete with pretend houses, mock gas lamps and the chairs and tables of cafes and restaurants spilling out onto the “pavement”. The holiday camp was an imagined city of sorts, a self-contained world built in the 1970s for escape by the seaside. And such was the depth of the research and the scale of the ambition of Darran Anderson’s book, I half-expected to turn the page at one point and find a description of this particular imaginary city waiting for me on the other side.

It is a remarkable book, as Anderson takes the reader through and to almost every conceivable city of the human imagination, from the plans for actual cities realised or not, real cities in fictional settings, cities of myth and cities of legend, cities that we can walk through (and some that we could have done, had we lived in another time or place) and cities that have only ever existed in the mind, as a film set, or in the pages of a book. The scholarship involved in such an undertaking is apparent from the very first page, and it is how Anderson that marshals his material that makes the book work. Like a city itself, the book is fractured, with plenty of distractions along the way, and although sometimes you feel like Anderson might have taken you down a dead-end-street, you realise it was actually a diversion that took you to the intended destination by a more creative and interesting route.

As I read, both in the candlelight of the bar and the next day, rain and Baltic winds rattling the window of the apartment, each section of the book brought more to think about and more scribbles in my notebook. I left to go for a walk or a run and found that the book came with me as I attempted to process what I had been reading. And it is a feature of the book, and the quality of the writing, that I found myself writing out (and repeating to myself) direct quote after direct quote. Here are just a few, directly from the pages of my notebook:

On the bias of cartography and the stories maps can tell us… “decisions which haunt us to this day.”

On the law of unforeseen consequences and how pollution helped give birth to impressionism… “the future not only has side effects, it is side effects.”

On historical cities that although we know existed remain imaginary… “we know the dimensions of rooms… but we can only make educated guesses at what transpired within them.”

On the Tower of Babel… “every age built it again according to their own methods and pulled it down for their own sins.”

The book moves ever forwards, towards the next story, the theory, the next city of the imagination. We visit stories of the past told through stone and ruins. We learn about how cities are branded by their cinematic depictions or in books and art. We consider how buildings that once existed “exist little more than the planned buildings that were never built.” We think about the cost of cities, whether the workers who built the Pyramids all those centuries ago or those that built the new cities in the gulf (and are building the stadiums for a football World Cup). We question the politics of cities, and the morality play of meritocracy, where everyone gets the city they “deserve”, whether a villa in a gated community or the favela on the other side of the wall.  And we are forced to confront those places that were born out of the darkest corner of the human imagination to become the worst cities on earth. Places that were never supposed to be known about but whose names resonated through the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Auschwitz. Treblinka. Stalag.

By the time I returned to Berlin from the holiday camp by the sea I had finished the 500+ pages of the book. But it was not the scale of the ambition and the knowledge exhibited in the book that impressed me the most, although impress it did. It was that – like the best writing on place (or the idea of place) – Imaginary Cities influenced how I looked at my own city as I caught the S-Bahn from the main train station and then walked the handful of oh-so-familiar blocks from the station to my apartment building. Any book that provokes us into new ways of understanding our surroundings and moreover leads us to ask questions, about not only how we do live but how we should live is worthy of inclusion in any library of place, whether imaginary or not.

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson is published by Influx Press.

Follow the twitter feed @Oniropolis for Imaginary Cities updates, debate and musings.

You can read an interview with Darran Anderson in Elsewhere No.03 - available via our online shop here.

The Library: Lost and Found in Johannesburg, by Mark Gevisser

City of Gold and Empty Spaces

Review: Paul Scraton

After a brief prologue that sets the scene for a brutal and frightening home invasion in Johannesburg, 2012 - a story which will be told in harrowing detail later in the book - Mark Gevisser starts his story with a childhood map-reading game called ‘Dispatcher’ played on the pages of the family’s Holmden’s street atlas of the South African city. The young Gevisser would take addresses from the phone book and attempt plot the course of an imaginary dispatcher moving through the city… Only, it was not that simple and his dispatcher would sometimes come up short due to the seemingly illogical nature of the layout of the maps:

“Sets of neighboring suburbs were grouped - in admittedly pleasing designs - as if they were discrete countries, often with nothing around the edges to show that there was actually settlement on the other side of the thick red line.”

Some of the maps are recreated in the book, showing little islands of streets surrounded by empty spaces, the compass arrow marking north pointing this way and that. And sometimes those settlements on the other side of the red line were not to be discovered anywhere in the book, not even on a different page. For the Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg not only presented the city on the whim of a creative designer, but also erased entire black townships or else presented them as if on another planet. Attempting to dispatch a courier from his home to an address in the black township of Alexandra, Gevisser came up against uncrossable white space. The destinations may have been only two pages apart in Holmdens, but there was no route between them:

“The key plan might have connected the two pages, but on the evidence of the maps themselves, there was simply no way through.”

It might have been geographically inaccurate, but the atomisation of the city through these maps did reflect the divisions between black and white, rich and poor. Through this game played on the pages of Holmden’s in the back of his father’s Mercedes, the young Mark Gevisser begin to come to terms with the reality of life in his home country. It was, he writes, the start of the development of his political consciousness.

This rediscovery of his childhood cartographic games leads Gevisser to take a step further back, to explore the first commercial street guide to Johannesburg published by W. Tompkins in 1890, just a couple of years after the discovery of gold in Witwatersrand. This map was as much a fantasy as it was a reflection of the facts on the ground… many of the neighbourhoods laid out their in neat rows on the map were speculations, and some of them would never even be built. But the most meaningful discovery for Gevisser is the two small patches of land plotted out south of the railway tracks. Like islands in the open veld, one portion was allocated to “coolies” (workers of Asian descent) and one to “kaffirs” (black labourers).

This speaks to the viewer in two ways. Firstly, that “apartheid was embedded in the development of Johannesburg from the very start”. And the second was that all the workforce that would be needed to build this new city could be contained in twelve city blocks. “Here, then, represented by the Tompkins map, is the folly of apartheid capitalism and the reason why it was destined to fail, even if it took a century to do so.”

From this point on Gevisser, not only through his words but also through maps, photographs, newspaper reports and other documentary evidence, tells the story of the city and of his own family, who came from Lithuania as Orthodox Jews and ended up in a rich white suburban neighbourhood in South Africa. He tells the story of his own personal political development, in the bohemian corners of bookshops and bars, of his own sexuality and the lives of gay men under apartheid, and the many, myriad ways in which people were kept apart - and not only through the white spaces on a map.

The writing is gentle and fluid, leading you through the pages like he once led his imaginary dispatcher through the city streets, only with no dead ends along the way. Gevisser is excellent in its descriptive powers and with a creativity that can conjure entire imaged scenes from a single photograph.

In parts it is a gripping tale, especially when we get to the story of an attack on the apartment of his friends whom he was visiting at the time. It is brutal but could, in Gevisser’s own reflections, been worse (and what does that say?), whilst the aftermath paints a less than positive impression of the South African judicial system and the investigatory powers of the police. And while this is going on, Gevisser is self-aware enough to consider the classic reactions of guilty white liberals when faced with such a crime.

In this he is reflecting on contemporary South Africa, contemporary Johannesburg, and how the present - especially the new boundaries that have developed in the city, those new spaces between people that have been thrown up in the twenty years since the euphoria of those first democratic elections - are still being shaped by the divisions of the past. And yet he finds hope for his hometown, despite the continued difficulties and the challenging realities of everyday life, in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities.

Mark Gevisser's website

Elsewhere No.02 is out now, featuring great writing on place, reviews, photography, illustration and interviews. You can find out more information and order your copy online here.

The Library: Irish Journal, by Heinrich Böll

Review: Marcel Krueger

A lanky man in a raincoat and hat walks along the deck of the steamer bound for Dun Laoghaire. Irish families, travelling as cheaply as possible, have bedded down for the night, their possessions piled around them like tiny fortresses. The man overhears hushed conversations; between families, laundresses on their way home from London, priests. Sometimes he stops and leans against the railings, pretending to smoke but instead listening to the Irish complain about God and their fate. He is going to put them in a book.

Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) was always a political writer. A member of the famous German writers’ collective Gruppe 47, he started publishing novels, short stories and essays in 1949. Böll received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. His ideals were comparable to those of George Orwell: fiercely contesting totalitarianism, narrow-mindedness and prejudice. However, the further away from Germany he travelled, the more Böll the political novelist became Böll the explorer. And it was in this latter incarnation that he composed one of the classic works of German travel writing: his Irish Journal.

Böll and his family visited Ireland often, spending most of their summer holidays in the 1950s on Achill Island, Mayo. Appearing first as serial in Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, the collection was published in 1957 as Irisches Tagebuch, or ‘Irish Journal’. The journal is a series of sketches about life in Ireland, at that time a country of extreme poverty, strict Catholicism and torrential rainfall. As well as eavesdropping on conversations aboard the ferry from Holyhead, Böll strikes up conversations in pubs and, being German, marvels at how things are run without the slightest nod towards efficiency and yet still get done.

His portrait of Ireland is partly fictionalized, an idealistic rural alternative to life in industrialized Wirtschaftswunder West Germany. Böll was captivated by what he saw as a friendly, classless society living at a more leisurely pace. The contents of this short book, with an epilogue written 13 years after his first visit, is a reflection on the essence of the place that has, for some, become evergreen – in every the sense of the word. His words still reverberate with the many Germans who visit Ireland today:

“… here on this island, then, live the only people in Europe that never set out to conquer, although they were conquered several times, by Danes, Normans, Englishmen – all they sent out was priests, monks, missionaries who, by way of this strange detour via Ireland, brought the spirit of Thebaic asceticism to Europe.”

Maybe it is this idea of an innocent haven that has always drawn the visitors here. After all, Ireland was neutral during the Second World War; for the first German visitors after the war, the difference in landscape and mentality must have been striking. And maybe this fascination was somehow transported to Germany’s subconscious, and is what makes Ireland one of the favourite destinations for Germans even today.

Böll certainly plays with this perception of an innocent place steeped in mythology, and it seems to prevent him from engaging fully and critically with the Irish and their history. Some of his characters are almost stereotypically flat: the priest, the doctor’s wife, the drinker. Böll is fascinated by the poverty he sees, but to him that poverty is honourable, resulting as it does from overcrowding and a lack of resources, rather than from war and megalomania. Not once does he question the origin of this poverty, or dare to criticise the priests – he was a good Catholic himself. In his epilogue Böll even comments with horror on the arrival of the pill in Ireland. While admitting that it might liberate women and save the country from overpopulation, he writes “… this absolutely paralyzes me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay”.

But this book, now 50 years old and smoothly translated by longstanding Böll translator Leila Vennewitz, was never meant to be a strict non-fiction travel report from an unbiased observer. Rather, it is a novelist’s way of both recording and making up his favourite country. Böll himself admits as much in his first sentence: ‘This Ireland exists: but whoever goes there and fails to find it has no claim on the author.” We have been warned.

This review originally appeared in our “zero edition” for the crowdfunding campaign.
Elsewhere No. 01 is out now - featuring writing from the Romney Marsh and Loch Fyne, Gyttorp and the Oderbruch, Bankstown and Nowa Huta, Arniston Bay and Prespa - get your copy via our online shop.

The Library: 60 Degrees North, by Malachy Tallack

Review: Paul Scraton

What does home mean to you? This is a question that we ask all our contributors in the series of interviews on the Elsewhere blog, and it is a question that shapes an awful lot of writing on place. In 60 Degrees North, Malachy Tallack follows the sixtieth parallel from Shetland to, well, Shetland. Along the way he passes through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, always following that invisible line, reflecting not only on what he discovers along the way but also on his own personal story, starting with the sudden death of his father, just at the moment he had moved to England to live with him, a moment when he thought he had left Shetland behind.

It is the loss of his father that is the starting point for Tallack’s changing relationship with Shetland and his eventual journey along the sixtieth parallel, and it is fair to say that loss is a central theme of this book. In Greenland he reflects on the loss of culture and tradition, and the complex issue surrounding increased opportunity via education for young people that, simultaneously, presents a threat to an old way of life. Another theme, also that he begins to discuss in Greenland but which follows throughout the book, is the question of our relationship to place and to land.

In Canada, he reflects on the people who live in the area around Fort Smith, one third of which are Dene – a group of northern First Nations, one third Metis – aboriginal people of mixed European and First Nations descent, and one third ‘white’. As in Greenland, Tallack leaves with a sense of a people for whom the connection to place is different to that in Europe, and one which is linked to existential factors such as how life is lived and how society is organised. In Greenland, all space is public because it is a society of hunters, not farmers. The notion of private property developed alongside agriculture, a process Tallack describes as a colonisation, an attempt to tame, to fence it off in order to harness the resources it offers. In Fort Smith, he finds a similar attitude at work:

“For the Dene, the land is not a resource, it is a presence; it is not something separate from their community, it is integral to it.”

This connection to land and place can be found all along the sixtieth parallel, perhaps because of the harsh reality of existence in the north. And Tallack leaves Canada with more questions than answers, for if “we” as Europeans have lost this connection to land and place, then can we ever truly be at home? This is one of many questions provoked by the journey around the sixtieth parallel, and it is no criticism of the book to say that Tallack does not have all the answers. Indeed, it is instead a strength of the book that it asks questions of its readers, and provokes a response that will be as individual as the circumstances of the person holding it in his or her hands.

Interestingly, one conclusion Tallack does come to as his journey progresses is that our attachment to place – and thus a feeling of being “at home” in a place – is not something innate, that we are born with or carried in our DNA. On reflecting on his own background and family history, Tallack is is clear:

“Certainly it means nothing when compared to the connections I have made in my own lifetime. For culture and history are not carried in the blood. Nor is identity. These things are not inherited, they exist only through acquaintance and familiarity. They exist in attachment.”

So although 60 Degrees North is a book about a journey, and a very personal journey at that, it is one which provokes in the reader their own internal discussion about place, attachment, and what it means to be home. For this reviewer, it meant putting the book down for a moment or two to be transported to a back garden in West Lancashire, a cliff top on Holy Island with a view across to Snowdonia, or walking the coastal path along the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. It asks big questions about humans and their connection to and impact on the land we live on, but it gets its power from the questions it asks of us as individuals and our own relationship to place. As a writer asking these questions, Malachy Tallack can only answer them for himself. For the rest of us, we have a lot to think about when we turn the final page.

Elsewhere No. 01 is out now - featuring writing from the Romney Marsh and Loch Fyne, Gyttorp and the Oderbruch, Bankstown and Nowa Huta, Arniston Bay and Prespa - get your copy via our online shop.


The Library: Scarp, by Nick Papadimitriou

The Library is a new feature on the Elsewhere blog, where we explore some of the books and writers that have inspired us. We start with a review that first appeared in our “zero edition” of Elsewhere, created for the crowdfunding campaign, and it takes us to Scarp, by Nick Papadimitriou.

Review: Marcel Krueger

Pronunciation: / skɑ ː p
Definition of scarp in English: very steep bank or slope; an escarpment

On the north Middlesex/south Hertfordshire border sits a 17-mile escarpment. This ridge, part of London’s outward-growing suburbs, is an unremarkable place of motorways, council flats and gas stations. And yet for over 20 years Nick Papadimitriou has made it his playground, his emotional and topographical heartland. Two decades of mental and physical exploration have provided him with all the material he needs to write an extraordinary book about the escarpment, or as he calls it, ‘Scarp’.

Hailed by his walker-writer friends Ian Sinclair and Will Self, the book explores both personal histories and fictionalised accounts of the people who have made Scarp their home, as well as those who have simply passed through. Unlike W.G. Sebald, whose explorations of past and place are always rooted in calamity and dread, Papadimitriou is a more distant observer – albeit one with an extremely fine focus. At one point, he switches from describing the decapitation of a former beauty queen in a car accident in 1958 to the experiences of a small rat observing the carnage from roadside shrubbery. It is an outstanding feature of both his observations and his writing that he never gives human stories prominence over those of animals, rivers, or the landscape itself.

It is sometimes a challenge to follow the more streamof-consciousness parts of the book, especially as they are always interlinked with a real yet obscure place that Papadimitriou knows intimately. In one section he starts as himself on Welham Green in the 1960s and becomes Gloria Geddes, queen of the Psychedelic Ancients of Middle Saxony with a preference for LSD and sex with her yogi lover. Transformed by the drugs, she passes “through the eye of the land” to become a hornet, which is in turn swatted by a copy of the Times wielded by Reginald Maudling, MP for Barnet … and so we move on, through time and place, never quite sure what will come next as we turn the pages.

Papadimitriou’s autobiography does not lack sorrow, and it is in those parts of the book, where he interweaves his story with the wider historical context as he walks Scarp from west to east, that he connects with the land the most:

“Perhaps it is a sense that I have of the east as being somehow colder or more spiteful than the other cardinal points. East London, with its desperate estates and vicious villainy; The Eastern Front during the Second World War, where armies were swallowed by the snow, and whole people ravaged by famine; East Finchley, where D-- lived and I once got fined two quid for an overdue library book. The very word, when seen on the page somehow suggests bared teeth and impending skinhead violence: EAST.”

Papadimitriou’s structure might be chaotic, but it is engaging throughout. Years of study, research and the creation of a Scarp library have led him on a series of fantastic trips over, through and around Scarp, giving voice to its living and its dead, its animals, plants, buildings – indeed, to all its residents. Here are the travels and travails of a man happy in his knowledge of the area’s ghosts, car accidents, floods and highwaymen, down to the wildlife growing in the cracks in the concrete. This is not a book that easily enables the reader to actually follow in the author’s footsteps around Scarp; yet it is reassuring to know that Papadimitriou is still out there, walking. And that he has written about it.

Elsewhere No. 01 is out now - featuring writing from the Romney Marsh and Loch Fyne, Gyttorp and the Oderbruch, Bankstown and Nowa Huta, Arniston Bay and Prespa - get your copy via our online shop.