Posts tagged ‘Travel writing’

December 3, 2019

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Press, £9.99, out nowChristiane Ritter A WOMAN IN THE POLAR NIGHT

I fell upon this book at The Book Hive in Norwich, and read it immediately.  This beautiful new edition of a 1934 is a fresh and joyous account of a woman wintering over in the Arctic. She says everyone should spend a year in the Arctic to get their priorities right.

Christiane Ritter, a visual artist from Austria, spent the winter in an extremely isolated small hut with her husband and another hunter in Spitsbergen/Svalbard.  She was often alone, and her writing about this is some of my favourite in the book.  At one point, she spends nine days on her own trying to stop the hut being entirely buried under snow and ice.  After the storm is over, peace reigns.  “But it is as though things up here have acquired a light of their own, as though they themselves emitted rays of the most beautiful and mysterious hues.  All the mountains, tremendous in the foreground and sharply edged in the distance, are glassy-bright with rigid ice, glass bright the foreland and glass bright the cliffs along the shore that, transfigured by frost and surf into high, round domes of ice, drop steeply into the sea”.

Her experience of loss of self and sense of connection to all other living things at this point reminded me strongly of a beautiful moment in Alan Lightman’s book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, where he feels a connection to “all of nature, and to the entire cosmos” (see https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/03/27/alan-lightman-searching-for-stars-on-an-island-in-maine/).

The three hunt, clean and repair the hut, and undertake perilous journeys.  To have a woman’s perspective is intriguing, including on how she is treated by the men, and how she observes her own responses to extreme conditions.  Her particular version of rar (Arctic insanity) involves trying to clean the hut’s floor. It turns into an ice rink.

The hut is not a pure escape from the world.  Some chilly blasts of news from rare visitors remind us that this is the 1930s and a worrying time: one of them asks, is there a war yet?  More cheerfully, when the group visit their neighbour Sven (who is in fact very far away), they are impressed by his two charming dogs.  Whenever the people are talking, the dogs wag their tails.  Christiane realises that as it’s usually just Sven and the dogs, they are used to him talking just to them – so they assume this is what he is doing now, and reply.

There is a brilliant sharp foreword from Sara Wheeler, another author who writes beautifully about cold places (see the excellent Terra Incognita).  A real treat.

Review by Bethan

December 2, 2018

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Scribner, £14.99, out nowNancy Campbell THE LIBRARY OF ICE

The list of places Nancy Campbell covers in researching The Library of Ice was enough to make me keen to read it.  Upernavik Museum in Greenland, Vatnajökull in Iceland, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…

Campbell is an artist, writer and poet, and The Library of Ice could be considered travel writing, cultural history, nature writing, or memoir.  It’s not necessary to pick these bits apart: the book as a whole works well as a meditation on ice.  She is an engaging guide, and her curiosity leads to adventures in the archives and outside.

The book is full of intriguing and pleasing facts and stories.  I was pleased to learn of the origins of Torvill and Dean’s immortal Bolero skating performance, and of Robert Boyle’s attempts to research the phenomenon of cold and his irritation at the difficulty of his experiments.

Despite my longstanding Antarctic obsession, I did not know that George Murray Levick of the Scott expedition in 1912 was so horrified at what he found to be the ‘hooligan’ and ‘depraved’ behaviour of the penguins that he censored his scientific reporting on the Adélies.  In the Natural History Museum archive survives a copy of a report Levick wrote for colleagues, limited in circulation and with a note on the front saying: ‘The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin, not for publication’.

Campbell’s awareness of damage from climate change informs much of the book, and her accounts of traditional knowledge of ice reminded me of some of the testimony from Mary Robinson’s excellent book Climate Justice (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/climate-justice-hope-resilience-and-the-fight-for-a-sustainable-future-by-mary-robinson/).

If you enjoy good books about cold places, such as Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita or The Magnetic North, this will be a chilly pleasure.

Review by Bethan

July 11, 2016

Skyfaring – A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowMark Vanhoenacker SKYFARING

The cover of this book makes me want to jump on a plane and fly off somewhere.  As someone who likes flying, despite serious concerns about climate change, I thought I might like this book.  I was wrong.  I love it.

If I’m looking for escape in a book, I’m most likely to find it in one concerning a subject completely new to me which is explained with style and generosity.  Skyfaring meets these criteria effortlessly.  Vanhoenacker is a deeply enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to the several worlds of aviation.  The book is stuffed with excellent facts and anecdotes (I was delighted to learn that when friends or relatives of airplane crew are passengers on a flight with them, they are often fondly referred to as ‘Klingons’).  For a taster of his prose and some lovely pictures, see http://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11520288/pilot-airplane-photos and http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/25-incredible-views-from-plane-passengers-windows-collected-by-an-airline-pilot.

Sometimes the book feels very personal, as when the author talks about why he became a pilot, or when he provides a personal gloss on a feature of flight that might seem at first sight mundane or technical.  He is not afraid of bringing art, philosophy or emotion into a scientific subject, or of relating all of these to real life: “Georgia O’Keeffe was afraid of flying but obsessed with the clouds she saw from aeroplanes, which she painted with an all but religious devotion…  I try to remember, when I haven’t flown for some time, and the handles of the bags of food shopping which I’m carrying though a cold and rainy November dusk are about to break, that such a lake of light may be over the clouds that rest above the street”.

For me he has brought a sense of wonder back to commercial flight, something that can seem tedious and constrained.  I feel transported, refreshed, and ready to pay attention.  A lovely book.

Review by Bethan

June 8, 2013

Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure: Artemis Cooper

by Andre

Paperback now available

Artemis Cooper PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR - AN ADVENTURELike any worthwhile biographical subject, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bundle of contradictions. A garrulous, worldly adventurer who secluded himself in French monasteries; an urbane clubman who yearned for the Greek countryside; and a bon vivant and seducer who built his life around one loyal woman. The excitable young Paddy (as everyone called him) might well have been insufferable but his story is one of rare gifts for writing, heroism and comradeship revealed in tumultuous times. An 18-year-old with a chequered schooling, in 1933 he decided to forsake career plans and set off on a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor wasn’t rich but there were always amiable aristocrats willing to open their doors to a venturesome young man.

He’s been blessed with another amiable aristocrat in Artemis Cooper – the Hon. Alice Clare Antonia Opportune Beevor, to use her full title – who’s written a sympathetic account spiced with the sort of racy details that prompted Somerset Maugham to upbraid Leigh Fermor for being “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”. Cooper diligently reveals the drama and romance that Leigh Fermor found on his life-changing walk, including details he left out of classic memoir A Time of Gifts, published 40 years later.

After witnessing the rise of the Nazis on that walk, Leigh Fermor’s own run-in with the Germans occurred a decade later on Crete, and Cooper captures the detail of the thrilling operation to kidnap a Nazi general, along with the strife of competing resistance movements, with admirable clarity. The later years are just as engrossing, particularly his friendship with Bruce Chatwin, and you have to applaud Leigh Fermor’s disdain for deadlines. His life was a very English adventure that makes for a remarkable biography.