“I am haunted by waters,” says the narrator in the last line of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.
I think I must be, too. To help publicise my new anthology, Sunrise on the Southbound Sleeper (which Aurum will publish on Monday), I was asked by the managers of the Telegraph’s book shop to come up with a list of my favourite travel books. When I did, I was surprised to find how many of them touch on water. Here (in no particular order apart from the first) are my top 10.
Coasting by Jonathan Raban (Picador) How far do you have to go to write a travel book? Just around home if you’re Jonathan Raban, who sees Thatcherite Britain — and himself — with the detachment of a foreigner from the deck of his 30ft ketch. It’s a book inspired by Tristram Shandy, with digressions into everything from memoir to lit crit. I press it into the hands of all would-be travel writers.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (Penguin) Spain as seen in 1934 by a young poet who was hungry for experience, and often just hungry. He sailed to Vigo with a knapsack, a fiddle and enough Spanish to order a glass of water. “I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen then, for already I saw myself there, brown as an apostle, walking the white dust roads through the orange groves.”
Voices of the Old Sea by Norman Lewis (Picador) is the great man’s account of a village on the Costa Brava before the arrival of concrete; a place where the fishermen reported their successes and failures in blank verse and a stuffed dugong known as “the mermaid” decorated the bar. It has all the qualities that made Lewis one of our finest travel writers: the unfailing eye for oddity, the lyrical prose, the gentle humour.
Venice by Jan Morris (Faber) Guidebooks need updating; love letters don’t. Morris published this one in 1960. Though Venice has changed and so has the writer — she no longer loves the city in the way she did — a first-time visitor in possession of a copy is guaranteed to be smitten.
The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck (Penguin). Of men and microscopes, you might say. Steinbeck takes a 4,000-mile geography field trip with his biologist friend Ed Ricketts (the model for Doc in the novel Cannery Row) into the Gulf of California, where they enjoy “a real tempest in our small teapot minds”.
River Town by Peter Hessler (John Murray) What would it be like to spend two years as an American peace corps volunteer teaching English in a small city in China? And what would the Chinese make of such a volunteer? Hessler’s achievement is to answer both those questions, in a tender, empathetic book about his two years in Fuling, on the Yangtze.
India File by Trevor Fishlock (John Murray) Before he was the Telegraph’s man in Moscow, in the momentous days of Gorbachev, Trevor Fishlock was the Times’s man in Delhi. This book was first published then, in 1983, and could hardly be said to be up to the minute, but its 200 pages still make for a great primer in what can initially be an overwhelming country. “Thanks for recommending India File,” I’ve often been told. “It made a great trip even better.”
Watermen by Randall S Peffer (Johns Hopkins University Press) Key “Watermen” and “Maryland” into a search engine, and this will pop up near the top of the results. I came across it years ago the old-fashioned way — browsing in local bookshops. It’s a vivid and salty account of a year Peffer spent with the fishermen of the Chesapeake Bay on their graceful sailing boats, the skipjacks.
Frontiers of Heaven by Stanley Stewart (Flamingo) “No one has ever spoken well of Urumqui, and I am unable to break with this miserable tradition,” says Stanley Stewart of the capital of Xinjiang. But he writes extremely well — of Urumqi as well as all the other stops on this journey through China beyond the Great Wall, for which he won the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book of the Year Award in 1996.
Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater (Picador) Most of us travel to get away from rain; Frater goes looking for it, all the way round India, finding romance in mud, slush and puddles, and joining in the rejoicing and sense of renewal that accompany the downpour.
I just posted Leopards in India – on the streets of Mumbai. Read it here: http://t.co/si1sbgQ52q
RIP Bill O'Hagan, Telegraph journalist and maker of Britain's tastiest sausages: http://t.co/D4zNG6tKVY