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My book of 2012? It was one published in 2006, which I discovered at Delhi airport on my way back from a trip to the Himalayas in October: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra (published in India by Penguin and in Britain by Faber).
It’s a plump (950 pages) and populous novel set primarily in Mumbai, a story of cops and gangsters that’s also a story of India itself, ranging from Partition up to 21st-century terrorism and taking in religion, politics, the caste system and Bollywood. You can learn quite a bit of Hindi from its pages, too, though not necessarily of the sort you ought to use in polite company.
I tell everyone who goes to Mumbai to read Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Now I’ve got another “must” to add to the list.
The best thriller I read this year was The Twelve by Stuart Neville. It has the narrative drive of a train. Indeed, I got so carried away by it on the way in to work one morning that I forgot to change trains. It’s a story of a post-Troubles Northern Ireland and an IRA man haunted by those he has killed. The reformed criminal is a familiar figure in crime fiction; Neville’s skill is to arouse sympathy for a man who hasn’t yet done with killing.
Having finished with Sacred Games, which had left no room for any other fiction for a couple of months, I’ve read over the past couple of days Neville’s equally strong sequel to The Twelve, Collusion (which seemed remarkably timely following the publication of the report into the death of the solicitor Pat Finucane). Now I’m looking forward to Dead Souls and to his latest, Ratlines. Neville’s becoming as dependable on Belfast and the North as James Lee Burke is on New Orleans and Louisiana.
In non-fiction, I’ve already singled out The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane.
I also enjoyed The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia by Michael Jacobs (Granta), a regular contributor to Telegraph Travel. The robber of memories is a mythical figure who is said to arrive on horseback by night in Colombia. The phrase also makes for a graphic description of dementia, which afflicts the author’s mother as he sets off to travel the length of the country’s longest river, the Magdalena. In this moving book, part memoir, part travelogue, Jacobs encounters both tail-spinning sailors and gun-toting guerrillas, and as he nears the river’s source enters a world “on the boundaries of reason”.
I’m compiling a rough list of my favourite books about railway journeys for the Telegraph’s new rail portal. In the process, I searched a few other lists and came across Booked on the Morning Train by George F Scheer III (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991), which will certainly be among them.
I had never heard of Mr Scheer, who (according to the dust jacket) has written several travel guides and hosts a jazz show on radio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If he’s as good on jazz as he is on trains and America, I’d love to hear his show.
He spent a month and a half riding the rails with Amtrak, “simply to see what travel by train was like in our time in this country, where trains have been, admittedly, so much debased recently and are so often vilified”. His book is keenly observed and beautifully written. I’m halfway through, a point at which he says he hasn’t “found any purpose, any theme”. I don’t care — he’s still great company; the sort of man, indeed, that you’d be happy to find yourself sitting next to on the train.
Among newer books, Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh (Nicholas Brealey), which has already featured in Telegraph Travel, was a sprightly addition to the literature of railway travel on the subcontinent.
My picture book of the year: Desert Air by George Steinmetz (Abrams). Steinmetz has spent the past 15 years photographing, from a motorised hang glider, deserts throughout the world: from the Gobi to the Sahara, from the dry valleys of Antarctica to the icy summits of the Andes. His pictures, of subjects from sun-worshippers to salt pans, offer a view that’s both aerial and intimate at the same time. The stories of how he acquired those pictures are equally good: he has smuggled his glider into Libya, been arrested in Iran and crashed into a tree in China. “I can be stubborn,” he says, “and when it came to the pursuit of my hyperarid obsession, I did not accept ‘no’ as an answer”. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in New York before March 3, you can see his show — and hang glider — at the Anastasia Photo gallery.
The recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry all had to do with making newspapers behave better. But newspapers — at least in their current form — are not going to be around for very much longer. Nothing illustrated that better than the London Evening Standard’s splash on Leveson in its “West End Final” edition last Thursday, the morning the inquiry’s report was published.
Like many people working that day, I got my first news of Leveson online at my desk. It was press day, so I didn’t escape for a sandwich until about 2.15pm. I picked up a copy of the Standard on my way back to the office, around 2.30. Now, the Standard is one of the more nimble of newsprint operations, but after a morning’s saturation reporting of Leveson online, the paper’s coverage looked like an admission of defeat. In a desperate attempt to look ahead of the news, the Standard began: “David Cameron was at the centre of a storm tonight as the Leveson report split the Coalition…” Then, in the fourth paragraph, came an admission that the paper had had to go to press before the report had landed: “Lord Justice Leveson was expected to call…”
In a little panel with the splash was an unnecessary reminder to “get the latest as it happens” on the Standard’s website.
Artemis Cooper, author of the much-praised new biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, will be among speakers at a celebration of the great man’s travel writing at King’s College London next Tuesday (November 20).
My wife and I limbered up for a trek in the Himalayas at the start of this month with a few climbs and descents of Box Hill, “Surrey’s little Alp”. We went back yesterday. It seemed to have shrunk a bit, but it’s still a pleasant place to while away a Sunday afternoon. If it doesn’t quite provide the sort of spectacle you have from a tent at 3,000 metres in Uttarakhand, it’s a great vantage point over the South Downs. So why did an eccentric army major, who used to go to the hill to meditate, insist on being buried there head downwards? No one’s entirely sure.
The FT’s Weekend Magazine had an interview with the American writer Richard Ford. He said he didn’t review books because he didn’t trust his own judgement. He went on:
Giving a book a bad review is like driving along the road and seeing a hitchhiker and deciding that instead of not picking him up you’ll run over him. Sorry, I can’t pick you up, but I will kill you.
I admire his Southern good manners, but if everybody followed his example the books sections would be a lot duller.
I was given another reason this morning for cherishing newsagents and continuing to buy The Sunday Telegraph and The Observer in print.
“On your own today?” the newsagent said when I turned up without my usual six-year-old companion and lolly buyer.
“Where’s your son?”
“That’s not my son. He’s my grandson.”
The judges of the Dolman Travel Book Award have had trouble reaching agreement on a shortlist, so they have listed six books rather than the usual five. They are:
Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (Granta)
Thin Paths; journeys in and around an Italian Village by Julia Blackburn (Jonathan Cape)
To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Vintage)
To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing (Canongate)
White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader (Portobello)
Wild Coast by John Gimlette (Profile Books).
The winner will be announced on September 5.
There’s a lovely line on life as a train journey in a new book about happiness by the Irish writer Michael Foley. According to a review in The Observer yesterday, that journey isn’t aboard “a gleaming Orient Express… into exotic glamour, adventure and excitement”. Instead, we travel on “a rusty old English branch line, puffing slowly round the drearily familiar, with lengthy stops at Hankering, Frittering, Fretting, Bickering, North, South, East and West Dithering”.
The media, predictably, are full of pictures of the Queen’s handshake with Martin McGuinness. More surprising was the opening phrase of David McKittrick’s piece for the London Evening Standard last night, where a missing definite article suggested Her Majesty had been leading a weird double life all these years:
“Today’s handshake between the monarch and one-time IRA warrior from the backstreets of the Bogside…”
I rarely do more than glance at the in-flight safety video, but on my first flight with TAP, the Portuguese airline, I found myself glued to it. Halfway through, TAP turns public information into a mini-soap, complete with quarrelling pensioners, a hyperactive business traveller, and a thwarted would-be smoker. See below.
The flight, to Madeira last week, was memorable for a couple of other reasons. There was the sharp turn before landing on the aircraft carrier that is Funchal airport. And there was the way TAP responded after the flight left London late, and several of us, bound for the conference of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, were in danger of missing our connection in Lisbon. That we didn’t was down to a friendly and efficient member of the airline’s staff, who met us as we stepped from the plane, led us to a bus, and then directed us through immigration and security and on to the gate. That’s the way to make up for lost time.
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@gemmadunnchile He did; I'm trying not to be envious.
Stieg (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Larsson on the Trans-Siberian Railway in a piece from his book The Expo Files: http://t.co/lAeANSxTCq
"Congolese playing Mexican music to lure Uruguayan soldiers into spending American dollars": that's Goma, in the DRC http://t.co/hJDbykvP40
I just posted Leopards in India – on the streets of Mumbai. Read it here: http://t.co/si1sbgQ52q