Desert Island Books - Part Two

I was introduced to Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby by fellow birder Mark Hollingworth, who sold it to me as 'the ultimate love story'. It tells the tale of the author's experiences during the Second World War, beginning with his arrest while participating in an action with the Special Boat Service off of the Italian coast. With the subsequent Armistice between the Allies and Italy, he is released, but needs to evade the marauding German forces at the same time as nursing a broken ankle. His injury slows down his colleagues escape, so he is abandoned in a farmer's barn, from where an Italian doctor takes him to a hospital. Here he meets a young woman who visits the patients in the hospital - she teaches him Italian, he teaches her English - and they fall in love. But the Germans are closing in, so he is moved between houses before being finally taken up into the mountains, where he is sheltered by peasant families. Here we are introduced to the bravery of these people and the hardships involved in eaking out an existence. Winter weather, autumn rains and summer meadows (including a chance meeting with a German Officer, out collecting butterflies) are backdrops to a wonderfully evocative book. The girl from the hospital - Wanda - is also taken up to the mountains to see him again. And there is a wonderful postscript - he and Wanda married shortly after the war, and remained devoted partners until his death sixty years later.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is a book that will long remain with me. The human relationship with the creation and maintenance of pathways is explored, looking through the ages and across the types of land (or sea) affected. The link between walking and thinking is explored. We meet a colourful cast of characters whose lives are woven into the natural world via an intimate understanding of it through the medium of travelling and embracing the landscape around them. It is also an homage to Edward Thomas, writer and poet who died at the Battle of Arras during the First World War. He lived and wrote about his beloved 'South Country', centred on Hampshire and Kent. Bouts of depression were walked off in the chalky hills and these journeys led to an outpouring of writing prior to, and during, his fateful journey to France. We are also introduced to Eric Ravilious, English water-colourist who, like Thomas, died while on active service, but during World War Two. I was ignorant of his work, but have now obtained a book of his glorious paintings of the downland that he knew. These southern downlands seem to have captured an ideal of what these men were fighting for - gentle rolling hills, white-chalk pathways, discrete copses, singing skylarks. There are passages of this book that will haunt you - Macfarlane's walk on the sands of the Broomway, a world of neither land nor water off the Essex coast; warm nights sleeping out in the open on the top of chalk downland, being woken by Skylarks singing as the light starts to break; a terrifying experience on Chanctonbury Hill that defies explanation; a walk across mountaintops to reach his grandfather's funeral; furtive excursions into Palestine where a friend keeps open the 'old ways' of travelling in a no-man's land; devotional pilgrimages around the lower elevations of asian mountains. It is a book of many facets. If you appreciate the natural wonders of our world and like to think that our link to it goes beyond just walking on top of it, then this book will not speak to you, it will shout. After reading this, a walk will never be the same again.

Often cited as one on the greatest travel books ever written, Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger has a lot to live up to. Between 1945 and 1950 the author spent time travelling with Bedu tribesman across the deserts of the Arabian peninsula, including two crossings of the mythical 'Empty Quarter'. The modern political machinations are as much an obstacle to his travels as are the tribal distrust of foreigners, but Thesiger is both driven and resourceful. It is a wonderful book, full of detail of the way of the tribes, and a document to a world that was fast disappearing even as he travelled the sands. It is written in a dispassionate and observational manner, but his admiration for the Bedu and their way of life is obvious. I have re-read this book several times, each reading revealing detail that I missed the previous time. A classic.

Congo Journey by Redmond O'Hanlon is the most physically demanding book that I have ever read. So vividly does the author write about his travels and hardships that you will sweat, feel fear and agonise with him as he describes all that he goes through. It describes his expedition to Lake Tele in The Republic of Congo to search for the mythical creature said to inhabit the swamps - an African Loch Ness Monster if you will. This is a lost, forbidding area, populated by mysterious pygmy tribes in a country that is not the easiest to gain access to or travel about in. He teams up with several locals, including a university lecturer. Even they are bags of nerves throughout the trip, scared of every village and group of people that they come across. Apart from the wildlife that they need to be wary about, you can add tribal feuds, black magic, diseases and the deterioration of their mental states - you really do find yourself joining them on a spiral into madness. This was one of those books that I just couldn't put down and stayed in my mind long after finishing it. A terrific book, written by an academic who is a lot more than a closet birder.


Dave Boyle said…
No need to read any of them now then...
Steve Gale said…
See, I've saved you the bother Dave!
I've read the Eric Newby, and several others by him. Enjoyed every single one, especially "A short walk in the hindu kush"
Steve Gale said…
'The Last Grain Race' could have easily been included Jono.

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