Tag Archives: Barnaby Rogerson

Where Travel Writing is Now

A thought provoking piece for the Easter holidays from Barnaby Rogerson, founder of the wonderful Eland books. May I wish you all, wherever you are, a very happy and peaceful Easter (remember Paddy had arrived for the great Easter celebrations at Esztergom on the Danube).

By Barnaby Rogerson

First published in Errant Magazine 18 September 2015

I don’t just read all the new travel books I can get hold of, I collect whole library editions as well. Aside from their texts, they summon up a once devoted and attentive readership: Those lovely cloth-and-gilt-titled Everyman hardbacks are scented with craftsmanship and muscular Christian decency. The bashed-up magenta paperbacks produced by Penguin just before the war were part of a mission that made democratic socialism possible, while I imagine the blue-cloth hardbacks of Jonathan Cape’s traveller’s library, being read by the more thoughtful members of a colonial clubhouse in the 20s. From my own youth the massed volumes of the rival Picador, Penguin Travel Library and Century lists sit prolific on my shelves.

I acquire them to aid my work (which is to dig out lost classics of travel literature and add them to the Eland list) but there is also something more obsessive going on. The libraries allow me to watch how the ‘immortality’ of authorship ebbs away, how tastes evolve and how that which was so ‘needed and now’ to one generation, becomes so much recyclable garbage to the next. But like inspiring pin-pricks in the night sky, there are still travel books that keep shining, and have kept generation after generation of readers enthralled.

And, like it or lump it, we seem to be passing through a crunch point in travel writing at the moment, the long-term effects of which we do not understand. The revival of travel writing so brilliantly led by Bruce Chatwin in the 1980s, and aided and abetted by Redmond O’Hanlon, Colin Thubron, Bill Bryson, Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Dervla Murphy, is coming to a close. The role of the professional travel writer will soon be at an end. You only have to look at how some of the most promising contemporary travel writers have adapted, to feel which way the wind blows. William Dalrymple, three books into a career as the darling of his generation, switched very successfully to history, just as the three very talented travel-writing Jasons of my acquaintance (J. Webster on Spain, J. Goodwin on Byzantium, and J. Elliot on Afghanistan/Iran) have all headed for fictional waters, as most recently, has Tim Mackintosh-Smith. There are still some stalwarts – Sarah Wheeler, Ian Thomson, Tim Parks, Philip Marsden, Hugh Thomson, Antony Sattin and Jeremy Seal – at the top of their game, delivering works that combine energy with a lifetime of experience. But in private conversation there is an acknowledgement that the advances from publishers are slipping away. It is a common joke that their agents dont reveal to them their sales figures because it would only discourage them from writing the next book. And as a corollary of this, as a basic rule of thumb, in the last decade the publishing advances have slipped from something near £50,000 for a top writer (an admirable sounding sum until you divide it by three years of travel and work) to a period when ‘fifteen is the new fifty’, which has now seeped down towards six. But travel writers are by nature adaptable, and are used to bolstering income by acting as tour guides, lecturers and jobbing journalists. Certainly the slow collapse in sales has not yet had any effect on the quality or the range of travel writing, though it is intriguing to reflect that the joint winners (Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie) of last year’s annual travel-writing prize, the Stanford-Dolman, are both fulltime academics, supported by a university salary.

Where have the readers gone? The easy answer is that they have gone travelling to see for themselves. There’s also been a gradual increase in translated fiction (a process entirely on the side of the angels) which has diminished the travel writers former role as cultural interpreter. And if they were alive today, it is not difficult to see that such prolific travel-writers of the past as Sacheverell Sitwell would surely be on television, conducting Michael-Pallin-style whirl-wind tours or architectural investigations à la Dan Cruikshank.

And there are other concerns. Over the last fifteen years, almost exactly mirroring the advance in the use of the internet, there has been an incremental collapse in the guide-book market by ten per cent, year on year. In their heyday, the big publishing outfits like Rough Guides, Dorling Kindersley, the AA and Lonely Planet (supplemented by smaller fry like Cadogan, Blue Guides, Hedonist, Footprint and Bradt) launched dozens of new books a year and a fleet of updated texts and foreign translations. Collectively they acted as a forcing house for talent, employing, training and feeding new writers, editors and travellers and producing a rich spin-off of travel magazines, maps, dictionaries, pocket histories, guides to world music, food and travel writing. Now this industry is virtually silent, like some old cotton mill in Bradford.

This experience is also reflected in the coverage of the broadsheet papers — The Sunday Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent — who even ten years ago were commissioning independent writers and photographers on a weekly basis, not to mention the half a dozen intelligent glossy magazines. Now their travel pages are dominated by churnalism (the re-writing of press releases), celebrity interviews, list-making and readers advice and ‘trip-advisor’ experience columns. The lyrical, investigative literary travel piece is not being published. On my last trip with Britain’s great post-war photographer, Don McCullin, we found ourselves stuck in southern Algeria. There I was able to have a long series of interviews with him which revealed just how important these papers had been to the careers of Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby and Norman Lewis. He had worked with them all and watched their ideas incubate on the road.

So it looks like very slim pickings in the years ahead. But is this necessarily a bad thing? There has always been something determinedly quirky, if not down-right awkward, about a great travel writer. If I was given a vast lottery foundation by the Ministry of Books to fill this gap, could I be sure of nurturing a new generation of talent with the careful distribution of travel bursaries, salaries and decent advances? Go figure, or ask the Churchill Foundation how many of their grant-receivers have come good. I have also recently begun to notice how many of the travel writers were self-taught, if not actual autodidacts. Bruce Chatwin left university before they sacked him, Paddy Leigh Fermor learned most of his history in the bedroom and in the arms of his various lovers, Colin Thubron side-stepped university in order to try to make films. Dervla Murphy’s youth was locked in a caring relationship with her dependent, bedridden mother whilst Norman Lewis avoided college and spent his youth repairing crashed racing cars (picking them up cheap from grieving wealthy parents) and setting up a Leica-camera dealership.

I also like to tease myself about what sort of typescripts I would not like to be sent to read by an aspiring writer. I certainly wouldn’t be interested in reading a story about a couple of middle-aged men having a career break (so there goes Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush), nor about a middle-aged woman’s first bycyling trip abroad (there goes Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt) and I most certainly wouldn’t look forward to reading about two bored young Swiss youths escaping their bourgeois parents by setting off on a road trip (there goes Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World).

So what’s the trick? There is no formula, though you need a lot of skills. You have to get people talking and remember the flow of words. You have to be able to live for the moment and yet remember the scent and the touch of it on paper. You have to wish to learn through travelling and through the truth of chance encounters rather than through interview appointments, library-life and web searches. You also have to possess that sliver of ice near the heart of any writer, that ruthless search for story coupled with brutal honesty and the ability to ditch the dull from your pages. You have to be good company yet also inspiring on the page. You have to ‘catch the moment on the wing.’

Barnaby Rogerson has written a Biography of the Prophet Muhammad; a History of North Africa; an account of the early Caliphate, The Heirs of the Prophet; and the story of the battle for the Mediterranean from 1415-1580, The Last Crusaders. He has most recently edited a collection of sacred numerological traditions of the world, Rogerson’s Book of Numbers; co-edited a collection of the contemporary travel writing Ox-Tales for the charity Oxfam; edited a collection of the travel literature of Marrakech the Red City; a collection of contemporary travel encounters with Islam, Meetings with Remarkable Muslims; a collection of English Orientalist verse, Desert Air; and a collection of the poetry of place of London. Previous to this, he had written half-a-dozen guidebooks to the historical monuments of the Maghreb and the Mediterranean, including Morocco, Tunisia, Istanbul and Cyprus and created the text for Don McCullins photographic study of Roman North Africa, Southern Frontiers. Barnaby is on the advisory board of Critical Muslim, the editorial board of Middle East in London and is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Geographical Society. He has been elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and an honorary member of The Travellers Club. He is also a book reviewer and journalist. Visit him at BarnabyRogerson.com.

His day job is running Eland, a publishing house that specializes in keeping classic travel books in print. To find out more about the over 100 classics in their catalogue, please visit http://www.travelbooks.co.uk.

Advertisements

Travellers’ Century: Patrick Leigh Fermor now on YouTube


The event at Waterstones on Thursday with Benedict Allen introducing his 2008 film about Paddy’s life and work was a great success.

Organised by Barnaby Rogerson of Eland Publishing (who specialise in keeping the classics of travel literature in print), we were treated to a few glasses of wine before the film whilst chatting to an eclectic group who included general travel writing buffs, some who knew little about Paddy, and a group of keen PLF enthusiasts. Harry Bucknall, author of Like a Tramp, Like A Pilgrim: On Foot, Across Europe to Rome was in fine form, talking about a possible film project, and I particularly enjoyed meeting Rick Stroud who wrote the other book published this month about the abduction Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General.

Perhaps the highlight was a Q&A session afterwards where Benedict was joined by John Murray who features in the film talking about the challenges of editing Paddy’s work. John had some very interesting things to say about working with Paddy and shared some personal views about his life and relationships.

By strange coincidence I have now been told that the BBC film has now appeared in You Tube so you can all watch and enjoy it!

A Pilgrimage Through Paddy’s London

Rake’s progress: Leigh Fermor set out from his rooms in Shepherd Market for Constantinople in 1933

And we’re off. This is the Patrick Leigh Fermor Tribute Walk, a bit of a Magical Mayfair Mystery Tour or even, as I prefer, a Paddy Pilgrimage: a literary procession in honour of the late warrior-writer through the London he knew during the course of an enviably long and dazzlingly adventurous life.

By Justin Marozzi.

First published in Standpoint Magazine, December 2012.

We have gathered at Heywood Hill, the venerable Curzon Street bookshop where Paddy, as he was always known to friends and fans, had an account for decades. The pilgrims are a caravan of travel writers and publishers, friends, acolytes, devotees and disciples, for such is the admiration—shading into unadulterated hero worship in some quarters—for a man considered one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century. Our group includes the travel writers Colin Thubron, Sara Wheeler, Anthony Sattin, Jason Elliot and Robert Macfarlane, the writers and historians Jason Goodwin and Fergus Fleming, publishers Roland Philipps and Barnaby Rogerson (in a tangerine linen suit), Mark Amory of the Spectator, an exuberant throng expertly marshalled by Paddy’s biographer Artemis Cooper.

It is not surprising that a man who wrote like an angel, fought like a knight and had beautiful women swooning at his feet for most of his adult life should attract such a following and such affection. Few men can claim to have walked across a continent, fallen in love with a princess, kidnapped a German general, joined a Greek cavalry charge and written a string of masterpieces.

“Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man, could have sprung from the pages of Cervantes or Homer, and we revere him at Heywood Hill for his courage, style and beautiful manners,” says Nicky Dunne, chairman of the bookshop, who dreamt up this expedition.

Paddy lived above the shop briefly in 1947 with Joan, his future wife. In 1965, horrified to have discovered how Communism had destroyed so many of his friends in the Europe he had walked across in 1933-34—”disaster overtook them all”—he set up an account at Heywood Hill for the great love of his youth, the Byzantine princess and artist Balasha Cantacuzene. “He couldn’t do much but he could make sure that at least she was never without good books,” says Cooper.

Our unruly, traffic-blocking gaggle spills out onto Curzon Street to the astonishment of passers-by—30 men and women sporting bright blue earpieces is a curious sight—and ducks into Shepherd Market to our next stop, 28 Market Street: four square windows above the “PLUS NEWS” newsagent. Having been kicked out of almost every school he had attended, Paddy washed up here as a restless 18-year-old with literary longings and a diminutive allowance. His long-suffering landlady, assaulted by endless revelry, was Miss Beatrice Stewart, an artist’s model who had sat for Sargent and Augustus John and was later immortalised in bronze as the Angel of Peace in Adrian Jones’s Quadriga of War on the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. “I can never pass the top of Constitution Hill without thinking of her and gazing up at the winged and wreath-bearing goddess sailing across the sky,” Paddy wrote in a typical flight of fancy.

“This is where the great walk began,” Cooper explains. “He’s lurching between high spirits and utter despair, filled with self-loathing, going to endless parties, ‘drowning hangovers like kittens’. His father wants him to get a job but Paddy thinks a career is life imprisonment. He’s uninstitutionalisable. All he wants to do is write.”

Hightailing it out of this Rake’s Progress, Paddy walked from the Hook of Holland through Nazi Germany to Constantinople. It took him over a year from 1933-34, much of it spent “in a coma of happiness” recounted decades later in the spellbinding prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Our little saunter is less than a mile in more than an hour. Yet what we may lack in schloss-hopping mileage and accumulated time, we make up for in rowdiness and delight. This could be a lesser-known ecclesiastical ritual of the Eastern Church, the Adoration of the Paddy. And we all know it will end, as it should, with wine.

We head towards Berkeley Square on roads slick with rain. “Paddy was my earliest model of a travel writer: brave, curious, cultivated and a marvellously gifted stylist,” says Thubron, president of the Royal Society of Literature. “It’s strange to be walking commemoratively through a world that’s not usually associated with him—not the Greece or Eastern Europe which all his readers know, but the London—still pouring rain—from which he set out 80 years ago.”

Friends and admirers of Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Heywood Hill, his favourite bookshop, in London’s Shepherd Market

Friends of Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Heywood Hill, his favourite bookshop, in London’s Shepherd Market

Here we are a stone’s throw from The Running Horse pub on Davies Street, from where Paddy briefly and rather successfully sold silk stockings as an impecunious teenager. Invited to share his tips with his fellow salesmen one evening, he popped a stocking onto his hand and described its properties as though it were a condom. He was fired on the spot. “That was the last sales job he ever had,” says Cooper. One night in the summer of 1940, when the London skyline was thick with smoke and flames, Paddy entered Berkeley Square from Piccadilly. “The blaze of an explosion had revealed two sides of that sentimental quadrangle in a disordered wreckage of wood and stone,” he wrote. “Only one thing remained standing. Perched three stories high on a tottering pinnacle of rubble was a white marble privy, glowing shyly in this unaccustomed radiance.”

We beetle along to Lansdowne Row, where Cooper describes a literary catastrophe on neighbouring Stratton Street, once home to the Baroness d’Erlanger, a rich and eccentric artist: “I think she had a bit of a crush on him.” Everyone did. In 1937 or 1938, Paddy left two trunks here full of papers connected with his trans-Europe tramp—every letter, diary and early draft. The Baroness moved home, put Paddy’s trunks into storage at the Harrods Depository, only for Harrods to sell them off years later because Paddy had forgotten to pay the storage charge. He had lost everything. There is a collective writerly wince. “Paddy said the pain used to ache ‘like an old wound in wet weather’, but I think it was the best thing that ever happened to him,” says Cooper. “It sort of set him free, allowing him to remember with advantage.”

To 50 Albemarle Street, former HQ for John Murray publishers, a powerhouse of British writers from Byron, Darwin and Disraeli to Walter Scott, Conan Doyle and Paddy. “Jock Murray was the best publisher and editor Paddy could have hoped for,” says Cooper. “In the days before agents he was also Paddy’s banker, therapist, PR consultant, book-finder and poste restante.”

Picking up the pace now like horses heading home—drinks at the Travellers Club await—we stride magnificently down Jermyn Street. One imagines Paddy, sartorially something of a peacock, thoroughly at home here.

“Oh God, absolutely!” Cooper says, laughing. “Hats from Lock, shoes from Lobb, Savile Row suits. He loved all these shops. Paddy adored clothes. In all his books the costumes of men and women are described in extraordinary detail. I’ve walked along Jermyn Street with him, striding along with his cane with that lovely flick upwards before putting it down. If you didn’t know, you’d think he’d never left the Home Counties.”

Into the final furlong and past the Cavendish Hotel, an unlovely blend of underground car-park and drive-through fast-food forecourt. “Here he met the tail end of the Bright Young Things, a decade after all those parties that had scandalised society.” Alistair Graham, Jennifer Fry, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Mark Ogilvie-Grant . . . and Elizabeth Pelly, to whom Paddy lost his virginity.

“They’re a revelation to him. Godlike and irresistible. Suddenly he feels he’s met kindred spirits.” He didn’t meet Evelyn Waugh at the Cavendish because Waugh was banned. Mrs Rosa Lewis, the owner, did not find her portrayal as Mrs Crump in Vile Bodies amusing. “If I get my ‘ands on that Mr Woo-agh,” she told Paddy, “I’ll cut ‘is winkle orff!”

Through St James’s Square and we’re almost trotting into Pall Mall, from where it is a hop, skip and jump up the 11 steps into the Travellers Club, whose bar Paddy did more than most to prop up—together with those of White’s, Pratt’s, the Beefsteak and the Special Forces Club—during 66 years as a member. In 1950, the Club Secretary reported to the House Committee that the nomadically careless Paddy owed “over £100 for storage, if by-law 6 were to be strictly enforced”.

There is an inescapable whiff of glamour and adventure at the launch party. A light sprinkling of aristocracy, a smattering of bohemian scruff, the sparkle of beautiful women, sumptuously suited grandees, suggestions of espionage, the straight-backed swagger of military top brass.

Paddy was a prodigious drinker. He once wrote of retsina: “One of its secrets is drinking it with unstinted abundance. It seems to have an alliance with the air in the promotion of well-being. Many people think that it bestows the gift of bodily health as well; a belief I accept at once without further scrutiny.”

The evening dissolves into high spirits, laughter and torrents of wine. The hommage is complete.

Related articles:

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘magical’ tour

Marathon man – Justin Marozzi interviews Paddy and drinks quite a lot of retsina.