Friday, 5 February 2016

A Travel Writer's Reading Holiday in Lorne, Australia


In mid-December I took a short holiday in Lorne, an attractive coastal town on Victoria's Great Ocean Road.

The eccentric timing was the result of something I'd noticed a couple of years before - two weeks before Christmas Day, accommodation prices at the Mantra Lorne hotel drop to very reasonable levels.

I assume that represents the lull before the storm: for that brief period, business travel has ceased for the year, and the summer wave of vacationers hasn't yet hit.

Whatever the reason, I decided I'd take advantage of it to take a reading holiday. It was also largely a technology detox as well.

Aside from a little social media in the mornings at the Swing Bridge Cafe (pictured above), I placed the phone and tablet in a drawer while I read a number of books in print, and on my unconnected Kindle device.

For some reason I'd decided to go on a travelogue jag. Well, not entirely without reason. I often work at the Docklands Library in Melbourne, and pass through the travel section on the first floor.

On doing so recently my eye had been caught by a book about a trip to Timbuktu, and I'd started reading it in installments once I'd finished my work each day.

So I took it with me to Lorne, along with a number of other interesting works. Here's what I thought of them (with an Amazon link for each if you'd like to buy them or learn more). 

1. To Timbuktu for a Haircut; by Rick Antonson

This was a fun read. The author is a travel industry professional from Canada, who becomes obsessed with travelling to Timbuktu in the west African country of Mali.

This is not a journey made casually; part of his complex preparations involve liaison with a Malian 'fixer' who turns out to present his own challenges. Antonson does a good job of placing us in his shoes, dealing with the inevitable difficulties while relating the fun and the interesting characters he meets on the road.

I appreciated him being the sort of travel writer who's happy in the company of others, both Malian and foreigner, rather than the Theroux-type who shuns all Westerners; it's a more relatable kind of travel.

2. Stranger on a Train; by Jenny Diski

I loved this book, echoing as it did my recent long-distance train journey up the west coast of the USA. In it, British writer Jenny Diski decides to circumnavigate the USA aboard Amtrak trains.

Because she's a smoker, she finds herself frequently exiled to grim grey smoking rooms within each train. There she meets the most extraordinary collection of fellow travellers, each with their own eccentricity or outright psychological problem.

She's had her own experience of mental illness, and comes to find the long-distance train - with its strange sensation of existing outside the normal world of time and space - as a kind of refuge which allows her to forget the problems of the 'real world' and open up to strangers. A great read, as much memoir as travelogue.

3. Against the Flow; by Tom Fort

In 1990, this British writer and keen fisherman decided to drive across Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, fishing and meeting locals along the way. Two decades later, he returns to fish some more and see how the region has changed.

It's a well-written 'then and now' account which I could relate to strongly, having lived in Poland in 1994 and then revisiting it regularly from 2006 onwards. I'm not much interested in the angling detail, but Fort does a good job of painting the people he meets, and it's good to see what happened to them after that first encounter.

The only sour note for me is the writer often striking a note of 'it was simpler and better back in 1990', when of course it was actually poorer and more deprived for the locals. He does redeem himself by acknowledging this contradiction later in the book, however.

4. This Other London; by John Rogers

I'm always interested in books promising to uncover secrets of London. It's such an old, layered and complex city that there's always something more to learn about it.

In this book, the writer stages a series of 'expeditions' to outer London, exploring areas that were generally towns and countryside outside London before the Industrial Revolution. Walking from Gunnersbury to Hounslow Heath, or from Lewisham to Tulse Hill, he passes stately homes, converted factories, lost sacred wells, Roman roads and buried rivers.

I find him frustratingly reticent to talk to locals; so it's more about his own thoughts and reactions than those of people he meets along the way. However it's all fascinating material, almost completely through parts of London off the tourist map, which I haven't visited at all.

5. Reckoning; by Magda Szubanski

Though it's not a travelogue, this autobiography by Australian comedian Magda Szubanski contains a fair bit of travel.

As part of her account of growing up as the daughter of a Polish father and Scottish mother, she explores her father's past and his activities as part of the Polish resistance against the German military during World War II.

Visiting Poland several times, during communist rule and after the fall of the regime, the author gradually unravels those dark times and comes to understand her father better as a result.

It's an excellent read, both for Szubanski's natural, honest turn of phrase, and for an insight into the complexities of family life and its tensions.

Getting so much read in such a short time has partially turned me back toward the pleasure of reading print books to escape from the endless short-focus demands of social media and email (though I do still love my Kindle).

There's always next year's reading vacation to look forward to...