By Susan Griffith
The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England
By Hugh Thomson
Having accompanied the 18 year old tearaway Hugh Thomson on his madcap drive through Mexico in Tequila Oil (see my archived review of April 2011), it is intriguing to be guided by a decidedly grown-up version of the same writer on a gentle 400-mile walk through Southern England. Thomson still spends much of his time in Latin America leading expeditions and making documentaries. But on returning from Peru he gives an initially unconvincing reason for setting off on a long distance walk: that it will serve as a remedy for jetlag. A little later he confesses that he has lost his driving license for repeated speeding offences, though the real impetus for his journey on foot no doubt is a book contract.
England is criss-crossed with long-distance footpaths. Some are recent creations of tourist boards to boost neglected regions. Others are household names, like the walk along Hadrian’s Wall. The one that the author chooses to walk is the little known Icknield Way, considered to be one of the most ancient walking routes in the country, predating the Roman occupation of Britain. It links the English Channel with the North Sea via the lovely cathedral town of Salisbury and the university town of Cambridge. (Unusually a decent map of the route graces the endpapers.)
The author brings a traveling sensibility to his home territory, casting an eye attuned to noticing the strange and the exotic over some of the most densely populated places in southern England, including his own home beside the River Thames. He rightly notes that familiarity breeds heedlessness. It is only because the wood pigeon is so common and familiar in the UK that Britons pay no attention to its song and coloring; such a bird encountered in the Amazon would be greeted with amazement. The human beings whom Thomson encounters are no less colorful—farmers, poachers, gamekeepers and publicans among a cast of interesting rural characters, many of whom seem to be safeguarding an older English way of life.
Thomson is in search of the “places in between” as identified by Rory Stewart in his book of that title about Afghanistan. He focuses on the unremarked places we rarely visit. He is interested in the historical forces that shaped the English countryside, and is especially adept at uncovering the history and literature of mediaeval times. Some sections have their longueurs but most of the stories he tells illuminate the places he visits and the culture to which he belongs.
On some destinations he is scintillating. As a World Heritage landmark, Stonehenge is not a “place in between”, but a national icon. Yet it has been shamefully neglected and abused by the authorities, an issue about which the author is knowledgeable and passionate. In fact the book is recent enough to include as an appendix an outraged letter he wrote to The Times when promised government funding was withdrawn. Surrounded by “absurdly intrusive roads” and fenced off so that the ancient talismanic stones cannot be visited but only viewed from a “designated walkway”, the intrepid travel writer waits until most of the coach parties have left and comes up with an impressive ploy, worthy perhaps of imitation: “In my pack, I have a tie, which I put on, and a clipboard. Experience has taught me that no one will ever question a man with a tie or clipboard in case they get questioned themselves.” And then he slips quietly inside the ring of stones, taking the reader with him.
Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast
By Samanth Subramanian
Oddly enough, the relatively young writer of this quirky travel book about India is similarly mistaken for a person in authority simply by carrying a notebook as he walks round the fish market in Kolkata before it opens at 4:30am. At first he demurs when mistaken for a fish baron by some of the market porters, but soon gives up and nods noncommittally. Trained as a journalist, Subramanian sets out his travel writing credo in the Introduction: “all travel writing [should] be in its absolute essence: plain, old-fashioned journalism, disabuser of notions, destroyer of preconceptions, discoverer of the relative and shifting nature of truth”. This makes his endeavor sound more grandiose than it is, for Following Fish is a captivating and witty investigation of modern-day India through a fish-eye lens (so to speak).
Diving deep below the glassy surface of a sleepy seaside town in Karnataka, an ancient enclave of fisherfolk in Mumbai and various other coastal places, Subramanian’s prose darts and glides, but seldom skims. Using fish as his structuring theme, he meets a cast of characters whose lives depend on fish, whether as sellers in Kolkata’s Howrah Market, as chefs who curry it, potential charlatans who peddle it as a cure for asthma, big shots who hunt it as game, and artisans who build boats to catch it. [Continued…]