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Monday musings on Australian literature: Armchair travelling

April 13, 2020

Over at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip, Janine is publishing a series of travel posts on My non-trip in the year of coronavirus. You see, as she writes in her first post, published on April 3, she would, that day, have been “folding up the laptop, packing my case and taking up my passport all ready for a trip to Peru” that evening. She was grumpy, as other people I know, about the missed trip, the lost payments, and so on – but she found a silver lining: she could armchair travel, so she is posting each day on what she might, or would, have been doing on those days.

We are all, of course, wondering about what our post-COVID-19 world is going to look like. Will we – the lucky we who can afford it that is – jump back into overseas travel as soon as countries open up again, or will we be a little more cautious. Will we stick to home for a while? It is regarding this latter, that I’m writing today’s post – with, of course, “home” for me being Australia. I have written several posts on travel writing. Not all are about Australian travel, and some are about historical travellers, but if you are interested, my travel writing tag will take you to them.

Two of the posts so tagged are Monday Musings: Some Australian travel writing, which includes Australians writing about places other than Australia, but also Robyn Davidson’s classic Tracks, and Travel writers on Australia, which includes non-Australians writing about Australia, like Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and Bill Bryson’s Down Under aka In a sunburnt country.

And now, having scoured the Internet, leaving no Google search unturned, I bring you the following random and uncurated selection of travel-related books about Australia published this century. Please note that these are not tour guides (though Marcia Langton’s book probably comes close) but writing about places and travel.

  • City Series published by NewSouth: Alice Springs by Eleanor Hogan; Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy; Brisbane by Matthew Condon; Canberra by Paul Daley; Darwin by Tessa Lea; Hobart by Peter Timms; Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham; Perth by David Whish-Wilson; Sydney by Delia Falconer. Here is what Philippa McGuinness, from NewSouth Publishing, says:

I wanted to ask some of our best novelists and writers to write non-fiction about the cities they lived in – or have adopted – in a way that would evoke intense sense memories for people who are familiar with them and give those who aren’t a sense of what it’s like to live in Brisbane or Adelaide or wherever.

There are some other well-known series where famous writers have tackled Paris or Prague, but they’re usually not locals. They’re temporary visitors. I wanted writers who have a stake in a city to write about it, which is why we first billed them as ‘travel books where no one leaves home’.

  • Bill King, King of the Outback, CoverBill King, King of the Outback: Tales from an off-road adventurer (2012): stories from the founder of AAT Kings tour company.
  • Marcia Langton, Welcome to country (2018): “a curated guidebook to Indigenous Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. Author Professor Marcia Langton offers fascinating insights into Indigenous languages and customs, history, native title, art and dance, storytelling, and cultural awareness and etiquette for visitors.”
  • Michael McGirr, Bypass: The story of a road (2004): the story of the Hume Highway, the main road thoroughfare from Sydney to Melbourne.
  • Evan McHugh, Birdsville: My year in the Back of Beyond (2010): Penguin quotes a review from The Age:

McHugh is a clever mixture of curious outsider and eager participant… Written in a simple but elegant style where honesty and thoughtfulness build an accurate picture of the richness of life in one of Australia’s most famous outback towns.

  • David Marks, Australian photographic gallery: Road trips (2015): a coffee table book containing “offbeat” images taken with a Polaroid and Diana camera.
  • David Mason, Walk across Australia: The first solo crossing (2014): a memoir of Mason’s 4,000+km walk in 1998 from Australia’s eastern-most town, Byron Bay, to the western most point near Shark Bay, Western Australia.
  • Graham Seal, Great Australian journeys (2018): a collection of some of Australia’s most dramatic journeys from the 19th and early 20th century collected by Seal who is Professor of Folklore at Curtin University.
  • Nicholas Shakespeare, In Tasmania: Adventures at the end of the world (2005): The Guardian’s review describes this as “a mixture of history, genealogy, travelogue and journalism”. The book was apparently inspired by Shakespeare’s distant relation Anthony Fenn Kemp, whom the reviewer describes as “cruel, pompous and unpleasant bootlegger”! Hmm…

Marcia Langton, Welcome to country, CoverThese books range from the popular to the serious. I’ve only heard of a few of them, and only have a couple in my TBR pile, Paul Daley’s Canberra and Marcia Langton’s Welcome to country.

I note though that, with the exception of the City series and Marcia Langton’s Welcome to country, all these authors are male (white male, I presume). And this brings me to an article (or blog post) in Overland titled “A short history of the dangers of travel writing”. It’s worth a read for its discussion of what travel literature encompasses and the limited voices we are seeing.

Anyhow, you know what I’m going to ask. Do you have any favourite works of travel literature that you can recommend to the rest of us for some armchair travelling in this time of COVID-19?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2020 2:10 am

    Anything by H V Morton (1892-1979). In his prime he was writing in the twenties through to the forties, and so they are both snapshots in time and surprisingly still relevant. In the Steps of St Paul and In the Steps of the Master are about the Holy Land when it was Palestine, but the sites he visits are the ones you can still see today. His In Search of… series was written in the forties and fifties, so it includes wartime and postwar Britain as well as Spain under Franco. I read In Search of Italy before I went there, and loved his descriptions of what I was seeing.
    He has his own HV Morton Society (to which I belong) and his books are treasured by collectors the world over.

    • April 14, 2020 8:23 am

      Thanks Lisa. I remember that you are a member of his society. I have a book called “The magic of Ireland” which we bought in 1980, the year we went to Ireland. But it’s just excerpts from his In search of Ireland. I’ve never read anything else of his, but I will one day.

      • April 14, 2020 10:56 am

        I know what you mean… some of his later books are not really new, they are ‘rebadged’ versions of previously published material. I suspect the publisher knew when he was on a good thing and that people would buy anything with his name on it.

        • April 14, 2020 12:40 pm

          Yes, I think so! And I didn’t really know enough at the time about his work to realise – though it is explained in the inside book flap if I’d taken the care!

  2. April 14, 2020 4:34 am

    Travel literature is really a good thing to be reading right now. What is striking is that almost every place that one may read about is almost certainly being effected by the current crises.

    I also wonder what things are going to be like afterwards. I live in an area of New York where there is a lot of covid – 19 around. So I think that folks around here are going to be hesitant to get out again.

    • April 14, 2020 8:30 am

      Thanks Brian. I knew you were in the USA east but didn’t quite know where, I can certainly understand that that hesitancy is a likely response. It’s been surreal here because Australia has not (yet) had the terrible outbreaks other places have had. Our death tally for all of Australia is under 70. Nonetheless, with winter coming on, and seeing how virulent this virus is I’ll be a bit concerned BUT the impact of the shutdown on people less affluent than we are is also terrible.

  3. clairesandford permalink
    April 14, 2020 5:18 am

    Kayak and cycling around Australia and other continents. Self locomoted adventures by Terry Bolland.https://terrybolland.wordpress.comHelloThat's my armchair travelling. Claire

    • April 14, 2020 8:32 am

      Oh thanks Claire. I don’t really have much in the way of adventure travel in my list do I?

  4. April 14, 2020 6:14 am

    Nothing of my hometown in the City Series – wonder why ? Tim Winton: stand up and be counted !

    • April 14, 2020 8:41 am

      Oh, oops, I had meant to check that M-R, because I thought there was, but I got distracted. I’ll add it. Perth is by David Whish-Wilson. Thanks-and mucho apologies to all Perth-ites.

  5. Meg permalink
    April 14, 2020 7:34 am

    Hi Sue, Prague Pictures by John Banville is brilliant. Funnily enough I am now reading Homesickness by Murray Bail – a witty and satirical novel about 13 Australian tourists. They travel to Africa, England and the USA. So good, and I don’t think Bail likes people. Some very interesting information as well as useless ones; and inane comments people make. Loving it!

    • April 14, 2020 8:47 am

      A book like that by Banville is bound to be good, I expect, Meg. I have Homesickness but haven’t read it. I get the sense that Bail is a bit churlish. Probably better read than to know. Anyhow, you’ve made me want to read the book more now.

  6. April 14, 2020 7:35 am

    I loved Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence.

  7. April 14, 2020 1:17 pm

    Hi Sue, another one we both liked was Cadence by Emma (Eddie) Ayres. Travelling by bicycle from England to Hong Kong via Pakistan: carrying her violin on her back.
    Also, I did love In Patagonia and Songlines, both by Bruce Chatwin.

    • April 14, 2020 1:39 pm

      Oh yes eg, thanks for these suggestions. I have read and reviewed that one here. It’s a great read.

      I have always wanted to read In Patagonia. Maybe I will still get to it one day?

  8. April 15, 2020 8:33 am

    I am doing nothing except mucking around on my laptop and still MM slipped through the cracks. Sorry! I don’t read travel writing as a rule, though I am enjoying The Resident Judge’s series. I hope she feels some benefit from all that Spanish study despite not being able to use it in situ, yet anyway. And I love Tracks. In five years I’ve probably reviewed two travel books: Michael Veitch’s The Forgotten Islands (in Bass Strait) and Hawdon’s Journal of a Journey (1837).

    • April 15, 2020 8:36 am

      Thanks Bill. It’s amazing how busy you can be doing nothing isn’t it? I have never really gravitated to travel writing and yet whenever I read it I usually like it. I do like some of those nineteenth century travellers.

  9. April 15, 2020 12:58 pm

    I love anything by Robert MacFarlane (yes, another middle class white man). His work is often categorised as nature writing, but he writes about his travels into nature. The Old Ways, about walking paths in England and Europe, is wonderful. His latest book, Underland, is a marvel. And one for Bill, he has a short book called Holloway.

    • April 15, 2020 12:59 pm

      What, did he visit the prison?

    • April 15, 2020 7:24 pm

      Thanks Michelle. I reckon quite a lot of nature writing can fall under the travel writing banner. I haven’t heard of Robert McFarlane. Will keep him in mind.

  10. April 15, 2020 6:20 pm

    We would have been travelling right now too. Today would have been Paris and then late tomorrow flying to Kuwait! Oh well. Another time.

    • April 15, 2020 7:26 pm

      So many lives changed, eh Marg. We had thoughts of Africa in August/September this year but hadn’t actually booked so we have not plans spoilt. A silver lining for us?

  11. Meg permalink
    August 9, 2020 5:14 pm

    Hi Sue, still in lock down and found one of the books I have been meaning to read, Arabesques by Robert Dessaix, and what a delight. I don’t only travel with him, but also with Andre Gide, through North Africa, France and Portugal.Africa. Fascinating reading, and very much a thought provoking one. The hardback is presented beautifully, with coloured illustrations, it was a good trip!. (I bought this book at then end of last year for $1.00 from my library). The library sells of books during the year that are not in demand – lucky me.

    • August 9, 2020 10:10 pm

      Oh thanks Meg for remembering this post and coming back and commenting on it. There are a few travel oriented Dessaix books I’d like to read, and this it one of them. I remember seeing the hardback around when it came out.

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