More than a tourist guide

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Travel writing is one of the major art forms of our time, says Michael Church.

Do you have cornflakes in America?' - "They're American." - "So what brings you to Britain if you have cornflakes already?" With this delicious breakfast-room exchange, Bill Bryson embarks on a journey round the country he has for two decades made his home. Notes from a Small Island (Black Swan Pounds 6.99) now joins the lengthening shelf of his social, geographical, and linguistic odysseys. In every case, I would have hated to have gone there too, but I'm delighted this long-suffering humorist has come back to tell me about it.

Our travel writers seem to be getting both better and progressively more autobiographical. Paul Theroux's last book was his Mediterranean grand tour The Pillars of Hercules (Penguin Pounds 6.99): now he has put himself centre-stage with My Other Life (Hamish Hamilton Pounds 16). And the process is even happening beyond the grave: the late Bruce Chatwin - dandified author of The Songlines - now reappears in a collection of characteristically eccentric essays entitled Anatomy of Restlessness (Cape Pounds 15.99). In their very different ways, these three writers offer strong support for the argument that travel writing is one of the major literary art-forms of our time.

And wherever one is travelling, it's good to balance utilitarian guides with the literary stuff: I've just proved this to myself on a trip to North Cyprus. Before I went to stay in the village of Bellapais, in the hills overlooking Kyrenia, I read Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons (Faber Pounds 7). Set in this same village, this has none of the literary self-indulgence of his Alexandria Quartet: it's a passionately clear-eyed account of the process whereby - over the space of a mere three years in the mid-Fifties - two communities which had coexisted for centuries turned into murderous enemies. This short book contains in effect the whole history of Cyprus today, and makes clear the reason why it will - must - permanently stay divided. The Green Line bisecting Nicosia is all that stands between peace and Serbo-Croat ethnic cleansing.

I also read Colin Thubron's Journey Into Cyprus (Little,Brown Pounds 9. 95), which is an elegantly impressionistic account penned just before the Turkish invasion. Then I got hold of Diana Darke's Guide to North Cyprus (Bradt Pounds 9.95). This was full of useful tips, but not as thorough as John and Margaret Goulding's Northern Cyprus (Windrush Island Guides Pounds 9.95). But the book which really solved my problems was Marc Dubin's Rough Guide to Cyprus (Penguin Pounds 8.99).

Meanwhile, I am about to go on a journey through Russia and Eastern Europe, so I'm busily boning up. I may carry with me James Naughton's excellent Traveller's Literary Companion to Eastern and Central Europe (In Print Pounds 13.95). I have been dipping into Lesley Chamberlain's Volga, Volga (Picador Pounds 7.99) which extracts from a river cruise a first-rate historical commentary.

And I have read Neal Ascherson's extraordinary Black Sea (Cape Pounds 17.99). To call this a "travel book" is to do no justice to its fusion of literature, science, and history - it opens with a brilliant essay on oceanography. At Odessa, for example, he alights at the foot of the Potemkin Steps, but the scene of contemporary dereliction which greets him prompts an imaginary voyage back to the city's origins, Pushkin's exile there, and the waves of Jewish immigration which gave the city its unique character.

But the book I shall certainly take with me is the Lonely Planet Guide to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (Pounds 16.95). This will be on the strength of the Lonely Planet Guide to Brazil (Pounds 11.95), which I found invaluable on a recent trip to Salvador. Brazil is - to put it mildly - a tricky place for travellers, and this exhilarating north-eastern port is reputed to be almost as dangerous as Rio. It's actually nowhere near as dangerous, but you need to proceed carefully - what you eat, where you walk alone, whether you should brandish your camera - and you also need copious supplies of background information. Salvador is a slave-trade city whose inhabitants still worship Yoruba gods.The Lonely Planet guide was an exotic primer, but it also furnished me with useful practical insights - such as street-name variations, and the fact that the continuing feud between city and state tourist authorities results in neither broadcasting the work of the other.

But I also took with me the relevant Rough Guide (Pounds 9.99). Indeed, I take a Rough Guide wherever I go: these books may bear the marks of their Eighties provenance - listings for trendy minorities - but their approach is eminently sensible. Whether it's for Spain, Greece, Turkey, or Thailand, space is apportioned equally to the needs of the mind and of the body; the practical information is exemplary; the commentary is elegant and occasionally erudite; updated editions appear every year or so. Their quality does vary - Portugual has some extraordinary omissions - but by and large this is a wonderful series It's no surprise that the leading travel publishers should now be bringing out their own phrasebooks. Lonely Planet offer a Ukrainian Phrasebook (Pounds 3.99). I am now sampling the Rough Guide Portuguese Phrasebook (Pounds 3.50), which is a curious confection, starting with a basic grammar, and liberally interspersed with travel tips. But I don't think it will oust the combination with which I am currently teaching myself Portuguese: Hugo's Portuguese in Three Months (Pounds 3.95), a comprehensive grammar complete with Brazilian variants; and a little black book I picked up in a souvenir shop called Portuguese: a Collins Traveller, which offers exactly the kind of information one needs. Opening phrase: "Is it farexpensive?"

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