This summer I’ve managed to travel to a far-flung island in Greece, spend a month in Siena and do a whistlestop tour of Rome, Florence, Naples and Bologna and all without producing my Covid clearance cert. How did I manage it? I travelled by armchair, returning to a genre I haven’t read since my late teens. Back then I developed a passion for travel writing, probably as a response to an adolescent restlessness and a sense of restriction – a desire to be off, to be anywhere but here. Much like now.
I marvel that only two years ago foreign travel was often a casual and spontaneous decision. I wonder if we will ever return to that spirit again. And perhaps it would be better if we didn’t, given the climate change catastrophe that’s looming.
On the plus side, the armchair traveller leaves virtually no carbon footprint.
Paul Theroux (father of the now more famous Louis) got me started with the travel bug. His marvellous train journeys were gathered under one roof in The Great Railway Bazaar which charted his sometimes bad-tempered travels by train across Europe and further afield. (Some years after reading this book, I experienced travelling on the Trans Siberian Express for myself and recognised much of its rough charm from Theroux’s accounts.)
There were other travel books I read hungrily. Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, Wilfrid Thesiger’s travels in the Empty Quarter in Arabian Sands, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons , or Tracks by Robyn Davison who travelled by foot across Australia with a caravan of camels. Then there was Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines , also about Australia, and In Patagonia, about the region at the southernmost tip of South America. Not forgetting our own intrepid Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt, who took the world on by bike.
The attraction of these books was their narrators’ single-minded pursuit of exploration for its own sake. Shamelessly, I used that as justification for insisting on my honeymoon in 1981, that we follow the route Laurie Lee took in his seminal As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer’s Morning , a classic of the lone traveller genre. Lee was only 19 when he decided to walk through Spain in 1934. We went as far as Algeciras with him; then we parted company. He described it as a quaint fishing village with men mending their nets on the beach. But by then it was an industrial port, with chimneys belching out pollution into the clear blue sky.
As a travel writer, Lee was incomparable, but I realised I couldn’t use his book as a dependable contemporary guide. Too much had changed given the 40 odd years that had elapsed since he had taken his journey.
Lockdown has brought me back to the genre after a long absence. Lockdown number three ,in particular, with its desolate open-endedness and the prospect of stepping off the island retreating to a vanishing point. Exactly like being a bored and frustrated teenager with no means of escape.
Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is an object lesson for the restless soul. Clift was an Australian journalist married to George Johnston, a fellow journalist and novelist ( famous in Australia for his autobiographical novel My Brother Jack, originally published with a cover painted by Sidney Nolan ). They were slaving away as hacks in 1950s London with two small children, and writing novels together in their spare time. (What spare time?) Then one wet rainy Monday they decided they couldn’t bear the post-war austerity any longer and decamped to the Greek island of Kalymnos (one of the Dodecanese between Kos and Leros) where they lived the simple, sun-soaked life they’d always dreamed of.
I was drawn to Clift initially because she was name-checked in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, about Leonard Cohen and his Swedish lover who inspired the song, “So Long Marianne”. Clift became a godmother figure to the ex-pat crowd of assorted hippies and Bohemians, writers and artists (including Cohen and the aforementioned Sidney Nolan) who camped out on the island of Hydra in the 1960s.
Mermaid Singing predates Clift and Johnston’s time in Hydra and is a flinty-eyed but lyrical account of settling on the island where she and George and their two children, Martin and Shane ( a daughter) are the only outsiders. Kalymnos was a centre for sponge diving and every spring the boats would leave the island for six months at a time heading for the African coast and taking most of the men with them. Sponge diving is a dangerous occupation and many of the island men died or were permanently maimed as a result of dives that had gone wrong. Clift wrote about the sponge divers and it inspired a novel that she and Johnson co-authored (The Sea and the Stone, 1955).
The cliche of the past as another country has never been truer – even if one were free to travel, the Kalymnos that Clift describes has disappeared along with Laurie Lee’s Spain.
But in Mermaid Singing, the reader gets full immersion into more personal and fleeting moments of Clift’s island life. “The boat with the tan sail has come in close. Ropes are trailing from the side, and the children are dragging it in. They seem so small and bright and shining and far away, small singing scraps of flesh and colour in the great grave cadences of sunlight.”
Clift and Johnson followed their year on Kalymnos with a decade on Hydra, where they lived, worked and caroused and their children ran wild. (The postscript to their Greek idyll was tragic, however. On their return to Australia, Clift committed suicide in 1969 and Johnson died of tuberculosis a year later. Their children fared no better. Shane Johnston committed suicide in 1974. Martin Johnston, an acclaimed poet, died of alcoholism at 42 in 1990.)
Running wild has its downside.
“Only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective.” so claims British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar in his latest book, A Month in Siena, which does exactly what it says on the tin. In a quieter vein than Clift’s, it’s an account of his sojourn alone in the city. He’s drawn there by the paintings of Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio, who created the Sienese school of paintings in the 13th and 14th centuries, with its echoes of Byzantine and gothic art.
Matar is great on the paintings – and the book has small but sumptuous colour plates. But he’s brilliant on the particular loneliness of travelling solo and the spontaneous and often intense relationships that can form when you step out of your comfort zone. This is contemplative autofiction, the self as city. It’s not about extravagant adventure, but philosophical reflection. Much like W G Sebald, Matar makes you feel less inadequate for having been melancholy in the midst of foreign splendours.
I’ve been accompanying my vicarious travel reading with American actor Stanley Tucci’s TV series Searching for Italy (CNN) which has satisfied my culinary wanderlust for the moment. Tucci, Italian on both sides, eats his way around the regions of Italy tasting the local produce and wangling a few recipes form the chefs he meets along the way. The food is good but the photography is even better. Made for an American audience – and built around numerous ad breaks – the programme tends towards the soundbite. Excuse the pun. But it excels in dunking you right into the heart of several Italian cities, wandering cobbled streets, sitting at outside tables with the ever present clink of conviviality.
Sometimes, though, you want even the lovely Stanley to step out of shot so that you can savour being in the fish market in Catania, or a bayside restaurant on the Amalfi coast during a lightning storm, without the chattering commentary.
Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hisham Matar?
A beach on the island of Kalymnos – Photograph: Reddit