TRAVEL BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS: Advice to voyagers: don't

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The Independent Culture
HE WAS nearly washed overboard in the Southern Ocean. During WWII, he was on the run from the Italians and the Germans. After only a crash climbing course in Scotland, he went mountaineering in remotest Afghanistan. Setting off on a 1,200-mile river trip, he found himself after 200 yards stranded in 16 inches of water. Please, children, don't try this at home - or indeed abroad.

The best travel writing doesn't feel like travel writing, just writing. Without its subtitle of "The Best of Eric Newby", A Merry Dance Around the World (HarperCollins pounds 18) could pass as a straight autobiography, particularly since it fails to state from which of Newby's previous writings this book was snipped. Our hero left school early to work in an ad agency, which he abandoned at 18 to become an apprentice on the sailing ship which won the last Grain Race from Australia. Captured by the Italians during WWII, he escaped with the help of a girl whom he later married. In peacetime he had an improbable job in the family fashion business, before jumping ship again, this time to become a foreign correspondent. His observations about India, Morocco, Ireland or Russia are compassionate and hilarious but never patronising.

There is a lot more venom in River of Time (Heinemann pounds 16.99) but then Jon Swain has a lot more to be venomous about. As a young reporter in both Vietnam and Cambodia, he was on the last flight into Phnom Pen as the Khmer Rouge invaded the capital. His internment in the French embassy features in The Killing Fields.

He chronicles not just national disasters but personal tragedies: like Newby, he met the love of his life in a war zone, but he drove her away by his insistence on finding other war zones to write about; when he was kidnapped by guerrillas in Ethiopia, that was for her the last straw. Who could imagine that from this material Swain could fashion such a wonderfully enjoyable book? Although he goes over the top occasionally, it has the fluency that comes from years of banging out words under the twin threats of enemy fire and a deadline.

Leading the Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel 1815-1914 (Macmillan pounds 15.99) by Alan Sillitoe is a sad disappointment. Great title, great writer, great cover, great publisher even; shame about the words. This should have been a sort of Loneliness of the Long-distance Tourist; yet with a few exceptions - "I am very much inclined to vomit" in four languages - Sillitoe fails to strike a spark from the sodden material of his elderly guide books.

Conversely, Graham Coster turns dross into gold. Everything about lorries is hateful: the way they threaten you on the motorway; the unhealthy lifestyle they inflict on their drivers; the muck that comes out of their exhausts; the C&W music that comes out of their radios; the way they are called "trucks" instead of "lorries". In A Thousand Miles From Nowhere: Trucking Two Continents (Viking pounds 15) Coster describes his time slouched in passenger seats between London and Moscow, Montana and Mexico. An improbable character - he plays harmonica with Ken Follett in the band named Damn Right I Got the Blues - he even learnt to drive one of the leviathans of the highway, although he looks too young for a moped L-Test.

He has returned with a fascinating account of the tricks of the truck trade. He knows drivers who live off tins of cold chicken soup. He has read the freesheet of the Christian Truckers Association. He chronicles the pernickety regulations of the road; in Connecticut the bed in the sleeping section must be neatly made up - with the pillow on the off-side. He has seen leather-clad strippers in truckers' caffs and heard phone- ins on Texas radio stations. Take his book with you on your next long journey - by train, plane or boat.

The only dodgy bit about Coster's volume, apart from the marriages of his perpetually travelling interviewees, is this sentence in the blurb: "The most romantic journeys ever made, since the time of Marco Polo, have often been in the interests of trade." This reference to the 13th-century commercial traveller may have to be re-written, according to Frances Wood, head of the Chinese Department at the British Library. On the face of it, her title, Did Marco Polo Go to China? (Secker pounds 14.99), invites the rejoinder "Does the Pope live in the Vatican?" But she makes a formidable witness for the prosecution. Polo's alleged route, she asserts, does not relate to the actual geography; at one point the directions he gives would make a short-cut back to Venice instead of a progress to the East. Then there is that head of a monstrous fish, 100 paces long and covered with hair, which he swears he saw. It doesn't help that Marco Polo employed a ghostwriter, a teller of romances, to produce his account. Computer analysis of the text suggests that his ghostwriter had a ghostwriter, too. Ms Wood rests her case.

There is no doubt that Michael Wood (no relation) makes the journeys he writes about. Apart from the fact that he is often followed about by television cameras (Legacy, Saddam's Killing Fields) he brings back shrewd and affectionate observations of his travels. The Smile of Murugan (Viking pounds 18) is an account of a lengthy stay in India, in particular of a trip on the "video bus" in which pilgrims lurch between sacred sites while watching terrible old movies.

Yet the myriad gods and goddesses of India are nothing like as spooky as some of the Christians that Dorothy Carrington found much closer to home. After a brief history lesson, The Dream-Hunters of Corsica (Weidenfeld pounds 20) launches into a study of folk who in Britain would once have been denounced as witches. In a mysterious no-man's-land between sleep, waking and fantasy, they find themselves killing animals which later turn out to be their neighbours. The Evil Eye, apparently, is something that can't be cured by a modern optician.

Madagascar is also swarming with spiritual hazards but Christina Dodwell found a few physical ones of her own. Madagascar Travels (Hodder pounds 16.99) begins with her driving a stagecoach over tracks where you wouldn't take a Jeep and ends with her coming fifth in a horse race on a nag she has never ridden before. Like her horses, her prose is a bit slipshod, but it gallops along effectively enough.

She is streets ahead of Charles Blackmore, a former officer who clearly got his prose from an army-issue store. "Ours was a unique venture without precedent", for example. In The Worst Desert on Earth (John Murray pounds 16.99) the word "teamwork" turns up in the second line, which is a clear sign of an autocrat. Still, when making a camel crossing of the Taklamakan, China's "desert of death", you need someone who can keep the show on the Silk Road, not a long-haired writer chappie. The foreword includes a "health warning" to anyone wanting to follow in Blackmore's wake: "Think again." As Eric Newby would agree, don't try it yourselves, children.