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

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence