Travel writer and editor who took to a nomadic life for the sheer elation of wandering and discovering
Saturday 15 April 2006
Jeremy Francis Atiyah, traveller and writer: born Woking, Surrey 30 December 1963; Travel Editor, The Independent on Sunday 1997-2000; married 1991 Xiaosong Que (marriage dissolved 2000); died Monti Sibillini National Park, Italy 12 April 2006.
'As I entered my 40th year, I turned myself into a vagabond." Jeremy Atiyah was many things - a teacher, a linguist, a brilliant writer - but above all he was a traveller. In January 2002, he walked out of his flat with a rucksack on his back, for yet another adventure. He rented out his home, shrugged off almost all material possessions - save for "a bicycle, an e-mail address and a mobile telephone" - and began the life of a nomad.
Part of the following three years was spent in London, researching at the British Library, and living as "a middle-class vagrant . . . blessed by supportive and well-off friends". He roamed on assignment for this newspaper, and others: searching for Shangri-La in China, and finding corners of Italy that have yet to be over-run by tourists. Above all, though, he simply travelled for the sheer elation of wandering, encountering and discovering.
Yet Atiyah was no aimless drifter on the fringes of society. His love of life, unselfconscious charm and natural curiosity meant he acquired friends with ease at home and abroad. The great warmth with which he was regarded made his sudden death in Italy (naturally, he was travelling) at the shockingly early age of 42 all the sadder.
Jeremy Atiyah was born in Surrey, during a blizzard, on the penultimate day of 1963. An early sign of his erudition came within a few weeks of his starting primary school, when he rapidly learned to read. For three years from 1970, the family moved to the Australian capital, Canberra, where his father, Professor Patrick Atiyah, had a teaching post at the university.
Upon their return to the UK, they moved to Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. Jeremy attended the grammar school from 1974 to 1977; and later, when his father took up a chair in Oxford, Magdalen College School.
After A-levels, Jeremy Atiyah's love of travel became evident. At a time when venturing beyond Europe was still a rarity, he spent the summer travelling around India. Aged 17, Atiyah proved a shrewd backpacker, often staying at ashrams for a pound or two per night in order to extend his journey for as long as possible.
After spending his last few rupees on the bus to the airport for his flight home, he was surprised to learn that an airport tax had been imposed. Self-reliance to the fore, Atiyah trawled the check-in queue until he found a generous fellow traveller willing to lend him the money.
If he or his parents thought the Indian experience would get the travel bug out of his system, they were gladly mistaken; instead, the journey served to whet his appetite for more adventures.
Perhaps it was a yearning for elsewhere that dogged his university career. For someone with such a formidable and well-rounded intellect, Atiyah found life at Trinity College, Oxford surprisingly heavy going. He enrolled initially for Classics, but later switched to PPE. He graduated in 1985.
He had always demonstrated a love for words: procuring them, inventing them, exploring their power and potential. Happily, his graduation coincided with the launch of the Amstrad word processor, which for the first time offered the prospect of creating, editing and printing text for an affordable price - under £400. Astutely, Professor Atiyah bought one of the first models off the production line - and set his son on what was to prove a most illustrious writing career.
The most pressing need for the young graduate, though, was to earn some cash. The late 1980s were difficult days in Britain, so Jeremy set off for Barcelona. Spain was blossoming after the suffocating Franco years, and the Catalan capital had just been awarded the 1992 Olympics, creating a strong demand for teachers of English. At the same time as teaching his mother tongue, he mastered Spanish with apparent ease - as he later did with German, Mandarin, Russian and Italian.
Even when living humbly in a cheap pension in the heart of Barcelona, Atiyah found the temptation of travel irresistible. One Friday night, the week's wages in his pocket, he happened to pass through the main station on the way home. The departure board showed a train to Granada about to leave, so he hopped aboard. In those days, Spanish Railways ran a creaky old network; he had barely a couple of hours in the fabulous Andalucian city before catching a northbound train, but the joy of the journey itself and the miscellany of fellow travellers he met repaid the investment many times.
In 1989, his brother Simon was posted to Hong Kong, and invited Jeremy over. At the end of the stay, Jeremy Atiyah could have caught a plane straight home. Instead, he opted for the railway less travelled - and what turned out to be a life-changing journey. He ventured north through China, at the time an alien land for independent travellers, to Beijing. Here, he boarded the Trans-Mongolian Express to Moscow - and, en route, met a young Chinese woman named Xiaosong Que who was on her way to study literature in West Germany. With a passion and certainty that transcended his usual amiable diffidence, he wooed and eventually married her.
Xiaosong was unable to join Jeremy on his next teaching assignment, in Saudi Arabia. But they travelled together through a Lebanon torn apart by the civil war, to search for his roots; his paternal grandfather was Lebanese.
Back in Britain, he taught English to Xiaosong, and reciprocally added Mandarin to his armoury of languages. This set him in good stead for researching and co-writing the first edition of The Rough Guide to China, which was published in 1995 and remains a bestseller. Yet the minutiae of hostels, train schedules and tourist attractions proved too constraining for Jeremy Atiyah's powers as a storyteller. He began writing for the travel sections of national newspapers - stories that were always multi- dimensional, bursting with life, and characters, and emotion.
When, in 1997, The Independent on Sunday decided to appoint its first travel editor, Atiyah was the natural choice. Despite having no formal training as a journalist, he created and managed an outstanding travel section. Each week he wrote a sparky, witty column that challenged conventional travel industry wisdom - indeed, he first questioned the moral and environmental legitimacy of mass tourism long before it moved on to the media agenda.
By the millennium, Atiyah had tolerated the institutional discipline of regular hours for quite long enough. He left on the most amicable of terms, and continued to write for both The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. At around the same time, his marriage with Xiaosong ended; her wish to settle down, and his to explore, proved irreconcilable, but they remained close and on the best of terms until his death.
In the 21st century, most of Atiyah's time and energy was invested in bigger writing projects. He spent the winter of 2000/2001 in the deep-frozen Siberian city of Irkutsk (naturally acquiring fluent Russian in the process), and wrote an extraordinary history of Tsarist Russia's adventures in North America.
In 2002 Atiyah decided to take his lifestyle to its logical conclusion and forsake the comforts of a conventional home; after all, he seemed at home everywhere. By 2005, though, he had settled on Italy as the ideal country to nourish his creative spirit. He bought a cheap old property in Puglia, at the heel of Italy, and spent much of last year making it habitable. His latest professional reinvention combined writing with researching walking trips in Italy - designing adventures, if you will. As he once observed: "the human foot is designed for endless traipsing".
It was while on assignment in Umbria that he suffered a fatal heart attack - a tragic yet poetic death for a man who wrought miracles with words, a romantic who rose above these unromantic times.
The Rough Guide to China was first published not in 1995, but in 1987, writes Catharine Sanders. (Jeremy Atiyah's collaboration with David Leffman and Simon Lewis was in fact issued in 1997.) The first edition was researched and written by myself and Chris Stewart now rather better known as the author of Driving over Lemons. Rhonda Evans also contributed.
We had completed several further months of travel and research in China to produce a second updated edition shortly before the events of Tiananmen. The then American parent publisher Harrap Columbus decided to pull the plug, fearing a drop in American tourists to China, and our material was subsequently bought in and passed on to the new team.
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