Category Archives: travel book

Review of Hav by Jan Morris

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Well, this is different… It has an unusual history, too. Jan Morris is a renowned and respected travel writer with such books as Venice and Europe an Intimate Journey under her belt. The first half of this book, then known as Last Letters from Hav, was first published in 1985 and it wasn’t until after the 9/11 effect rippled around the world, shifting political and cultural stances, that Morris considered writing a follow-up charting that type of changes she’d noted while travelling to actual places.

havSo she wrote the second section and the book in this form was published in 2006. I have something of a soft spot for well-conceived imaginary places – but this is a tour de force. Morris has not only written extensively about the physical geography, describing the buildings and topographical features – she has also provided a vivid historical and political backdrop. During the first section of the book, Hav is a comparative backwater. Athough situated geographically between East and West, it is a cultural and political melting pot with a number of immigrants from France, Turkey, Greece, China, India – as well as the mysterious indigenous cave-dwelling population… She captures Hav’s faded splendour and idiosyncratic customs, many originating centuries ago when Hav was part of the Silk Route and Venice had a series of warehouses backed by powerful merchanting families to protect their valuable assets. Though I constantly had to remind myself as I got caught up in the welter of small details Morris continually drops into her narrative – Hav doesn’t exist.

All this is impressive enough – but for me, the genius of this book is what happens in the second half after the Intervention. Morris map of havrevisits Hav and charts how it has changed since the… um – Intervention. No one would be stupidly crass enough to use the word invasion… And indeed, Life for many of Hav’s population has changed for the better. The harbour and merchandising section of the town is now far busier and more dynamic. Hav’s unique snow raspberries are now being industrially produced, canned and exported around the world as a luxury item, instead of being picked wild by the indigenous population and sold at premium rates to the best hotels for food connoisseurs. But people are reluctant to talk openly to Morris – even people she’d known well during her six month stay back in the 1980’s – and they are certainly reluctant to say anything remotely critical about the current regime.

Morris makes a note of the differences between the old Hav and the post-Intervention version, both physical and cultural. The picture she builds of a newly emerging society that has been blown apart and reformed is detailed, nuanced and wholly realistic. The overall result is unique, clever and extremely thought provoking – especially as I’m sure that we can see reflected in Hav’s journey, echoes of many other similar real places scattered around the globe. This remarkable book keeps scrolling through my head whenever I’m not thinking about other stuff – and I have no doubt at all that it is one of my outstanding reads of the year. If geographical politics interests you on any level at all, track it down. It’s worth reading.
10/10

Review of EBOOK Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch

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Ben came to talk to West Sussex Writers last year about tweeting and online marketing, as his guidebook has become an Amazon non-fiction best-seller. He seemed a thoroughly nice chap with an endearingly honest streak. I found his book online and loaded up on my Kindle as a summer read, to use it as a reward when I had written at least half of next term’s course notes…

are we nearly there yetIf you think writing a guidebook is easy, think again… A family’s 8,000 miles round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra. They were bored, broke, burned out and turning 40, so when Ben and Dinah saw the advert looking for a husband and wife team with young kids to write a guidebook about family travel around Britain, they jumped at the chance. With naïve visions of staring moodily across Coniston Water and savouring Cornish pasties, they embark on a mad-cap five-month trip with daughter Phoebe, four, and son Charlie, two, embracing the freedom of the open road with a spirit of discovery and an industrial supply of baby wipes.

I had expected a catalogue of mini-disasters, child-centred chaos and a certain amount of family tension – I’m a granny who spends a fair amount of my ‘free’ time looking after small grandchildren, so am only too aware of what an exhausting, messy job it can be. What I hadn’t expected, was the stark honesty with which Hatch portrays family life. He gave us an intimate history of his relationship with his wife and how they weathered a previous break-up, as well as an unvarnished account of the interplay between them, including the fights.

We also got the expected small children moments, though Hatch manages to keep parental sentimentality well and truly in check. The children came across as bright and articulate – and often more than a tad hyper, probably on account of all those chocolate buttons they were being fed to persuade them to be good…

While I was aware that Ben’s father, Sir David Hatch, had been suddenly diagnosed with cancer just before they set out on their five month adventure, I hadn’t expected the very moving recollections of Ben’s boyhood and his relationship with his father, who died while they were still on the road. It was poignant and rich as Ben’s sharp, honest prose sliced to the heart of how he felt, also wrestling with the prospect of his daughter disappearing off to school once the trip ended. So what this book is all about, is family life. About a couple of bright, intelligent people haunted by the sense that they were not fulfilling the promise of their youth, but instead had somehow become other people. In the middle of looking at museums, grading hotels for child-friendliness and coping with tantrums while always being in public – I got the sense that Ben and Diane discovered a lot more about families than how many chocolate buttons it takes to make a four-year-old sick.

If you are remotely interested in family life, get hold of a copy of this book. It packs far more a punch than the light-hearted cover conveys.
9/10