Globe-Trotter fan Mariella Frostrup is host of Radio 4’s Open Book programme and author of Wild Women, an anthology of writing by female explorers from the 1700s to the present. Here, Mariella recommends her favourite travel books to take you around the world from the comfort of home.
Naples 44 by Norman Lewis
Naples 44 is Lewis’s portrait of the eponymous Italian city during the penultimate year of the Second World War. His delight in the city’s crumbling grandeur and colourful cast of opportunists, informers and black marketeers is evident on every page. While the Neapolitan residents offer opportunities for wry humour, it’s against the backdrop of a brutalised, ruined city where starvation had driven the residents to eat all the tropical fish in the municipal aquarium and an aristocrat describes converting her ballroom into an indoor vegetable garden. Written thirty years after the event, it’s a glorious celebration of that magnificent decadent city but also a grim record of foolishness, cowardice and the ugly side of war, packed into a highly readable, slim volume.
Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon
My interest in travel books was happily ignited during the 1980s, an incredibly fecund period for the genre, so I was definitely spoilt for choice. Oxford academic O’Hanlon provided the perfect bridge from the Victorians to this, a new era of eccentrics, young men primarily, taking advantage of modern travel to reach the remotest parts of the world and put themselves in mortal danger for our delectation. Involving a quest for a lost rhinoceros, O’Hanlon is exuberant when describing his encounters with the remotest tribes and celebrating the flora and fauna on which he is an undoubted expert. He’s also a trying companion, as the poet James Fenton discovered during this often hilarious 1983 adventure.
My Great, Wide, Beautiful World by Juanita Harrison
I discovered this pearl while researching my anthology of female travellers Wild Women (which I HIGHLY recommend), and I am still amazed that it’s not better known. Juanita Harrison was an African-American, born just 30 years after the end of slavery, who left school and her native Mississippi at the age of 10 yet managed to save up enough money as a domestic to pursue her dream of seeing the world. This record of her experiences lacks punctuation and grammar but oozes personality and a talent for observation, revealing a determined and amusing pioneer whose experiences whether in Rome, Djibouti or Honolulu are as entertaining as they are beguiling.
Holidays in Hell by PJ O’Rourke
I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent and this classic by the American journalist and satirist PJ O’Rourke fuelled my dreams. His ability to find comedy in the direst of circumstances, bring to life places and situations you never want to find yourself in and his razor-sharp skewering of hypocrisy, political self-interest and fading Imperialist dreams make for a riveting, laugh-out-loud read. Also, like all the best travel books, O’Rourke makes you feel as though you’re his companion on these assignments through the world’s hotspots.
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Most accounts of mountaineering are written by men and this classic by the poet and writer Nan Shepherd is the perfect antidote to such summit-pursuing machismo. Written during the Second World War, her seductive descriptions of the ‘essential nature’ of the Cairngorms are a uniquely sensual meditation on place and also a call to arms to foster our relationship with the natural world around us. Despite the macro geographical focus, Nan Shepherd’s account of her years aimlessly wandering the paths of this mountain range are as transporting and entrancing a piece of travel writing as any I’ve read.
Mariella Frostrup was born in Norway and grew up in Ireland. As well as presenting Open Book for Radio 4, she presented The Book Show on Sky Arts 1 and is a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and The Observer. She has been on the judging panels for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Naples 44: Eland Publishing
In the Heart of Borneo: Penguin
My Great Wide Beautiful World: Forgotten Books
Holidays in Hell: Grove Atlantic
The Living Mountain: Canongate