Review: An Open Door – New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century edited by Steven Lovatt
The title of this book derives from a quote by Jan Morris who wrote that ‘if the mountains secluded Wales from England, the long coastline was like an open door to the world at large.’
It’s hard to imagine travel writers such as Jan Morris and her peers such as Colin Thubron, Dervla Murphy or Jonathan Raban plying their peregrinating trade in the post pandemic world, especially at this very moment with airports in chaos, and railways shut down.
But as travel for leisure is seemingly replaced by the urgent necessities of refugee journeying this anthology is timely because of such recalibrations.
The editor, Steven Lovatt has also cleverly set out to change some perspectives on Wales: replacing the notion of Wales being a place written about, ‘primarily as a sort of dream theatre for English aesthetes and capitalists’ by inviting Welsh and Wales based authors to writing about their journeys within the country’s borders and beyond.
And, my, how they have risen to the challenge, offering stories which are often highly personal, telling and superbly well written.
The pandemic made many of us appreciate our local areas so much more.
This was certainly the case for Pontypool-based writer Grace Quantock, who found a surprising sanctuary from the trials of the times in the grounds of a former mental asylum in nearby Abergavenny.
The Gothic pile in question dates back to the mid 19th century, when it was incumbent on all counties in Wales and England to build what one historian called ‘museums for the collection of the unwanted.’
They built no fewer than 120 such ‘museums,’ asylums housing 100,000 people, including paupers, disabled and the mentally ill.
In a revealing and searchingly honest essay, Quantock deftly melds her own personal history with that of what is now a ‘ghost asylum’ turned into private housing and yet a place which offered her quiet escape from the confining travails of lockdown.
Eluned Gramich’s journey is much longer, crossing the south Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro where, in ‘Carioca Cymreig’ she details a ‘practical kind of love story,’ taking in the complexities of meeting her Brazilian in-laws when they don’t share a common language.
We know from Gramich’s marvellous Japanese travelogue Woman Who Brings Rain how concise and precise she can be in her writing, and how finely attuned her cultural antennae.
Her account shows us how food can build bridges, as she shows the family to cook apple crumble in exchange for the new flavours that have danced on her tongue – the white chocolate brigadeiros, the caramel doce de leite and thirst-slaking juices you could never get back home in Aberystwyth, such as caju and cupuaçu and avocado with milk.
Deliciously sensitive writing.
Just as Brazil was initially terra incognita for Gramich so too was Somalia for Faisal Ali.
In his ‘From the Desert to the Docks and Back’ he recalls journeying to the Horn of Africa for the very first time in 2007, there tracing such histories as that of his electrician grandfather who had the ‘energy of a meerkat and a thick and coarse Cardiff accent.’
He had moved to a country that was young, dynamic and democratic, gaining the nickname ‘Hang On’ from those he helped access electricity for the first time.
Faisal Ali also details the lives of those family who had to leave Somalia, fleeing war and dead bodies on the streets for sanctuary in south Wales, very far removed from the miyi, the parched countryside with its nomadic lifestyle and the Somalian cities which bake in the day’s heat.
Meanwhile, his mother Elena Gemin is the focus of Giancarlo Gemin’s chronicle of a woman’s life that started in Treviso, Italy but saw her follow his father to Wales, where he had been lured by a scheme to welcome foreign workers to ‘underground coal-mining employment in Great Britain.’
The lines of stark, terraced houses were a shock to Elena as was the isolation caused by her new husband working all the hours God gave him.
But she came to love the ‘dark, dramatic hills’ so different from the intimidating Dolomites and learned to live fish and chips and steak and kidney pies.
Her return, with retirement, to live in Italy, in the gentle hills of the Veneto made her realise that after fifty years there – working as a machinist, finding the company of other Italians in the steam-filled Bracchi cafes – she loved Wales more than the country of her birth.
The novelist Sophie Bauchillard’s contribution also vacillates back and fore between two places, namely Penarth and Paris, a city she visits with her son, taking him back to her childhood haunts.
She recalls that time when she would be woken by the sound of the ‘high pitched screech of the municipal bin lorry’s lifting mechanism as it tilted the regiments of wheelie bins that stood in front of the large Hausmannien buildings.’
As she arrives at her mother’s house she ponders what makes a house a home, even as the smells of the place transport her back in time – ‘the ras el hanout from the kitchen, my mother’s perfume in the bathroom, the faint scent of cigar emanating from familiar furniture.’
Of the senses smell is the one that most powerfully takes one into the past, or as Bauchillard puts it, ‘Our childhood memories are olfactive.’
Sensory writing and then some.
Memory and memories dance through Mary-Ann Constantine’s elegant account of visiting Brittany to gather research material, for ‘at the turn of its twenty-first century I was deep into its nineteenth, a world of people walking.
Charcoal burners and rag-collectors, sardine-packers, itinerant tailors, pilgrims.’
In one place she is marooned on a island surrounded by roads, in a noose ‘formed by the voie-express and a tangle of slip roads’ facing the challenges of mad dogs and lack of tunnels.
She meets her younger self and questions some of the decisions she made in a bright lapidary piece of writing that mirrors her sense of Brittany, the parts she knows ‘are all broken and scattered, and some memories have no clear locations.’
But the piece ends with a real shattering, as news of the Bataclan massacre and the bombs at the Stade de France unsettle an entire country the night before she journeys home, remembering the dreadful silence coming off the streets of Gare du Nord and Montparnasse.
Personal and powerful
Kandace Siobhan Walker’s ‘Clearances’ melds travelogue with historical analysis and autobiography as she visits her grandmother on the island of Sapelo, an island off the coast of Georgia which had been a series of slave plantations in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
The essay’s title refers to the Highland clearances, the forced displacement of tenants off the land and deftly melds accounts of such acts with ‘the large-scale depopulations that would make land and natural resources available for industrial exploitations.’
And as the young writer and filmmaker, who was brought up in rural Wales tellingly explains, the Americans were not alone in this: it was very much a part of the history of the British, Spanish and French empires, too.
They would incorporate ‘an indigenous elite’ such as happened in the case of the leaders of the Scottish clans ‘into the economic ranks of a settler society’ thus destablising entire communities.
The essay ends with a series of her grandmother’s dreams with a vision of the island being owned by the Geechee people who would ‘know how to hold on to it.’
Siân Melangell Dafydd’s equally personal and powerful contribution takes us from a house on the edge of a small French forest called the Forest of the Violent and follows the journey of an abused woman to a place of safety, taking her son Ewen to Wales.
She meditates on the way some names carry their own stories, not least her own, Melangell being the patron saint of animals, while Ewen means Son of a Yew Tree.
The closing image of her essay memorably finds her taking a photograph of him in a tangle of tree branches where she can ‘take a photograph of him being wind, being spirit. His arms are conjuring charms.
The photograph captures something else that the eye can’t see: an orb, giant, eye-like’ which ‘appears around him once I click. He is caught in the gesture of a magician, palms towards the inner tree. The orb, I think, allows him safety, the upper curve a full rainbow.’
This is writing both as charm and amulet.
Graphic artist Neil Gower’s concentrates in the main on a trip he made to visit the poet Simon Armitage’s hometown of Marsden, where the two delight in the relationship between maps and poetry as Gower researches the endpapers for the anthology Magnetic Fields.
The raw landscape, ‘confident of its own rawness as the slabs of pigment on a Lucien Freud haunch’ reminds him of the cirque above Blaenrhondda.
It is as though ‘finding myself in the Poet Laureate’s passenger seat discussing maps and poetry’ had ‘triggered some kind of short-circuit between my childhood and the present.’
This allows him to marshall memories of his art teacher Tom Hutchinson at Brynteg Comprehensive and the ‘journey from boy to man which ‘has presented me with light and language as a form of currency.’
Julie Brominicks’ ‘The Murmuration’ is perhaps the nearest to old-school travel writing in the collection, as she tells us about a sojourn in Japan with all five, or maybe six senses on full alert.
The language is consistently gorgeous, such as this nocturne about an old town, completely dark other than for a few lights reflected in the rain:
Streets disappear into a perspective of dripping wires and gangi-dori. The old town, with its scent of red pine, is like an abandoned piece of antique furniture with quiet sliding drawers and grainy gold lustre, full of rainy temples, and dignified folded people slipping into shadows behind mysterious doors.
One could quote so much more, as it’s vividly evocative and linguistically alive down to every pulsing phrase.
The fact that the collection closes with an account of a visit, or at least of trying to visit my favourite place on earth is a sort of clincher.
Archaelogist E.E.Rhodes tells us about various attempts to follow the pilgrim trail to Bardsey island but Ynys Enlli remains stubbornly out of reach.
Until one day she finally makes it, forty years after an old priest, Father Wilfred had asked her if she knew what question the pilgrimage of life is trying to answer.
In a sense all of the essays in An Open Door answer that question, considering its departure lounges and staging posts, all the journeys involved in stumbling into the wildly uncertain future.
Its editor is to be congratulated for allowing the door to open so wide and for assembling such a gifted set of tour guides.
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