Books for travel writers #1: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

I thought I’d share a few of the books which I’ve been reading recently. All related to travel and nature writing, but all approach the field from very different angles.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris

The last ever book from Morris, now in her eighties, is a wonderful exploration of how fluid and changeable, yet in some ways totally rigid, a place can be. Having been posted there originally as a soldier in the Second World War – before becoming a woman – and as a writer and tourist since, the book investigates what it is about the city that’s so haunting.

Having been to Trieste myself (for about three hours) I was fascinated by the title, it summed up exactly how I felt: it is nowhere. On the first page we are told that in a poll ’70 percent of Italians did not know that it was in Italy.’ Yet for no fathomable reason my mind often wanders back there too.

The book offers a fascinatingly in-depth look into local history, as well as comprehensive references to literature however, for me, it was a little too factual. I felt that Morris herself was the truly interesting character and It was the first and last chapters, where her feelings and personal connection with the place were more apparent, that were the most engaging.

Why:

One of the really interesting things that Morris does is to play around with large chunks of information, creating fictitious imaginings of events based on the facts. It sat really nicely within the narrative, especially with such a lot of history, breathing life into the ghosts of the past.

Reading this book really confirmed how important I find context – I don’t just want to know about a place, I want to know why that writer is telling me about it too, what it means to them. This has helped me feel more self-assured about my own work.

Who:

Writers interested in sociological or cultural history (the city’s population have found themselves moved between several nationalities) or history. There’s a lot about the Hapsburgs, WW1 and 2, Yugoslavia and Austria.

Morris has a subtle humour to her work and descriptions such as the city having a ‘sweet melancholy’ are so simple but, like the city, haunting. Perfect for anyone interested in developing a more paired-back way of evoking a sense of place or a more conversational, accessible writing style.

The ‘free’ perfume hustle

One of the things I love the most about London is that, no mater how long you’ve lived here, there’s always something unexpected waiting to surprise the unexpecting pants off of you. Often that something has no reason to be astonishing, it’s always been there, you’ve just never noticed before.

The Perfume Seller's, 'Laurelle', stall on London's busy Oxford Street.

Laurelle

I noticed this perfume seller on Oxford Street last month, giving out “free perfume, for one day only – today’s your lucky day!”

“Paco Rabanne and other designers”, he claimed, tempting tired shoppers over as they passed what appeared to be a pop-up shop: a temporary banner was tacked over the sign for whatever used to be there, there were no proper fixtures or fittings and heaps of boxed perfumes everywhere.

It was close to dusk and a crowd of tourists had gathered around the shop front, the boss – a sort of Middle Eastern-looking Del Boy – passed out free bottles of scent, working the audience like a holiday camp Red Coat. “One hundred percent, genu-i-ine free. Take it home, wrap it up for Christmas, just tell your friends – LAURELLE.co.uk.’

Being nosey as hell, I pushed to the front, watching ever more iridescent plastic monstrosities, colours ranging from Disney lilac to Poundshop gold, flying out fast. The cheap floral aroma wafting on the breeze was making my nose tickle.

“Something for the girlfriend, mate? And how about another one to take home to the wife?”

My boyfriend dragged me away.

“How can they afford to give stuff away for free on Oxford Street rent?” I asked. Andy looked at me, in much the same way as he does when I eat pasta and sauce and predictably drop it all over my white shirt, and explained. It was only free to begin with.

“He’s been bluffing tourists for donkeys years, love.”

It’s free at first, until he’s got a crowd gathered. Then, when new shoppers get excited by all the people, it’s suddenly £5, £10, £20. And how are tourists – people in a strange land – to know they’ve been had? Not until it’s too late, anyway. Apparently the name changes sometimes, he might move a few shops up or down the street, but it’s a scam that’s been going strong for an awfully long time.

I was so surprised – blatent scamming? In London? Surely not. Somehow, I thought that in a city as obsessed with rules and regulation as this, there was no room left for old-school wide boys.

I happened to be passing through that part of town again three weeks later. He was still there, in fact, that’s when I took the picture.

A week in Pembrokeshire

I just wanted to share a few pictures from my MA residential a few weeks ago in Pembrokeshire.

The first footprints on West Dale beach

The first footprints

I’ve just started an MA in nature and travel writing – I never thought I’d be back at Bath Spa university – and to kick start the course we spent a week at Dale Fort field studies center. It was a wonderful location, perched on the top of a rocky outcrop in deepest south Wales. We spent the days taking walks along the coast and discussing travel writers, photographers, landscape painters, ecology, ecocriticism, you name it, till late in the evenings before grabbing a cheeky red wine in the bar. It was pretty intense and there was a lot to take in, but it was one of those weeks where you come home feeling like a different person.

Dale Fort - teacher son the beach

Tutors – Paul and Joe discuss world domination

It was a bizarre place to stay – at meal times we ate sponge-based pizza and lumpy custard with rows of giggling children, tucked away in a small underground wine-cellar type room. On a couple of occasions we needed a break, when it began to get a bit too much like a trip to a 1950s boarding school we snuck off for some pub grub and a bit of respite. But on the whole it was a really great way to get to know everyone and stuck out there in the wilderness (if you’re a Londoner, Dale is pretty wild, OK) we really got our teeth stuck into things.

Common Toad (but don’t say that to his face)

The centre is surrounded by dramatic coastline, stunning beaches and we were lucky with the weather – the rain even cleared up for twenty or thirty whole seconds over the course of the week. I’ve written a piece about the experience, and just as soon as I find out that is hasn’t won the Guardian travel writing competition, I’ll post it up here.

(My computer has become too old to run PhotoShop, so the photo’s haven’t been straightened or tidied up. Sorry about that)

West Dale Beach

West Dale Beach – my favourite

Birds in stormy sky

bath spa travel writers

We all listen very carefully to Paul

Beauty and the beast

Dale castle, the village and more cows

Dale castle, the village and cows (that’s my class being intelligent in the distance)

sea and sky

Anna Is Eating on West Dale beach (not eating)