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My favourite books for Lockdown

IT is over nine months now since the arrival of Covid-19 caused disruption to all of our lives, writes Linda Vijeh.

As a keen traveller I had, like many others, planned several trips abroad this last year, only to have my best laid plans thwarted.

But no matter, with a good deal of time and effort I was largely able to recoup the cost of flights, hotels etc., and being in a ‘vulnerable’ group settled down to a life confined to the four walls of my apartment, a glass of wine, or two, and a pile of books.

My total literary consumption for the duration now numbers in excess of 130 books.

I have a number of favourite authors and nowadays I tend to steer clear of what might be termed ‘chic lit’ as I find them generally rather formulaic.

High on my list of desirable reads are biographies, as I like to find out what lies behind the public face; what makes people tick.

As a rule though, I feel that autobiographies, particularly those written by ‘celebrities’, tend to be rather self-indulgent.

Quite my favourite literary genres are anything to do with food and wine, and not far behind in the pecking order, travel.

Largely reduced to ordering books online, I have had to come to terms with the fact that, as my eyesight deteriorates, I am now becoming very conscious of the style and font size.

As I mostly read in bed, finding it impossible to drop off without doing so, I also try to avoid weighty tomes, as they are far too heavy to handle comfortably.

There are those addicted to Kindles and their ilk but for me there is nothing quite like holding a book in your hand and physically turning the pages.

During Lockdown I have enjoyed reading the following and, in the absence of actual travel I can thoroughly recommend them for a little adventurous escapism as an armchair traveller.

Slow Trains to Venice: A 4,000-Mile Adventure Across Europe (Tom Chesshyre) 

Described a love letter to Europe, escaping the rat race for a few weeks, Tom indulges in the freedom of the tracks. Travelling from France (rail worker strikes permitting), through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, he eventually finds himself in Odessa by the Black Sea in Ukraine, returning home via Hungary, the Balkans and Austria.

 Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure (Monisha Rajesh)

 Recommended by the ultimate traveller himself, Michael Palin, Monisha Rajesh gets right to the heart of things. The journey is one of constant mayhem, as she strikes up friendships with fellow travellers.

From the dizzy heights of Tibet’s Qinghai railway to the luxurious splendour on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, this is a celebration of the glory of train travel and a comical, irreverent, look at the world, taking in some breath-taking views.

The author’s unforgettable adventure takes her from London’s St Pancras station to the open plains of Russia and Mongolia, North Korea, Canada, Kazakhstan, and beyond.

Don’t Go There: From Chernobyl to North Korea—one man’s quest to lose himself and find everyone else in the world’s strangest places (Adam Fletcher)

 In this unusual, amusing travel memoir, award-winning travel writer Adam visits some of the strangest travel destinations on earth.

He enters a blizzard in China armed with only a pack of biscuits, ponders the destruction in Chernobyl, is chased by Croatian police on his way to Liberland (the world’s newest country) and comes face-to-face with two (dead) dictators in North Korea.

Full of interesting characters, and quirky British humour, this is a personal quest to understand the world and himself.

India(ish) (Mark Walters)

The author’s journey begins with an ill-fated attempt to walk across India in flip-flops, and failing.

Instead, we are treated to an account of buttock-bruising buses and chock-a-block trains for a farcical journey across the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, through Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu; to super-cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, and the sacred spots of Amritsar, Varanasi and Rishikesh.

Along the way, Mark encounters the horrors and riches of India, a country of extreme contrasts that he struggles to survive. He has to laugh; it was either that or cry.

He meets randy perverts and mystic madmen and goes insane when he drinks bhang lassi. This is a travel book like no other, about a country like no other.

I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia (John Mole) 

This is a hilarious true story of John’s travels and travails in the New Russia. Sometimes sinister, often hilarious, and always entertaining, this is a Russian feast from caviar to samovar.

The Soviet Union has disappeared, and oligarchs pillage the nation’s wealth. It seems that Russia will either become a liberated democracy or plunge into chaos. With his 15 years in international banking and a few novels under his belt, John finds that he has few useful skills, until inspiration strikes, in the form of British fast food. Nobody is doing jacket baked potatoes! He gets to work with British technical advice and finance, and a partnership with the Russian Farmers’ Union.

Then, he is summoned to breakfast with the mafia…

One More Croissant for the Road (Felicity Cloake) 

This book offers my ideal combination, travel, and food. The author takes us on 2,300 km cycling tour across France seeking out the bakeries that appear on every corner in search of the perfect croissant and the definitive versions of classic French dishes, from Tarte Tatin to Cassoulet via Poule au Pot, and Tartiflette,

She goes from beach to mountain, Atlantic to Mediterranean, in 21 ‘stages’ to put her new-found knowledge to good use in compiling the ultimate recipe for each dish.

 Just Passing Through: A nomadic life afloat in France (Mary-Jane Houlton) 

Living the dream, the author and her husband sold their house, bought a boat called Olivia Rose, and set off with their two dogs to travel the length and breadth of France.

Along the way they come to terms with what it really means to live life in a confined space with few possessions, always on the move, far from friends and family.

As they explore the landscape, on this journey through bustling cities and isolated villages, they find that the world looks and feels very different from the water.

Anyone who dreams of making a life on a boat, will find that there is also a wealth of information and advice to help you on your way.

Footloose: Sydney To London Without Flying (Mark Walters) 

Mark travels from Sydney to London, across three continents, by bus, train, and boat, passing through more than a dozen countries.

He catches a cargo ship across the Indian Ocean, faces up to terrorists and Chinese tanks, has beers with a naked ex-Soviet officer in Kazakhstan, breakfasts on hallucinogenic mushrooms in Amsterdam. Wearing flip-flops the whole time, just because he can.

He tells it like it is with a typically warped sense of humour; a laugh a minute.

 Tuk-Tuk for Two: Escape to India with two strangers, in the unforgettable race of a lifetime (Adam Fletcher)

Despite his fear of driving, yet unable to resist the offer of racing a tuk-tuk 1000km through India with a woman he had only just met in a bar in Berlin, Adam decides that immersion therapy is the best solution.

In his quest to spend ten days in her company, and complete the five-day race, he takes the reader through all of the trials and tribulations of getting to grips with this primitive three-wheeled mode of transport.

The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders (Ben Aitken) 

I first heard of this book when the author was interviewed on Radio 4. When Ben Aitken learnt that his gran had enjoyed a four-night holiday including four three-course dinners, four cooked breakfasts, four games of bingo, a pair of excursions, 16 pints of lager and luxury return coach travel, all for £100, he thought, that’s the life, and signed himself up. Six times over.

A Chip Shop in Poznań: My Unlikely Year in Poland (Ben Aitken) 

Not many Brits move to Poland to work in a fish and chip shop, and fewer still come back wanting to be a Member of the European Parliament. In 2016 Ben Aitken moved to Poland, while he still could, if only to satisfy his curiosity. He wanted to know what the Poles in the UK had left behind and flew to a place he’d never heard of and then accepted a job in a chip shop on the minimum wage.

To Oldly Go: Tales of Intrepid Travel by the Over-60s (Hilary Bradt et al.)

In this collection of travel tales from ‘Silver Travellers’ we read about Dervla Murphy (one of my favourite travel writers) travelling in Cuba at the age of 74 and Matthew Parris swimming the Thames at 60.

As this group of intrepid writers recount their adventures, we witness them stepping outside their comfort zone to reinforce their independence, despite their advancing years. Be prepared to be entertained and amused.


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