Tag Archives: literary tourism

Literary Travel in the United Kingdom

gordale scarBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Who should know literary tourism better than the author of 17 novels, plus a slew of biographies and screenplays and critiques, and now, a memoir called The Pattern in the Carpet? Margaret Drabble recently put together a splendid list of literary tourism destinations for the Guardian, introducing it with a remark about best-selling author Dan Brown that could be interpreted as dismissive or worse. And some sincere words about writers of yore, and their favored surroundings:

I am one of many who read the landscape through those who wrote about it and the words of our great landscape writers – Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Hardy, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath – sound in my ears as I walk and wander.

Some of Drabble’s picks are predictable, but that’s not to imply they are banal. There is, after all, a reason why the classics are the classics, and that goes for places, as well as books. The lighthouse in Cornwall that meant so much to Virginia Woolf, for instance. Stonehenge — not only for its own sake, but because it inspired Thomas Hardy and William Wordsworth, both highly esteemed literary figures whose reputations are unlikely to fade. Tintern Abbey and Tintagel; the Lake District; and Haworth, home of the Brontes, whose environs she describes as “numinous.”

The list also encompasses many low-profile locales, like Burslem, which figured in the novels of Arnold Bennett. In Burslem, one can still find “picturesque pot banks,” whatever those might be. Drabble names Goredale Scar, pictured on this page, and Malham, an important place in one of her own novels. Poet Thomas Gray is also associated with this lovely section of the world. Remember “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard”? Not the catchiest title, but a number of his phrases became immortal, especially “far from the madding crowd” which Hardy borrowed as title for one of his novels. And Gray knew from graveyards: among the twelve children his mother bore, he was the only one who made it past infancy.

Then there’s Aldeburgh, which has associations with George Crabbe and Benjamin Britten. Nowadays, it’s the site of a renowned literature and music festival. And do not neglect the Quantocks, a place of transcendent value to Coleridge and Wordsworth, and others who knew transcendence when they saw it.

Andrew Lycett highlights some features of the Wales of Dylan Thomas in The Times. This is a pretty fascinating look at the “curious love-hate relationship with the Welsh countryside” experienced by the poet. He talks about visiting the boathouse in Laugharne where the Thomas once lived, and defines the different significance that three different parts of Wales had for him, and reveals what happened at Worm’s Head. The Times also sponsors other literary walks, such as “Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall,” “Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh,” and “William Blake’s London.” But here’s a question. How many writers are not somehow associated with London? Even Karl Marx wrote some pretty famous stuff there.

If you go up to Scotland, you can hang out in places previously frequented by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Jimmy Lowe shared in the Glasgow Daily Times an account of doing just that, and much more besides, when he and his wife toured the United Kingdom with literature on their minds. And should you ever consider buying a house in Britain, you can hire a certified house historian to ferret out any literary associations if might have. At Mail Online, Gwenda Brophy — another of those writers enamored of London — tells marvelous stories about historic homes, quoting specialist Melanie Backe-Hansen, who says:

Certain places are a magnet for writers. Carlyle Mansions, on Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, is referred to as the writers’ block as it’s been home to well-known figures such as Ian Fleming and T. S. Eliot.

Wander around England long enough, and you’ll see places that bear the stamp of Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, George Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, John Bunyan, Bram Stoker, J. K. Rowling, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, A.A. Milne, etc., etc., etc. And that’s just novelists and poets. We haven’t even started on the painters yet.

photo courtesy of gaspa, used under this Creative Commons license

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Literary Travel: Venice, Italy, with Peter Ackroyd

veniceBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Peter Ackroyd is a fellow who recently experienced a dramatic change of focus: after writing many books about London, England, he now anticipates the publication of Venice: Pure City, by the venerable British firm Chatto & Windus. The tale of this book is told to us by Peter Popham, by way of The Independent. Popham is no shabby wordsmith himself. One of the things he tells us about Venice is:

A lot of the magic resides in the silence…to wake in the morning knowing you are in a crowded city, and not to hear a single cough or roar or growl of an internal combustion engine. That alone is the worth the price of the air ticket.

Also, much of the appeal of Venice seems to be in its refusal and/or inability to change. It’s one of the few places on earth where a 16th century time-traveler could wind up and still be able to navigate the streets. Paradoxically, another part of the attraction is the city’s ability to get you good and lost, which has been exploited by several novels and feature films. And in a third aspect of that permanence is the impermanence, the instability, the precariousness of the city’s footings when confronted by the sea. One of the reasons to go to Venice has always been the “last chance” factor, the possibility that next time, it won’t be there.

And, to add a fourth layer of ambiguity, Ackroyd explains in his book how Venice was once as much a token of the shining future as any World’s Fair full of monorails and robot houses. Popham, in his review, says that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Venice was “an avant-garde place which was demonstrating, boldly and with stunning success, entirely new ways of getting rich and flaunting and enjoying the wealth created.” Kind of like the dot.com era.

In a bonanza for the literary travel aficionado, this article lists several writers and artists in other fields who have been inspired by Venice, and exactly what they did about it: Shakespeare, Sir Elton John, Robert Browning, Henry James, John Ruskin, Nicholas Roeg, and of course the notorious Lord Byron. Apparently, Venice recalls its vanquishment by Napoleon in 1797, like the American South remembers the War Between the States. Ackroyd points out that there was a time when a third of its population existed on charity. This was the scene the Romantic poets descended upon, proceeding to romanticize the ruin of a formerly great principality.

The decades rolled on and Venice became a cultural center again, with all its film festivals and Biennales. It’s always been a capital of commercialism, which tourists are quite acclimated to. Reportedly, around 16 million visitors throng to Venice each year. For various reasons. On August 28, counterculture icons and artistic collaborators Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens celebrated their Blue Wedding in Venice. Not their first wedding, but their fifth. There’s a whole high-concept performance art thing going on here, which is worth looking into. Details and great pictures come from Greg Archer (who writes about film, TV, and the arts in general, as well as ecological matters) at HuffPost.

Yes, there’s always the romance of Venice. In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin Dolgin relates the story of his first visit — long before meeting his wife, it should be noted.

We spent our days walking through the tiny streets, pausing on the bridges, chasing the pigeons, and we spent our evenings riding the vaporetti, strolling through the piazze, eating sparingly in sidewalk cafés and making love in the large soft bed.

Irresistible! As long as there are canals, hotels, and cafés, Venice will never go out of business.

photo courtesy of Chiara Marra, used under this Creative Commons license

Ireland: Communication, Imram and Beer

slea head irelandBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Today we take as our text one of the recent contributions of Kevin Dolgin to the annals of travel writing. This narrative is found at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and its title, “The Best Pint of Guinness in Dublin,” is self-explanatory. It’s all about visiting with members of one of the most loquacious of all ethnic groups, the Irish, in their native haunts. This was done on the advice of a cab driver, whose considered opinion was that the most Irish characteristic is communication — particularly the kind carried on over a measure of excellent brew. Actually, the more measures, the better. But first, Dublin must be navigated — and here’s how Kevin describes the venerable city:

It’s made of bricks: the buildings, the sidewalks, everything is made of brick. I find brick cities to be cold, industrial. You expect to see Charlie Chaplin skittering around the corner with a bevy of incompetent cops running after him.

Confiding in the barman that they are in search of the best pint of Guinness in Dublin, Kevin and his friend are promised they’ve come to the right place, because of an elusive factor called the “sharp draw.” Indeed, it is an article of faith among the Irish that their Guinness will have a different taste, depending on the architecture, fittings, and ambiance of each particular pub. Various other bars are recommended, and as the two seekers journey on, helpful bystanders recommend yet more not-to-be-missed watering holes, including one housed in a former morgue. As the Irish communication skills blossom, the writerly note-taking diminishes, and the details of the last few stops are a bit blurry, except for a sudden return of awareness re: an interesting vending machine in the gents’.

Now, we must not get the idea that Ireland is all kegs and drafts. Remember the communication aspect? For that, you’ve also got your literary festivals, a roaring great crowd of them. Poetry Ireland, for example, offers a complete roundup of all Irish poetry festivals throughout the year. July saw the 11th West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, only one of many such cultural gatherings. The granddaddy of them all, at 18 years, is the Aspects Irish Literature Festival that occurs in Northern Ireland, not far from Belfast, whose mission is “firstly to promote exclusively Irish writing in all its forms.” Declan Burke outlines the past and future prospects of the crime novel as an element of the Irish lit fest in “Plots of crime masterminds” at the Irish Independent. As the host of “Crime Always Pays”, a blog dedicated to Irish crime writing, Burke has the whole scene covered.

Upcoming is the 6th Dromineer Literary Festival, to be held from October 1st to 4th in County Tipperary. It’s probably a bit late to arrange for attendance at “Let Me Take You To The Island,” namely Rathlin Island, a lovely spot in the Irish Sea near Ballycastle, or to make it to Dublin’s IMRAM Irish Language Literature festival, which is in progress even as we speak — but keep them in mind for next year. This IMRAM bash is beyond eclectic, with such offerings as “the Russian poets of the Silver Age translated into Irish and English,” and the Dylan Project (Dylan Thomas, not Bob Dylan). The imram, by the way, is a rowing voyage, sort of a pilgrimage or walkabout, only by sea. In the tradition of the Celts, it’s also an inner voyage to the realms of vision and dreams. In fact, imram designates a whole genre of Irish literature.

That festival is not to be confused with the Immrama Literary Festival, which in June drew 4,000 travelers to Lismore, County Waterford. “Rory Maclean literally blazed the Hippie Trial taking his audience from Istanbul to Kathmandu and on to Burma and Russia, his presentation ‘Creating a Traveller’s Tale’,” reads part of the gathering’s description, and in fact the focus of this particular festival is on travel writing.

But for those who avoid both communication and festival multitudes, here’s a bit of Ireland whose praises are sung by John G. O’Dwyer: An Daingean, or Dingle, a windswept part of the western coast with no golf courses or luxury hotels. (The photo on this page is Slea Head.) According to O’Dwyer, “It is often said that the Irish countryside is a giant storybook seeking readers.” He says it, and a lot more besides, in The Irish Times.

photo courtesy of Frankensteinnn, used under this Creative Commons license

Literary Travel and Spiritual Journeys in Japan

japanBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga has earned well-deserved awards for her work, which mainly explores the theme of why some people feel compelled to leave their native culture and find a new one. At The Red Room, she interviews Todd Shimoda, author of the novel Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware, which Tokunaga calls:

…a fascinating and compelling book that weaves themes of both traditional and modern Japanese culture. You’ll be drawn in by Shimoda’s spare but elegant prose, which reminds me of the writing style of Haruki Murakami.

It’s about Zack Hara, a young man in Los Angeles whose life is stalled in a void of apathy and depression. In search of his roots and himself, he goes to Japan, and things get worse before they get better. (Reviewer Jeff Snodgrass calls the novel “metaphysics in the guise of a pulp mystery.”) In real life, Shimoda has done incredibly abstruse work in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and so on. In this interview, he explains the concept of mono no aware, a mindfulness that incorporates intense emotional reaction to things.

Apparently, one of the less desirable avenues through which confused souls try to approach this state is the suicide club. Another avenue, a very wide and broad one, is art, which brings up the incredible, impeccable artwork by Linda Shimoda that illustrates Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware.

Some people travel because of inner needs. To connect with one’s own ancestors is a frequent reason to go from one place to another. And then there are people who simply feel they were born in the wrong place. And the ones who are on some kind of vision quest. And those who just want to see a big robot, or a big Buddha. When Japan is the destination, a seeker might contemplate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and war and peace.

In this strange story called “The World Tour Compatibility Test,” by Elizabeth Koch, two young lovers, Westerners in Japan, are in search of their own relationship. Along the way, they visit the Todai-Ji Temple, on the recommendation of none other than Kevin Dolgin. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Nostril: The Daibutsu, Nara, Japan,” is the name of the essay where they they got this idea. What people do is try to slide their bodies through the nostril of the Buddha. As Kevin notes, “the intricacies of Japanese religious practice are impenetrable.”

Daibutsu means “Big Buddha,” and Joshua Williams tells us everything a civilized person needs to know about giant Buddha statues. That’s the spiritual side. On the literary side, a writer might want to mingle with her colleagues, as Karen Kay describes in “Tokyo, Japan and the wonderland world of the Thumb Tribe.” Kay analyzes not only the literary scene but the many-faceted culture:

Japan’s new literary elite gather to sip espressos or cocktails and work on their latest bestselling novels…. sophisticated, designer-clad authors who tap out their blockbusters on their mobile phone handsets

Artists go on their own kinds of quests. They might want to track down the ancient art of Bunraku rather than depend on the imported version. Robed puppeteers in teams of three manipulate large puppets, while a narrator tells the story. Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier provides an in-depth explanation of this art form at Yahoo! Canada, among other places. Artists like to go see things like the giant robots or mecha that are sprouting up all over Japan. At Cartoon Leap, there’s a wonderful photo sequence of how to build one of these things.

photo courtesy of digika , used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Turned Inside Out in Ireland

cornwall_coast

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

What we have here is the very opposite of travel writing. It’s host writing. It looks at our favorite subject not as a traveler might, but from the point of view of the inhabitants of a place. In this excellent Dublin Independent piece, Martina Devlin makes comparisons of the cost, and looks at the difference between the tourist experience in France (good) and Ireland (not so good). She explores the three main factors that are responsible: price, service, and quality. Okay, that’s about what you’d expect from any writer with both an aesthetic sense and a grasp of realpolitik. And then she goes brilliant:

What we do have to offer — our unique selling point — is our reputation as the Land of Saints and Scholars; our literary tradition. We can attract tourists by offering well-organised, weather resistant events: one extension of the “smart economy” we should not ignore… If we are to live to tell the tale of this once-in-a-century recession, we need to access those survival-of-the-fittest genes hardwired into our DNA.

In the matter of price, Devlin contends that the Irish don’t have a chance, because of the twin pillars of socialism, namely, high minimum wage and high income tax. As to the causes, agree with her or not — but the evidence is undeniable: it’s no longer an Ireland where visitors “will be content simply to admire the scenery.”

Devlin even provides specific suggestions, by giving examples of what has been successfully done in the literary tourism field. The recent West Cork Literary Festival, for instance, offered a class on travel writing, and encouraged professional travel agents to sign up. It’s that niche marketing concept. For novel-writing classes, about a third of the participants came from outside Ireland, and she believes this trend can be capitalized on to the very great benefit of the local economy. Ireland did just fine in its recent renaissance, and if there’s any country that can make a comeback, this is the one to do it.

Martina Devlin has published four novels and two nonfiction books. Her website offers great advice for writers. This opinion is not necessarily endorsed by Kevin Dolgin or anyone else around here, but the writer of this blog says it loud: Devlin is hot, hot, hot.

Last year, TripAdvisor compiled a list of the top ten literary travel destinations and #4 is Dublin, so things are heading in the right direction. Dublin has Yeats and Joyce, of course. For Harry Potter fans, this Skyscanner page offers a list of 13 possible destinations. Ireland is included on the basis of winning the 1994 Quidditch World Cup, and also on general principles, for being the stomping ground of Imps, Porlocks and Kelpies.

Ireland needs a literary-tourist-magnet on the scale of Menabilly, which is in the British county of Cornwall. That estate was the prototype of the fictitious Manderley in Daphne DuMaurier’s immortal best-seller Rebecca. Apparently, the author fell in love with a house, and wrote a bestseller featuring the house as a character, and made enough money to lease the house and move in. What a great story!

The person who knows the most about it is Justine Picardie, who has just published a book about DuMaurier, and who tells many entertaining details in The Times. Her description of that whole area makes a person want to go there right now. Not to Menabilly itself, of course. It’s not open to the public. But there is a yearly gathering in the nearest town, for devotees of the novel and the house. This article also gives careful directions for the optimal self-guided walking tour of the local countryside.

One reader we asked says that in Ireland, she’d like to see places associated with Maud Gonne. Or Bobby Sands. We’d like to hear more ideas. In Ireland, or any part of the United Kingdom, whose house or neighborhood would you like to have a peek at?

Cornwall coast photo courtesy of Kai Hendry , used under this Creative Commons license

Edinburgh, Scotland: Best Reason to Go

Edinburgh Castle

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Theodore Koumelis has been keeping up with some statistics. In Travel Daily News, he tells us that each year, Great Britain welcomes to her shores 765,000 people. They visit film locations, hunt down the spot where their favorite music video was filmed, absorb the ambiance of a famous writer’s home, or find the scenic inspiration for some novel they’ve read. Koumelis is the founder and managing editor of TravelDailyNews International, which aspires to be always the most informative source in international tourism. In “2009 could be the year of literary tourism” he gives examples of what literary tourists are looking for:

The year witnesses the National Trust opening of Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway in Devon, where she lived as Mrs Malowan from 1936 to 1959…..A new film written and directed by The Piano’s Jane Campion, Bright Star, explores the three-year romance between 19th century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, cut short by Keats’ untimely death at 25.

edinburgh window

Koumelis mentions Edinburgh, Scotland, but does not mention what we see as the primary reason to go there (aside from ancestor-hunting, of course.) Edinburgh is where Ian Rankin’s detective stories are set. In the United Kingdom, one out of every ten crime books sold is written by Rankin. Not that numbers in themselves mean much, but these are really, really good detective stories with outstandingly well-drawn characters. There are also descriptions of Scotland that, for some perverse reason, some of us find alluring. (That picture at the top is Edinburgh Castle.)

In other Scottish literary travel news, Kaiya Marjoribanks reports in the Stirling Observer that next year, 2010, will be momentous in Trossachs. This is the area featured in the well-known poem “The Lady of the Lake,” by Sir Walter Scott. The lake in question is Loch Katrine. “Romantic tourism” is another name for the impulse that draws visitors to such places. It’s all about sharing cultural heritage, and we’re all for it.

Edinburgh photo courtesy of Jordan S Hatcher , used under this Creative Commons license; Edinburgh Window photo courtesy of Leithcote , used under this Creative Commons license