Walking is the Way Forward

Walking is having a moment, isn’t it? Well, it is for me.

It started last year when I read a piece by journalist Polly Vernon on how she’s incorporated at least three hours’ walking into her life every day since 2003 – it keeps her fit, slim and her headspace clear. I found myself wondering how long it would take to walk into central London from my home north-west London and Google Maps told me it would be 75 minutes. It seemed like an age, given that I was used to hopping on a bus or a tube and whizzing in under half an hour. But once I started doing it I became hooked, and time passes so quickly when I’m walking, it all seems like a bit of a lovely dream when I get to my destination.

I’ve noticed that I’m gravitating to books about walking, too, and they’re inspiring me more and more. I’ve just finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and cried with the joy and grief of his journey. I’ve always loved travel writing and whilst I’ve enjoyed books about people cycling or taking trains or motorbikes across vast continents, I’ve never really read walking books. The first one to inspire me was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild. I first heard the author on the radio (while walking!) reading extracts from her book. She walked the Pacific Crest Trail on her own – over a thousand miles from the Mojave desert to Washington State. Reese Witherspoon picked up the movie rights and made a film I wanted to leap into almost as much as the book – I want a Walk of One’s Own.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Then came the wonderful Robert Macfarlane, whom I’ve only just discovered this year. I usually confine my travel reading to foreign lands. Why would I want to read about travelling around Britain? I want to stretch my horizons when I read, not limit them. But I was oh so wrong. Macfarlane’s incredibly intelligent writing in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012, Penguin) has opened up a world that is right on my doorstep. He follows ancient tracks around the world but seems at his most spiritually enlightened on British soil, or on ancient sea trails.

The Old Ways (Penguin)

The Old Ways (Penguin)

I’ve now bought his earlier work, The Wild Places (2007, Granta) and I can’t wait to join him again as he seeks out the wildernesses in Britain and Ireland. The last time I felt like this about a travel author was when I discovered Paul Theroux (Louis’ dad) who is still the One and Only for me.

The Wild Places (Granta)

The Wild Places (Granta)

So now I’m contemplating a Walk of One’s Own. I’m going to walk around the Isle of Wight at the end of July, 69km over four days, five nights. I’m going to tweet it, blog it, review it, Instagram it, and 4G-allowing, Periscope it. I’m now a seasoned solo traveller so the thought of doing this on my own is exciting. I’ve been to Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East on my own and blogged about those experiences elsewhere. But what will happen on my own doorstep? Whom will I meet? Where will I stay? Will I collapse after walking 16 miles a day? What will the weather throw at me?

Bring it on. I hope you will join me as I go. More details to come, but in the meantime, here’s my Top Ten Travel Books reading list (excluding the above). Note that all but one of the authors are men – that’s another blog post!

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux (Penguin)

Moods of Future Joys by Alastair Humphreys (Eye)

McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy (Sceptre)

The Full Montezuma by Peter Moore (Transworld)

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Vintage)

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson (Canongate)

Duende by Jason Webster (Black Swan)

Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon (Penguin)

The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (HarperPerennial)

Information is Beautiful

The wonderful news that William Grill won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration today made me whoop with joy, for illustrated non-fiction books are having a renaissance, and it’s about time. As Grill is purported to have said, non fiction is seen as ‘unglamorous’ next to fiction and picture books and it doesn’t have to be that way. As someone whose career has involved the publishing of Horrible Histories and all its satellite series, I say ‘amen’ and ‘I hear you’ to that. We haven’t had such a great a non-fiction moment since Dragonology first hit the scene back in 2003 from Templar. Filled with wheels, tabs, flaps and fold-outs, not to mention ‘jewels’ set into the covers, these books set the standard for a type of gift non fiction that everyone suddenly started to aspire to.

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

We all started doing versions of the ‘ologies’ until the 2008 recession hit us, print costs went sky-high and no one would pay £19.99 for a book any more. In children’s books at least, the emphasis suddenly went from pop-up carousels and feats of paper-engineering to ‘straight’ books, and even fewer illustrated ones. Every publisher knows that B-format black-and-white fiction is where the money and the profit is at, so the ship steered well away from high-production-value non fiction and gift books. Happily for us, the digital-induced renaissance in high-quality gift books is giving non fiction another moment. I noticed it first appearing in 2013 with Maps (Big Picture Press), the beautifully illustrated atlas by Alexandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski.

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

We were all stunned by the intricately rendered artwork by the Bologna Ragazzi-winning couple, clearly the work of many months. It has spawned a new genre of nostalgically illustrated large-format gift books, most notably in 2014, Animalium (Big Picture Press) by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott, and Wide-Eyed Editions’ Atlas of Adventures (Rachel Williams & Lucy Netherland) and Nature’s Day (Danielle Kroll & Kay Maguire).

Animalium (Big Picture Press)

Animalium (Big Picture Press)

In adult books, another sort of non-fiction renaissance is happening as illustrated publishers compete for gift-book slots with lavishly bound, be-ribboned, embossed and gilded-edged titles, such as Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon) and my favourite, Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press).

Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon)

Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon)

Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press)

Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press)

I’ve been told that Waterstones buyers won’t even look at a non-fiction Christmas gift title unless it has all the bells and whistles, and indeed publishers are creating bespoke special editions for them. The conversations happening between editors, designers, production controllers and printers are in a really interesting place right now as they look beyond traditional book formats, trying to outdo the competition with the next big widget. Of course, Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins, 2009) and the follow-up Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless was the game-changer in the adult world for non fiction. Purely and simply, his infographics presented information in such a visually accessible way, they are beautiful in themselves. His books provide ‘learning by stealth’ for adults and both of his books deserve a place on every bookshelf, and in every gift-givers list. No widgets required – the artistry is simply on the page.

Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins)

Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins)

With the emphasis on gift books to collect and treasure as objects, I predict that the non-fiction future is beautiful.