I hardly know Wales at all. There was that one of our irregular summer childhood holidays when we exchanged the constant drizzle of Frinton for the interminable downpours of Aberdaron and an adult foray into Pembrokeshire where all my attention was on the birds which flourished offshore, but this book is little concerned with the comings and goings of holidaymakers and nature tourists.
In his introduction Steven Lovatt explains how the title of his anthology is taken from Jan Morris’s observation that Wales’s ‘long coastline was like an open door to the world at large’, and all the essays included touch on this porousness of the country to people travelling for bigger reasons than leisure, whether those be work, love, to make a home or to follow the ancient call to pilgrimage. As such this volume is a welcome addition to the growing genre of ‘New Travel Writing’ which has abandoned the old ways in which comfortably off travellers, usually male, recount their adventures in out of the ordinary places, far or near. And often, as their critics have noted, with a strong degree of condescension and invention.
Many of the writers gathered here are leading between places lives, a point underlined in their mini-biographies at the end of the book, but their attachment to Wales is strong and long term. Faisal Ali’s account of her first visit to Somalia is written from the perspective of someone whose great grandfather settled in Cardiff before the First World War. Giancarlo Gemin recounts the story of how her mother left her home in Venice to make her home in industrial South Wales when her fiancé was recruited by the British Coal Board in 1951. There is a lot of humour and wisdom in E.E. Rhodes’ piece about her repeated attempts to make the pilgrimage to Bardsey Island. All the contributions are very well written, variously capturing the pace of train travel, the extraordinary resilience of yew trees, and the grounding effect of gravel for a wheelchair traveller. This book is not for fans of voyeurs of other cultures’ exoticism but for those who are curious about the richness of lives shaped by place, family history, necessity and limitation.
From the point of view of this reader one of the benefits of the way contemporary travel writing is engaging with the universal and particular experiences of people, rather than being centred on the perspective of one privileged individual, is that rather than being a spectator at a kind of wonder tale, I get drawn into the narratives being shared. In this case, I began to think about my own grandfather’s migration from the Welsh coalfields to Lancashire in search of work, and how that open door from and into Wales has affected my own family.
An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century Edited by Steven Lovatt is published by Parthian Books (£10.00). To order a copy go to www.parthianbooks.com
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.