Farm Ireland

Friday 28 October 2016

The wordsmiths who bring distant landscapes to life

Joe Barry

Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30

Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux

While reading Paul Theroux's latest book Deep South which relates his experiences during four seasons spent wandering through the Southern States of America, I realised that I drive almost every day, along lovely country roads but frequently fail to notice the finer aspects of the landscape.

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The best writers and especially those who are famed for their travel literature, have a unique ability to see things that the rest of us miss. They have the talent to describe them in great detail and all the while keep us gripped with fascinating stories about their journey and the people they encounter on the way.

This prompted me to try for myself to note and retain in my mind everything I could see while driving.

By doing this, I discovered that the countryside suddenly came to life and I clearly saw things I had not previously even noticed. Try it some time and see how your journey changes and how you begin to appreciate small details that otherwise are lost to your senses.

Imagine you are writing an article for publication and suddenly you find you are taking stock of perhaps a honeysuckle climbing up a hawthorn bough or a gap in a hedge filled with a rotting pallet, magpies pecking at some item of roadkill or maybe each one of the multitude of wild flowers, birds and insects that live among our hedgerows.

While again flicking through the pages of Theroux's book, I came on this sentence he wrote while he explored the Mississippi Delta. It is just one of many that bring the area sharply in to focus for the reader "I could sense the river from beyond the trees by the clouds of insects over the nearer bayous and swampier distances and the quality of light, which was milkier and bluer, filtered through the stands of hardwoods and willows."

Immediately I can see in my mind's eye exactly what he is describing. Rather than simply stating, as most of us would that he could "see a cloud of insects" he turns it in to something that is intensely visual and almost poetic.

Deep South is Paul Theroux's 10th travel book and unlike his earlier journeys to distant places, this time he writes on one of the most neglected parts of his homeland of America.

It is at times a shocking book in that he brings starkly to our attention the grinding poverty that many of those living in the Southern States are currently enduring.

The US is the wealthiest nation in the world yet for many of the residents of states like Alabama, their lives are reminiscent of impoverished parts of India, Africa and other desperately poor places around the Globe.

He knows his subject well having spent 50 years travelling and he leaves nothing out when interviewing residents living in barely habitable shacks and also those who are clawing their way out of poverty. The people emerge as the stars and their courage in the face of racial hatred and high unemployment is genuinely inspiring. First published in 2015, Deep South tells of an America we hear little of and for that reason, plus Theroux's (pictured) wonderfully descriptive and entertaining writing, it makes great summer reading.

A further gem of travel literature is Bad Land by Jonathan Raban and is one that I reviewed here some time in the past. Having recently read it again, I feel it is well worth mentioning, if only for an example of the risks and dangers associated with allowing ourselves be hoodwinked by clever advertising. Like Deep South it is also about America, this time vividly describing the bad lands of Montana and the unfortunate homesteaders who, in the early 1900s, believed they could make a new life for themselves by farming on land that rapidly turned in to the great American dustbowl.

It is a classic of its kind and if you think times are tough here in Ireland with low prices for our produce, just read how thousands of hopefuls from Ireland, Britain, Sweden and other European countries as well as from the American cities flocked to take up the offer of cheap land as the new railways opened up what was previously wild prairie. We all know what happened next, if only from the pages of The Grapes of Wrathby John Steinbeck.

Each one of these books make great reading that is both factual and entertaining while reminding us how precarious life can be.

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