Robyn Davidson explores yet another foreign country – the past

Robyn Davidson never set out to become a writer. ‘It did not form my identity,’ she tells us early on in her memoir Unfinished Woman. ‘In my own mind I had simply pulled another rabbit out of a hat. As I had done all my life with everything.’ The rabbit, in this case, is the ability to capture an exciting and complex life with insight and humour. When she decided to leave the underworld, she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint Born in 1950 on a cattle station in Queensland, Australia, Davidson was the second daughter of a handsome war hero from a privileged background. Home was a place full of

Explorer, author, soldier, lover: The Romantic, by William Boyd, reviewed

William Boyd taps into the classical novel tradition with this sweeping tale of one man’s century-spanning life, even to the extent of providing the accustomed framing device: the chance discovery of a cache of papers and mementoes. The items listed by ‘WB’ in his ‘Author’s Note’ – a musket ball, a fragment of a Greek amphora, a crinkly lock of hair – all find their place in the tale of this 19th-century adventurer, lover, traveller and author. Cashel Greville Ross (his name turns out to be as mutable as his identity and nationality) is born in Ireland in irregular circumstances – so irregular that a swift flight to England as

Finally, the Sherpas are heroes of their own story

John Keay has for many years been a key historian and prolific contributor to the romance attaching to the highest mountains on Earth. His latest book is described as a summation of that lifetime’s contribution, offering an overview of the Himālaya – the Sanskrit version (‘Abode of Snow’) that Keay bids us use – both as a physical place and as a realm of intellectual inquiry. The book opens with a bang. Its first theme is the astonishing mountain-making forces that created the region. Specifically, Keay gives us the prolonged intellectual skirmishes among geologists as they tried to piece together the formative processes. The one who unpicked their genesis was

The poet and the polymath: two 16th-century Portuguese travellers

In 1866, Dante Gabriel Rossetti visited a London print shop to buy a large canvas of a Renaissance street. He recognised that the bustling scene – black-robed clerics, bargaining merchants, black porters and children teasing a monkey, played out on a wide boulevard in front of a colonnaded row of slightly rickety houses – was Iberian, but could be no more precise. Only in 2009 did scholars identify the street as Lisbon’s Rua Nova dos Mercadores, painted in the late 16th century, and lost like so much of the city in the great earthquake of 1755. One of the many virtues of Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating, elegantly written book is to

Another fallen idol: the myth of Ferdinand Magellan debunked

Who would you choose to judge you long after your death? How about a professional historian? How about Felipe Fernández-Armesto? Much lauded and read, this professor of history at Notre Dame, Indiana is the author of many books including short histories of humankind and the world and longer ones of exploration, Hispanic America and the year 1492. As you begin Straits, his account of the life and voyages of Fernando de Magallanes, known in English as Ferdinand Magellan, the explorer credited with the first European navigation from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the straits at the tip of South America in 1520, you may quail at the thought of

Do we still need explorers today?

In November 2017 Benedict Allen found himself at the centre of a media frenzy. He’d been in Papua New Guinea (PNG) on a one-man expedition and hadn’t been heard of for weeks. Declaring him ‘lost’, several papers turned on him, accusing him of being overprivileged and imperialistic. One even suggested the whole thing was a stunt. It didn’t help that he was picked up by a helicopter, sent by the Daily Mail. This was a story the paper’s rivals wanted to spoil. Explorer is Allen’s account of that journey and how it all began. It’s no excuse or apology, but is written with anger and passion. The story begins in

Journey to the end of the world: the full horror of the Belgica’s Antarctic expedition

The epic story of the Antarctic voyage of the Belgica (1897-9) has all the ingredients of a truly glorious misadventure: an aristocratic expedition commander who carries the pride of a small nation on his shoulders; an eccentric American surgeon who was to become known as one of the greatest frauds in the history of polar exploration; a cantankerous crew, racked by madness, scurvy and mutiny; a desperate sunless polar winter stuck in shifting sea ice that threatens to crush the ship; and finally an escape plan that involves half a ton of explosives and hand-sawing through a mile and a half of sea ice. It is an extraordinary tale of

Does William Barents deserve to have a sea named after him?

Narratives of frozen beards in polar hinterlands never lose their appeal. Most of the good stories have been told, but in Icebound Andrea Pitzer fills a gap, at least for the popular reader in English, with the story of the 16th-century Dutch mariner William Barents. He sailed further north than any man before him and lives still, on the map, with an eponymous sea off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia. In 1594, during the third decade of his country’s war with Spain, Barents voyaged to the unknown Nova Zembla (‘New Land’ in Dutch), planning to find a route to the fabled riches of Cathay. The notion of a

Heated debate over Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition

How refreshing in a time of general sensitivity to find a book intended to infuriate and debunk. Welcome to the desolate Canadian Arctic, to the mystery of the Franklin expedition, which disappeared in 1845 seeking the North-West Passage, and to a world of disagreement about what happened to it. Ernest Coleman’s story of his search for clues to Franklin’s fate is delightfully prejudiced and pugnacious. The purpose of No Earthly Pole is, he writes, ‘to speak out in opposition to the clustering together of some academics and experts who have closed their minds’. Middle-aged lieutenant goes to the ends of the earth to defend the reputation of Queen Victoria’s Navy

Globalisation is scarcely new: it dates back to the year 1000

In Japan, people thought the world would end in 1052. In the decades leading up to judgment day, Kyoto was rocked by a series of epidemics. It seemed the end was truly nigh. Of course they were wrong, but they were hardly the only people to predict the end of humanity on a specific date. For many tenth-century Christians, the year of the expected doom was 1000 AD. Valerie Hansen’s book focuses on this non-apocalyptic but significant year as the beginning of what we would think of as globalisation. Obviously with our European perspective we’re familiar with such major events of the 11th century as the Norman Conquest and the