Joanna Kavenna

K2’s fatal attraction

Take one drug-addled occultist, one forlorn aristocrat, an assortment of urgent colonials and you have, no, not the western canon but the earliest expeditions to K2, the second-highest mountain in the world after Everest. First measured in 1856 by Lieutenant Thomas George Montgomerie, it stands at 28,251 feet, on the present-day border of Pakistan and

Flawed, unproductive and heroic: the real Ernest Shackleton

Polar explorers are often cast as mavericks, and this is hardly surprising. The profession requires a disdain for pseudo-orthodoxies and, besides, the urge to dwell on a frozen ocean or forbidding glacier is maverick in itself. In the so-called Heroic Age (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) both Poles remained ‘unconquered’ and the margin

In the steppes of a warlord

I suspect travel writing was once a fairly simple business: the author travelled somewhere, the reader did not; the author explained what the place was like and the reader was duly informed and even entertained. Dr Uno von Troil, for example, went to Iceland in 1772 and served up lurid descriptions of the devil holes

After the war — apocalypse

On 12 April 1945 the Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance. The atmosphere in Germany was apocalyptic, the Allied invasion was expected at any moment. The concert playlist had been devised by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, and included Brünnhilde’s last aria and the finale from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the ‘twilight of the gods’. There were reports

The Long Shadow, by Mark Mills – a review

Mark Mills is known for his historical and literary crime novels, including The Savage Garden, The Information Officer and House of the Hanged. The Long Shadow is written in a different mode. It is set in a highly recognisable present; it is a clever, teasing hybrid of genres (psychological thriller, dark comedy, Pardoner’s Tale and

A Place in the Country, by W.G. Sebald – review

Within a few years, and in four books — The Emigrants (1996), The Rings of Saturn (1998), Vertigo (1999) and Austerlitz (2001) — W. G. Sebald achieved a reputation as a major international author. He was tipped for the Nobel, seen to supply heartening proof that ‘greatness in literature is still possible’ (John Banville) and

Everest, by Harriet Tuckey

This book, as the subtitle explains, makes a bold claim: Griffith Pugh was the ‘unsung hero’ of the 1953 ascent of Everest, his achievements neglected and nearly lost to posterity. Harriet Tuckey is Pugh’s daughter, so this assertion might be little more than a kindly attempt to revive her father’s flagging reputation. Yet, Pugh was

Diary – 3 January 2013

I am re-reading D.H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia. The opening line runs: ‘Comes over one an absolute necessity to move…’ He expands on the dilemma (I paraphrase): you are afflicted by wanderlust, you want to move, you don’t have any money, you’ve only recently moved but for some reason you want to move again. It

Homage to the Goddess Mother

Cometh the hour, cometh the many men (and women). The 2012 centenary of Captain Scott’s death inspired a series of heroic forays into print: glory-hungry (or just plain hungry) authors questing for something new to say about this much-described event. Next year is the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, and so we

Inflated dreams

When almost every tale about the Arctic has been told, when the major explorers have been assessed and re-assessed, when even the most obscure bit-players have been drawn into the light, what is a polar-minded author to do? Publishers can be such tiresome sticklers for novelty, always hankering after books to fire off into some

Heroes of the Ice Age

In the early 20th century, explorers were goaded and galvanised by the blanks on the maps — the North and South Poles, and the mist-draped floes and glaciers around them. Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen set off with one prevailing purpose: to reach the extremities of the earth. Hardy, maniacal, even

The trail goes cold

For centuries, the history of the far North was a tapestry of controversies and mis- understandings, misspellings, dubious arrivals and equally dubious departures. Pytheas the Greek sailed north from Britain in the 4th century BC, found a place where the sea, land and sky seemed to merge, and was trounced by later scholars as a

In deep trouble

Atlantic by Simon Winchester and The Wave by Susan Casey are, at first glance, very different works. Atlantic is a historical-philosophical-fantastical meditation on the Atlantic ocean, from the ‘post-molten Hadean’ through the ‘cool meadows of today’s Holocene’, to the conjectured end-days of the ocean ‘about 170 million years’ from now. The Wave is a pithy

To strive, to seek, to find . . .

In 1931, a 23-year-old Englishman called Henry ‘Gino’ Watkins returned from an expedition to the white depths of the Greenlandic ice cap. In 1931, a 23-year-old Englishman called Henry ‘Gino’ Watkins returned from an expedition to the white depths of the Greenlandic ice cap. He was hailed as a precocious talent, even as a worthy

The frost giant awakes

For thousands of years, no one knew what lay in the ice around the North Pole. The blanks on the maps fuelled the imaginations of classical writers, who crafted stories of Hyperboreans living in a gaudy paradise, dancing with Apollo and generally misbehaving. As explorers from southern Europe travelled further north — revealing intransigent and

Origins of the human race

At first glance, a history of running seems a pretty doomed exercise, like writing a history of breathing, or sneezing. For how can anyone really describe and ‘historicise’ an intrinsic physical process, something people do, involuntarily, without thinking? Perhaps alert to this potential pitfall, Thor Gotaas confines himself to a specific sort of running —

Top of the world

Late Nights on Air comes daubed with the usual eulogies, yet this is one book that truly merits the ecstatic blurb and more besides. It is Elizabeth Hay’s third novel, after A Student of Weather (2000) and Garbo Laughs (2003), both of which have been lauded in her native Canada and, to a lesser degree,

Paddling through Canada

There are a lot of travel writers these days setting off ‘in the footsteps of’ someone else, gathering clues and arguing with ghosts. This is partly pragmatism: there are so few untouched trails around that you might as well make a virtue of necessity, lend your narrative some historical backbone and a point of comparison.