John Gimlette

The world’s best wrecks and ruins

Ruins, shipwrecks and lost cities are endlessly intriguing. I once went to Kolmanskop in Namibia and found myself wondering quite what it was that was so alluring. At one level it’s just a rather dowdy German town out in the desert, abandoned in 1956. But what’s special there is the sand and the way it

It’s time to stop sneering at metal detectorists

As a teenager growing up in Cheshire I had a metal detector. Although I was slightly ashamed of it, I found all sorts of intriguing things: shrapnel, a French coin, a Khartoum Racing Club key ring, an adze and a silver brooch in the shape of a lobster. All went well until I found a

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

A tomb with a view

Death is not the end but the beginning of a long, hard climb. At least that’s what the Bara people believe. No sooner have your bones been scraped clean than you’re off, into the Isalo Massif. Fortified with rum, your relatives will shin up the cliffs to find the perfect niche, at heights of up

The city of ugly love

Cuba’s gorgeous, crumbling capital has always been a testing ground for writers. That heady combination of revolution, cocktails, sex and unpainted mansions seems somehow to set literary pulses racing. Trollope, Hemingway and Graham Greene all described it with verve, but there’s also plenty of dross. The city certainly charmed me, and, a few years ago,

New York: Dives of the artists

Fernand Léger’s old studio now has squatters living on the doorstep. They’re an unusual sight in the new New York, especially around Bowery. These ones, at no. 222, are African and live in a huge cardboard box decorated with industrial plastic. As a pioneering modernist, Léger would have appreciated their geometry — and poverty. He’d

Bad news from paradise

Suddenly, the Maldivians are in the news. Earlier this year, they locked up their first democratically elected president, and just recently they declared a state of emergency. It never used to be like this. The Maldives was just a place you saw in brochures, looking expensively turquoise. It has a population no bigger than Barnet

Sugar and spies

These days, there are few countries as obscure and exotic as Suriname. Perched on the north-east coast of South America, it has the same population as Cornwall but is over 40 times the size. Ninety per cent of it is covered in jungle, and new species are always tumbling out of its darkness (mostly bugs

New York: Literary ghost tour

Deep below West 52nd Street is a massive stash of booze. The cops never found it during Prohibition, and it belongs to the 21 Club. Famous for its sumptuously New Yorky dishes (like filet mignon with kumquat vinaigrette), 21 is a real boys’ den. Dark and plush, the subterranean rooms are festooned with intriguing junk:

How many positions are there in the Kamasutra?

Numbers, as every mathematician knows, do odd things. But they’re never odder than in the human context. Ever since we crept out of the swamps, we’ve been making numbers lucky, fearsome, ominous and even sacred. Across the cultures, we’re nuts about numbers, with little thought for logic. Take 23, for example. In 1960, William Burroughs

Gaza stripped bare

Imagine a piece of land: sandy, roughly rectangular, and about the size of the Isle of Wight. It is surrounded on three sides by desert and hostile neighbours, and on the fourth by the sea. Although almost 1.7 million live in this space, nothing except essentials is allowed in or out. It’s under blockade. By

Little house on the pampas

It’s hard to tell Argentina’s story without moments of despair. Even those who are fond of this country — like me — can struggle to identify the bright spots in its history. It’s been a tale of genocide, shrinking borders, pointless wars, hyper-inflation and vicious dictators. Even the end of the second world war brought

Pink pigs in Paraguay – Shiva Naipaul Prize, 1997

John Gimlette, the award-winning travel writer and author of four books, was the winner of the Spectator/ Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 1997. The judges of that year, which included Sebastian Faulks, were unanimous in their choice. To learn more about the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, and how you can enter, click here. To

The most important taxi ride I’ve taken

The Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, which The Spectator has just relaunched, is awarded for travel writing that gives ‘the most acute and profound observation of a culture alien to the writer’. Here, its 1997 winner John Gimlette, whose most recent book has been shortlisted for the Dolman Prize, tells us what winning the award meant to

A corner of every English field, forever foreign

The story of the English countryside is richly exotic. We’ve always known that foreigners have shaped this land: traders, settlers and, most importantly, invaders. But scratch the surface, and the detail is remarkable. Who’d have guessed that the so-called ‘Amesbury Archer’ (a 4,000-year-old corpse, found near Stonehenge) actually started life in the Alps? Or that

The mark of cane

Sugar transformed our world. From its origins in New Guinea, this tall sappy grass initially made slow progress around the globe. It reached India in 500 BC, and then travelled harmlessly to Persia, arriving 1,000 years later. But, in the early 15th century, it reached Europe, and suddenly everything changed. Sugar would become the catalyst

The world according to ants

The South American rain forest is the perfect environment for a dank, uncomfortable thriller. It’s brutally competitive; life is thrillingly vulnerable; you can’t safely touch or taste anything, and, beyond a few yards, you can see nothing at all. Even Amerindians are anxious in this environment, and credit it with all manner of horrors. In