Brought to Book on the Tourist Trail

New Statesman (1996), November 8, 1999 | Go to article overview

Brought to Book on the Tourist Trail


I returned to Bladnoch Distillery in Wig-town last week for the launch of Donald MacIntosh's second book, Travels in Galloway: memoirs from south-west Scotland. The first, Travels in the White Man's Grave, recounts his experiences during 30 years working as a free prospector in west and central Africa.

MacIntosh is an unlikely literary attraction. Slightly bent over a tartan-clad table, wearing the muted greens and browns of all those who have never left their native sod, his words arrived at the microphone honed and polished. As someone who has come late to writing, he built his sentences slowly, with an obvious pleasure at phrases whose source is the community in which he grew up. He talked of a drinker's breath that would have "killed a belted Galloway stone deid", and of"the two most affectionate things in the whole world - a friendly drunk and a wet dug".

However, it would be misleading to see in Macintosh some dewy-eyed memorialist. After all, Travels in the White Man's Grave has been shortlisted for the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book of the Year award; I imagine for the freshness of its writing- its clarity, erudition and good humour. These are the same qualities he has brought to his travel memoirs of Galloway. Because both books are also the result of a long acquaintance with what they describe, and the sifting of much experience, they have a depth denied to the majority of travel books which can appear to be the product of whim rather than of necessity. In fact, I confess to a general ambivalence about the whole genre of travel writing.

And I write here from experience, for it is a genre that I have myself explored. In 19891 travelled to the Dominican Republic, and from there to South America. "Write us a book about it," my publisher suggested. Dutifully, I observed, experienced and filled my notebooks. Then, halfway through the trip, in between spending five hours recording my delight at seeing Machu Picchu and catching a plane down to the rainforest in south-eastern Peru, I was robbed. I lost poems, camera, films and 300 pages of my "book". It was, at the time, a simply awful experience. And yet, in my estimation, it made for a far richer book; for In the Palace of Serpents: an experience of Peru was about more than sympathetic observation: it was about loss, memory, the effort of understanding that my experiences required of me - and which perhaps alone can justify our presence in poor and troubled lands.

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