A quest to the end of the Earth
Simon Calder on the former 'IoS' travel editor, Jeremy Atiyah, a 'weaver of magical stories', who died last week
The Millennium Dome, for all its
many flaws, got at least some details right. The first thing that visitors to
the ill-fated tourist attraction saw was a giant bookcase, with a row of
towering spines. Most prominent among them was The Rough Guide to
16 April 2006
One of the writers of this defining travel guide was Jeremy Atiyah, whose tragically early death in
With his pioneering guidebook to the People's Republic, Jeremy worked within strict parameters. Yet in his articles, he relished the liberty of imagination - as, for example, when he speculated about the true nature of
"On the face of it, this place is just too good to be true. It must be the result of government spin. It will vanish as soon as my back is turned. The charming façades of those 'heritage' quarters will be removed to reveal ugly concrete blocks and piles of garbage. The lovely canopies of rain-trees embracing the highways will be replaced by hoardings of naked women. The quiet couples slurping noodles after dark on verandas will become rioting, spitting, drug- taking delinquents. The very history of this island state will be unwritten."
The day one met Jeremy, the world suddenly improved. Our first encounter was late in 1996, as the year drizzled to a damp conclusion. I had read his work, and wanted to meet the man whose words were at once effortless and enlightening.
Here was a writer whose intellect, culture and energy were masked by a winning courtesy; a real English gentleman with an easy, natural charm. Yet he was also a modern-day explorer. He was on a quest, it seemed to me, to trace the ends of the earth and weave magical stories that would gently transport his readers far beyond their normal horizons.
His stoicism was legendary: a week on a train across
He formed some deep relationships, yet his innate spontaneity proved incompatible with a steady partnership. He described himself as "a nomadic revivalist, lamenting the appearance, 8,000-odd years ago, of more settled patterns of life". Even so, the women in his life - including his ex-wife, Xiaosong, and his last love Sophie, remained close to him until the last.
Despite or (more likely) because of his fascinating, erratic existence, all who knew Jeremy felt close to him - enriched by his wisdom and his sparkle.
For those of us who lacked the sheer guts to venture to the edge and beyond, no problem: Jeremy would go there anyway, and report back with grace, humour and eloquence.
Extract from Jeremy Atiyah's last piece for the 'IoS', which appeared a month ago
It has always seemed to me that I was born with the desire to live in
I have learnt that I can blame my grandfather. I never knew him because he died more than 40 years ago. But I am told that he was a passionate, cultured man who loved history, good food and robust discussion. The result was, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, that he ended up driving to
It is the lover - now aged nearly 90 - who tells me this. She has told me about the blue Ford Consul motor car, and the roads that were not yet crowded with traffic. He was in his late fifties, she some 15 years his junior.
Their first destination was the aerodrome at Lydd, in
They then drove off, with the freedom of an entire continent beneath their wheels. Their route through
Once there, my grandfather and his lover turned to their trusty guidebooks, two fragile, red Baedekers published in the first decade of the 20th century. These books have since come down to me: bundles of tiny print and exquisitely drawn maps on Bible-thin paper.
Why would my grandfather and his lover have wanted to rely on guidebooks that were 50 years old?
During my own visit to