Sunday, April 16, 2006

A quest to the end of the Earth


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

Published: 16 April 2006

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 China. With one slice of scenery, the designers deftly combined three key themes for the 21st century: travel, the ascent of the world's most populous nation, and the need for cross-cultural understanding.


One of the writers of this defining travel guide was Jeremy Atiyah, whose tragically early death in Italy on Wednesday has deprived us of an exceptional writer. The travel editor of The Independent on Sunday from 1997 to 2000, he continued to be a regular contributor to this paper and the daily Independent. His final piece is reproduced below.


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 Singapore:


"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 fa├žades 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 Siberia caused no more discomfort for Jeremy than three stops on the Northern Line for most of us. While wandering through the deserts of Jordan one day, he was caught, without food, in a storm that raged for 10 hours; he simply dug a trench and sat it out.


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.


From Florence: Reflections on love and adventure in Italy of yore


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 Italy embedded in my DNA. It felt like an innate, instinctive desire for little coffees and bright light and expressive neighbours. And now it turns out to be true.


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 Italy every summer with his lover.


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 Kent, where they loaded their car on to a plane. They were fun, those flights to Le Touquet: after a mere 17 and a half minutes in the air, you arrived in a world that was as exotic as India is today.


They then drove off, with the freedom of an entire continent beneath their wheels. Their route through France took them along roads lined with chestnut and walnut trees. They usually crossed the border somewhere above Domodossola, that little mountain village whose syllables so blatantly announce the onset of Italy.


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? Italy was still Italy, I am sure they would have said. The Italy of 1960 was still essentially the Italy of 1900. The intervention of two world wars was no more than a detail. As for me, I cling to the hope that neither of those Italys can be so irredeemably different from mine.


Florence, I am told, was the city to which they returned with most gusto. And enclosed in the Florence chapter, I discovered a bill, from a long-defunct hotel named the Albergo Berchielli, dated September 1962. Four nights, including breakfasts, drinks and laundry, comes to 26,000 lire, equating to roughly £10.


During my own visit to Florence I stayed in a chic, air-conditioned hotel by the Arno that cost £200 per night. How I would love to have crossed the decades, for the sake of a room in the Albergo Berchielli with an iron bedstead, stone tiles and a sink in the corner ...

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Jeremy Atiyah


Jeremy Atiyah

Travel writer and editor who took to a nomadic life for the sheer elation of wandering and discovering
Saturday, 15 April 2006
Jeremy Francis Atiyah, traveller and writer: born Woking, Surrey 30 December 1963; Travel Editor, The Independent on Sunday 1997-2000; married 1991 Xiaosong Que (marriage dissolved 2000); died Monti Sibillini National Park, Italy 12 April 2006.
'As I entered my 40th year, I turned myself into a vagabond." Jeremy Atiyah was many things - a teacher, a linguist, a brilliant writer - but above all he was a traveller. In January 2002, he walked out of his flat with a rucksack on his back, for yet another adventure. He rented out his home, shrugged off almost all material possessions - save for "a bicycle, an e-mail address and a mobile telephone" - and began the life of a nomad.
Part of the following three years was spent in London, researching at the British Library, and living as "a middle-class vagrant . . . blessed by supportive and well-off friends". He roamed on assignment for this newspaper, and others: searching for Shangri-La in China, and finding corners of Italy that have yet to be over-run by tourists. Above all, though, he simply travelled for the sheer elation of wandering, encountering and discovering.
Yet Atiyah was no aimless drifter on the fringes of society. His love of life, unselfconscious charm and natural curiosity meant he acquired friends with ease at home and abroad. The great warmth with which he was regarded made his sudden death in Italy (naturally, he was travelling) at the shockingly early age of 42 all the sadder.
Jeremy Atiyah was born in Surrey, during a blizzard, on the penultimate day of 1963. An early sign of his erudition came within a few weeks of his starting primary school, when he rapidly learned to read. For three years from 1970, the family moved to the Australian capital, Canberra, where his father, Professor Patrick Atiyah, had a teaching post at the university.
Upon their return to the UK, they moved to Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. Jeremy attended the grammar school from 1974 to 1977; and later, when his father took up a chair in Oxford, Magdalen College School.
After A-levels, Jeremy Atiyah's love of travel became evident. At a time when venturing beyond Europe was still a rarity, he spent the summer travelling around India. Aged 17, Atiyah proved a shrewd backpacker, often staying at ashrams for a pound or two per night in order to extend his journey for as long as possible.
After spending his last few rupees on the bus to the airport for his flight home, he was surprised to learn that an airport tax had been imposed. Self-reliance to the fore, Atiyah trawled the check-in queue until he found a generous fellow traveller willing to lend him the money.
If he or his parents thought the Indian experience would get the travel bug out of his system, they were gladly mistaken; instead, the journey served to whet his appetite for more adventures.
Perhaps it was a yearning for elsewhere that dogged his university career. For someone with such a formidable and well-rounded intellect, Atiyah found life at Trinity College, Oxford surprisingly heavy going. He enrolled initially for Classics, but later switched to PPE. He graduated in 1985.
He had always demonstrated a love for words: procuring them, inventing them, exploring their power and potential. Happily, his graduation coincided with the launch of the Amstrad word processor, which for the first time offered the prospect of creating, editing and printing text for an affordable price - under £400. Astutely, Professor Atiyah bought one of the first models off the production line - and set his son on what was to prove a most illustrious writing career.
The most pressing need for the young graduate, though, was to earn some cash. The late 1980s were difficult days in Britain, so Jeremy set off for Barcelona. Spain was blossoming after the suffocating Franco years, and the Catalan capital had just been awarded the 1992 Olympics, creating a strong demand for teachers of English. At the same time as teaching his mother tongue, he mastered Spanish with apparent ease - as he later did with German, Mandarin, Russian and Italian.
Even when living humbly in a cheap pension in the heart of Barcelona, Atiyah found the temptation of travel irresistible. One Friday night, the week's wages in his pocket, he happened to pass through the main station on the way home. The departure board showed a train to Granada about to leave, so he hopped aboard. In those days, Spanish Railways ran a creaky old network; he had barely a couple of hours in the fabulous Andalucian city before catching a northbound train, but the joy of the journey itself and the miscellany of fellow travellers he met repaid the investment many times.
In 1989, his brother Simon was posted to Hong Kong, and invited Jeremy over. At the end of the stay, Jeremy Atiyah could have caught a plane straight home. Instead, he opted for the railway less travelled - and what turned out to be a life-changing journey. He ventured north through China, at the time an alien land for independent travellers, to Beijing. Here, he boarded the Trans-Mongolian Express to Moscow - and, en route, met a young Chinese woman named Xiaosong Que who was on her way to study literature in West Germany. With a passion and certainty that transcended his usual amiable diffidence, he wooed and eventually married her.
Xiaosong was unable to join Jeremy on his next teaching assignment, in Saudi Arabia. But they travelled together through a Lebanon torn apart by the civil war, to search for his roots; his paternal grandfather was Lebanese.
Back in Britain, he taught English to Xiaosong, and reciprocally added Mandarin to his armoury of languages. This set him in good stead for researching and co-writing the first edition of The Rough Guide to China, which was published in 1995 and remains a bestseller. Yet the minutiae of hostels, train schedules and tourist attractions proved too constraining for Jeremy Atiyah's powers as a storyteller. He began writing for the travel sections of national newspapers - stories that were always multi- dimensional, bursting with life, and characters, and emotion.
When, in 1997, The Independent on Sunday decided to appoint its first travel editor, Atiyah was the natural choice. Despite having no formal training as a journalist, he created and managed an outstanding travel section. Each week he wrote a sparky, witty column that challenged conventional travel industry wisdom - indeed, he first questioned the moral and environmental legitimacy of mass tourism long before it moved on to the media agenda.
By the millennium, Atiyah had tolerated the institutional discipline of regular hours for quite long enough. He left on the most amicable of terms, and continued to write for both The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. At around the same time, his marriage with Xiaosong ended; her wish to settle down, and his to explore, proved irreconcilable, but they remained close and on the best of terms until his death.
In the 21st century, most of Atiyah's time and energy was invested in bigger writing projects. He spent the winter of 2000/2001 in the deep-frozen Siberian city of Irkutsk (naturally acquiring fluent Russian in the process), and wrote an extraordinary history of Tsarist Russia's adventures in North America.
In 2002 Atiyah decided to take his lifestyle to its logical conclusion and forsake the comforts of a conventional home; after all, he seemed at home everywhere. By 2005, though, he had settled on Italy as the ideal country to nourish his creative spirit. He bought a cheap old property in Puglia, at the heel of Italy, and spent much of last year making it habitable. His latest professional reinvention combined writing with researching walking trips in Italy - designing adventures, if you will. As he once observed: "the human foot is designed for endless traipsing".
It was while on assignment in Umbria that he suffered a fatal heart attack - a tragic yet poetic death for a man who wrought miracles with words, a romantic who rose above these unromantic times.
Simon Calder
The Rough Guide to China was first published not in 1995, but in 1987, writes Catharine Sanders. (Jeremy Atiyah's collaboration with David Leffman and Simon Lewis was in fact issued in 1997.) The first edition was researched and written by myself and Chris Stewart ­ now rather better known as the author of Driving over Lemons. Rhonda Evans also contributed.
We had completed several further months of travel and research in China to produce a second updated edition shortly before the events of Tiananmen. The then American parent publisher Harrap Columbus decided to pull the plug, fearing a drop in American tourists to China, and our material was subsequently bought in and passed on to the new team.