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 ...

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