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Personal Landscapes

Arts & Culture Podcasts

Personal Landscapes: Conversations on Books About Place




Personal Landscapes: Conversations on Books About Place






Louisa Waugh: Life on the edge of Mongolia

Louisa Waugh lived in a village in the far west of Mongolia in the late 1990s, and wrote a remarkable book about her experience. Hearing Birds Fly describes a world of drought-stricken spring, lush summer pasture and brutal winters when fetching water meant hacking holes through river ice. In this harsh and stunningly beautiful landscape, villagers lived on mutton, dairy products and vodka, and met incredible hardships with smiles and laughter as they carved out a life in one of our world’s most remote corners. We spoke about life at the edge of Mongolia, the nomadic cycle, and how aloneness teaches us about ourselves.


Bruce Chatwin: with editor and friend Susannah Clapp

Bruce Chatwin’s first book — In Patagonia — changed our idea of what travel writing could be. He was a traveler, an art expert whose keen eye for fakes made him a star at Sotheby’s, and to those who knew him, a perpetual house guest and mesmerizing conversationalist. His friend and editor Susannah Clapp joined me to talk about Chatwin’s unforgettable writing style, and his lifelong obsession with nomads.


Laura Trethewey: Mapping our unknown oceans

This might just be the strangest landscape I’ve featured on the podcast. It’s also the one we know least about. Laura Trethewey joins me to discuss bizarre underwater landscapes, the difficulties of sonar mapping, and the amazing race to map the world's oceans.


Tim Cocks: Life in Africa’s biggest megacity

Lagos is a massive city with massive problems. I've always thought of it as a place to avoid. But I came away with a very different impression of Africa’s largest megacity after reading the book we’re discussing today. Tim Cocks joins me to speak about ancestral spirits, the importance of community networks, and the desperate need to hustle without getting hustled yourself.


Jeremy Bassetti: Pilgrims on Bolivia’s Hill of Skulls

Sacred mountains are revered across a wide array of cultures. They're sites of sacrifice and of ritual, perhaps because they feel closer to the gods: physical border zones between the sacred and profane. Jeremy Bassetti joins me to talk about a strange religious pilgrimage in an off-the-track corner of Bolivia, the concept of liminal spaces, and suffering as the root cause of hope.


The Pyrenees: Matthew Carr on Europe’s savage frontier

The Pyrenees form one of the great European landscapes, but they're all too often overshadowed by the romance of the Alps. As you'll hear in today's podcast, they have their own very different set of stories to tell. Matthew Carr joins me to talk about medieval troubadours, Cathar castles, and Second World War escape routes from Nazi occupied Europe.


Simon Winchester: Outposts at the edge of the world

If you think colonialism ended after the Second World War, then my latest conversation may surprise you. Simon Winchester joins me to talk about Tristan da Cunha, hiding under a bed in the Falklands, and how he bluffed his way into the world’s most notorious military base. Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire was first published in 1985, and is still in print. It’s one of the 5 or 6 books I had in mind when I started the Personal Landscapes podcast, and it remains one of my favourite books about place.


Tom Parfitt: Walking the High Caucasus

Tom Parfitt walked across the northern flank of the Russian Caucasus, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, through republics whose names are synonymous with violence, extremism and warfare. He joins me to discuss the Circassians, mass relocations under Stalin, and high mountain villages where resourceful people have survived for centuries on the stoniest ground.


Richard Grant: Travels With American Nomads

Nothing symbolizes freedom in America like the open road. Richard Grant joins me to discuss frontiersmen and plains Indians, riding the rails, and the role of the Scotch-Irish in forging the utterly unique American view of freedom.


Anthony Sattin: How nomads shaped settled civilization

Why have nomads gotten such a bad rap? And why is their knowledge essential for us today? Anthony Sattin joins me to discuss nomadic empires, cycles of history, pastoral peoples, and how steppe nomads contributed to the European Renaissance.


The Sahara with Eamonn Gearon

If you think the world's largest desert is an empty wasteland, then you’re in for a surprise. The Sahara has been home to cattle pastoralists, mighty empires, and trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world with sub-Saharan Africa. I’m joined by Eamonn Gearon, author of a wonderful cultural history of the Sahara. We talk about desert whales, fossil water, astonishing rock art older than history, and a few of the travelers who explored this vast region and returned to tell the tale.


Eastern Europe with Jacob Mikanowski

The more I’ve travelled in Europe, the more my interest has shifted east, to a region that looks increasingly complex the deeper you delve into it. I reached out to Jacob Mikanowski to help me understand its empires, faiths, stories and nations. He's the author of a fascinating new book called Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. We spoke about frontier societies, plagues of vampires, and the gift of seeing comedy amidst tragedy.


Berlin with Barney White-Spunner

Berlin has been a crucible of culture, an industrial powerhouse, a nest of spies, and now, it’s Europe’s capital of cool. Lieutenant General Sir Barney White-Spunner joins me to talk about the Hohenzollern dynasty, waves of immigration and destruction, and the distinctly irreverent Berlin character that we both know and love.


Joseph Roth: The collapse of the civilized world

Joseph Roth's short form journalism captured fleeting moments with universal implications, and the social conflict, cultural upheaval, and acceleration of the inter-war years. He also wrote one of the 20th century's finest novels. Biographer Keiron Pim joins me to talk about perpetual movement, straddling borders, and the loss of a world.


Norman Lewis: The 20th century’s greatest travel writer

Norman Lewis had an instinct for being in exactly the right place to capture traditional ways of life on the brink of modernity, but his books are far from dry — he also had an unerring eye for the absurd. Biographer Julian Evans joins me to talk about Lewis’s escape reflex, the subjectivity of witness statements, and the past as a place.


Steve Kilbey: writing, lyrics & songs about place

Steve Kilbey is the singer and lyricist of legendary Australian rock band The Church. He's made dozens of albums, and written several volumes of poetry and a memoir called Something Quite Peculiar. He was also the single biggest influence on my own development as a writer. We discuss lyric writing, songs about place, the disillusionment of success, and how music can recall our most intense experiences with vividness and immediacy.


Gordon Peake: Insider stories from the world of foreign aid

Gordon Peake’s work as an international development consultant has led him to the world’s forgotten corners, places once besieged by anthropologists and now overrun by Western aid workers. He's written books on Timor-Leste and Bougainville, and the inside stories he shares about the big money world of development projects will surprise you and make you laugh.


Edith Durham: The traveler who became Albania’s mountain queen

When I hiked through the Accursed Mountains last June, I met older Albanians who still referred to Edith Durham as their “mountain queen”. Her books provide a rare first-hand look at a turbulent and seldom traveled corner of Europe during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Durham's biographer, Marcus Tanner, joined me to discuss her travels, her relief work in the Balkans, and her role in helping create an independent Albania.


David Thompson and the mapping of Canada

David Thompson travelled some 90,000 kilometres across North America as a fur trader and surveyor, mapping one-fifth of the continent. His work was so accurate it remained the basis of all maps of the west for almost a century. And yet, he died in obscurity, his remarkable achievements largely forgotten. His biographer D'Arcy Jenish joins me to talk about this remarkable man’s life and work, and his role in creating the Canada we know today.


Rebecca Lowe: Cycling through the Middle East’s fractured mosaic

In 2015, Rebecca Lowe set out on a year long cycling trip from London to Tehran, a journey that revealed a splintered mosaic of cultures, countries and languages, each with their own unique traditions. We talked about the Arab Spring, the promise of Sudan, and the stark cultural divides within cosmopolitan Iran.