True North by Gavin Francis

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True North by Gavin Francis

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Buy True North by Gavin Francis at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: An account of a modern trip in the European Arctic which combines the modern travelogue with a huge dose of elegantly and personally presented history, True North is a thing of wonder and comes highly recommended for fans of travel writing, social history or just all things cold and beautiful.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 300 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Polygon - An Imprint of Birlinn Limited
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846971303

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True North, while very much a travel book in the grand tradition of the best travel writing that combines the trip report with the so-called background information is classified by Amazon in Cultural History and it's not as much of a mis-classification as it could initially appear. Francis, a Scottish GP who divides his time between writing and doctoring, starts the body proper of True North with one of the best opening lines I have read recently: I began to dream of the North in a stinking African hospital ward.

What comes after that line is a thing of wonder: an account of the journey Francis made one Northern summer in the Arctic Europe, the lands under the Great Bear, stretching from the northernmost reaches of his native Scotland to the Russian borders of Lapland. The travelogue is interwoven, seamlessly and gracefully, with the history of places he visits and with the tales of others who explored, visited, described, settled and fought over these lands throughout the last two and a half millennia.

The trip starts in Shetland and will take him and us to Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, Arctic Scandinavia and back to the Scottish Highlands and the gale-beaten headland of Cape Wrath.

On his way Francis camps, stays in hostels or with old and new acquaintances, travels by plane, ferry and cruise ship, and hitch-hikes. I love that he walks, camps and hitchhikes a lot and yet, although mentioned when relevant, it's in no way the focus of his narrative. He also meets the locals, the expats, the temporary visitors and the other travellers, striking acquaintanceships and achieving what feels like a nearly perfect balance between pursuing a planned itinerary and allowing chance tips and spur-of-the-moment suggestions to shape his route. The chance meetings lead him to mingle with a party of wealthy Norwegians at the Nordcap, join an archaeological dig in Greenland for two weeks and camp for a few days deep in the forest on the Russian-Finnish border.

And all along his path he recounts the traces of those who came there before him: his book invited review comparisons to the legendary Celtic Immrama, but he actually starts with the Greek geographer Pytheas and the Romans seeking the sight of the Ultima Thule, to later quote the tales of the medieval Irish men of God and the Norse sagas with love and knowledge, and separate the wheat from the chaff in the more modern narratives of merchants, scientists, explorers, tourists and those seeking something beyond mere views with incisive but never rash judgement.

The best travel books tell us something about the author as well as about the places they visit, and True North is no different, though Francis' is a low-key rather than a centre-stage presence in the text. His prose has a low-key beauty to it, a transparency that to my eye and ear suits the stark luminosity of the North. In his approach, he's insightful and balanced, with some humour and an awful lot of empathy for the people he encounters, modern and ancient, and the issues they face, be it climate change, imperial takeovers, alcoholism, long Arctic winters, Greenpeace protests or volcanic eruptions. Aware of his 21st century identity, he connects across the centuries with the men who went out there drawn by the silence and the rage of the cold desert, the beauty that's both stark and tender, by the need to challenge themselves and the desire to gain fame, riches, knowledge or enlightenment. Men like him, perhaps.

The best journeys take us into the internal landscapes of the human minds as much as through external landscapes of ice, rock and forest, and although we get only glimpses of Gavin Francis' inner world, we end the book with a deeper understanding of the men whose footsteps he follows, and of the Arctic's place in the physical, social and psychological landscape of Europe.

Sure, I'd have liked better maps, and I'd have perhaps liked Francis to venture east beyond the Russian border to the Kola peninsula with its grim tales of Stalinist times, maybe even Nova Zemlya or at least the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk which he mentions but in passing. But I'm greedy here and perhaps it would have changed the nature of True North. One of the most appealing aspects of the book is how fundamentally at home Francis seems in all the places he visits. Not at home the way we are in the country and town we come from, but a bigger kind of at home, shared by those who share a common cultural heritage and travel similar mental landscapes: and for the Europeans, the lands under the Great Bear have marked the far edge of those landscapes for more than two millennia.

Francis' Empire Antarctica was awarded the Scottish Book of the Year 2013 prize and shortlisted for Costa, Banff, Saltire & Ondaatje Awards, and his 2015 Adventures in Human Being also made it onto a few distinguished lists. I haven't read those but if they are anything like this one, I am in for two treats. But the one tale that True North really reminded me of was a novel, Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow with its picture of Greenland and Greenlanders. Strangely, there are more British books about Antarctic than the Arctic (a phenomenon Francis mentions in True North) and in addition to his own mentioned above, the Southern Pole mythos and reality are explored in The Ice-Cold Heaven by Mirko Bonne, 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney, Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford and another novel: Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan. Intrepid young polar travellers should check out Serious Survival: How to Poo in the Arctic and Other Essential Tips for Explorers by Marshall Corwin while The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic by Sara Wheeler and Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter are modern Artic travelogues that focus on non-European parts of the North. And finally, I must mention Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, where the Norse settlements in Greenland, Iceland, Shetland and the Faroes are given a somewhat controversial but interesting treatment by Jared Diamond, if only because Francis mentions Diamond's ideas in True North and manages to refute some of them quite convincingly.

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Buy True North by Gavin Francis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy True North by Gavin Francis at Amazon.com.

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