The Armchair Wanderer

A review of The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy

(and a way of following in his footsteps without all the scary bits)

Andrew McCarthy is a travel writer. He was once a film star, a teen idol and a sensitive teen; he still acts and directs. But reading his biography The Longest Way Home you realise that he is a traveller at heart and has a wonderful way with words. This is more than just a biography following his search for intimacy and a sense of belonging (as well as the courage to actually face his demons), this is a travel book. Reading it you can see how he has come to be a prize-winning travel writer and editor-at-large at National Geographic Traveler magazine. If you’ve ever read any of his travel writing you’ll know how passionate he is for immersing himself in the world. Now don’t get me wrong, this is a wonderfully readable biography, if a little uncomfortable to read at times (it really is like reading his diary), but the highlight for me is his travel writing.  From Patagonia and the Amazon to Dublin, McCarthy gives you a real feel for the places he visits.

Now…I’m stuck up here on the Edge of the World (at least that’s how I see it at times), so even travelling back down south to “civilisation” can be a major undertaking (well, that’s how it feels anyway…120 miles to the nearest decent shopping is WAY too far for my liking). So it brings a sense of wonder and, I have to admit, a teensy bit of jealousy, to see how easy it seems for Andrew to hop on a plane and land in an exotic location without a second thought. Yes, I think he is searching for a sense of belonging with his writing assignments, but overall I just felt that I wanted to sit alongside and actually experience what he did. That he can go wandering on his own, through sometimes inhospitable climates, leaves me with a sense of inadequacy in the “freedom to roam” department (and I suppose may also hint at my own psychological blocks and freedom issues). In fact I wanted so much to see the places he did that I did what any self-respecting pseudo-gypsy would. I hopped over to GoogleMaps.

Now bear with me…this really only works if you follow me…go on, open another browser window and get GoogleMaps up (I’ll wait here while you do that)

El Calafate is his first stop in Patagonia, zoom in to follow in Andrew’s footsteps and zoom out to see just where this place actually is in the world. But remember, it’s MUCH better in satellite view! Look at all the snow…don’t you just want to jump down and into the picture?

Move on to El Chalten, isn’t it beautiful! Just type El Chalten from here and the map will take you there. Go on….zoom in and out. And I thought I lived in a remote place!

Rugged huh?

One place I’d never heard of is the Osa in Costa Rica…so you zoom in to see the country  and move down to see the Osa itself, look at Puerto Jiminez, then just wander around the place…and to think McCarthy actually went wandering inland on his own. He either has nerves of steel, is supremely confident, or is out of his mind!

Finally…the Amazon. Nip over to Iquitos, Loreto Region, Peru…click on the photo to have a look at the Plaza de Armas. Who’d have thought there was such a large city on the Amazon? Now leave Iquitos and head for Nauta and mosey on up the Amazon.

So, you have the idea now…you just wander around virtually to see the places he saw. It certainly won’t give you the real experience, but it does add an extra dimension. You can wander around with our intrepid traveller and wish you were actually there with him. Well…..until you realise you’d probably find yourself alone after he’s wandered off the beaten track and left you to your own devices!

But let’s not finish there…let’s go back to GoogleMaps…

Duncansby Stacks… can you find them on the map?

Type in Caithness. Zoom in and out…ok, it’s not as spectacular as the Amazon but we have our strong points. Zoom in near Castletown…there’s a lovely long beach there, perfect for just relaxing, and it’s never crowded. Zoom back out and you’ll see all those lovely little lochs and the countryside beloved of the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity. We have the Flow Country, Europe’s largest peat landscape and there’s more archaeology than you can shake a stick at (you’d get very sore arms). Oh…and it’s one of the best places in the UK to see the Aurora Borealis.

So…where are you going to go next?

(As for the book…go buy it! I loved every minute of it)

The Classic Cocktail Bible

You may have noticed from my first posting that there will be reviews on here. Don’t worry, it wont be ALL reviews, but as I have a few nice items here I am starting by reviewing a few. The latest fits in nicely with the last: Agent Dmitri was about a spy, which makes me think of James Bond…which makes me think of cocktails. So next we have a review of the Classic Cocktail bible…

classic cocktail bible

When I first received this book from the lovely people at Octopus publishing I decided to give it a test run. Well you have to with a book like this don’t you? Forget the lovely glossy cover, I’ve had some books over the years that entice you in, promise you the earth and then fail on the delivery.

A Federation…nice cocktail, reminded me of Star Trek.

So I set about seeing what I could make with my very limited drinks stash. Bear in mind that I’m the only drinker in the house and had to wipe the dust off a few bottles that have been hidden in the back of a cupboard for far longer than is probably desirable.

The book is a nice sturdy little thing, not one of those big floppy jobs that ends up covered in sticky residue when you try to pour and mix while reading the recipe. And if you do have a teensy spillage, the glossy hard cover wipes clean easily…yes…this was ticked off the list pretty early on when I had an accident with my new cocktail mixer. The book sits nicely in the hand, the pages are a nice quality and they’re even colour coded so you can quickly find your favourite section. The green gin section has been well used in this test drive.

This takes me to the format of the book. There’s a section for each main spirit, so if you like a certain base for your cocktail (or like me you have a limited stock) you can go straight to that section and have a browse. Interspersed throughout these sections are informative little chapters ranging from techniques for mixing your cocktail, through to equipment and even which glasses to use. There are gorgeous pictures that show you what your creation should look like too. There’s also a glossary in there, although I didn’t need to really look at it as the recipes are well written and explain exactly what to do. What I really did like were the tiny bits of information that appear every now and again against a cocktail…a history of the drink, an explanation of the ingredient or alternative names that are used. It just adds to the experience really.

Opal Martini
Opal Martini – well I had to do something with the blood oranges in the fridge

It was also nice to see an index in the back of this book, it’s simple and well constructed though I did have a couple of niggles. For instance I was looking for a grasshopper…I’d heard about it and wanted to see what was in it, but it took me a while as it’s a vodka grasshopper and was listed under vodka. Also daiquiris are listed separately under daiquiri and vodka daiquiri. It’s almost as though the cocktail titles have just been taken and used to make an alphabetical list, nitpicking perhaps, but as an indexer I notice these things. Also it would have been nice to not just have the names of the cocktails and the main spirit indexed, but also the minor ingredients listed. For example…in the house I had cointreau as well as gin and vodka, and in order to see what delicious concoctions I could make I had to browse through all the recipes in the gin and vodka sections. Not really a hardship, but if I’d have been in a hurry it could have become quite annoying.

Overall though, I found this book to be a lovely little thing. I had a look and all the classics are in there, plus lots more – in all 200 recipes to get you opening up your booze cupboard and mentally checking off what cocktails you can make, rather than wondering if you should have coke or tonic with the contents of the bottles in front of you. A lot of these recipes are also deceptively simple or use a small number of ingredients…cocktail party anyone?

White Lady
A White Lady – my favourite

Did I mention that gave it a test run? Well…I did, and although I made a number of the cocktails, just to try the recipes for quality control you understand, I found out that my favourite cocktail actually has the three ingredients I usually have in my cupboard (gin, cointreau and a lemon). I have since made a number of White Ladies, just to make sure that the recipe works…and ….erm….I may have to test it a few times more…just to make sure.

This little gem is available from Octopus Publishing

You can buy it on Amazon here but your local independent bookstore would love your custom too.

Agent Dmitri

Agent Dmitri

Agent Dmitri secret history spy

When I saw the tagline “The Secret History of Russia’s Most Daring Spy” I mentally checked it under exaggeration for the sake of publicity. After all, every good book needs a tagline to draw in the reluctant reader; something to get the bookshop browser to pick up the book and pay the man, and something to make the internet browser stop long enough to gain interest.

But as I read through the book I realised that this tagline might also be a true statement.

Dmitri Bystrolyotov was born in 1901 in the Crimea, brought up with an aristocratic foster family and was a young man during the 1917 Revolution. If fate had dealt him a different hand he may have lived out his life in privilege and splendour, as it happened, he entered a world of espionage and intrigue, spurred on by the love of his beloved Homeland. It was a love he never lost, but one that would cost him.

Emil Draitser writes with both compassion and detachment. He obviously feels passionately that Dmitri’s story should be told, but he also holds a writer’s cynicism…he questions motives, looks to see where exaggeration may have sneaked in and searches for the truth in what he was told and what he has found through his own research. And that is one area where Draitser has excelled. Throughout the book he refers to his sources in a way that does not affect the narrative, and the copious notes and bibliography allow the reader to look further into the facts of the story. Facts that could have jumped from the pages of a Fleming novel.

As a biography this book reads like a spy novel, because that is what it more or less is…only it isn’t fiction. And believe me there are times in this book that will make you question the truth…like the time when a bunch of spies make their way through country borders disguised in a manner that is straight from the Hitchcock film “The Lady Vanishes”, and a near fatal meeting high in the Swiss Alps. Reading Dmitri’s story you swing between admiration for the man who stood by his belief in his country, even when it caused him to be viciously beaten during interrogation, to disgust that he could treat people in such a callous and quite frankly evil manner (even those closest to him) and to horror at the treatment of political prisoners who ended up in the Gulag of Siberia. It’s a story of two halves, the Spy Dmitri…full of self-confidence, a womaniser, living the high life while spying for his country, and the Prisoner Dmitri…beaten, broken, but with the will to live despite the overwhelming odds. What comes through the pages is that with such intelligence, and being highly skilled at languages and an accomplished artist, Dmitri was broken by a regime that could have nurtured him.

When I first started to read this book I wasn’t totally sure what I would think of it. There are so many dry biographies out there, ones that give you the facts without an inkling of story-telling. However, this book had me gripped from start to finish, and with quite a few instances of disbelief, just enough to make me question reality. Draitser has woven the story of a man whom he met shortly before his death, with style and dignity. As any historian will tell you, the people that you research can get under your skin…and here, Dmitri deliberately sought out Draitser in order to tell his story but never followed up when the latter moved away from Russia. This book is the culmination of memories, painstaking research and family archives.

As a biography this is an intriguing, informative and an easy read. There is a well crafted index, an informative notes section, a good select bibliography and a few pictures and diagrams. I would have liked more pictures to illustrate his story, but the ones that appear do show you how one man can have disguised himself so well and taken on the numerous personas needed for his intelligence work.

As a story, it rivals any spy novel out there. Dmitri’s career was an impressive one, fuelled by a need to survive, love for his country and misguided loyalty to a regime that would chew him up and spit him out.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Why not visit Duckworth Publishers to find out more about this book?