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Ryan Murdock talks with the world's most original writers, publishers and travelers to get the story behind great books about place.
Nov 21, 2023
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.
1 hr 9 min
Nov 7, 2023
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.
Oct 24, 2023
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.
1 hr 4 min
Oct 10, 2023
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.
1 hr 2 min
Sep 26, 2023
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.
Sep 12, 2023
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.
1 hr 10 min
Aug 29, 2023
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.
1 hr 24 min
Aug 15, 2023
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.
1 hr 5 min
Jul 4, 2023
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.
1 hr 6 min
May 30, 2023
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.
1 hr 6 min
May 11, 2023
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.
1 hr 37 min
Apr 20, 2023
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.
1 hr 37 min
Apr 4, 2023
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.
1 hr 21 min
Mar 22, 2023
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.
1 hr 13 min
Mar 7, 2023
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.
Dec 1, 2022
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.
2 hr 1 min
Nov 14, 2022
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.
1 hr 8 min
Sep 30, 2022
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.
Sep 7, 2022
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.
1 hr 3 min
Jul 26, 2022
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.
1 hr 2 min
May 27, 2022
Martha Gellhorn: with biographer Caroline Moorehead
Martha Gellhorn wanted to be known as a novelist. Instead, she’s remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest war correspondents. She wrote about what war does to ordinary people, and the despair of those who have lost everything. Biographer Caroline Moorehead joins me to talk about this remarkable woman.
May 13, 2022
Guy Kennaway: Life in a Jamaican village
One People is a comic novel but Cousins Cove is a real village, and the stories Guy Kennaway tells were gathered during his first ten years as an idle British expat. We spoke about Jamaican culture, the legacy of slavery, and why he’s a passionate advocate for Patwa, the national language.
1 hr 17 min
Mar 12, 2022
Sophie Haydock: Egon Schiele and fin de siècle Vienna
Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a cultural crucible where the air seethed with repressed desire. No artist captured this more vividly than Egon Schiele. Sophie Haydock imagines herself into his world in her debut novel The Flames.
1 hr 9 min
Feb 20, 2022
Carole Angier: The strange world of W.G. Sebald
W.G. Sebald has been described as “a writer of almost unclassifiable originality”. He wrote about the plight of emigrants, and in particular, emigrants from the Holocaust. His obsessions included survivor’s guilt, the nature of decline and fall, loss and decay, and the downward plunge of nature and history. I discussed Sebald's life and work with his biographer Carole Angier.
1 hr 38 min
Jan 29, 2022
David Eimer: Cultural survival in China’s borderlands
David Eimer is the author of the critically acclaimed The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China. We spoke about that country's tumultuous border regions, and how different ethnic minorities have tried to keep their culture alive beneath the Han yoke.
1 hr 7 min
Dec 9, 2021
Dervla Murphy: Reflections on a lifetime of travel
Dervla Murphy has been described as a ‘travel legend’ and ‘the first lady of Irish cycling’. For five decades she’s travelled the world in a series of truly remarkable journeys, mostly alone and mostly on foot. I had the great fortune to speak with her a week after her 90th birthday. We talked about the loss of traditional cultures, travel in the pre-internet age, and the general state of the world.
Oct 1, 2021
Nigel Barley: The Innocent Anthropologist
Nigel Barley wrote one of the funniest travel books I've ever read, and it nearly got him kicked out of his academic discipline. We spoke about the grim reality of fieldwork, his odd attraction for monkeys, and why fiction tells us more than anthropology about what it means to be human.
1 hr 19 min
Aug 18, 2021
Jeremy Seal: Modern Turkey and the 1960 coup
Jeremy Seal is the author of six books, including A Fez of the Heart. We spoke about the infinite courtesies of Turkish hospitality, cultural divides, and the legacy of the 1960 military coup.
1 hr 25 min
Aug 5, 2021
John Gimlette: Madagascar, and ‘walking the dead’
John Gimlette is the author of five books, including The Gardens of Mars. We spoke about Madagascar, ‘walking the dead’, and writing about places on the margin of the map.
1 hr 6 min
Jul 21, 2021
Sara Wheeler: Russia, Antarctica and how we shape stories
Sara Wheeler is the author of 10 books, including Mud and Stars. We spoke about her travels in Russia, living as writer-in-residence on an Antarctic research base, and the reciprocal relationship between story and memory.
1 hr 3 min
Jul 2, 2021
Jerry Kobalenko: Searching for ghosts on Ellesmere Island
Jerry Kobalenko is one of Canada’s most experienced High Arctic travelers, and the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden. We spoke about the lure of Ellesmere, and searching for the traces of historic travelers.
1 hr 25 min
Jun 22, 2021
Lawrence Millman: the Arctic, technology and saving stories
Lawrence Millman is the author of 18 books, and a master of northern writing. We talked about his book Last Places, eating bird shit in Iceland, and his efforts to preserve stories before they fade away.
1 hr 49 min
Jun 15, 2021
Rory Maclean: Berlin, Bowie and the new Cold War
Rory Maclean is the author of 15 books, including Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries. We talk about Berlin, making a film with David Bowie, the state of Europe, and how a glimpse of the Berlin Wall formed a lasting influence on his books.
1 hr 17 min
Jun 8, 2021
Anthropology-lite with Barnaby Rogerson of Eland books
Eland has been resurrecting lost travel classics and keeping them in print for more than 35 years. I talk with publisher Barnaby Rogerson about anthropology-lite, why the post-war period was a golden age for British travel writing, and why some of the 20th century’s most exciting writers were autodidacts.
1 hr 39 min
Jun 6, 2021
Introducing... Personal Landscapes
The novelist and island writer Lawrence Durrell believed that everyone has a personal landscape, a landscape that resonates with them on some deep tuning fork level, where you feel most at home, and where you think your deepest thoughts. I’ve spent more than 20 years exploring such places as a traveler, and as a writer of magazine features and books. I’m going to talk to the people who write those books and publish those books. Experts on different geographical and cultural regions, and on long-dead writers whose books have entered the canon of travel classics. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoy talking to them.