Category Archives: Travel Writing

Thursday, Mississippi, on the road

We pull into a diner on the interstate. Modern exterior, brick, neon, smoked glass door. Inside it is as dark as sin: blackened 4 by 8 rafters, black plank walls, little light coming through the windows. Though it looks to have been assembled in the 1970s, it reminds us of the old colonial inn reassembled in the American Museum in Bath, England, where Paul Revere maybe popped in for a pint. Dark as sin.

‘The country ham?’ The waitress slips a pen behind her ear. ‘It’s, like, saltier than the regular ham.’

Maybe: but it’s good.

Here’s Ace Atkins on driving the Mississippi Delta:

Mississippi Delta driving is about the white dots of cotton stretched forever flat like the tiny points of an impressionist painting. It’s about the crooked crosses of wooden electric poles that edge the two-lane highway lined with farm-supply stores, barbecue joints, squat cone-topped silos, and windowless burned-out 1930s gas stations. It’s the deep maroon of a rusted tin roof above a weathered clapboard shack and the skeleton of a sun-parched tree, dead rooted in stagnant water. Or fallen cotton caught in highway gravel.

This comes from a book called Crossroad Blues, which involves the death of Robert Johnson. This is Atkins on his home territory:

Early the next morning, Nick slept away the Highway 61 trip in a Greenwood motel room until a dull, yellow light leaked through the brittle curtains and onto the flowered bedspread. It was the kind of place they used to call a motor court before the superhighways destroyed the character of travel…

The blurb says that ‘the cast of characters includes a red-headed siren, an Elvis-worshipping hitman, Johnson’s ghost, and the Mississippi Delta itself.’

Like the country ham, it’s rather good. And happens to be about Izzy’s favourite subject.


Thursday, Oxford, MS

It’s called River Bend because it’s on a bend in the Pearl River, just off the Natchez Trace.

The Trace is an old track that runs hundreds of miles through the woods, from Natchez on the Mississippi to Tupelo, and we picked it up about half-way up at Jackson. It’s really only trees, with the odd Indian mound to the side, but in Spring with the leaves out, and deer bobbing through the woods, a paradise. Unfamiliar roadkill, too, raccoon and armadillo like creatures from a mediaeval bestiary.

At River Bend a man is fishing on the pontoon.

‘Here it’s white perch,’ he says slowly.

‘Good to eat?’

‘Best eating fish there is.’ He leans forward in his fold-out chair, and moves the rods a few inches. ‘You can have him broiled, or grilled. Or fried.’ The words slip out like nylon line tugged by the current. A pause. ‘I like it fried.’

He tells us the river can be dangerous. It looks it: twenty yards out the surface is skimming fast by the remains of a bridge, which once carried the road out of Rankin County, on wooden planks. That was before they built the Trace, made it good, he says. He points to a live oak on the far bank and says that some kids from Rankin County were playing on a rope last month, and one of them fell from the rope into the river and died.

‘Must a-been something hit his neck, in the wrong place.’

On the way back to the car, Izzy declares this man to be the most chilled-out person he has ever met.

Oxford is so agreeable it’s seems a shame even to be there, knowing we have to leave next day. William Faulkner, who could give Eudora a run for her money as the Great Writer of the South, lived there; so did, and still do, plenty of artists and writers and musicians. It’s the home of Ole Miss (really), Mississippi University, which goes some way towards explaining the astonishing density of pretty girls milling around the Square.

The Square is a handsome collection of old buildings grouped around the town hall. Square Books, our goal, is a beached Mississippi steamboat of a place, stacked with books to its rafters, boasting a huge verandha on the upper floor, with tables and comfy chairs.

And on a Thursday evening, Thacker Mountain Radio. A hundred or so people assemble in the book shop’s annexe on the Square. At 6pm the show is live, and it kicks off with a rambunctious set by the house band. One hour, three great bands – and an author. He gets fifteen minutes to explain himself; the audience nods patiently, laughs politely, until a girl band from Nashville comes to its rescue, playing fiddle and singing like fallen angels.

This is how all book store events should be.

In the bar next door Slade, the bass player, gives Izzy the philosophy of bass-playing. Bass is the engine. Bass lays down the turf. Bass doesn’t play to all the girls in the room, the way lead guitar does, prancing about up front and showing off. Bass sinks back, lays down the music, and fixes on just two or three. ‘I’m playing for them, they know that, and I get them to dance,’ he says.

Izzy thinks of applying to college here.


Wednesday: Jackson, Mississippi


The great traveller Jan Morris always likes to visit a courtroom and to hunt down a Henry Moore statue when she gets to a new city. She gets a flavour from the crims and lawyers, and she seems to regard a Henry Moore the way I do a fictional detective – part of the paraphernalia of modern cityhood.

Is there a city worth its salt which cannot boast a fictional PI, forensic investigator, police detective or even a gifted amateur sleuth? I wonder. Some cities field so many fictional detectives that the real mystery is why they don’t meet. When I met Arnaldur Idradasson, writing about Rekjavyik, he admitted that he not only had to create a detective for the city, he had to invent an entire homicide squad. Iceland does not have a homicide squad. But he also brings the city he writes about to life; gloomy, but alive.


Izzy and I eat breakfast in a diner on the way to the city art museum. It is run by a Greek with a huge patriarchal beard and kindly eyes. We have grits and bacon and curious strips of ground, mixed beef and lamb, called gyros and pronounced, according to our host, like the very single currency with which Greece itself is struggling.

Instead of a courtroom, I choose to see the Eudora Welty House. Great, late, witty Southern writer, she wrote great short stories – The Petrified Man is superb – and won a Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter. She also received a special Reader’s Award from the Mystery Writers of America, in the form of a ceramic raven. She was a great reader of detective stories. She had a twisted mind and a perfect ear for the cadences of speech; southern speech. It is, Izzy points out, rewarding but oddly tiring to read some of her short stories, because you have to keep putting on a southern accent in your head.

The raven turns out to be the only award on display in the house. It sits in her spare bedroom, on the side table. The Pulitzer, meanwhile, is hidden in a box in a cupboard.

I have mixed feelings about this. I was not at the ceremony to collect my Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers: my publisher was too cheap to take the risk of bringing me to NYC, on the reasonable assumption that I wouldn’t win. She collected it on my behalf, a china Edgar Allen Poe.

She still has it. I have even seen it, in her office. I have suggested bringing it away but she is afraid it might break.

I told a bookseller in Philadelphia about this once, and he very sweetly fetched a plastic statuette of Edgar Allen Poe with a huge nodding head on a spring. So I have that.



The reason to visit a house is, of course, to get inside a house in a strange town.

Eudora’s house is plain, large, straightforward and full of light. She has 5000 books, according to the guide; some of them are the same editions as mine – I notice Waugh’s Letters; but as Izzy points out, if she has 5,000 books we must have 15,000. Bibliomania is a disease, but a vaguely social one.

Eudora had a big garden, divided into rooms; the rose garden is full of English and Irish roses. The trees have just come into leaf. She died less than ten years ago, in her nineties, having never married; she always meant to leave her house as a museum and so, towards the end of her life, she had volunteers from a museum trust re-doing her garden for her and cataloguing everyday objects and books in her house. She was, in fact, curated to death. But it must have amused her to have the garden done so nicely for nothing.

Later I bite the bullet and go to Lemuria Books, to talk and sign copies of An Evil Eye. It is a beautiful bookshop, on the first floor of a small block off a ten-lane highway. For Jackson, I suppose, that’s a neighbourhood. The guys and girls who run the store are also funny and welcoming.

We are impressed by the hugeness of the South, especially the enormous dedication to cheese. It appears everywhere, sprinkled on our sweet-potato chips, welded to a fish fillet, draped odalisque-like over a burger, grated into a salad. It is a very cheese friendly place.

The Magic Carpet Tour I

“When you read a historical mystery by Jason Goodwin, you take a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth.” Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times.




Girl at the Avis desk puts down the phone on a long customer service call, and addresses the queue.

A small delay at Heathrow has had a knock-on effect; we’re at Jackson 24 hours after leaving Dorset.

‘Dodge Avenger, right?’

Izzy frowns. He leans into my ear.

‘The Dodge Avenger came out bottom in a test of 48 production cars in America,’ he murmurs. ‘Lowest for reliability, safety and design.’

‘Is there a pick-up truck?’ I say bleakly.

‘Mmmm-mm.’ She opens a drawer and pokes through a heap of keys with glorious silver nails. ‘Y’all want a Ford Fandango, a Dodge Bushwhacker, a Toyota Trailblazer or a Chevvy Traverse?’

We get the Chevrolet, partly because it’s the only one I really heard her say and partly because it has Texas plates and needs to go home.

In the parking lot it looks like a merger between a Samurai helmet and a London bus. I am awed, and dwarfed, by its huge wheels. We climb in sleepily, and when I turn the key the dashboard, the mirrors, the radios and consoles and parts of the ceiling burst into life, sparkling in thousands of tiny neon pin-pricks in the dark.

Izzy, who has never been to America or deciphered a Mississippi roadsign in his life, sees to it that we don’t manage to get lost, in spite of my best efforts.



Remembering Libya

I’ve just revisited an article I wrote for CN Traveler seven years ago, when Libya allowed its first foreign visitors to explore its deserts and ruins. I’ve posted the article above.

I mentioned the violence of my reception – but not the terrible Saharan brothel I visited one night with my driver, my guide and an Algerian tourist camp agent. While the driver went to jigjig with one of the Nigerian girls, we sat on low stools in a stuffy room painted dark, glossy green to dado level. My guide pounced on a book there, leafed through it, and snorted: “English dictionary!” It was, in fact, the King James Bible.

For the girls, sending back money to their families in Nigerian villages, Libya was a step towards Europe. They all wanted to go there. None of them, I think, ever would. They were chatty, and sweet, and talked about crocodiles and other things.

Next day, the driver and the guide took me into the desert and I decided they meant to kill me. Libyan brothels were not The Man’s idea of creating a good image. They had made a mistake, letting me come. They would kill me, and my corpse would never be found. It seemed perfectly reasonable, at the time.

Every time the poor fellows picked up a tyre-iron, I assumed my time had come. They wedged the irons in the sand, to set up a barbecque. We would eat; I would grow sleepy; they would kill me.

It was not a good night, in spite of the stars.

Lemuria Bookstore, Jackson Mississippi

Is where the US Magic Carpet Tour for April 2011 is kicking off. I’ll be there on 6th April at 5.30 pm for reading and talking and signing. Come along – and send your friends, too!

The whole tour is a celebration of the independent bookstores of America, the people who make an effort to put new books in front of their readers, who know their stuff, care about what’s read, and create the proper atmosphere in their own stores. This is the week, after all, that the giant bookseller Borders filed for bankruptcy.

Lemuria fits the bill – and here’s a link to their thoughtful blog about the very future of books: