THE FLIGHTDECK • April 2021
The next instalment of our pilots’ Book Club sees Boeing 777 pilot and bibliophile Nicola Metcalfe share some of her most treasured travel texts, from female aviator Beryl Markham’s West with the Night to classic Bill Bryson and The Road to Little Dribbling
The travel writings of the wonderful, recently departed Jan Morris are some of the few that have really stood the test of time. Life as a British Airways pilot often has parallels with the citizens of the British Empire in her Pax Britannica series, which always makes me want to go straight to the places she so evocatively describes. Morris captures every single detail: not just the smells and sounds of this historical moment, but also the personalities, foibles and whims of the protagonists.
I go to Africa as often as I can, and I have to take Beryl Markham’s incomparable West With The Night with me. Not only is it a reminder of the power and presence of the great female aviation pioneers between the wars, and one of the best books about the pure thrill of ﬂying, it’s also a great piece of literature. Beryl was a true adventurer and raced through life grabbing as much of it as she could. Never one for an easy ride, she allows us to enjoy the thrill of her world without ever having to worry about living it ourselves.
Nothing can match the vibrancy and energy of India, and Mumbai is my favourite trip to take. So, with the imperial trumpets sounding in our ears, it’s salutary to pick up William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, charting the rise of the East India Company. But really, any Dalrymple is a treat for the traveller and India is his speciality. His erudition is always lightly and enjoyably conveyed and you can’t go wrong with City of Djinns if you are travelling to Delhi. When touring these cities, I love to compare the historical descriptions with the present day and you don’t have to look far beneath the surface to see the old India. Recently, while hailing a cab outside the Red Fort in Delhi, I was nearly run over by two passing camels.
Some would say that an easy journey is not a journey worth making, and that the drama of a true travel trial is what stays in our memories. Martha Gellhorn’s Travels With Myself and Another: Five journeys from hell gives us a thrilling insight into the challenges of travel and offers a series of vicarious delights. From the safety and comfort of our own home, we can enjoy her direct, no-nonsense style with which she coolly manages her way through one mishap after another.
I was an enthusiastic mountaineer before I had my children, so I am always lured by a good mountain read. The Moth and the Mountain: A true story of love, war and Everest by Ed Caesar is a book that sends chills down my spine but is a fantastic story. I know from experience that, after a good hike along the Dragon’s Back in Hong Kong, Shek O beach at the end of the trail is the perfect place to settle down with this book and a beer. At the end of any hike, you can (pretend to) empathise with this avid adventurer.
A destination at the top of my ‘must-go’ list is Cuba. I was inspired by the brilliant Slow Train to Guantanamo: A rail odyssey through Cuba in the last days of the Castros by Peter Millar. Starting in Havana, the writer travels the length of Cuba using the crumbling railway system, ﬁnishing at the Guantanamo naval base. On the way he seeks out the true heart of the country, chatting with locals who are struggling through the dying days of the Castro regime. It’s adventurous, entertaining, engaging, revealing and thoroughly enjoyable. I can’t wait to go.
When it comes to travel writing, however, the crown for pure enjoyability must surely go to Bill Bryson. His refreshing and humorous take on the everyday makes one appreciate the small details of each trip. Spending more time at home this last year than at any point in my 22-year career, it felt good to reread The Road to Little Dribbling. His foreigners’ take on our quirky English ways makes us laugh at our own ridiculousness. But, for me, the introduction of Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927, charting the attempts to cross the Atlantic by air from East to West in the 1920s, reminds us just how far we have come in a hundred years.