The Slow Traveller book cover

Book review: ‘The Slow Traveller’ by Jo Tinsley

Image credit: Leaping Hare Press

A mindful approach to travel can add meaning to even the most purposeless-seeming journeys.

Some books are best read slowly – not perused or skipped through – with every page savoured, like a sip of a good vintage wine. In our age of supersonic speeds and unending rush, there is a growing tendency for slowness.

You may have heard of the Slow Food movement, founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini from the Italian town of Bra, home of the world’s only University of Gastronomic Sciences. On BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, you can listen to a weekly slot of the Slow Radio: rhythmic sounds of machinery, birds or animals. And Slow Travel, of course...

“The slower you travel – the further you get,” goes an old Russian proverb.

In 2013, Dan Kieran, one of my fellow ‘elves’ on the question-setting team for BBC quiz show 'QI', published ‘The Idle Traveller – The Art of Slow Travel’, the first book of its kind, calling, among other things, for gliding rather than flying, as well as for “embracing disasters”. That book was followed by Bradt’s 'Slow Travel' guides to some parts of Britain. Those were selling particularly well during the recent Covid-19 pandemic when everything in the UK had to slow down.

Although not a trailblazer, Jo Tinsley’s ‘The Slow Traveller – An Intentional Path to Mindful Adventures (Leaping Hare Press, £16.99, ISBN 9780711282322) differs distinctly from all previous ‘Slow’ publications. Resplendent with masterly photos and drawings, it comes through as not just a literary, but also a rich visual experience. The book is almost Taoist in its consistent focus on the mindfulness of travel, and on the traveller’s unbreakable connections not just with nature as such, but with any kind of environment – rural, alpine or urban – through which they happen to be – slowly! – moving.

Reading ‘The Slow Traveller’ made me think of wu-wei, a Taoist concept, often rendered in English as ‘no action’, but in fact denoting the movements that are effortless, smooth and non-intrusive. Like leaves falling off trees in autumn...

A couple of random quotes from the book: “What better way to slow down than to put yourself at the whim of the wind and tide?” And: “Human connections stay with us long after we have arrived back on home soil.”

Some hardened E&T readers may have noticed already that the style of this particular book review differs from my normal style of writing: shorter paragraphs and sentences, plenty of parentheses and quotes, loose structure. That is because while writing it, I have – inadvertently – found a new literary genre: Slow Book Reviewing!

Starting in a fiord of the sparsely populated Iceland – one of the world’s ‘slowest’ countries (in my opinion) – the book takes us on an unhurried and seemingly purposeless – like all best journeys – global excursion, with neither a starting point, nor a final destination; the journey with plenty of departures and very few, if any, arrivals.

The following chapter titles and subtitles (in no particular order) speak for themselves: ‘On Spontaneity and Embracing the Unexpected’, ‘The Simple Joy of Sharing Food’, ‘On Mountain Solitude’, ‘The Beauty of Long-Distance Walking Trails’, ‘On Embracing the Journey’ and ‘Epic Rail Journeys’.

Apart from the recurring and charmingly illustrated tips on what equipment to pack for this or that type of slow journey (binoculars, camera, barbecue, one-pot stove etc), the chapter on rail journeys is the only one to focus on technology (no wonder: the main message of ‘The Slow Traveller’ is anti-technological in its essence). But even here, speaking about railways and different types of sleeper trains, Tinsley concentrates not on their technical characteristics, but on “a definite romance to long-distance train journeys” and on their relative environmental friendliness compared to flying.

I was deeply touched and fascinated by Tinsley’s explanation of the train travel’s perennial magnetism: “Choosing to travel slowly; to not be ‘the driver’, brings with it a certain loss of control; an acceptance of missed connections, delays and cancellations [‘embracing disasters’ as Dan Kieran put it – VV]... Rail travel allows us to shake off this perceived sense of control in a safe and comfortable manner. Once we allow that shift of mindset and roll with it, we open ourselves up to new experiences and encounters.”

That came as a long-belated revelation for myself – a life-long train buff.

Significantly, ‘The Slow Traveller’ does not limit its scope of adventure to remote and sparsely populated places.

The book’s last chapter, ‘On Drifting: Urban Landscapes’, talks about (and shows) the beauty and romanticism of some of the world’s largest cities, ready to offer solitude and ‘wildness’ to a mindful traveller. All you need is to slow down, open up your eyes and carefully listen to yourself, for both solitude and beauty come from within the traveller’s soul.

To quote my favourite romantic poet Henry Longfellow: “In vain we look, in vain uplift our eyes to heaven, if we are blind; we see only what we have the gift of seeing; what we bring, we find.”

“If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t travel,” writes Paul Theroux, the doyen of British and American travel writers, in his book ‘The Tao of Travel’, having paraphrased Anton Chekhov’s tongue-in-cheek pronouncement “If you are afraid of solitude, don’t marry”.

And although ‘The Slow Traveller’ strongly advocates solitary travel, asserting that “Just as silence heightens the senses, solitude sharpens your awareness”, I would dare to recommend this book as your indispensable travel companion, bound not only to heighten your senses, but to sharpen your awareness, too!

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