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Professor Explores Links between Literature, Landscape and the Natural World

On May 15, Dr James Canton of the University of Essex will deliver a lecture at HSE on ‘Wild Writing’, a form of literature that emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a novel way of understanding the urban landscape and nature. The author of numerous publications focused primarily on British travel writing in Arabia, Dr Canton’s lecture will focus on a discussion of local Essex landscapes.

Ahead of his lecture, he agreed to speak with the HSE news service about how he became interested in travel writing, his current projects, and what he finds interesting in the Russian experience of travel writing.

Dr Canton’s lecture ‘Wild Writing’ will take place on Friday, May 15 at 6:10pm in Room 501 (21/4 Staraya Basmannaya, 5th floor). After the lecture, on Saturday, everyone is invited to step beyond the streets of Moscow to feel the literary echoes still in the fields and footpaths of Tolstoy’s creative homeland, Yasnaya Polyana.

— Could you please say a few words about how you became interested in the study of travel writing?

— Well, I loved travelling! Still do, though I tend not to get the time from teaching and children and family life to head off into the desert for a few months these days!

My PhD explored British travel writing on Arabia – I’ve lived in Egypt and have travelled a fair bit in the Middle East – and that then led to my first book, From Cairo to Baghdad, which had allowed me to lecture at places like the Royal Geographical Society. I still love travelling though and am working on my next book, which will involve some more travel and travel writing.

My second book, Out of Essex, was more local – I had smaller children then and so needed to be closer to home!

— What are the most known books from around the world that are examples of wild writing?  

— Good question. Most countries have their own classics of wild writing – books that tell of living close to nature and the effect that the natural world has on the author. Off the top of my head, a world list would include Thoreau’s Walden, Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne as classics from the past and then perhaps J. A. Baker’s Peregrine and Gavin and Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water as good examples from Britain in the 20th century. But can I throw the question back and ask for a text you would see as a good Russian example of WW from my earlier definition.

I suppose a piece of true travel writing would have a context and description of place and a journey or quest of some kind?

— Your research is based on classic literature. What could you say about modern travel or wild writing and social media? People write about their journeys on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Is it also travel writing?

— Many people now blog, text, and tweet as they travel the world and all these writings form a collective form of travel literature. But I suppose a piece of true travel writing would have a context and description of place and a journey or quest of some kind?

— Which Russian writers have been connected with your research?

— I’m really excited about exploring Tolstoy’s world when I’m in Moscow. Natalya Sarana, who has really done the hard graft to make this lecture trip come into existence, has organized a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, hopefully with some students who are interested in hearing a little more about wild writing. I’m thrilled at the chance to follow Tolstoy’s footsteps about the estate.

— What are you currently studying?

— I’m currently completing on a book about the wonders of nature and am planning a book on walking – if anyone knows anything about Tolstoy’s walking habits or any writings by him on walking, I’d really like to hear from them!

— Tell us about your cooperation with the HSE.

— My work with the HSE stems from Natalya Sarana, who came to the University of Essex – where I teach the MA Wild Writing – on a scholarship and who took the autumn module ‘The Wild East’. Subsequently, HSE has been kind enough to invite me to Moscow to lecture on my work both on wild writing and on modern travel writing, which I am very much looking forward to, as well as to the chance to meet and talk about literature with the good people of HSE.

— What could you recommend reading to get inspired to start travel writing? 

— A period of incredible travel writing emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s – that might well be a great place to start for those who haven’t read much travel literature. Here is a good selection, which also includes two great books from the 1990s:

  • Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia [1977] (Vintage 1998)
  • Bruce Chatwin, Songlines [1987]
  • Robyn Davidson, Tracks [1980] (Picador 1988)
  • Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard [1982] (Vintage 1998)
  • Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family [1983] (Picador 1984)
  • Sven Lindqvist, ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ [1992] (Granta 1998)
  • W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn [1995] (Harvill 1999)

My personal area of specialization and interest is British travel in Arabia and there is nothing greater than T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom [1935] or Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands [1959].

But then, do come to the lectures and I’ll give far more guidance on some classic literature on both travel writing and wild writing...

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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