LitFest in Lockdown: We talk to Tim Hannigan
In the third of our interviews with local literary figures, the travel writer and regular LitFest contributor Tim Hannigan shares some recent reading discoveries, reveals the one item he’d panic-buy and admits to some ‘judicious trespassing’. Interview by Rachel Viney.
You’re in lockdown in Ireland. Are restrictions there similar to those in the UK – or are there some notable differences?
The restrictions are pretty much the same now, but the authorities here have generally inspired much more confidence. I have to say, from the outside the UK situation has often looked pretty alarming – and in the early days inexplicable. In Ireland, we gradually moved from firm messaging on social distancing in February, to closure of schools and colleges in early March and then into progressively stricter lockdown. People seem to be responding positively, and the infection and death rates are relatively low. A key element of the restrictions is that we’re not allowed to go more than two kilometres from our residences for exercise.
Which aspect of lockdown are you most enjoying as a writer?
I’m quite enjoying seeing all the other folks discovering that a thirty-second commute and the possibility of working all day in your pyjamas – the regular lot of the freelance writer – aren’t all they’re cracked up to be…
And which is proving most irksome?
Not being able to get to bookshops, or to the hills visible on the far horizon.
Which item of food or drink would you most hate to run out of?
Tea! Teabags are probably the only thing I’d ever panic-buy.
Which book(s) have you found most helpful in tough times?
The other day I did find myself feeling uncharacteristically pessimistic, and so reaching for Kathleen Jamie’s recent book, Surfacing, and turning to its final, very short piece, Voice of the Wood. In the space of two short pages it manages to put our petty worries – whether as individuals or as a species – subtly in perspective, but at the same time to deliver a very firm imperative. She’s a genius, no doubt about it.
Which books by new writers have most impressed you recently?
Kapka Kassabova’s To the Lake, which came out in February, is already my frontrunner for nonfiction book of the year. You could categorise it as travel writing, but it has a lot more going on than your average travelogue – a deep excavation of memory, place and identity on the borders of Greece, Albania and North Macedonia. I’m currently enjoying Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, an Indian journalist’s account of the Afghan capital. And I’ve got a favourite from last year – David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge – earmarked for a rereading.
Is there a book or author you reread regularly and, if so, what is it that keeps you coming back?
My ultimate comfort read has always been Rudyard Kipling’s Kim; I must have read it at least twenty times. That might seem an odd choice for someone firmly affiliated to postcolonial scholarship – of which Kipling is decidedly a bête noire – and for sure, there are lots of hugely problematic elements that I never noticed when I first read it in my teens. But the sheer joy of the thing, its celebration of travel and friendship and love for the world around you, are impossible to resist. And Kipling’s prose (unlike his doggerel) is always brilliant – an alchemic combination of high craft and apparent artlessness.
What is the biggest ‘plus’ of the lockdown for you?
The restriction on exercise beyond a two-kilometre radius was initially a huge frustration. There are no public footpaths through the countryside in Ireland, so usually all my outdoors time here is in wilder places a little further afield. But the new rules have made me look on the immediate neighbourhood entirely afresh. I drew a four-kilometre-wide circle on the map, and with a little creativity and occasional judicious trespassing I have found all sorts of fresh angles. Something written might come out of that in the end.
And what is the biggest ‘minus’?
Beyond the obvious ones, the severing of easy travel connections between Cornwall and Ireland, and not knowing when I’ll next be able to make it home.
Do you have a top tip for staying sane?
Read short books! At any time of worry or boredom or ennui, short books work wonders, particularly if you’re a slow reader like me. There’s something heartening about being able to tick titles off your to-be-read list in double-quick time. Horatio Clare’s Orison for a Curlew, Cynan Jones’s Stillicide, Colm Tóibín’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush and Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea have been amongst those I’ve managed to get through in a couple of sittings lately.
Have you discovered any great new online resources to help while away the time?
I’ve been peering extensively at the high-quality satellite imagery on the Irish site GeoHive – much clearer than Google Maps – to plot explorations within the two-kilometre radius. Apart from that, it’s probably best to stay offline as much as possible – though the internet does offer a way to support independent booksellers and small publishers. That’s a hugely important thing to bear in mind for anyone who cares about the future of books and continuing plurality in the publishing industry – buying from Amazon hasn’t suddenly become guilt-free overnight. If you want to do a good thing, go online and buy a book from any independent bookshop that’s still managing to handle mail orders, or direct from a small publisher like Eland or Little Toller (two of my personal favourites).
Have you learned anything new or unexpected about yourself from this experience?
There’s actually nothing that immediately springs to mind – as I mentioned, the current enforced conditions aren’t hugely different from daily life for a freelance writer in normal circumstances!
What good things do you hope will come out of this pandemic?
I’m hesitant about making any of the utopian predictions that seem to be common these days; I have a sneaking suspicion that everything will revert to depressing normality with unseemly rapidity whenever this is all over. But I do think that a period of enforced immobility might at least renew popular interest in the literary travel writing genre, after a couple of decades out of commercial favour.
Tim Hannigan was born in Penzance and grew up in Morvah. He is the author of the narrative history books Murder in the Hindu Kush, Raffles and the British Invasion of Java and A Brief History of Indonesia, as well as numerous travel guidebooks. He recently completed a PhD at the University of Leicester, looking at ethical issues in contemporary travel literature. A book based on this project is due for publication in 2021. You can find out more about Tim on his website or by following him on Twitter.