Poignant novel set in Southall, London
Walking through ‘The Land Beyond’ with Leon McCarron
9th September 2019
The Land Beyond – A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East by Leon McCarron – already sounded like an enticing read. So I was delighted to be invited to an event at the Watts Gallery Artists Village in Compton, near Guildford, to hear Leon talk about his latest adventure, and to see some photos and a short film bringing colour to to this extraordinary endeavour.
‘We may be better informed than ever before, but on some level we’re less aware of what’s going on.’
Leon’s opening introduction set the tone. He is a humble, perceptive guide – Adventurer, Writer, Broadcaster, Chancer – who seeks out stories of humanity and nuance in parts of the world that are often demonised and misunderstood by Western media. Previous projects include cycling 14,000 miles across three continents, walking the length of China and riding across Patagonia on horseback.
The Land Beyond tells of his 1,000 mile walk through the heart of the Middle East, from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai, looping around this ancient, holy territory via Jericho, the West Bank and Jordan. A map of the route at the start of the book omits the present day names of each state, in an admirable effort to reflect the historical complexities of this troubled region. But as early in his journey as the West Bank, the author recognises that ‘increasingly it was becoming obvious that my idealistic goal of an apoliticial journey in Palestine was folly: this was a place where politics and pain were so engrained in some parts of everyday life that they were impossible to ignore.’
The book is a rewarding travelogue, informing the reader as much as entertaining. I confess my own ignorance about the layers of history – ancient and more recent – surrounding this core of the Middle East. The Land Beyond has at least helped me to fill in some of the gaps.
But it is the people Leon meets along the way who seem to have the deepest impact on him.
Fadi, a wise Palestinian, who says that walking makes ‘makes a small land feel big again.’
At the refugee camp of Aqbat Jabr, built for Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war, Um Huda is the indomitable leader of the camp’s Women’s Union. ‘As she spoke she passed us soft, doughy biscuits with dates inside and freshly washed fruits. A conversation with her filled the stomach as much as the brain.’
In Jordan, Mahmoud – a stranger – sees Leon hobbling along the road after dark. ‘You must be very tired. I wonder if you would permit my sons and I to wash your feet.’ Leon had already become used to the innate hospitality of Arabs, ‘but the sheer scale of this gesture caught me off guard and I nearly burst into tears at his kindness.’
And I share the author’s appreciation of the value of exploring a place on foot, and the innate hospitality and kindness of people you meet when travelling slowly. As Leon observes: ‘as humans, we’re designed to move. I like being forced into a slower pace of life. Walking is a natural rhythm, encouraging deeper thought and a connection to people and places.‘
I can think of no better endorsement for Leon and The Land Beyond than that this book stands alongside enduring works from Patrick Leigh Fermor* and Laurie Lee*. And what an inspired move from the Watts Gallery team to combine Leon’s event with the current exhibition of work from artist John Frederick Lewis.
Andrew for the TripFiction team
At the age of 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to walk the length of Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He set off in December 1933 and chronicled his adventures many years later in A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road. Leigh Fermor is recognised as one of our greatest travel writers.
Laurie Lee walked the length of Spain in the 1930s. His haunting memoir As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning paints a clear and lyrical picture of a beautiful country – and its people – on the brink of war.
Which books about adventures on foot have lingered longest in your memory? Please leave your thoughts in the Comments box below.
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