Far away and long ago…

I was shelving in the travel writing and found a couple of books that looked kind of interesting: The Telling Room: Passion, Revenge and Life in a Spanish Village by Michael Paterniti and Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins. They are both very good…

The Telling Room is quite lovely. Paterniti follows a cheese to Spain, finds the cave where it was made, discovers all is not as it should be and starts to investigate why it is now made in a modern factory by a corporation as opposed to the family whose recipe it is. Paterniti sort of falls in love with the tiny village of Guzmán and with Ambrosio, the charismatic cheesemaker, and returns many times to winkle out the story, not just of the cheese but of Guzmán and its 80 inhabitants, finally taking his wife and young children to live there for a year. Paterniti finds himself unable, unwilling in fact, to ask the hard questions to sort out what happened, to find out why the cheese has gone. His honesty about this, and his attachment to various people, and his ambiguous role in the story make this as much about journalism and its ethics, friendship and happiness, as about cheese – and by the end of the book you really want to be able to try this cheese. Paterniti brings the scorched, ochre Castilian plateau to life, with its myths and legends and spirits. Life continues very much as it has for centuries here, the traditions embedded and unchanging. The village appears simple and pastoral but is riven with feuds and jealousies and people are still scarred by the Civil War and Franco’s reign. I was a bit surprised how involved I became, it was strangely compelling and also moving – salty and strong like the storied Páramo de Guzmán.

Under Another Sky – shortlisted for 2013’s Samuel Johnson Prize – is a lyrical exploration of the things and places the Romans left in Britain when they retreated and the empire began to crumble. Few of the invaders were in fact ‘Roman’ or Italian even, many were from what is now Northern Africa, Central and Western Europe, and their physical traces are mixed with that of the Britons who, after three hundred years of Roman rule, were about as Roman as everyone else in their tastes and habits. This history often lies just under the farmland and cities of modern Britain, often the Roman-cut building stones have been re-used several times and the streets follow the straight Roman roads. Higgins is very good at explaining why this history is important in the modern world, how it echoes and resonates, and why it still fascinates.

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