If you’re travelling in an enclosed space like a bus, train or plane, then it’s all about you. You might as well sit still while the world turns about you.
Travelling on foot it all changes. Everything is about the other – the people you meet, the places you pass, the very consistency of the ground underneath. These form the warp and weft of your traveller’s tales.
This would make an interesting book anyway, but what makes it unique is MacFarlane’s gift for not just communicating the texture of a moment but inviting the reader to join him inside that moment, be it traipsing barefoot in Scotland (where I empathised with his reticence to experience nettles as “chili for the feet”), being chosen by a book in the Library of the Forest in Madrid or accompanying an old friend in a melancholy meander over old Palestinian pathways. As a recovering twitcher I was taken by his description of a rock dove as a “hoplite vicar”.
I was worried that MacFarlane would use his journeys in Palestine to make a political point, but my fears were unfounded. He tells the stories of his travels as if each journey were a precious jewel, and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Something that interested me in the section on Palestine was the story of a friend of his who narrowly being shot by militia on the grounds that "it is halal to kill the guilty English". The British (presumably what was meant) left the Palestinian Mandate in 1948. Perhaps food for thought given the decisions our politicians have to make about engagement in Syria?