I love books that make you reach for other books. Rosita Boland’s Elsewhere made me reach for my battered red Chambers Dictionary within the first few lines of her stunning introduction to nine essays, each of which charts a significant journey from her well-travelled life.
Boland is also a poet and this goes a long way towards explaining her intense obsession with words, “poets are always searching for words that will go deep as wells”.
In the year 2000, Boland set herself the task of reading the 13th edition of the Chambers Dictionary from cover to cover. As she made her way, she collected words which delighted her in a notebook making her “own vade mecum” or guide.
Each chapter begins with an unusual highly evocative word. She begins with “fernweh”, a German word which means “an ache for distant places”. Boland has always travelled, driven by a longing for “elsewhere”, compelled “to keep moving onwards, to do more, to see more; to feel the miles unspool beneath my feet, to answer the instinct . . . driving me to keep on exploring . . .”
Exploring is a form of hunting and it is interesting that one of the words she focuses on is “abature” which describes “a trail of damaged foliage created by a stag being hunted . . .” When she looks up “abature” in her grandmother’s 1909 edition of Chambers, Boland is jolted to see someone else – perhaps her grandmother – has also marked that word. She also discovers that the meaning of the word has changed in the intervening years. Previously it was defined as “the trail of a beast of the chase”. It seems the Chambers Dictionary is alive and evolving like a mysterious forest which Boland explores with the same intense curiosity she applies to the many lands which she has visited over a period of 30 years.
It all started with words. Perhaps when eight-year-old Boland woke from a fever to find her uncle reading to her from Arabian Nights – “In my fevered state, the world Scheherazade incanted, of palaces and jinn and sherbet, took on a surreal quality. At that point in my life, I had never left Ireland. It was the first time I ever felt transported to another world, to a glorious far-away elsewhere.”
Elsewhere has transported me to a glorious far-away elsewhere too. I became conscious of just how well Boland’s words were working when I read the essay describing her 2007 trip to Antarctica:
“On board the Antarctic Dream, it had soon become apparent that I was the only passenger without a camera. It was 2007, and the first iPhone had just been released that summer. The idea of taking pictures on your phone had not yet become routine, and I wasn’t travelling with a mobile phone of any kind on that trip . . . Antarctica with its stark, unearthly beauty . . . had people constantly reaching for their cameras . . . For the first time in years, I wondered if I had made a mistake in not bringing a camera . . . Carlos . . . was digitally editing the pictures he had taken that day; all 1,500-plus of them . . . ‘You can never write about this,’ Carlos said decisively, indicating my diary, which lay open before me. ‘Nothing but photographs can capture this . . . Do you honestly not regret bringing a camera with you?’”
Boland replied that only time would tell and I am sure that it has told her by now she has nothing to regret. I, for one, found her fine evocative essay transported me far more effectively than any number of digital photos because this multi-faceted book about travel, words, the heart and fate is, above all, a witness to the power of the human imagination.
Boland’s travels have occurred over a period of great change for travellers. Like the Chambers Dictionary, our world has changed too and much faster – in leaps and bounds. Women travelling solo are far more common these days than when Boland started out alone. It happened by chance – when her Interrail companion deserted her halfway through her first journey abroad. There was no internet, no easy access to foreign currency, no mobile phones and of course no digital cameras. Elsewhere is reporting from a vanished world which gains in poignancy as Boland charts the story of her relationships and her disappointment in not being able to have children.
I loved the buzz of a newspaper office . . . I knew almost right away I had finally discovered my true career
Perhaps the strongest sense of change is in the essay which describes her 2015 trip to Iceland. Here again we have the mirroring of her childhood reading; her starting point is Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen and references to it are threaded throughout her journey. This essay’s defining word “enfilade” describes “a number of things arranged as if strung on a thread”. And here, she describes another fascinating world which has undergone momentous changes since the turn of the century, the world of newspapers:
“I am probably one of the last people working there now who came to the paper via a life-path other than an MA in journalism or a work placement. I learned everything I knew about journalism simply by being in the office and by doing the work, but most importantly, I learned from Caroline’s initial direction.”
Mentored by the late Caroline Walsh, Boland discovered a place where she could settle and be at home, “I loved the buzz of a newspaper office; the fact that every assignment and every day was different; the unshakeable communal dedication to deadlines; the thrumming of the presses in our Fleet Street basement . . . I knew almost right away I had finally discovered my true career.”
It could have seemed like escapism; eschewing permanent work for part-time jobs taken on just to earn money for more travel. But she had “. . . not, in the end, been throwing away an opportunity for a career”. Boland’s experiences along with her natural curiosity and resourcefulness were preparing her for a successful happy career in journalism. Now she is one of those increasingly rare and valuable birds – the writer who, striking out alone and courageously, learned her trade in the University of Life.
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest collection Now We Can Talk Openly About Men was published by Carcanet in 2018