Two books by Tom Coote

I first stumbled across the travel writer Tom Coote on Twitter a couple of years or so back, though I’d file him under “people who don’t tweet much but ought to as they’re interesting”.

Tom Coote book covers

That led me to his two books, both of which I enjoyed and would like to share a few thoughts on just now (there is a third book forthcoming, and that looks very interesting indeed).

The two books are quite different, though share the same spirit of adventurousness and travel to countries that aren’t necessarily most folks’ top picks for relaxing holidays.

The first, Tearing up the Silk Road, covers territory that has been so frequently trod by travel writers (Colin Thubron‘s Shadow of the Silk Road is a classic, for instance). It’s one of the most iconic journeys, after all, following in the footsteps of the centuries of traders who linked east and west, Asia and Europe, and covering some of the great civilisations from China to Persia to the Ottoman Empire, and some of the most famous and interesting parts of the world.

It’s hard, therefore, to imagine a writer bringing an original perspective or anything interesting and new to share, but here, Tom Coote manages it. Rather than any great scholarly or historically rooted book, or a journey focussed on a particular theme of the route, Coote takes a fresh perspective of just zipping through the region in a matter of a few weeks. This loses us depth in one sense, with often barely a day or so spent in any one place, but gives us plenty room for the author’s own reflections and observations based on his background reading.

The book is as fast-paced as the journey, and at times is a bit of a blur. I struggle to keep up and distinguish between the Stans, for instance, though that’s maybe a reflection more on my own ignorance of the region than the author’s presentation. But on the moments he slows down, gets into conversations and allows himself to dig deep into the people, places and cultures, Coote is especially engaging and informative company.

And that digging deep is a particular strength of his second book, Voodoo, Slaves and White Man’s Graves: West Africa and the End of Days, in which he undertakes a journey along the coast of west Africa, particularly exploring the areas that were at the heart of the continent’s terrible slavery industry. Again, as with Tearing Up the Silk Road, I occasionally lose my place and can’t keep up with the author as he zips from Benin to Togo to Ghana and more. His pace is quick, his observations sometimes sharp and concise, and his mind is focussed.

Focussed on what, however, is something I questioned as I read the book. In a curiosity also shared with Tearing Up the Silk Road, I struggled to understand what Coote’s motivations for the trip were. In one sense the narrative is modest and self-effacing: we join him first at the airport as he leaves on the trip, and we leave him at the end as he catches his flight home. There is little preamble or background about the author himself, his experiences, his interests, and importantly what motivates him, personally, academically or otherwise, to do the trip. And while it’s commendable that the author shrugs the limelight and asks us to focus instead on his subject, and he reveals much of a part of the world about which I know very little, it led to the nagging frustration throughout about why he did the trip and what the big plan was.

His explanations of the region, however, are superb. One triumph of the book is Coote’s evidently enormous background research, and he provides extensive and compelling information on the countries, towns and individual locations he visits. From the slave trade to colonial wars, and from the interface of traditional beliefs with Christianity and Islam to the grinding poverty, pollution and corruption that blight West Africa, Coote’s grasp of the facts are gripping and enthralling. I found myself learning an enormous amount about an area that, as I say, I know little, and he’s definitely an author who takes his travel seriously and refuses to look superficially.

But when he switches from describing his daily travels to his historical and social narrative, the book comes alive in a way that shouldn’t be so stark. If VS&WMG lost its travelogue and was just an essay on the history of West Africa, I’d have enjoyed and appreciated it no less.

Perhaps it’s my prejudiced and ignorant belief that west Africa (or at least the bits covered in the book) sounds like a dreadful area to visit: awful food, hellish transport, exhausting noise and unrelenting insects. Perhaps I transferred my gut dislike of the idea of travelling there on to the journey, failing to appreciate the travels and grasping so keenly on the context. And travel writing should, after all, challenge us to find out more about places with which we are unfamiliar, and remind us that the world is vastly bigger than our knowledge.

Despite my reservations, Coote travels intrepidly, writes well, researches thoroughly, and has produced two very good books. If you’re at all curious about central Asia or west Africa, then these will be rewarding reads.

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