Notting Hill Editions is  a publisher I’ve only just become aware of – in fact, I stumbled across them in Foyles earlier this year, on a nice little display stand which caught my eye. It was the small grey-covered hardback emblazoned with the names of Owen Hatherley and Ian Nairn which first attracted me: I’ve read all Hatherley’s work, and love his attitude to architecture; Nairn is someone I probably saw on TV in my youth, but can’t remember, although I rediscovered him recently thanks to a BBC4 documentary. I picked up the volume on my second trip to London this year, and a small thing of great beauty it is. However, I was stunned to find another in my local Oxfam shop, and this seems to be one of their earlier titles: “Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland”, edited and annotated by Lavinia Greenlaw.

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William Morris is of course well-know for being the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, artist, writer, designer – a real polymath and his legacy is still very much a part of the fabric of life in the UK. The text here is from his Icelandic Journals, gleaned from two journeys he made to the country at a turbulent time in his life.

Lavinia Greenlaw is a writer and poet in her own right, and what she’s done here is intriguing. Morris’s Icelandic journals are long, and so she’s taken extracts from them, distilled the essence of travelling if you like, and put alongside it her “Questions of Travel”. So contrasting with Morris’s beautiful descriptions of Iceland and humorous tales of the problems of his journey, there is Greenlaw’s thoughtful musings on why we travel, what the experience brings us and what we feel when we return home.

“When we first came into the plain, it was on the edge of the lava, sandy but grown over with willow and grass; we are on pure lava now which is also far from barren, being much grown about with grass and willow, but chiefly birch; everywhere, however, the bare molten rock shows in places, never tossed up in waves but always curdled like the cooling fire stream it once was, and often the strands or curdles are twisted regularly like a rope…” (WM)

NPG x19608; William Morris by Sir Emery Walker, after  Abel Lewis

It’s an interesting concept, and one that works well. Greenlaw has obviously chosen passages from Morris’s full “Icelandic Journal” that she thinks illustrate the travel ethos best, and they’re lovely. WM is an engaging narrator, providing some striking descriptions of the Icelandic landscape, whether it’s having a positive or negative effect on him. He’s also not afraid to make fun of himself (or his companions!) and is honest about his moods. Often the country strikes him as bleak and depressing, whereas at other times he finds it uplifting. He writes frankly about his trepidation on a high, narrow path, and about the people he meets who offer hospitality. Morris took off on his travels to avoid a complex home situation, where his wife was having a complex affair with the artist Rossetti, and this probably accounts for some of his melancholy during the trip.

“Once again that thin thread of insight and imagination, which comes to seldom to us, and is such a joy when it comes, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest marvel and most storied place of Iceland.(WM)

All in all, his descriptions of his trips are lovely and conjure up vivid visions of the dramatic scenery – in fact, I was oddly enough reminded of Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” in parts, and almost feel moved to search out the full Icelandic journal. Whether playing whist, bathing in hot springs or being proud of his cooking skills, Morris is someone who it would be fun to travel alongside!

“We travel to escape whatever is ordinary for us.” (LG)

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As for Greenlaw’s contributions, you can tell she’s a poet. Her questions and musing are pithy and potent, and very thought-provoking, getting to the heart of the reasons behind our travelling. The juxtaposition of her writings with Morris’s works well and the two complement each other beautifully. This ends up being a lovely, lyrical little hardback which certainly got my feet itching to travel and see new lands – though I suspect that I will restrict myself to armchair tourism!

(As an aside, I’d highly recommend Greenlaw’s memoir “The Importance of Music for Girls” – a great read for women of a certain age (!) and I really identified with it!)

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