Glowing Still by Sara Wheeler


Sara Wheeler’s memoir of her life on the road begins with Dervla Murphy flashing her tits.

The legendary Irish writer meets a guy in Cameroon who asks, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ “In response,” Wheeler writes, “Murphy lifts up her jumper to show her tits.”

That sets the tone for a thoroughly enjoyable journey from Wheeler’s working class Bristol childhood to a year in Athens in her twenties, where she worked for a small publishing house, delivering books by tram. 

A self-described ‘generalist’, Wheeler has followed her curiosity to the world’s most distant corners: the Greek island of Evia, Antarctic research stations, the rocky spine of Chile, and so many other places before, after and in between.

There’s much to be said for her approach. While a specialist’s knowledge of a single place is deep, the generalist brings a cross-cultural perspective steeped in broad experience, paired with a fresh set of eyes that observe the details of a place for the first time. 

Throughout the book, Wheeler references some of her favourite female writers, and mine: Dervla Murphy, Martha Gellhorn, Sybille Bedford, Freya Stark, and more, describing the challenges they faced, their contributions to travel literature, and the role they each played in her life as a reader.

I found it difficult to relate to the waypoints of “the female travel writer’s journey — launching at Nubility and voyaging, via children, to the welcoming port of Invisibility” — but I did find it interesting, while also failing to identify with the ‘frozen beard’ type of ‘ordeal-inspired’ male traveler she skewers so effectively in the book. I find such tales, and such travelers, as boring as she does. 

What draws me to Wheeler’s books again and again is her sense of curiosity, liberally seasoned with sprinklings of writers who came before, set against the background of her own struggles and personal insights.

I especially enjoyed reading about places that hadn’t appeared in her books. I didn’t know she’d traveled to the Chinese province of Qinghai and to Central Asia — the former a region I had also visited some 20 years ago, and the latter the place I’m most keen to visit now. It was pleasure to read her impressions of these countries, and of the Bronx, a part of New York entirely unfamiliar to me.

Wheeler is a perceptive guide to culture and place, and to the challenges of solo travel. Glowing Still broadens her scope to include aging and the passage of time. 

She writes of turning thirty in Chile “still imbued with the sense of invisibility associated with the young”, and of “those unanticipated bursts of emotional intensity” and “splashes of passion” that colour our early lives on the road — splashes of passion she would give anything to get back.

Fifty, “the age a writer referred to as ‘the retreat from Moscow’”, is an age where she “learned to live with a constant hum of anxiety, as most do” and of “bone-weary revulsion” at the endless cycle of misery humans inflict on one another, and themselves.

That weariness passed, or at least settled into something else. “The interior puna had fallen away,” she writes, “and I could see clearly again, or as clearly as one ever sees anything. […] I had learned by this time that you really do take yourself with you when you run across the sea, and that there is little point in fostering illusions.”

Perhaps, for the traveler, vividness and immediacy are properties of our first big journey rather than solely an aspect of youth? The sense of each encounter and each event being of monumental importance; the confidence that we’ve figured out a new way to live, and have come back utterly changed.

We can become slightly jaded when subsequent journeys don’t peel us down to our essence in the way the first journey does. As Wheeler said, you take yourself with you when you cross the sea, but you also bring yourself back. 

Perhaps what we miss from youth is the ability to hold onto those illusions — and to believe in them?

Get your copy of Glowing Still here ==> Order Glowing Still

And listen to my Personal Landscapes conversation with Sara Wheeler here, or on iTunes, Spotify, and all the usual podcast places.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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