‘The Immeasurable World’ by William Atkins

Gavin Francis at The Guardian:

Into the shifting sands of Oman he follows the stories of Wilfred ThesigerBertram Thomas and Harry St John Philby, mesmerised by a stillness in ceaseless motion: “The desert … leaves you dazed,” he writes, “and yet it quickly becomes apparent that, just as the desert is not silent, it is far from being still.” In Australia he visits the Maralinga nuclear test sites, superbly described as “a ruined place whose silence is less tranquillity’s than that of a battlefield where the killing has just ended”. The British director of nuclear testing, William Penney, saw in the undulating Australian desert “the appearance of English downland”. In Atkins’s imagination those outback dusts merge with the blood-red circles on cold war maps – the ones predicting the radii of nuclear devastation.

The chapters vary in their focus: Atkins mocks those travel writers who believe themselves to be explorers, and shudders with post-colonial embarrassment at the deeds of Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin.

more here.