Armchair travellers, be warned. You’ll find that you’ve come to the end of the road before your journey’s even begun, and if you expected a feast of beauty, you’ll find the harpies have swooped in and dropped their shit all over it. This book is a lament for a poisoned planet. On Metamorfosi beach, Peter Fiennes’s foot is snagged on old shopping bags. Minute descriptions of consumer detritus seem now, in the Age of Plastic, to be a burgeoning feature of nature writing: ‘there are clumps of bright white polystyrene where the waves reach the shore, drifting in and out of the sea and being blown in flecks among the stones.’ Heracles and Titan are the names of cement factories on the now hideous road from Athens to Eleusis. Fiennes reiterates his message of doom with the insistence of a latter-day Cato, though with more charm. His mission, he declares at the outset, is to find hope, that feathery ambivalent creature that was left at the bottom of the jar when Pandora took the lid off. But is hope a curse, designed merely to prolong our fatal apathy, or is it a saving grace, the only thing that can prompt us to action?
Greek myth swings readily into line with the author’s preoccupations. Cassandra foretells destruction and is not heeded. Heracles the killer of wild beasts is the harbinger of species extinction. Then there’s Erysichthon, a king of Thessaly who cuts down trees in Demeter’s sacred grove to build a banqueting