2020 Edition

A new edition of Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey (in print since  2007), is out now (March 2020), published by And Other Stories. It has a new preface and an afterword by Geoff Dyer.

Listen to a podcast of me discussing the book with Bookseller Ray  here

If buying online, make sure you choose the latest edition.

Praise for Isolarion:
‘He had me purring from the word go…unique and very special… What are the chances of work of this quality and originality being produced within the colleges for which the town is famous?’ GEOFF DYER, GUARDIAN REVIEW

‘A gem. . . . James Attlee’s scholarly, reflective and sympathetic journey up the Cowley Road is one of the best travel books that has been written about Britain’s oldest university city. (Isolarion) blends a vivid account of daily life, fluid and unsettling, in a modern British town with powerful allegorical reflections on the connections between past and present, time and space, and high culture and the hard scrabble world that sustains it. …’ ECONOMIST

‘All the messy glories of Cowley Road—pubs and porn shops alike—come to life in this work, which becomes a meditation on home and the nature of pilgrimage”. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER

‘Isolarion, despite its title, is about engagement. Attlee shows the hidden beauty of the plural society: ’To put it simply, this is what I love about the moment in history I inhabit.’” FINANCIAL TIMES

‘Attlee paints an iridescent picture of a new Oxford that no guide book has yet captured’. NEW YORK TIMES

‘Attlee’s encounters lead to thoughtful investigations of the human condition. . . . Through observation and comparison, of ritual, belief and family, (he) reinforces the common needs of humanity. . . . The end of our journey as humankind is not known, but Isolarion provides an invaluable guide to how to progress along the way’. THE TIMES

Here’s a Bookforum review by Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker and one in the Sydney Morning Herald .


From the blurb:

James Attlee offers an illuminating account of the genesis, creation and complex afterlife of Picasso’s Guernica. He explores the historical and cultural context from which it sprang; analyses the painting itself and the meanings that art historians, museum curators, politicians and anti-war protestors have ascribed to it; traces its travels across Europe and the Americas from the late 1930s to its arrival in Spain in 1981; and speaks with key artists, art-world figures and cultural commentators about its continuing, all-pervasive presence.

In 1937, Guernica sounded a warning of what was to come: with Spain plunged once more into civil strife and demagogic politicians stalking the stage on both sides of the Atlantic, Attlee argues its message is just as relevant today. 


“It takes a bold author to open his book about Guernica with a quotation from the Spanish artist Antonio Saura lamenting ‘the number of bad books that have been written and will be written’ about it”, Claudia Massie begins her review in the Spectator. “Fortunately, James Attlee’s study of Picasso’s superstar work of art is not a bad book and he builds on a solid cultural and historic understanding of the painting to collate 80 years of evolving reaction to it…” for the whole review click here

In the Literary Review, Nicholas Rankin (author of ‘Telegram from Guernica’) says the  ‘clearly written and beautifully produced’ book ‘updates the tale and adds something to the mix… Guernica is so famous that it can sometimes feel almost banal. But Attlee’s book helps you appreciate its daring and resonance’.

The Sunday Times called the book ‘an impressive overview… (Attlee’s) book succeeds in showing how influential Guernica has been, and how it continues to be used as a reference  point in political and military conflicts today’.

Mike Gonzalez reviewed the book for Review31 commenting that ‘Attlee’s… extensive knowledge of the world of art enables him to unearth connections and responses beyond the better-known remaking of Picasso’s images in other historical moments, from Hiroshima through Baghdad to Aleppo. He traces the “art historical tracks” to show how reactions and responses to Guernica have shaped the ideas and practices of artists as different as Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon on the one hand, and the contemporary painting of India on the other’.

Other Media

James was interviewed by Lucy Hocking about Guernica on GMT BBC World News


Buy from your local independent bookstore

or online from Waterstones, Blackwell’s or  Amazon 



Station to Station is published by Guardian Books and was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award 2017.

From the blurb: Part voyage of exploration, part history, part meditation on the nature of travel itself, Station to Station takes the reader on a journey into the psyche of a nation along one of its most iconic lines‘.


‘A “window gazer” for our times … Station to Station is the chronicle of a railway journey like no other – part personal odyssey, part history, part architectural guide, part reflection on the nature of travel, part investigation of the national psyche. If it can be categorised at all, here is Paul Theroux crossed with Bradshaw and Betjeman, spiced with a twist of Alain de Botton. Attlee is an extraordinary truffler of facts … No railway junction imaginable could match Attlee’s dazzling range of imaginative connections.’ Michael Williams, Independent

‘Captivating … splendidly stimulating … Attlee is fascinated by the mystical way in which the past concertinas into the present … Station to Station is packed full of fascinating bits and pieces … a wonderfully wide frame of reference … All human life is here, one ghost interweaving with another.’ Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

‘Murderers, politicians, sex parties and dogs: all life is evoked in a magical history of the Great Western Railway …  “God’s Wonderful Railway”, they used to call the link Isambard Kingdom Brunel forged between London and Bristol, and in Attlee’s hands the Great Western Line is indeed full of wonders, prompting passages on everything from infrared technology to resurrection as painted by Stanley Spencer in Cookham … Station to Station is partly an exploration of places and buildings on or just off the line; partly a collection of stories about people who have been associated with it, whether as planners, navvies, staff or passengers; and partly a rumination on the nature of travel.’  ***** Michael Kerr, Telegraph

‘James Attlee’s new book was a must-read for me. As he chugs along this iconic route, Attlee mines fascinating stories from the landscape, rattling off anecdotes about characters as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Diana Dors and T.E. Lawrence – tales that will keep me company on this journey forever more. As well as celebrating the golden age of rail travel, Attlee’s book offers an optimistic view of its role in the future.’

‘Engaging, with echoes in particular of Patrick Wright’s excavations of occult English histories, and of the subversive narratives of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson film travelogues…Take this distinctive book to read on the train and … untangle the stories along your own regular stretch of line’. Simon Bradley, Spectator

Read the full Independent review here. To read Craig Brown’s review in the Mail on Sunday, click here. Simon Bradley reviews in the Spectator here.  Michael Kerr’s review in the Weekend Telegraph is here.

To watch a short trailer for the book, click here

The hardback is currently out of print but the e-book is available for the price of a pint of craft beer by clicking here. For readers on the move, this may be the ideal format…

Along with the book, James recorded an album called Orphan Train: to hear tracks or buy the album from iTunes or Amazon, follow links on the Music page of this site.


For countless millennia mankind lived in step with the cycles of the moon, planting crops, setting out on journeys, wooing lovers and gathering harvests according to its celestial clockwork. It is little more than a century since this connection was decisively broken. Now more and more of us live in realms of perpetual day, in which twenty-four-hour illumination all but obliterates the majesty of the night sky. Nocturne is a journey in search of what has been lost.

That search leads from the streets of the author’s own neighborhood to a Buddhist temple near Kyoto and into the Arizona desert. The soundtrack to these wanderings is as diverse as their geography. The midnight song of a mockingbird in Brooklyn; the grumbling of a Japanese volcano at a steaming, sacred spring; a Beethoven sonata, bounced off the lunar surface. Most bizarrely of all, a haunting image of an elderly man standing in front of a map of the moon leads to a solitary prison cell in Berlin…

To order Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, outside North America, click here. To order inside North America, click here.


‘Nocturne is an inspiration.’ NEW YORK TIMES
‘Remarkably good writing…I know that I am going to keep this book by me for rereading and it seems likely that other readers will want to do the same.’ Diana Athill, LITERARY REVIEW

‘Attlee… writes beautifully and often thrillingly about the moon in all its – her? – aspects, and it will be a dull-minded reader who comes away from this book without a new or at least renewed regard for the extraordinary, silver satellite that is our world’s constant companion. GUARDIAN

‘(Attlee) is a stylist of amazing wit and skill. He’s as capable of beautifully condensed images, spotting a heron “with the gait of a preoccupied parson”, as of exploding with rage at New Age wind chimes in the desert: “Why aren’t we ever content to just shut the f**k up?” Nocturne is a compendious, moving and impassioned guide to the heavenly body that its author calls, in a perfect metaphor, the “Garbo of the skies”. IRISH TIMES

‘Attlee’s observations of the night sky take on a cumulative weight, forming a kind of guide for good living on Earth: late night walks, the pleasures of looking, the spectacular and forgotten thrills of natural phenomena, how we might find profound pleasure in the here and now we have overlooked’. SUNDAY TIMES

For a review of Nocturne in The New York Times Review of Books  click here. For John Banville in the Guardian, follow this link.  The Sunday Telegraph carried a review by poet Adam O’Riordan. Here is the whole review. For the elegantly erudite Brian Dillon in the Irish Times click here


The American artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who died in 1978,  is probably best known for those works in which he sliced through and reconfigured buildings,  using them as his raw material,  transforming them into dizzying walk-through sculptures. These include seminal works such as  Splitting and Conical Intersect. In recent years however, his photo-collages, drawings, films and enigmatic, aphoristic writings have perhaps come to have an even greater influence on successive generations of artists. James first published on Matta-Clark in 2003: Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between, with Lisa Le Feuvre

You can read an article on the book, along with the Phaidon monograph on Matta-Clark edited by Thomas Crow, in Art Forum here.  You can read a fully-illustrated paper James wrote entitled Towards Anarchitecture: Matta-Clark and Le Corbusier  for Tate Papers by clicking the link here. James also contributed an essay to the catalogue for the Gordon Matta-Clark retrospective exhibition staged at the SMS Contemporanea in Siena in 2008.


James wrote the text for The North Sea: A Visual Anthologyfeaturing photographs of the North Sea, those who sail on it and its surrounding coastline, published by Thames & Hudson in 2017. French (Textuel), Dutch (Hannibal Publishers) and German (Prestel Verlag) editions came out at the same time.


James wrote the text for this survey of the life and career of British painter Graham Dean in 2016.


James was invited to contribute a chapter to the anthology Planned Violence: Post/Colonial Urban Infrastructure, Literature and Culture which was published in December 2018. The invitation resulted in the essay entitled ‘What You Find in the River: Isolarion Ten Years On’ in which he revisits the sites of his earlier explorations in the light of gentrification, shifting demographics and the forces unleashed by the referendum of 2015. Suzanne Hall of the LSE says ‘this stunning collection of essays is a creative and critical reference point for thinking through the instability of urban life’.

James contributed a chapter to the collection Life Writing and Space, edited by Eveline Kilian and Hope Wolf (2016), in which he examines his writing practice in light of movement through space to generate material. According to one reviewer, the collection ‘brings together a mix of established names and up and coming talent who probe the narration of lives through the prism of space. Drawing on work ranging from cultural critics to hardcore (postmodern) theorists and philosophers, this ambitious volume carves out a new territory for scholars and students interested in the intricacies of (auto)biography’.

5 Responses to Books

  1. David Crawford says:

    Super book of course. I like the discussions about wasteful and crappy night lighting, relative to the natural night. I was founder and Exec Dir of International Dark-Sky Association for many years and an astronomer for many more. Now active in efforts in the lighting industry to get better (include none) night lighting, effective and efficient. Would like to quote from your book in some of my writings. Hope you agree.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comments David. I do think wasteful and misdirected lighting is a big issue. Ironically, a local sports ground has recently erected floodlights that shine into the back of my house, erasing all darkness before 11.00pm. In principle I am fine with the idea of quotes from my book helping the cause… I will email you


  2. Dear Mr Attlee

    I received your new book today. Can’t find your e-mail-adress here…
    I look forward to reading it. Maybe you feel like checking out my recently published book “Moon: A Brief History”.

    Best, Bernd Brunner

  3. Henry Iddon says:

    Regarding your book on moonlight you may be interested in this project of mine to photograph the Lake District by moonlight – published as a book with the forward by Lord Chris Smith

    The book is available here – contains an essay by Prof Paul Hill and forward by (Lord) Chris Smith.

  4. Pingback: Writing in Place: An 'Ambient Literature' Project in the UK

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