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Travel on the bill at Oxford festival

Writing on travel and place will feature strongly at the Oxford Literary Festival (March 25 to April 2). Speakers include Bettany Hughes, author of Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities; Madeleine Bunting, author of Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey; George Manginis, author of Mount Sinai: A History of Travellers and Pilgrims; the explorer John Blashford-Snell, talking about his life and career; Michael Haag, author of The Durrells of Corfu; the journalist Mike Thomson talking about The Raqqa Diaries, a young Syrian’s account of life under the savagery of Isis; Nicholas Jubber, author of The Timbuktu School for Nomads: Across the Sahara in the Shadow of Jihad; and the journalist William Chislett talking about British writers who have shaped our ideas of Spain.

‘Sightlines’ on Radio 4 Extra

Book of the Week on Radio 4 Extra at the moment is Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines, which was joint winner in 2013 of the Dolman (now the Stanford Dolman) Travel Book Award. You can still read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

Making Tracks with Robyn Davidson

When Robyn Davidson made her 2,000-mile walk across Australia in 1977 from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, Rick Smolan was commissioned by National Geographic to catch up with her (and her camels and dog) five times during the trip to take photographs.

That was in an age without GPS,  satellites and mobile phones. There was no way for Davidson to call for help, no way for her to be found. And Smolan was shipping film back to Washington and having no idea whether his pictures had worked.

Smolan’s Ted Talk about the assignment, published earlier this month, is both frank and fond. He discloses that he and Davidson got off to a really bad start…

RSL Ondaatje Prize short list due at end of April

The short list of six books for the 2017 RSL Ondaatje Prize, an award of £10,000 for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”, is due to be announced by April 25. The judges this year are Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland, her account of how weather has been written and painted in England through the centuries), Henry Hitchings and Mimi Khalvati; the winner will be announced at a dinner at the Travellers Club in London on May 8.

Last year’s winner was Peter Pomerantsev for Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Faber and Faber), his electrifying portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

On the Irish border with Garrett Carr

Book of the Week on Radio 4 from 9.45am today is Garrett Carr’s The Rule of the Land, which I have mentioned a few times on Deskbound Traveller.

Poetry: ‘A lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime’

What is Poetry? “It’s just a lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime.” So I discovered yesterday, when I searched for “poetry” and “journeys” on the Soundcloud site.

Having enjoyed the latest edition of Poetry Please on Radio 4, on the theme of “Dusk ’til Dawn” (perfect listening for a post-run bath), I searched for “Poetry Please journeys”, and discovered that Roger McGough did hit the road, in March 2015, in the company of Tennyson, Arnold and Cavafy, among others. Unfortunately, that episode is not available on the BBC iPlayer. (Note to BBC: please add it asap.)

So I tried the same search on Soundcloud, couldn’t find the journeys episode, but did turn up Poetry, Texas, in which a Danish poet, Pejk Malinovski, went all the way to the Lone Star State because he’d seen a picture online; a picture of a water tower with the word “Poetry” on it: Poetry, Texas. His programme is gently revealing of rural life, and the voices are wonderful. It was made by the innovative team at Falling Tree Productions and went out on Radio 4 in May 2013 —  but again isn’t available on iPlayer. I’ve put the Soundcloud link in below.

The world of John McPhee

It’s 40 years since the appearance of John McPhee’s travel book about Alaska, Coming into the Country. To mark the occasion, Work in Progress, the excellent website of his American publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has put an extract up online.

On this side of the pond, there’s a lovely recent (2015) edition from Daunt Books, which is not just one of the best travel bookshops in London but also a publisher in a small way, dedicated to introducing works by fresh voices or reissuing lost classics. Coming into the Country falls into the latter category, having been published in Britain in 1977, the year the first barrel of oil was taken from what McPhee calls “America’s ultimate wilderness”. It began life as a series for The New Yorker — where McPhee has been a staff writer since 1963 — and is really three books in one: the story of a river journey he made in 1975; an exploration of “urban” Alaska; and sketches of people, from American Indians to oil drillers, who had “come into the country” around the town of Eagle. In our time, as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction, it reads “like a combination of prophecy and elegy”.

Last autumn Daunt published a second title by McPhee, Oranges, about growers and traders of the world’s most popular fruit. Later this month it is due to bring out a third, The Crofter and the Laird, for which he moved his family from New Jersey to the land of his forefathers: the island of Colonsay, “17 square miles of dew and damp” off the west coast of Scotland.

A revealing question: ‘Where are you going?’

In her “Pick of the Week” column on radio for The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, Charlotte Runcie recommended The Documentary: Where Are You Going? (tomorrow on the World Service at 7.30pm), for which Catherine Carr travels to the Mexican city of Tijuana, just south of where Donald Trump is promising to build a wall. Runcie says it “reveals compelling stories of transition, identity and politics by, simply, stopping people and asking them where they are going.”

The programme, recorded in November following Trump’s election victory, turns out to be part of a series — all available on the BBC iPlayer — in which Carr has asked the same question of people in Amsterdam, Kolkata (Calcutta), New York and “The Jungle” refugee camp in Calais.

Winton on the water

I mentioned a while ago Island Home, Tim Winton’s love song to the Australian wilderness, which came out in Britain last year. There’s another chance on Radio 4 Extra to hear an adaptation of an earlier memoir, Land’s Edge (2012), in which Winton reflects on how childhood days at the coast have shaped him as a writer. The reading is by Stephen Dillane.

Winton writes:

In my memory of childhood there’s always the smell of bubbling tar, of Pink Zinc, the briny smell of the sea. It’s always summer and I’m on Scarborough beach, blinded by light and with my shirt off and my back a map of dried salt and peeling sunburn. There are waves crackin’ on the sandbar and the rip flags are up…
Out there is west, true west. The sea is where the sun goes at the end of the day; where it lives while you sleep. I have a fix on things when I know where west is.

Back on the borders

Start the Week, on Radio 4 from 9am,  on the theme of “Barriers and Crossings”, includes a contribution by Garrett Carr, author of The Rule of the the Land (Faber & Faber), his account of Ireland’s border country. And Book of the Week, also on Radio 4, from 9.45am, is Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Granta).