Latest Posts

See what's new

Freely’s Istanbul

Istanbul isn’t the city it was — except in the pages of John Freely, who died last month. In the 1960s he explored every street and alley for Strolling Through Istanbul, a scholarly guidebook he wrote with Hilary Sumner-Boyd. Freely himself had learnt much from the work of Evliya Çelebi, the Pepys of the 17th-century city, and in tribute to him later fashioned his own chronicle of chance encounters, Stamboul Sketches (first published in the 1970s and reissued in 2014 by Eland).

I was away at the time of Freely’s death and have only just seen a lovely tribute to him written by David Tonge for Prospect magazine:

“You are the memory of the city,” the painter Ömer Uluc once told him. And for those of us who came to İstanbul in the same period as he did, his descriptions bring back the style and life of those far-gone days, cladding them in the sunlight which we so often give to our memories.

‘Golden Hill’ is Book at Bedtime this week

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill (see previous post), which last week won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for a book “evoking the spirit of a place” — in this case 18th-century Manhattan — is the Book at Bedtime this week on Radio 4, starting at 10.45pm tonight.

Spufford wins RSL Ondaatje Prize

“Since all that remains of the place I evoked in my book is a street plan and a metal railing, I feel I must point out that I made it all up.” So said Francis Spufford last night on being awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s £10,000 Ondaatje Prize for a book “evoking the spirit of a place”. The book was Golden Hill (Faber & Faber); the place was New York in colonial days, when Broadway was the Broad Way, “a species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad…”

If it’s an imagined city, it’s also a thoroughly realised and believable one. This is the scene that Spufford’s hero, a young Englishman intent on making his way in the New World, sees on his first morning:

He jumped out of bed and threw the casement wide – rooftops and bell towers greeted him; a jumble, not much elevated, of stepped Dutchwork eaves and ordinary English tile, with the greater eminences of churches poking through, steepled and cupola’d, and behind a slow-swaying fretwork of masts; the whole prospect washed with, bright with, aglitter with, the water last night’s clouds had shed, and one – two – three – he counted ’em – six crumbs of dazzling light hoisted high that must be the weathercocks of the city of New-York, riding golden in the hurrying levels of the sky where blue followed white followed blue…

Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians were passing in both directions. Somewhere below too, hidden mostly by the branches, someone was sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongue as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.

Golden Hill marked Spufford’s debut in fiction, at the age of 52, and has already won him the Costa First Novel Award and been short-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize, but it is certainly not his first book to appear on a short list. Five works of non-fiction — including The Child That Books Built — have earned him nominations for writing on everything from science to theology. He was short-listed in 2011 for the RSL Ondaatje Prize for Red Plenty, a “factional” account of Soviet Russia.

Summing up this year’s Ondaatje short list before the award was made, the author and critic Henry Hitchings, speaking for the judges, said Golden Hill was “that rare thing: an ingenious novel that draws on profound research to evoke the spirit of another age, yet wears that research lightly. An astonishing achievement, intoxicating in its virtuosity.”

Spufford has said he began the book as an account of 18th-century New York, “but then the characters… wandered over from the other side of my brain, and the expository stuff about the city could be sucked into the storytelling.”

Last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize short list was unusual in that it included a poetry collection — for the first time in seven years — and had no novels. This year, all but one of the books were fiction. The exception was The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate), a memoir of addiction and recovery and the part played in the latter by the natural world on Orkney.

The other books were:
In A Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie (Tinder Press)
Augustown by Kei Miller (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris (Doubleday)
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus.

Judging the prize with Hitchings were the cultural historian Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland, an account of how weather has been written and painted in England through the centuries), and the poet Mimi Khalvati.

Now in its 14th year, the RSL Ondaatje Prize is sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer. Last year’s winner was Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev, an electrifying portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

RSL Ondaatje Prize winner to be named tonight

The winner of the 2017 RSL Ondaatje Prize, a £10,000 award for a book “evoking the spirit of a place”, is due to be announced tonight. On Telegraph Travel, you can read extracts I’ve chosen from the six books short-listed.

Unbound

Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

RSL Ondaatje short list for 2017

The short list for the 2017 RSL Ondaatje Prize was announced today. See bit.ly/2p3qe8L.

Short list due tomorrow for RSL Ondaatje Prize

The short list for the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize, for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”, is due to be announced tomorrow.

The judges for this year’s prize are Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland), 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 (mentioned a few times recently on Deskbound Traveller) was Peter Pomerantsev for Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a portrait of Putin’s Russia.

East Anglia on my mind

I’ve got East Anglia rather than Carolina on my mind. In the past week, I’ve watched Richard Alwyn’s quirky BBC4 film Into the Wind, in which he follows Tim Dee’s attempts to capture “the song of the earth” on The Wash (right); finished reading Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (which I should have read a long time ago); and dipped into a recent (2015) anthology, Est, from the independent publisher Dunlin Press (one of whose founders, Martin Bewick, has, I see, just brought out a volume of his own poetry, Scarecrow).

Dee has spent much of his life recording people (often poets) in and out of doors for radio. He says that as he has grown older he has become “more and more keen on listening to the sound of the world after we’ve all shut up.” That’s what he sets out to do around the Wash, with Alwyn following his efforts.

It is, essentially, a film of a bloke wandering around, talking about the weather and trying to record pure wind. There’s not much to see beyond long flats and big skies, not a lot happens, and the viewer is denied close-ups of the birds Dee watches from time to time through his binoculars. It shouldn’t work as a piece of TV, and yet it does. If you missed it last week, it’s still available (for another few weeks) on the BBC iPlayer.

Richard Mabey is another man with a keen ear for wild sounds. Until February, when I picked up Nature Cure while browsing in a bookshop, I’d been familiar with his reputation, but not with his writing. The author of some 30 books, including the bestselling Flora Britannica and a prize-winning biography of Gilbert White, he has long been regarded as one of Britain’s finest writers on the natural world. Nature Cure makes a pretty good introduction to the man and his work. It’s about the depression that overcame him when he had finished writing Flora Britannica, his forced removal from a house in the Chiltern Hills where he had lived for half a century and his relocation to an entirely different landscape, in Norfolk. Arriving there, in a mood as long and low as the fens, he came to feel, over the space of a year, the “healing currents of the outdoors.”

Those currents are in evidence, too, in Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, edited by MW — Martin — Bewick and Ella Johnston (co-founder of Dunlin Press). It’s a collection of prose and  poetry by people with an interest in East Anglia — a landscape that, in the view of the novelist and film-maker Chris Petit, who has written a foreword, is “the most cinematic… that we have.”

Contributors include Rosie Sandler, who lives near Maldon, in Essex, but was born in the North, where she “learned a hundred words for rain, spooned from my grandmother’s lips”. For her, East Anglia is a place

where there’s no need
for rain
because it’s everywhere:

this estuary
gaping its teeth
to the sky,
spitting out herons
and egrets,
gargling swans like gutturals.

Competition winner

Congratulations to June Louise Laurenson, who wins the Deskbound Traveller competition for all six books short-listed for last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize; they will be going in the post to her today. And thanks again to the Royal Society of Literature for offering the books.

The short list for this year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize will be announced next Wednesday (April 26) and the winner will be named on May 8. For more about the prize, see the RSL’s website.

New Jersey to the Hebrides

“Seventeen square miles in eight minutes of latitude may be the next thing to nothing,” writes John McPhee, “but after a short time it becomes a continent.” The continent is Colonsay, in the Hebrides, land of his forefathers, to which McPhee moved his family from New Jersey in 1969 to write an account that originally appeared in The New Yorker.

His portrait of the island, its inhabitants and their absentee landlord, The Crofter and The Laird, the third of his books to be republished in Britain by Daunt Books (£9.99, paperback), is both fond and frank. When it was written, Britain was on the verge of entering “the Common Market”, but some things probably haven’t changed, including the speed with which word gets around. When a chicken ran under the wheels of his car, McPhee says, “News of the death… apparently reached every ear on the island before the pinfeathers had settled to the ground.”