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Get carried away with Words by the Water

If I didn’t already have plans for the start of March, I’d be heading to the Words by the Water Festival in the Lake District (March 9-18). There’s a tremendous line-up of writers on travel, place and nature. 

  On Sunday, March 11, a session on the theme of “Exploration” will have contributions from Patrick Barkham on islands (see previous post); the historian Graham Robb, talking about The Debatable Land, a territory that used to exist between Scotland and England; the poet Lavinia Greenlaw on Iceland as it was seen by William Morris; Lois Pryce on her motorbike trip across Iran for Revolutionary Ride; and Nick Hunt, author of Where the Wild Winds Are, on chasing winds from the Pennines to Provence.

  On other days, Horatio Clare will be reporting on his adventures on a Finnish ice-breaker; two experienced foreign correspondents, Angus Roxburgh and Peter Conradi, will be taking the measure of Russia; the conservationist Sir John Lister-Kaye will be recalling his awakening as a boy to the wonders of the natural world; Richard Hamblyn, environmental writer and historian, will be offering a teach-in on reading clouds; Christopher Nicholson will be sharing his passion for summer snow in the Cairngorms; and Mark McCrum, whose books include Happy Sad Land, on southern Africa, and  The Craic: A journey through Ireland, will be holding forth on “the joys and pitfalls of travel writing”.

Bunting and Barkham talk islands at Daunt Books festival

The bill for the spring festival at Daunt Books in London (March 15-16) includes a session on “Island life” featuring two writers who have recently gone offshore to good effect (and who both happen to be published by Granta). Madeleine Bunting, author of Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, which was short-listed for the 2017 Wainwright Prize for nature/travel writing focused on Britain, will be interviewed by Patrick Barkham, whose Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago, was short-listed for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

  Daunt’s, whose Marylebone branch is one of my favourite bookshops in London,  is also a publisher, whose recent titles have included a reissue of John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird, which is also about an island: Colonsay. I see, too, that Daunt Books Publishing is to publish in Britain Hernán Diaz’s debut novel In the Distance, which I mentioned on its US publication last year. There’s a link from the company’s site to a short Paris Review interview with Diaz.

Road trip through racism

Between 1936 and 1964 — when racial segregation was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act — African American motorists relied on a guide known as “the Green Book” to tell them where they could safely fill their tanks, get a bite to eat and stop for the night. Surely, in the 21st century, advice of that kind is no longer necessary? Ed Pilkington, having made a 900-mile road trip for The Observer through Missouri, suggests otherwise.

How Dublin made Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry, who was this week named Laureate for Irish Fiction, is the latest contributor to a “Made in…” series in the redesigned Review section of The Guardian, in which writers reflect on how childhood places have shaped them and their work. “There is no corner or street of Dublin,” he says, “that does not trail or flutter a memory.” Other contributors so far have been Jeanette Winterson on Accrington, Fiona Mozley on York and Julian Barnes on suburban London.

Worsley and the white darkness

The New Yorker has a tremendous piece from David Grann about Henry Worsley and his “compulsion to subject himself to suffering” in the Antarctic. Worsley died in 2016 after pulling out just 30 miles short in his quest to be the first person to cross the peninsula alone and unassisted. He was already the only person ever to have completed the two classic routes to the South Pole established by his Edwardian predecessors, Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton. The last was his own particular hero; whenever Worsley was in a fix he would ask himself: “How would Shacks get out of this?”

China as it was

In The New York Times, Hannah Beech reviews two memoirs of home in a China that has already disappeared, “covered by layers of concrete, glass and fibre-optic cables that have tethered even the most isolated farmer to the modern age. Still, it is the journey through heady, whiplash times that helps us understand where the nation is going. If the 21st century is to be China’s era, it’s important to know how it will get there.”

And the winner is… ‘Border’ by Kapka Kassabova

The news is out; we judges no longer have to keep mum. I’m delighted that Kapka Kassabova’s Border (Granta) is Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. It’s a wonderful read, which I thoroughly recommended on Deskbound Traveller and elsewhere on its hardback publication last year. But don’t forget the other six titles on a fine short list — you can read extracts from them all on Telegraph Travel.

One winner — and another to come

Congratulations to Sue Crossman, of Heriot, Scottish Borders, winner of the Deskbound Traveller competition to win all seven books on the short list for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. She should be receiving her books within the next week. Thanks again to Stanfords for putting up the prize.

  The judges of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year have made their decision and the winner will be announced on Thursday evening as part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards at the Destinations show at Olympia in London.

The rhythms of life in ‘Reservoir 13’

I’ve had little time to read fiction lately because I’ve been helping to judge the Stanford Dolman prize. One novel I have read — thanks to my younger daughter, who bought me it at Christmas from a wish list on a website that needs no plugging — is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (4th Estate). I can’t recommend it highly enough. And I see from the author’s Twitter account that it’s out today in paperback.

  James Joyce once declared that “Literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.” Reservoir 13 opens with a news story, the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl in the hills above an English village over the New Year break. The puzzle over her fate lends a quiet menace to the book, which is otherwise full of the life that doesn’t make news; with things that wouldn’t interest a reporter — except, maybe, the one living in the village who singlehandedly writes and edits and prints the Valley Echo. In Northern Ireland, where I grew up, I would come home from school and ask my mother if there was any news. Most often she would answer:  “Oh, nothin’ pass-remarkable.” Nothing worth passing remarks on. Nothing worth mentioning. McGregor, having opened with the stuff of tabloid headlines, makes compelling what shouldn’t be pass-remarkable. 

   Most of the characters in Reservoir 13 are not introduced; they appear in the story as we would happen upon them in the street if we lived in the village. The first is mentioned in passing almost, in relation to his ownership of livestock: “Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear [spooked by the search helicopter] and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back.” 

   A few pages later:
“Jess Hunter came over from the main house with a cup of tea…”
“One of the Jackson boys bucked a quad bike across the field and told the journalists to move.”

  As in life, so in fiction: some of these people are more memorable than others, but like a new arrival in the village you quickly figure out not only who’s who but what’s what. When you learn (or maybe that should be hear) early on that “the police held a press conference in the Gladstone”, you don’t need to be told what normally goes on there.

  Passages are written without paragraph breaks, dialogue without quotation marks, so that everything flows into everything else, everything connects: “The cement works were shut down to allow for a search. In a week the first snowdrops emerged along the verges past the cricket ground, while it seemed winter had yet a way to go.” There’s a rhythm about sentences in keeping with the rhythms of day and season and year. 

  While the missing girl is being searched for, everyday life goes on, as it must, so Reservoir 13 is about teenagers growing up and a farmer growing infirm; about an opportunistic young stud and a lonely old widower; about the blossoming of love and the breakdown of relationships; about the joys and the pains of parenthood; about success and failure. It’s about well-dressing too. Somehow, it captures routine while being far from routine. 

  It’s also — and that’s why I’m mentioning it on Deskbound Traveller —  powerfully evocative of place. That place has reservoirs and a river, a cricket ground and allotments, a quarry and cement works. Its location is vague — though it’s one subject to flooding and freezing and riven with cloughs. (In the acknowledgements, there’s mention of the Peak District.) The village is never named, yet somehow McGregor manages to make it singular and distinctive while being instantly familiar. 

  The book has already won the 2017 Costa Novel Award and been short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I hope the publishers have entered it, too, for the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, which is for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”.

Dervla Murphy on travel and tourism

An interview with Dervla Murphy, who, as I mentioned earlier, will be speaking at the London-based Irish Literary Society in March, is published today on the website of The Guardian. She tells Philip Watson: “I wonder nowadays if travelling, and therefore travel writing, is able to extricate itself from tourism and the tourist industry.”

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