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Stanford Dolman judges have 65 books to whittle down

The judges for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award, led by the writer Sara Wheeler, have about 65 books to consider with a view to drawing up a short list by January 10.

The prize, named for the Rev William Dolman, a member of the Authors’ Club, who had been sponsoring it through the club since 2006, was rebranded last year and its value doubled to £5,000. It is now the centre piece of a new scheme run by Stanfords bookshop, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards, which has prizes in 10 categories: for books in various byways of travel (fiction, food, children’s travel books) and for new and career contributions to travel writing. Submissions close today for a prize for blog of the year, and on January 2 for the Bradt Travel Guides New Travel Writer of the Year award. The winners of all the prizes, including the Stanford Dolman award, will be announced on February 2 at the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival at the Destinations show in London.

Travelling with William Trevor

William Trevor, who died this week, once said: “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so; I am a storyteller.” He was a masterful one, not just in the short form but in the novel and in his work for radio and television. He was a great scene-setter, too, as I was reminded by dipping into a collection of his essays, Excursions in the Real World. This is his opening paragraph, in a piece from 1970, on one of the world’s great train rides:

‘You are really lonely,’ the anaesthetist remarks on the Orient Express, ‘when you find yourself reading your toothpaste tube.’ He pauses and then elaborates, adding that in Ethiopia a bout of homesickness had once been comforted by the address on a carton of Sterilized Plain Lint Finger Dressings. Boots, Nottingham, England, had had a lovely ring about it.

In another piece, from 1992, in the same collection, he writes of the preparations in Venice for winter:

The air is mellow now, and already the passerelle are in place — metal trestles that suppport planks to walk on — a few feet above the level of the anticipated floods. Workmen hurry over the refurbishing of boats in the Stazioni Maritime; the first creosote has been applied to the rafts of the Zattere. Grey spreads into the sky; yesterday’s evening warmth does not arrive. Long before dusk the first of the season’s fogs is hardly more than a mist on the Giudecca. Wisps of it creep eerily through the Arsenal. Gum boots are pushed to the fore in less fashionable shoe-shops.

In 1997 I invited him to contribute to a series I was commissioning for the travel pages of The Sunday Telegraph, “In A Perfect World”, in which I asked writers to  imagine they were in possession of a flying carpet and to say where it would take them between sunrise and sunset. Trevor’s day, which dawned in County Cork and finished on a night train in the Swiss Alps, took in lunch in Paris, afternoon in Sansepolcro and evening in Venice. His morning was spent in the Nire Valley in Co Tipperary, between the Monavullagh Mountains and the Comeraghs:

Like a favourite novel or painting or piece of music, the Nire is my favourite place. In winter if it has been raining for a few weeks you sink into the bog a bit, but only here and there. On a fine day or even in a summer drizzle, there is nowhere I know that matches this bleak beauty. You climb gently, taking your time, sheep staring at you, larks in the heathery undergrowth. Your landmarks are Seefin, Coumfea, Milk Hill, Knockaunapeebra, Crotty’s Rock. You pause to look back at where you’ve come from: the red barn roof is a dot, you can’t see the scarecrows any more. When you reach the first of the corrie lakes you pause also, then clamber on to the next one. Their water is dark, cold as ice, not a ripple on it. At one lake or another, intimidating rockfaces surround you. Ireland is spread below you.

In Sicily — and elsewhere — with Norman Lewis

A documentary inspired by Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, his account of his stint as a British intelligence officer attached to the American Fifth Army, has been made by the Italian director Francesco Patierno, with narration by Benedict Cumberbatch. A review in Variety suggests that, if it’s not a cinematic triumph (“affectionate but misguided”), it could well encourage people to read the book and discover more of Lewis’s work. I hope so.

As the jacket notes of Julian Evans’s biography of Lewis, Semi-Invisible Man, put it, he was “the best not-famous writer of his generation” — overlooked by critics because his greatest  work was in travel and non-fiction rather than in the novel, where true genius is expected to be found. Evans — who was Lewis’s editor for 15 years — argues that over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Lewis wrote books that have survived better than all but a handful of novels.

Naples ’44 has been acclaimed by many as a masterpiece. My favourite of his books, though, is Voices of the Old Sea, his account of a village on the Costa Brava before the arrival of concrete; a place where the fishermen reported their successes and failures in blank verse and a stuffed dugong known as “the mermaid” decorated the bar. It has all the qualities that made Lewis one of our finest travel writers: the unfailing eye for oddity, the gentle humour, and prose that, as Anthony Burgess put it, is “almost edible”.

Those qualities are in evidence, too, in In Sicily, which first appeared in 2000 and is reissued today by Eland, the publisher of travel classics. You can read an extract on Deskbound Traveller and find more of Lewis’s books on the Eland website.

McCurry on reading

onreadingThe photographer Steve McCurry, whose “Afghan Girl” is one of the best-known images of the past century, talked to Mariella Frostrup yesterday for Radio 4’s Open Book. (Frostrup, in her introduction, refers to the Afghan girl’s having “piercing blue eyes”; they are indeed piercing, but they are green.)

In 40 years as a photographer, McCurry has travelled the world. In his latest collection of pictures, On Reading (Phaidon), he photographs people —  in more than 30 countries — being transported by turning pages. As Paul Theroux puts it in his introduction, “there is always something luminous in the face of a person in the act of reading.”

The Open Book episode is now available on the BBC iPlayer. McCurry’s contribution starts 19 minutes, 55 seconds in, after Frostrup’s interview with the Israeli novelist David Grossman.

Travelling on the airwaves

The Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has had an enduring relationship with Barcelona. He first went there at the age of 20 in September 1975 — shortly before the death of Franco —  and stayed on for three years to teach English, returning 10 years later to write his love letter to the city, Homage to Barcelona. He has just been back again for a programme in the Radio 4 series Reimagining the City, broadcast this morning.

I thought I knew a bit about Barcelona (though it’s 15 years since I last spent much time there), but some of what he said was new to me, including his revelation that the revival of the old part owes much to an influx over the past 20 years of Pakistanis. The new arrivals, he says, have been welcomed by the Catalans, with whom they share a belief in hard work and intense family business.

The first part of Laura Barton’s 24 Hours of Sunset (see below) went out on Radio 4 on Thursday and can now be heard on iPlayer. The second part, which takes her from Sunset Strip out to the coast, will be aired next Thursday.

Earlier in the week on Radio 4, Start the Week, under the chairmanship of Amol Rajan, editor-at-large of The Independent, touched on both the physical landscape of the British Isles and the mental and moral one. The contributors were Nicholas Crane, whose new book is The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present;  Madeleine Bunting, author of Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey; the historian David Olusoga, presenter of the new BBC2 series Black and British: A Forgotten History; and Imtiaz Dharker, who was part of a “Shore to Shore” tour from Falmouth to St Andrews by four female poets earlier this year.

24 Hours of Sunset

On my first visit to the United States, around 1980, I ended up riding the Space Mountain roller coaster in Disneyland in California with a bunch of off-duty police officers. Having gone into journalism to be a rock critic, I’d somehow ended up starting my working life on Police Review, the independent journal for coppers, which had organised a trip to Los Angeles with a policing theme, including a visit to the FBI academy and a women’s prison. While I was there, staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (which, judging by its website, is a lot funkier than it was then), I went for a stroll one evening along Sunset Boulevard — just for the hell of it, just to see how far it would go. I didn’t know: I hadn’t yet got into the habit of reading guidebooks and making notes on maps before a trip. I walked and walked, until I got conscious that it was getting dark and — this being a city in thrall to the automobile — there was no one else walking, and then I turned back for the hotel.

Laura Barton is made of sterner stuff. She has walked all 22 miles of Sunset, from the city to the coast, for a Radio 4 programme being broadcast in two parts, starting on Thursday morning at 11.30. Her aim, according to the previews I’ve read, is to see what the street, and the portrayals made of it over the years by writers and artists, can tell us about America.  If 24 Hours of Sunset is anything like her Notes from a Musical Island, which was broadcast earlier this year, it should be well worth a listen.

Travel stories in the FPA awards

The Media Awards of the Foreign Press Association in London will be made on November 29. On the short list for travel/tourism story of the year are: Andrew Miller for “Down in the valley, up on the ridge”, in The Economist, where his piece from the Appalachians was introduced as “a timely parable of the nuanced history of race in America”; Jack Shenker for “Welcome to the land that no country wants”, a cautionary story about territory, borders and sovereignty, in The Guardian; and Duncan Staff, producer/director of “The truth about cheap flights”, an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme in which the reporter Harry Wallop went under cover to reveal tactics employed by the company Flight Centre.

The failing state of Venezuela

Venezuela, once the richest country in South America, now has ruinous inflation and food rationing and is plagued by violent crime. How did this happen? In a great piece in The New Yorker, William Finnegan offers some answers. His report reads, at times, like something from the pages of a García Márquez novel: the president claims that a little bird brings him news from the afterlife of his predecessor; there’s a brigadier-general in charge of the distribution of cooking oil; and it’s said that ransoms for the return of kidnapping victims can be paid in cash at the front gates of a prison.

Gone for a Burton

There’s long been a kinship between poets and pints, says Jean Sprackland. It’s particularly strong in her case: she grew up in Burton-on-Trent, a town synonymous with brewing, and had a summer job in the maltings. In Gone for a Burton, on Radio 4 earlier this week, she led a lyrical tour of the trade and the town. In the process, she learnt a new explanation of the phrase she’s borrowed for her programme’s title…

From ‘the polar bear capital of the world’

There was a lovely bit of scene-setting in The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend from Chris Leadbeater, reporting from Churchill, Manitoba, “polar bear capital of the world”, in advance of Arctic Live, a series starting tonight on BBC Two at 8pm. His piece went online today.