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The Ondaatje Prize and ‘spirit of place’

One of the purposes of Deskbound Traveller is to seek out great travel writing in places where it hasn’t been looked for much before — not just in the shelves marked “Non-fiction” but in those labelled “Fiction” and “Poetry”.  The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 (sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer), is for a “distinguished work” in any of those forms “evoking the spirit of a place”. Since the prize’s inception in 2004, winners have included titles as diverse as In the Country of Men, the debut novel of the Libyan writer Hisham Matar, and Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, Adam Nicolson’s account of life and times in his family’s stately home.

The books short-listed for this year’s prize will be announced at the end of this month or early in May. I’m hoping to publish short extracts from each of them in Telegraph Travel and then a longer piece from the winner or an interview with him or her. Over the next few weeks on Deskbound Traveller, I will be publishing extracts from some of the titles that were short-listed for last year’s prize. I’m starting today with an excerpt from Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis, who realised his dream of living alongside emperor penguins by signing up for a year as a doctor with the British Antarctic Survey.

Teju Cole and the ‘yahoo boys’ of Lagos

Ever had one of those emails asking you to provide bank details so that your long-lost relation’s bequest can be deposited in your account? Many of them are sent by the young men who haunt the cyber-cafes of Lagos, Nigeria. In Every Day Is For the thief by Teju Cole, which Faber & Faber is due to publish in Britain on April 17, there’s a particularly good passage on how these “yahoo boys” peck out their messages on keyboards at night, when it’s cheaper to get online.

Teju Cole won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction and the Internationaler Literaturpreis for his novel Open City. He was also short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature (of which you’ll be hearing a lot more on Deskbound Traveller over the next few weeks). Cole, a writer, photographer and historian of early Netherlandish art, grew up in Nigeria and then moved to New York. The narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief is a young man returning to Nigeria from New York. A note on the copyright page says that this is “a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” Is it, now?

The places and locales are real enough to be pinpointed on a map, among them the Mayflower School in Ikenne, Ogun State, attended by one “character”, and the Tejuoshu Market (razed by fire in 2007 and still being rebuilt), the Ojodu-Berger bus terminal and the National Museum, all in Lagos. The book has the slimness of a novella (163 pages), but it might better be described as creative non-fiction. Its author, after all, told The New York Times recently: “‘The novel’ is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.”

However you read it, Every Day Is for the Thief is a vivid portrait of a country where everyone with authority or power is on the take, and the narrator in constant search of “a moving spot of sun”. There’s an extract on the website of The New Yorker.

On the rails in Wales and the Himalayas

Ffestiniog Travel, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, is a tour operator with a difference: its profits go to the charitable trust of a heritage railway company. In an article for Telegraph Travel, Graham Coster meets Alan Heywood, who was in at the start and is still, at 73, getting his hands dirty helping to recouple carriage to loco. In a poem for Deskbound Traveller, also on a railway theme, Coster finds himself transported from the hills of north London to the Himalayas.

Back on board the container ship

In the April 3 edition of The New York Review of Books, the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff combines a review of Rose George’s book on merchant shipping (already reviewed on Deskbound Traveller) with a report on her own four-week trip from Hong Kong to Southampton on the container ship Christophe Colomb. She writes:

“Notoriously, companies including Maersk and CMA CGM do not allow armed guards on their ships. Instead, if pirates do board, best practice recommends that everybody hide out in a safe room called a citadel, lock the door, and wait for naval rescue. Christophe Colomb’s citadel was stocked with two days of bottled water and emergency food rations, a chemical toilet in a box, a pile of air mattresses with pumps, a satellite phone, and a Monopoly set. ‘Whose idea was that?’ I asked. ‘The company’s,’ said the captain, smirking. ‘The idea is that while the pirates are on board we will be here buying and selling the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Gare du Nord.’

Interesting to see how George’s book has been retitled for the American market: Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside shipping, the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything becomes Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate.

More on capturing a sense of place

The session on Friday evening at Daunt Books on “capturing a sense of place” (see previous post) was recorded, so rather than summarise it here I’ll wait for Daunt’s to make a sound file available and then link to that. Each of the writers on Barnaby Rogerson’s panel — Colin Thubron, Tracy Chevalier and Mahesh Rao — read something from one of his or her own books and then a piece from another writer. Rao chose a passage from The Great American Bus Ride by Irma Kurtz, who is best known as an agony aunt but is also a talented travel writer. Assuming you can find a copy, it might be just the thing to pack on a US trip this year — when Greyhound is marking its centenary.

‘Pater-ontology’ in dinosaur country, Canada

The town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, where the novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner spent six  years of his childhood, has long been a base for hunters setting out in pursuit of antelope, mule deer and whitetail. More recently, thanks to the discovery in 1991 of a skeleton of a Tyrannosauraus rex, the best-preserved specimen in Canada, it has also become the centre of “dino country”. It  was “pater-ontology” — a need to separate her father from the myths that surrounded him — rather than palaeontology that took Leona Theis there. In trying to unearth him, she paints a lovely portrait of the place.

Guernica in the Deep South

The online magazine Guernica has a special edition dedicated to the American South, with contributions from both Southerners and settlers. A feature in which 15 of them reflect on region, culture and mindset includes a hilarious piece from Tom Piazza (author of the post-Hurricane book Why New Orleans Matters) in which he and his dog revolt against stereotyping.

One of the shortest of the 15 pieces is from Bill Cheng, a Chinese-American from New York, who apologises for his presumption in setting a novel in the South. He needn’t, of course. In his debut Southern Cross the Dog, he transports his readers to the swamplands of Mississippi at the time of the Great Flood of 1927. It’s a remarkable feat — all the more so when you consider that Cheng had never set foot in the South.

Where to find more writing by Matthew Power

Harper’s has helpfully added a page linking to pieces written for the magazine by Matthew Power, that chronicler of eccentric expeditions who died recently and whom I mentioned in an earlier post.

On safari with Jackman

Totting up all the trips he has made over 40 years for publications including The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, Brian Jackman reckons he has spent more than three years of his life on safari. Few Britons know the African bush and its inhabitants as he does, and fewer still can match his ability to conjure them on the page.

In an introduction to a new collection of his pieces, Savannah Diaries, he asks, “How do you begin to describe [Africa's] magic to someone who has never been? How can you explain the fascination of a land whose oldest roads are elephant paths?” Time after time, everywhere from the Maasai Mara to the Kalahari, he proves himself more than equal to that challenge. I’ve chosen an excerpt in which he reports from one of the driest places on earth, the Namibian desert – after getting soaked to the skin on arrival.

(The man who was Jackman’s guide on his trip to Namibia, Louw Schoeman, has died, but his sons are still introducing visitors to the wonders of the country on flying safaris. One of them, Henk, flew Richard Grant, who reported for the Telegraph Magazine in February.)

Matthew Power on the Mississippi

Matthew Power, a  journalist and travel writer, died this week in Uganda, apparently from heatstroke, while reporting on an attempt by Levison Wood, a British explorer, to walk the length of the Nile. Power, who was only 39, had made something of a specialism of covering eccentric expeditions for American publications including Harper’s Magazine and Men’s Journal. In one of his best pieces, written for Harper’s, he describes joining a bunch of drop-outs and “dumpster divers” intent on rafting the length of the Mississippi, all the way from Minneapolis to New Orleans. In Huckleberry Finn, the raft supplies the only space where Huck and Jim can be friends; on Power’s trip, “The Circle of Death”, as he and the rest of the crew come to call their craft, serves pretty well the opposite purpose…