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‘Call mother a lonely field’

I’m publishing an extract this week from another book that was on the short-list last year for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, awarded for a work “evoking the spirit of a place”. It’s from Call mother a lonely field by Liam Carson, a memoir of growing up in an Irish-speaking family in Belfast at the time of the Troubles. The title, incidentally, is borrowed from a song by Jackie Leven, who was leader singer in the 1970s of the band Doll By Doll before going on to a solo career in which he collaborated with, among others, the crime writer Ian Rankin.

In search of the best book on the British countryside

There’s been surprisingly little coverage of the short-list for the new Thwaites Wainwright Prize, released last week. The £5,000 prize, designed to celebrate the best of nature- and travel writing about Britain, was set up last November by Frances Lincoln (publisher of the walker Alfred Wainwright’s books) and the Wainwright Society, in association with the National Trust, and is sponsored by Thwaites, the brewer.

The  organisers’ website says that books can be narrative or illustrative “but must be focussed [sic] on the British countryside”. That stipulation could lead to a few arguments in advance of the prize-giving on May 8. One title on the short-list is Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (my favourite non-fiction book of 2012), in which he tramps paths not only through the chalk-lands of England and the islands of the Scottish north-west but also through Spain, Palestine and the Himalayas.

The other books are:

Walking Home by Simon Armitage (Faber)
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham (Granta)
Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape)
The Green Road into the Trees: A Walk Through England by Hugh Thomson (Windmill/Random House)
Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson (Granta).

You can read an extract from each of the books on the Thwaites Wainwright Prize site.

García Márquez, poor scribblers and Michael Jacobs

A few hours before I heard of the death of Gabriel García Márquez, I learnt that a new beca, or grant, for travel writing, to be administered by García Márquez’s “new journalism”  foundation and the Hay Festival, had been set up. It’s in honour of my friend Michael Jacobs, who died in January, and is for $5,000 to be used to develop an in-depth article or travel book about Latin America or Spain. Michael knew from experience what it was to be short of both cash and time. At the memorial gathering in his honour last month in Shoreditch Town Hall, London, one of his old friends, Paul Stirton, recalled how the pair of them had once been commissioned to write a guide to art galleries in Europe, with a schedule that required they hare around five a day and write 1,000 words a night. When they arrived at one gallery to find it locked, Michael suggested he climb an outside wall, look in the windows, and shout down to Paul the “authoritative account” that their publishers had demanded.

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.