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Rory Stewart on avoiding repetition

Is Rory Stewart a leader? He’s certainly a writer, as of course is Boris Johnson, who is reckoned at this moment to be some way ahead of him in the contest to be the next prime minister of a disunited kingdom. Either might be worth reading (once he’s been turfed out) on the experience of being inside Number 10. And Stewart — judging by a piece he wrote after winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for 2005 for his book on Afghanistan — would strive to see the place with fresh eyes:

Landscapes, like sunsets, evoke our most uniform responses: writers on places repeat each other endlessly. This is, of course, particularly true of the areas in which I have worked in Central Asia – where we are always tempted to find in a diesel-choked multi-lane highway the last traces of the Silk Road or the footsteps of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. We often do this as though we were exploring relevant recent history: a writer and friend of mine described a Pakistani in Taxila as ‘exactly the kind of man who met Alexander the Great’. (I wonder if he would feel as comfortable saying a living British butcher was ‘exactly the kind of man who met Julius Caesar’.) But we face the same problem even when we try to engage not with the historical but with [the] incongruous and the contemporary.

When I was first in Herat, for example, I remember being struck by the traffic policemen at the cross-roads – their comic-opera uniforms, the absence of traffic, their truncheons and whistles. I thought I would write about this trace of the Western city as a way of getting away from ancient oriental history. But something troubled me about the image. A little later I read Peter Levi’s The Light Garden of the Angel King (1970) and found him writing: ‘Herat…a small lonely policeman in the centre of a vast deserted square, directing two donkeys and a bicycle with a majesty more appropriate for the Champs Elysées.’

Then I went back to Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1952) and found: ‘Herat…the police directing a thin trickle of automobiles with whistles and ill-tempered gestures like referees.’

Then I read Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, written in 1933: ‘Herat…the policeman at the crossroads with a whistling fit to scare the Chicago underworld.’

These identical responses were, I found, quite different from those of the Afghans with whom I was living or travelling.

Lines on the landscape with Macfarlane and Lopez

Thanks to the Twitter feed of the writer Julian Hoffman, I was directed yesterday to a recording of a conversation last Thursday between Robert Macfarlane and Barry Lopez at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Macfarlane — who is currently promoting his new book, Underland, in the United States — has said that it was reading Lopez’s Arctic Dreams at the age of 21 that turned him into a writer. Lopez has been similarly complimentary about Macfarlane’s work. The pair have long been writing to each other, but this was their first meeting. There’s an element of the mutual admiration society, but this is still a conversation worth hearing, in which two masters of writing on place talk about their craft and the ends to which they have turned it in this overheated age of the Anthropocene.

  On June 27, incidentally, Julian Hoffman is due to publish Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places (Hamish Hamilton), for which he set out “to explore loss in a way that wasn’t simply elegiac but defiant”.

Timeless travel

When I was working as a travel editor for a national newspaper and a writer approached me with an idea for a piece, I would expect him or her to have a peg on which to hang it. On Deskbound Traveller, I can admit the timeless as well as the topical. The latter approach has long been one of the guiding principles of Slightly Foxed, the London-based literary magazine “for people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing”. On its latest podcast, dedicated to travel writing, the guests are the writer Sara Wheeler and the publisher (and writer) Barnaby Rogerson, of Eland Books, who have plenty of recommendations drawn from travel’s back catalogue.

  There’s brief mention, too, of Wheeler’s latest book, due out next month. For Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), she travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age — from Pushkin to Tolstoy — as her guides.

‘Far corners and deepest depths’

The latest podcast of The New York Times Book Review takes listeners into “far corners and deepest depths”, featuring Robert Macfarlane, talking about his latest book, Underland (which you can read more about on Deskbound Traveller), and Julia Phillips, whose debut novel, Disappearing Earth, is set on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia. The Book Review also has a review of Underland by Terry Tempest Williams.

On the bill for Penzance festival next month

Speakers at the Penzance Literary Festival (July 3-6) will include Horatio Clare, who will be discussing his “love-hate relationship” with borders with Philip Marsden, whose new book, The Summer Isles: A Sea Voyage, is due to be published by Granta in October. Clare will also be reading from Something of His Art, about his walk in the footsteps of JS Bach, his readings interspersed with music by other composers played on period instruments by the Heinichen Ensemble.

  Also on the bill are Nicholas Jubber, whose latest book, Epic Continent, is inspired by poems — from The Odyssey to the Kosovo Cycle — telling the story of Europe; Philip Hoare, author most recently of RisingTideFallingStar, about his obsession with the sea; and Anna Pincus, founder and co-editor of Refugee Tales, who will be discussing with the novelist Patrick Gale, a contributor to her latest volume, the project she began to tell the stories of people trapped in indefinite detention.

‘One hundred of the best travel books’?

“One hundred of the best travel books”: that’s how publicists for Citizen M Hotels describe a project in which Seb Emina, editor of The Happy Reader magazine, has chosen a library for one of the company’s properties, at Bankside in London. The project, opened this week, is supported by the bookseller Stanfords, which is selling the titles included on a special page through its website. 

 Emina’s choice takes in fiction as well as non-fiction, ancient (The Odyssey) and modern (Afropean, Johnny Pitts’s exploration of black Europe, is included — though it still hadn’t officially been published at the time I was sent the list, on May 28). As well as narrative works it embraces guidebooks, maps and atlases. It’s organised in 18 categories, most self-explanatory (Rivers, Roads, Hotels, Interstellar), though “Dogs, donkeys, fridges” brackets the work of Martha Gellhorn, John Steinbeck and Robert Louis Stevenson with that of travel comic turns including Tony Hawks, who wrote Round Ireland with a Fridge).

  Half the point of such lists, presumably, apart from encouraging reading and book sales, is to prompt argument and amendment. So… it’s great to see new talent, including Adam Weymouth (Kings of the Yukon) and Monisha Rajesh represented (though her latest book, Around the World in 80 Trains, is stronger than her first, which makes the list). It’a also good to see an  acknowledgement that poetry — Derek Walcott’s Omeros — can be powerfully evocative of place. But how can a list of the 100 best travel books have nothing at all from Jonathan Raban? And how come it doesn’t have even one winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award, which has been Britain’s main prize for narrative travel since 2006? Robert Macfarlane is included in Emina’s list — but for Underland, published last month, rather than for The Old Ways, with which he won the Dolman prize (as it then was) jointly in 2013 with Kathleen Jamie (Sightlines).

On Japan and black Europe

Pico Iyer, whose latest book is Autumn Light: Japan’s Season of Fire and Farewells (Bloomsbury), and Johnny Pitts, who has been exploring the lives and communities of black Europeans for his debut Afropean (Allen Lane), will be among speakers under the 5×15 banner at the Tabernacle in London on June 17.

13 titles on Wainwright Prize long list

The long list for the Wainwright Prize — £5,000 for the best writing on the outdoors, nature and travel focused on Britain — was released today, World Environment Day. It runs to 13 books, which vary enormously in genre, subject, tone and length. Among them are Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet; Out of the Woods by Luke Turner, which is both an examination of bisexuality and a tribute to “Effing” Forest; Landfill by Tim Dee, which is about birds — gulls, specifically — and rubbish; and Timesong: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn, a hymn to a vanished landscape and the people who once inhabited it. The full list is on the Wainwright Prize site; the short list will be announced on July 2.

A literary dredger on the Thames

Sam Wollaston, for The Guardian, has been delving into the history of the Thames Estuary with Caroline Crampton, whose debut The Way to the Sea is published this week by Granta:

A literary dredger, she chugs downstream slowly (but with much more elegance than the literal dredger), scooping up stories of maritime disasters, floods and cholera, slavery, prison hulks, political upheaval, the rise of the far right, sewerage. When she is not on the estuary, she is travelling by foot along the Thames Path, which we are sitting beside. She finds joy – mudlarkers and archaeologists, happy sailing trips, the vast skies and light that Turner sought to capture – as well as sorrow and mud… She twists her own story, and the stories of the other storytellers, into the tale of the river, splicing it into something not only scholarly, but purposeful and personal, too.

Winn takes new £10,000 prize for ‘The Salt Path’

Raynor Winn was last night named the first winner of the new £10,000 Christopher Bland Prize for The Salt Paththe story of how she and her terminally ill husband, having lost their home and their livelihood, set off to walk the South West Coast Path. The prize, run by the Royal Society of Literature, will be awarded annually to a novelist or non-fiction writer judged to have published the best debut at the age of 50 or above.

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