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East Anglia on my mind

I’ve got East Anglia rather than Carolina on my mind. In the past week, I’ve watched Richard Alwyn’s quirky BBC4 film Into the Wind, in which he follows Tim Dee’s attempts to capture “the song of the earth” on The Wash (right); finished reading Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (which I should have read a long time ago); and dipped into a recent (2015) anthology, Est, from the independent publisher Dunlin Press (one of whose founders, Martin Bewick, has, I see, just brought out a volume of his own poetry, Scarecrow).

Dee has spent much of his life recording people (often poets) in and out of doors for radio. He says that as he has grown older he has become “more and more keen on listening to the sound of the world after we’ve all shut up.” That’s what he sets out to do around the Wash, with Alwyn following his efforts.

It is, essentially, a film of a bloke wandering around, talking about the weather and trying to record pure wind. There’s not much to see beyond long flats and big skies, not a lot happens, and the viewer is denied close-ups of the birds Dee watches from time to time through his binoculars. It shouldn’t work as a piece of TV, and yet it does. If you missed it last week, it’s still available (for another few weeks) on the BBC iPlayer.

Richard Mabey is another man with a keen ear for wild sounds. Until February, when I picked up Nature Cure while browsing in a bookshop, I’d been familiar with his reputation, but not with his writing. The author of some 30 books, including the bestselling Flora Britannica and a prize-winning biography of Gilbert White, he has long been regarded as one of Britain’s finest writers on the natural world. Nature Cure makes a pretty good introduction to the man and his work. It’s about the depression that overcame him when he had finished writing Flora Britannica, his forced removal from a house in the Chiltern Hills where he had lived for half a century and his relocation to an entirely different landscape, in Norfolk. Arriving there, in a mood as long and low as the fens, he came to feel, over the space of a year, the “healing currents of the outdoors.”

Those currents are in evidence, too, in Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, edited by MW — Martin — Bewick and Ella Johnston (co-founder of Dunlin Press). It’s a collection of prose and  poetry by people with an interest in East Anglia — a landscape that, in the view of the novelist and film-maker Chris Petit, who has written a foreword, is “the most cinematic… that we have.”

Contributors include Rosie Sandler, who lives near Maldon, in Essex, but was born in the North, where she “learned a hundred words for rain, spooned from my grandmother’s lips”. For her, East Anglia is a place

where there’s no need
for rain
because it’s everywhere:

this estuary
gaping its teeth
to the sky,
spitting out herons
and egrets,
gargling swans like gutturals.

Competition winner

Congratulations to June Louise Laurenson, who wins the Deskbound Traveller competition for all six books short-listed for last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize; they will be going in the post to her today. And thanks again to the Royal Society of Literature for offering the books.

The short list for this year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize will be announced next Wednesday (April 26) and the winner will be named on May 8. For more about the prize, see the RSL’s website.

New Jersey to the Hebrides

“Seventeen square miles in eight minutes of latitude may be the next thing to nothing,” writes John McPhee, “but after a short time it becomes a continent.” The continent is Colonsay, in the Hebrides, land of his forefathers, to which McPhee moved his family from New Jersey in 1969 to write an account that originally appeared in The New Yorker.

His portrait of the island, its inhabitants and their absentee landlord, The Crofter and The Laird, the third of his books to be republished in Britain by Daunt Books (£9.99, paperback), is both fond and frank. When it was written, Britain was on the verge of entering “the Common Market”, but some things probably haven’t changed, including the speed with which word gets around. When a chicken ran under the wheels of his car, McPhee says, “News of the death… apparently reached every ear on the island before the pinfeathers had settled to the ground.”

Travel editor to the world-weary

Thomas Swick, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, looks back on his career as a travel writer, and his stint as a travel editor in the United States  —  “a society that is weary of a world it has never gotten to know.”

Travel editors were an absurdity in a nation of workaholics; the consumer-driven travel section appeared on Sunday more as a taunt than an escape. By bringing to it some of the qualities of travel literature — by giving subscribers something to read as well as to reference — I was trying to make it less ridiculous and more useful, the very thing top editors periodically grumbled it wasn’t.

Great advice for travel (and other) writers

I’ll do anything to avoid writing. In fact, in between the first sentence I keyed in here (which is not the one you’ve just read) and the one that follows, I went downstairs to pick up post that didn’t need to be opened because I already knew what was inside. Right now, I’m thinking of going down again to put the kettle on for another cuppa even though the mug on the desk is still warm from the last one. I’d sooner attend to my tax return or attempt to understand my pension than get down a first draft of anything I might later want people to read. The first draft, for me, is blood frae stane. It’s the editing I like: the tweaking of paragraphs, sentences and phrases to get the right words in something approaching the right order (if not quite, as in poetry, the best words in the best order), and then the chiselling and chipping and polishing, and finally the reading in my head or aloud, until I’ve got something I can live with.

I’m one of a generation of journalists raised on Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”, in the course of which he declares:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Great advice to follow — but only once you’ve done the first draft. Before that, I let myself be guided by the American writer Ann Lamott (in her excellent Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life):

Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

So what, you might be thinking, has this got to do with travel writing? Well, my favourite piece of advice on writing — any kind of writing — was given by the late, great publisher Jock Murray to the travel writer Stanley Stewart. It’s advice that will prove useful when you’re at the stage of the dental draft. What Jock said was: “Cut, and an echo of what you have cut will remain.”

Win all six books from the 2016 RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

“The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions”: that was a remark Peter Pomerantsev heard time and again from producers while he was making reality-TV shows in Moscow. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Faber and Faber), his electrifying portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, won him the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize last year, for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”.

It’s a book that seems, if anything, more timely than it did on publication, given how many world leaders are demanding benediction from the media.

The judges for this year’s prize — Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland), Henry Hitchings and Mimi Khalvati — are due to reveal their short list of six books on April 26; the winner will be announced at a dinner at the Travellers Club in London on May 8. Meanwhile, courtesy of the Royal Society of Literature, I have a prize of my own to offer: all six of the books that were short-listed last year.

The five others were:
The River by Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books), a debut poetry collection rooted in family life and on the farm where Clarke grew up in the west of Ireland.
The Great Explosion by Brian Dillon (Penguin), an exploration of the marshlands of north Kent and their military-industrial past;
Weatherland by Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson), an account of how weather has been written and painted in England through the centuries;
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (Allen Lane), a bestselling account of Lake District farming that began as a Twitter feed; and
This Divided Island (Atlantic Books) by Samanth Subramanian, in which the Indian Tamil writer examines the scars left on Sri Lanka by its 26-year civil war.

To be in with a chance of winning the six books, just retweet my tweet about the prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and  @kerraway.

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet the mention of the RSL prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and @kerraway by midnight on Wednesday, April 18. Only one copy of each of the six short-listed titles is available to the winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom. The winner will be selected at random and notified by Monday, April 24. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more information about the Ondaatje Prize, please see the Royal Society of Literature’s website.

Fences on the ground and in the head: Kapka Kassabova’s ‘Border’

Kapka Kassabova’s Border is one of the best travel books — indeed, one of the best non-fiction books — I’ve read in a while. It’s about the land where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey run into one another. It’s also about fences both on the ground and in the head; about the frontiers between the real and the imagined, between the scientifically proven and the remotely possible. My review of it, which appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph last weekend, is now online on Deskbound Traveller.

You might also enjoy pieces Kassabova has written recently for The New Statesman and The Guardian and an earlier one (from 2014) for 1843 magazine (formerly Intelligent Life), part of The Economist group.

Deep South to cyberspace

As I mentioned last month, there’s a new edition out of Sitting Up with the Dead, Pamela Petro’s account of a trip she made through the American South in search of its storytellers. You can read more about Petro and her work on her website, which has just gone live.

Novel ideas in Mississippi

Hari Kunzru’s forthcoming novel, White Tears, had its genesis in a road trip that took him through Mississippi and a subsequent immersion in the blues, he disclosed in a piece for The Guardian at the weekend. In the course of that piece, he mentioned the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which was one of the most destructive in the history of the United States. The flood itself was central to another recent novel set in the Deep South, Southern Cross The Dog (2013), the debut of Bill Cheng. Cheng, a Chinese-American born in New York, was also inspired by the blues, but unlike Kunzru he didn’t take to the road. He had never set foot in Mississippi when he wrote his book, which is a remarkable feat of imagination.  You can still read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

Travel on the bill at Oxford festival

Writing on travel and place will feature strongly at the Oxford Literary Festival (March 25 to April 2). Speakers include Bettany Hughes, author of Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities; Madeleine Bunting, author of Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey; George Manginis, author of Mount Sinai: A History of Travellers and Pilgrims; the explorer John Blashford-Snell, talking about his life and career; Michael Haag, author of The Durrells of Corfu; the journalist Mike Thomson talking about The Raqqa Diaries, a young Syrian’s account of life under the savagery of Isis; Nicholas Jubber, author of The Timbuktu School for Nomads: Across the Sahara in the Shadow of Jihad; and the journalist William Chislett talking about British writers who have shaped our ideas of Spain.