Author Archive

Woods, reservoirs and radio

Publishers had to submit entries by the end of last week for the £5,000 Wainwright Prize, which is named after the great fell walker and is for the best book of travel, nature or outdoors writing focused on the United Kingdom. I’m assuming Doubleday has entered the latest from the writer and farmer John Lewis-Stempel, The Wood, which came out earlier this month and in which he records the natural daily life and historical times of a wood in Herefordshire. Or perhaps it has entered Lewis-Stempel’s The Secret Life of the Owl, which came out last October. Or maybe it has entered both. That wouldn’t be a first. Lewis-Stempel is prolific as well as talented. Having won the Wainwright Prize in 2015 for Meadowland, he not only took it again in 2017 with Where Poppies Blow (a study of the relationship between soldiers and nature in the First World War) but also had a second book on the short list: The Running Hare. The Wood is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4.

  Also starting on Radio 4 tonight, in the Book at Bedtime slot, is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13.

Travel at Oxford Literary Festival

Contributors to the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival (March 17-25) include Simon Courtauld, author of Footprints in Spain: British Lives in a Foreign Land, which chronicles the long history of relations between Britain and Spain and has a chapter on Gibraltar, currently at the centre of Brexit-related wrangling. Also on the bill are Phoebe Smith, editor-at-large of Wanderlust magazine and author most recently of Britain’s Best Small Hills; Michael Collins, author of Journey: An Illustrated History of Travel; and Adrian Mourby, author of Rooms of One’s Own: 50 Places That Made Literary History.

Encounters with Boot of ‘The Beast’

I’ve had a couple of reminders recently of William Boot. Boot, you might know, even if you haven’t read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, is the nature writer who, owing to a case of mistaken identity, is sent off to be a war correspondent. The first reminder came in Ground Work: Writings on Places and People (Jonathan Cape), an excellent new anthology edited by Tim Dee. One of Dee’s contributors, Adam Thorpe, writes of a potholed  track he used to play on as a child:

“My adventuring seas were a mundane puddle. ‘Puddle’ sounds diminutive, too like ‘piddle’; the language lacks a word for something bigger, unless we revive ‘plash’. My plash filled the chasm of an exaggerated rut…”

  Boot’s most famous line, of course, was: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole…” It’s a line nodded to constantly on social media by Sam Leith, literary editor of The Spectator, whose Twitter handle is @questingvole.

  The other reminder of the unworldly Boot came when I was given one of the risk-assessment forms that media organisations (or their insurers) insist these days that travel writers complete before going off on a trip. Now, health-and-safety people get a bad rap on the basis that they’re humourless. This form suggests otherwise. It suggests the compiler had not only read Scoop but had slipped in a little homage. It has the kind of instructions that would be indispensable to a contributor who doesn’t get up to town to often. It says, among other things: 

  When using trains or buses they [journalists] will check the front of the vehicle for the journey information to ensure they do not board the wrong one. 
  Journalists will ensure they do not step too close to the platform edge when waiting for the train and will mind any gap between the platform and the train when boarding.

Between Scotland and England — but a place unto itself

My review of The Debatable Land by Graham Robb (Picador), a fascinating book about a territory that once lay between Scotland and England but was part of neither, appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph last weekend but isn’t online. The Telegraph, for some reason, no longer puts much of its literary material into cyberspace, but you can read the review here on Deskbound Traveller.

It’s all happening in the village

In a letter to her niece Anna in September 1814, offering tips on writing novels, Jane Austen declared: “3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” Villages and families and notions about what constitutes both have changed a bit since Austen’s day, but the advice still holds good.  In the Review section of The Guardian at the weekend, Xan Brooks showed how writers for stage and screen as well as novelists are currently being drawn to the village, “retreading old ground to uncover fresh stories”. Among those he mentions are Mackenzie Crook with his television sitcom about treasure hunters, Detectorists, in which there’s gentle soul-searching as well as soil-shifting, and Jon McGregor’s Costa Prize-winning Reservoir 13, which I’ve already recommended.

‘Momentous’ memoir from a border guard

William Atkins, who has recently spent time himself on the US/Mexico border while researching a forthcoming book on deserts, reviewed for The Guardian yesterday Francisco Cantú’s memoir of his years as a US Border Patrol agent (see my earlier post). He says it’s a remarkable book, written “with a raw-nerved tenderness”, and “frequently feels momentous”.

2,300 miles to work

The former Soviet republic of Tajikistan is a country chronically short of work, with an economy heavily dependent on money sent back by Tajiks from elsewhere. The choice facing many of its young men is to stay at home without a job or go to Russia without their family.  Each week, thousands of them make a four-day, 2,300-mile train journey from Dushanbe through Central Asia to Moscow.  In a novel approach to telling their stories, a report for The New York Times combines video from the filmmaker Tim Brown with illustrations by George Butler.

Swapping Mars for the Silk Road

I’m finding it hard to get away from borders. A debut travel book about a cycle journey along the Silk Road, which was published at the end of January in Canada with blurbs from Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez and Colin Thubron, is already among the bestsellers. Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris (Knopf) is based on a trip she took with her friend Melissa Yule in 2011 (see video below), in which they travelled 10,000 kilometres through 10 countries over 10 months. In the words of Barry Lopez, “Kate Harris arrives among us like a meteor—a hurtling intelligence, inquiring into the nature of political borders and the meaning of crossing over.  The honesty behind her self-doubt, her championing of simple human friendship, and her sheer determination to explore what she does not know compel you to travel happily alongside her in Lands of Lost Borders.” Harris, who is 35 and a Rhodes scholar, told The Globe and Mail in Toronto that she had trained as a scientist to become an astronaut and head for Mars, but her first taste of the Silk Road had prompted a radical change of direction. Before publishing the book, she had won awards for her writing in magazines including The Georgia Review.

Banville’s (and Rosenblatt’s) Dublin

John Banville’s Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir (published in Ireland two years ago) has just appeared in the United States. It’s reviewed glowingly in The New York Times by Roger Rosenblatt, who himself lived in Dublin in the mid-1960s. It’s a “delicious” book, he says, one that, “while offering a handful of interesting facts about Dublin, is more about moods and states of mind and how they shape, even create, the so-called real world”. The New York Times also links to a piece from its back pages, in which Banville (in 2004) reflects on youthful encounters with Dublin and Joyce’s Ulysses.

Another dispatch from the border

Borders are the theme of the moment. They provided the subject for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year and one of the titles short-listed for that prize, as well as for Graham Robb’s much-praised The Debatable Land, in which the historian explores what used to be an independent territory between Scotland and England.

  In March, Bodley Head is due to publish in Britain The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú, which is based on journals Cantú, a third-generation Mexican-American, kept while working as a US Border Patrol agent in the Sonoran desert. In an interview with Ursula Kenny in The Observer at the weekend (now online on the website of The Guardian), Cantú said he wrote the book as a way of “acknowledging the human cost of our border policy, and the ways in which individuals are caught up in it”. Cantú (who was also interviewed earlier this month by NPR in the US) has himself been caught up in protests while promoting the book, shouted down by protesters who accused him of profiting from the suffering of migrants.