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RSL Ondaatje winners to summon ‘spirit of place’

At the British Library in London next month (April 16), four former winners of the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize will speak on “the challenges and delights” of evoking the spirit of a place. Non-members of the RSL may now book through the British Library website.

Macfarlane on Lopez’s ‘Horizon’

In The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane, who has said that reading Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams at 21 made him decide to become a writer, reviews Lopez’s Horizon (Bodley Head) — “a deeply wounded book about ‘the throttled Earth’.”

Can we love the wild enough to… stay at home?

I now have another book to add to an already-tottering must-read pile after seeing an interview with Amy Irvine in Orion magazine. Irvine’s third book, Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, is a conversation with the ghost of Edward Abbey — conducted 50 years after Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published. During the interview she tells Nick Triolo: 

Fidelity is the backbone of marriage, and in our conjunction with a place, we must act in ways that endure. This means reducing our carbon contributions—every single one of us in a radical way. What if we each took a vow of environmental chastity? Could we be faithful enough to turn down the weekend fling with the wild—to put the survival of a place above satisfying our pleasures? Can we love it enough to…gulp…stay home?

There was an extract (which you can read online) from Desert Cabal in the Winter 2018 issue of Orion

From Utopia to Westeros

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (Thames & Hudson), was winner in the illustrated-book category in last week’s Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. Oscar Wilde declared that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” Lewis-Jones’s beautifully produced compendium takes in everything from Utopia, charted for Thomas More’s satire of 1516, to Westeros, a continent in that swords-and-sorcery series Game of Thrones. It shows how writers of the past created worlds that have inspired writers of the present, from Joanne Harris to Robert Macfarlane (whose contribution you can read on the Thames & Hudson website). 

  Lewis-Jones, with Kari Herbert, also edited Explorers’ Sketchbooks (2016), a marvellous register of first impressions of the world’s wonders.

Frostrup, Fiennes and Rajesh on Bath Festival bill

The programme was announced this week for the Bath Festival (May 17-26). Contributors include…

Mariella Frostrup, whose latest book, Wild Women, is an anthology of women’s travel writing through the ages;
Monisha Rajesh, author of Around the World in 80 Trains;
Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer, who with Hilary Bradt, founder of Bradt Guides, and Jonathan Lorie, author of The Travel Writer’s Way, will be discussing travel on the road and on the page;
Neil Oliver, archaeologist, writer and broadcaster, whose latest book is The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places;
Raynor Winn, who, having lost her home, walked the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path with her terminally ill husband, a journey recounted in The Salt Path;
and two of the team behind Planet Earth and Blue Planet, Alastair Fothergill, the director, and Keith Scholey, the producer, who will be talking about their new Netflix series Our Planet. Voiced by Sir David Attenborough and due to begin in April, it “showcases the planet’s most precious species and fragile habitats”.

Where not to travel

On an Indian Ocean island last November, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American, was killed by the isolated tribe he was attempting to convert to Christianity. In an article for the Canadian magazine The Walrus, Kate Harris (author of Lands of Lost Borders) considers the lessons to be drawn from his story:

… travel has a tendency to bring out the Chau in all of us. We want what we want when we go abroad, which often is the untouched, the authentic—even as our arrival, by definition, undermines those very qualities in a place or of a culture and contributes to the slow, involuntary conversion of one way of life into another.

In winter’s grip

Horatio Clare (whose latest book is The Light in the Dark) introduces a new series for The Spectator, in which he will explore four continental winters and reflect on his own psychological battle with the season:

No tour of winter worth taking would pretend the season is all immaculate pistes and fairy lights. Winter is also death and the blues. It is the light-starved and mind-pressing season.

John McPhee’s new ‘Patch’

The first “LARB Radio Hour” of 2019, from the Los Angeles Review of Books, has an interview with John McPhee, that pillar of The New Yorker, master of narrative non-fiction (on everything from frontier Alaska to the trade in oranges), and long-time teacher of writing. His latest book is The Patch, which an editor at his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has described as “a covert memoir”. Much of it is comprised of what McPhee calls an “album quilt”, stitched together from extracts from magazine pieces and unpublished material.

  The interview is preceded by a chat between the hosts, who say several times that McPhee is “a legend” (the kind of tabloidism one can imagine the man himself discouraging in his classes). It gets going properly about three minutes in (though it’s interrupted again halfway through for a book-of-the-week recommendation). Towards the end McPhee is asked about the pressure on writers these days to promote themselves via social media and turn themselves into brands. He mentions a couple  — both former students of his — who have managed to prosper without doing that. One is Peter Hessler (“there is no better non-fiction writer writing in English”), whose first book about China, River Town (John Murray), has long been a favourite of mine. It’s a tender, empathetic work about his two years in Fuling, on the Yangtze, teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I searched online afterwards for Hessler, who joined The New Yorker himself in 2000 and is currently working for the magazine from Cairo. There is a Twitter account in his name. Its single tweet, posted on May 14, 2009, says: “Writing.”

‘Kings of the Yukon’ on Granta

Granta magazine has an extract online from Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth (Particular Books), which was one of my books of the year. Weymouth was recently named winner of the Sunday Times / Peters, Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award in association with the University of Warwick.

Nightmares and Moore

Tim Moore, whose Another Fine Mess was recently serialised in the Telegraph Magazine, has been interviewed by Georgina Godwin for the “Meet the Writers” podcast made for Monocle magazine.  As well as the new book, he discusses how he first hit the road — thanks to £3,000 he was given by a footlose grandfather on condition that the cash went on travel — and the trip that set his template: a container-ship passage to Iceland on which he was violently seasick. He realised then, he says, “that if you have an absolutely nightmarish time, it’s much easier to write about…”