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‘Golden Hill’ is Book at Bedtime this week

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill (see previous post), which last week won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for a book “evoking the spirit of a place” — in this case 18th-century Manhattan — is the Book at Bedtime this week on Radio 4, starting at 10.45pm tonight.

RSL Ondaatje Prize winner to be named tonight

The winner of the 2017 RSL Ondaatje Prize, a £10,000 award for a book “evoking the spirit of a place”, is due to be announced tonight. On Telegraph Travel, you can read extracts I’ve chosen from the six books short-listed.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

RSL Ondaatje short list for 2017

The short list for the 2017 RSL Ondaatje Prize was announced today. See bit.ly/2p3qe8L.

Short list due tomorrow for RSL Ondaatje Prize

The short list for the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize, for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”, is due to be announced tomorrow.

The judges for this year’s prize are Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland), Henry Hitchings and Mimi Khalvati.  The winner will be announced at a dinner at the Travellers’ Club in London on May 8.

Last year’s winner (mentioned a few times recently on Deskbound Traveller) was Peter Pomerantsev for Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a portrait of Putin’s Russia.

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.

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.”


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

Travelling with William Trevor

William Trevor, who died this week, once said: “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so; I am a storyteller.” He was a masterful one, not just in the short form but in the novel and in his work for radio and television. He was a great scene-setter, too, as I was reminded by dipping into a collection of his essays, Excursions in the Real World. This is his opening paragraph, in a piece from 1970, on one of the world’s great train rides:

‘You are really lonely,’ the anaesthetist remarks on the Orient Express, ‘when you find yourself reading your toothpaste tube.’ He pauses and then elaborates, adding that in Ethiopia a bout of homesickness had once been comforted by the address on a carton of Sterilized Plain Lint Finger Dressings. Boots, Nottingham, England, had had a lovely ring about it.

In another piece, from 1992, in the same collection, he writes of the preparations in Venice for winter:

The air is mellow now, and already the passerelle are in place — metal trestles that suppport planks to walk on — a few feet above the level of the anticipated floods. Workmen hurry over the refurbishing of boats in the Stazioni Maritime; the first creosote has been applied to the rafts of the Zattere. Grey spreads into the sky; yesterday’s evening warmth does not arrive. Long before dusk the first of the season’s fogs is hardly more than a mist on the Giudecca. Wisps of it creep eerily through the Arsenal. Gum boots are pushed to the fore in less fashionable shoe-shops.

In 1997 I invited him to contribute to a series I was commissioning for the travel pages of The Sunday Telegraph, “In A Perfect World”, in which I asked writers to  imagine they were in possession of a flying carpet and to say where it would take them between sunrise and sunset. Trevor’s day, which dawned in County Cork and finished on a night train in the Swiss Alps, took in lunch in Paris, afternoon in Sansepolcro and evening in Venice. His morning was spent in the Nire Valley in Co Tipperary, between the Monavullagh Mountains and the Comeraghs:

Like a favourite novel or painting or piece of music, the Nire is my favourite place. In winter if it has been raining for a few weeks you sink into the bog a bit, but only here and there. On a fine day or even in a summer drizzle, there is nowhere I know that matches this bleak beauty. You climb gently, taking your time, sheep staring at you, larks in the heathery undergrowth. Your landmarks are Seefin, Coumfea, Milk Hill, Knockaunapeebra, Crotty’s Rock. You pause to look back at where you’ve come from: the red barn roof is a dot, you can’t see the scarecrows any more. When you reach the first of the corrie lakes you pause also, then clamber on to the next one. Their water is dark, cold as ice, not a ripple on it. At one lake or another, intimidating rockfaces surround you. Ireland is spread below you.

Travel stories in the FPA awards

The Media Awards of the Foreign Press Association in London will be made on November 29. On the short list for travel/tourism story of the year are: Andrew Miller for “Down in the valley, up on the ridge”, in The Economist, where his piece from the Appalachians was introduced as “a timely parable of the nuanced history of race in America”; Jack Shenker for “Welcome to the land that no country wants”, a cautionary story about territory, borders and sovereignty, in The Guardian; and Duncan Staff, producer/director of “The truth about cheap flights”, an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme in which the reporter Harry Wallop went under cover to reveal tactics employed by the company Flight Centre.