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Chatwin and Greene revisited

Considerations of the lives and work of two great literary travellers, which first appeared in June 1989, were among pieces released this week from the archive of the Literary Review. Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here is reviewed by Hilary Mantel, who says its author is “one of the practitioners who have enlarged, liberated and dignified the notion of travel writing”. The first volume of Norman Sherry’s “long” and “plodding” biography of Graham Greene, The Life — Graham Greene: Volume One – 1904-1939, is assessed by Paul Theroux, who reckons that Greene’s decision in 1935 to walk through the hinterland of Liberia was “crucial” to his development as a writer.

Dervla Murphy on ‘Personal Landscapes’

The writer Ryan Murdock spoke to Dervla Murphy in December, a week after her 90th birthday, for his Personal Landscapes podcast. He has since been told that their “corner of the pub” conversation was her last recorded interview. They talked about the loss of traditional cultures, travel in the pre-internet age and the general state of the world.

Dervla Murphy, ‘secular saint of travel writing’

Cyberspace, which wasn’t much of a draw for Dervla Murphy, has been buzzing with tributes to her since the announcement yesterday of her death at the age of 90.

She’d have chuckled at that. When I interviewed her in 2015, on the publication of her last travel book, Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine, she told me of seeing young backpackers gathered round computer screens in a hostel in Jaffna. “In the old days, all the travellers in a hostel got together in the evening and they didn’t know one another but they were all exchanging experiences and opinions. And now… I just watched in amazement as they gathered around the six computers, and they were just queuing up silently to take their turn at the computer to communicate with the boyfriend or the parents or whoever back home. And I said to myself, “Why the hell don’t they stay at home?”

We met in the Bloomsbury Hotel in London, where she had been interviewed earlier in the Seamus Heaney Library. Heaney, that laureate of the land and its diggers, declared in his first collection of poems: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.” Murphy made her vows even earlier in life. At four years old, she said: “When I‘m grown-up I’m going to write books.” At 10, having been given a second-hand bicycle and a second-hand atlas for her birthday, she resolved that one day she would cycle to India. She left school at 14 to look after her invalid mother; it wasn’t until she was 30 that she was finally free, in the winter of 1962-63, to set off on an ice-bound road from Dunkirk to Delhi.

She had no time for “Affluence and Technology” and loved a physical challenge. Over the next half a century, she published more than 20 books, all but one (her autobiography, Wheels within Wheels) arising from famously frugal journeys. Yes, she was a great traveller, but, as Rose Baring, of her publisher, Eland, put it yesterday, “more importantly she was a brilliant listener. Though supremely well read, she really believed in understanding a place through the words of its inhabitants. She was interested in everyone, and boundaries of class and race seemed invisible to her.” Travel writing, Baring said, had lost “its secular saint, who believed in truth above all”.

You can find my own interview with Dervla Murphy here on Deskbound Traveller, plus links to other pieces and interviews in which she and her writing feature. There are many more tributes on Eland’s site.

Lea Ypi wins Ondaatje Prize for Albania memoir

The £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize, for a work “that best evokes the spirit of a place”, was awarded last night to Lea Ypi for Free, a memoir chronicling her coming- of-age in Albania during the fall of communism.

Ypi is professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, and political science and adjunct professor in philosophy at the Australian National University. Her book was also short-listed for the 2021 Costa Biography Award and the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize. She will be one of the speakers at a session of the forum 5×15 on March 23. Also on the bill is William Atkins, who, in his latest book, Exiles, travels to the places where three people were banished at the height of European colonialism.

Flyn short-listed for Ondaatje Prize

Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment (William Collins) is one of six books short-listed today for the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize, for a work “that best evokes the spirit of a place”. The other books are:

The Manningtree Witches by A K Blakemore (Granta)
Writing the Camp by Yousif M Qasmiyeh (Broken Sleep Books)
Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera (Viking)
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (Penguin)
Free by Lea Ypi (Allen Lane).

The winner will be announced on May 4.

On the North, and on the river

A quick mention of a couple of new books on place and travel that have appeared recently in the US: Extreme North: A Cultural History by Bernd Brunner (W W Norton & Company), which Liesl Schillinger, in The New York Times, describes as “an idiosyncratic inquiry into the power of the north in the popular imagination” (I’m reminded of Peter Davidson’s The Idea of North); and Riverman by Ben McGrath (Alfred A Knopf),  which was inspired by the disappearance of a canoeist, Dick Conant, and is, according to Gregory Cowles, also in The NY Times, “a portrait of forgotten American byways and the eccentric characters who populate them, a cursory history of river travel in America and, not least, an effort to solve the riddle of Conant himself — not only his whereabouts but also his elusive and irresistible nature”.

Flyn and Sethi on long list for Ondaatje Prize

Delighted to see that two of my favourite books of 2021 are on the long list for the £10,000 Ondaatje Prize, which was announced today: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn and I Belong Here by Anita Sethi. Also included is Iberia (which appeared towards the end of the year and I didn’t have time to consider for my roundup), the latest journey on two wheels from Julian Sayarer, who won the Stanford Dolman prize in 2017 for his book on the United States, Interstate. The award, an annual one made by the Royal Society of Literature, is for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry “that best evokes the spirit of a place”. For the full long list, see the RSL’s website.

The short list will be announced on April 20 and the winner on May 4.

Eland at 40

Eland, that loving custodian of travel classics, celebrates its 40th anniversary on Friday (March 25).  To mark the occasion, it’s issuing three titles: The Hill of Devi by E M Forster, One People by Guy Kennaway and Three Women of Herat by Veronica Doubleday.  You can hear Barnaby Rogerson of Eland talk about the company’s back catalogue in the first session of the travel writer Ryan Murdock’s “Personal Landscapes” podcast, released in June last year.

‘A treasure chest’ on France

When I compiled my roundup of books on travel and place coming out this year, I hadn’t heard of the latest from that cycling historian Graham Robb. France: An Adventure History won’t officially be published until March 17 (Picador, £25), but it was reviewed yesterday in The Sunday Times by David Sexton, who said it was “packed full of discoveries: a treasure chest to be opened with relish by all who love France”.

Thubron wins Stanford Dolman prize

Colin Thubron last night won the £2,500 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award — organised by the bookseller Stanfords in association with the Authors’ Club — for The Amur River: Between Russia and China (Chatto & Windus).

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