The Ondaatje Prize and ‘spirit of place’

One of the purposes of Deskbound Traveller is to seek out great travel writing in places where it hasn’t been looked for much before — not just in the shelves marked “Non-fiction” but in those labelled “Fiction” and “Poetry”.  The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 (sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer), is for a “distinguished work” in any of those forms “evoking the spirit of a place”. Since the prize’s inception in 2004, winners have included titles as diverse as In the Country of Men, the debut novel of the Libyan writer Hisham Matar, and Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, Adam Nicolson’s account of life and times in his family’s stately home.

The books short-listed for this year’s prize will be announced at the end of this month or early in May. I’m hoping to publish short extracts from each of them in Telegraph Travel and then a longer piece from the winner or an interview with him or her. Over the next few weeks on Deskbound Traveller, I will be publishing extracts from some of the titles that were short-listed for last year’s prize. I’m starting today with an excerpt from Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis, who realised his dream of living alongside emperor penguins by signing up for a year as a doctor with the British Antarctic Survey.

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