Johnson’s London, Woolfson’s Aberdeen

The 2014 RSL Ondaatje Prize for a book “evoking the spirit of a place” was won last week by the former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson for This Boy (which also earned him the Orwell Prize a couple of nights later), his account of growing up in poverty in post-war London. It’s a work his publishers bill as a memoir but which in the eyes of the author himself is as much a biography of his mother. But place, he stressed in a piece I commissioned from him for Telegraph Travel, was important from the outset.

One of the books short-listed for the Ondaatje Prize was Field Notes from a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson (Granta). It has won much praise for its close study of urban wildlife, from pigeons to rats, and prompted even one or two literary critics to think better of slugs. It is also, as the Ondaatje judges noted, a fine portrait of Aberdeen, a place the author sums up as that “tight grey city by the sea”.

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