The long list was announced today for the University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing, which is in its second year. Among the nine essays, some by established writers, some by less familiar names, is one by John Harrison, whose most recent book, 1519: A Journey to the End of Time, I mentioned in my monthly books spread for Telegraph Travel last July.
The prize — including £1,000 — is for “short-form travel writing” (though short-form here means anything from 5,000 to 30,000 words) from writers based in the UK and Ireland plus those who have been educated in Wales. The judges are Gwen Davies, editor of New Welsh Review, and Rory MacLean, the travel writer.
Davies and MacLean, with students from the University of South Wales and librarians across Wales, have also compiled a list of what they consider are the 20 best travel books of all time written in English. It’s an odd list, leaning a bit towards books with a Welsh connection. Among those is Journey Through Wales by Giraldus Cambrensis, who might have been the first chronicler of that country but isn’t the one I’d think of immediately if I were coupling “travel writing and Wales”. Where’s Jan Morris? The Jan Morris who has seen more of the world than most of us and who has declared: “Wales has been my supreme pleasure, and I have loved it with a showy fervour that would not have disgraced, I like to think, the most theatrically exhibitionist evangelists of the nineteenth-century Welsh chapels.”
And of non-Welsh contenders, why is there nothing on the list from Norman Lewis (despite that surname, he was born in London), who was described by Graham Greene as “one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century [the 20th]”?
There’s no room, either, for Paul Theroux. That’ll teach him to write (in The Kingdom by the Sea, 1983) that “Sometimes Wales looked like another country, and at other times it seemed like an earlier version of England…”
There is room, though, for Roger Deakin (with Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees) — though many would say he’s a nature writer rather than a travel writer. There are also a few books that I’ve enjoyed very much but which have been published a bit too recently, maybe, to merit inclusion among the best travel books “of all time”.
One of the points of lists, of course, is to inspire argument. Davies and MacLean and Co are now inviting readers around the world to help them whittle down their 20 to a short list and then a winner, to be revealed respectively on June 1 and July 7. For details see the New Welsh Writing Awards website.