Europe Archive

In the running for the Wainwright Prize

Revised Prize Logo smallWhen I interviewed Robert Macfarlane recently for Telegraph Travel, he said he didn’t like being described as a nature writer. In the mind of the great British public, he said, “nature writing” still carries “a hint of muddy boot, a hint of 18th-century cleric, and a hint of the plashy fen. And in a way those are the things I think it’s successfully left behind.”

Its practitioners, he said, were now tackling “the huge, inexhaustible, complex subject of modern nature in all its forms. So the first-person has become very strong. We’ve moved away from a dutiful reportage on the natural world towards this much stronger and more charismatic lyric form.”

For examples of what the new nature writing can embrace, see the short list for the Thwaites Wainwright Prize, announced last week. On it are both Helen Macdonald’s acclaimed H is for Hawk (Vintage), telling of how she dealt with grief by training a goshawk, and Richard Askwith’s Running Free (Vintage/Yellow Jersey), which combines his passions for off-pavement runs and the rural way of life. (As he puts it in one of his occasional  tweets: “Perfect morning for running: sky shining, grass glistening, turf springy, blossom, birdsong, lambs, fresh air. Get out there while it lasts.”)

The £5,000 prize, designed to celebrate the best of nature- and travel writing about Britain, was set up by Frances Lincoln (publisher of the walker Alfred Wainwright’s books) and the Wainwright Society, in association with the National Trust, and is sponsored by Thwaites, the brewer. The first winner, last year, was Hugh Thomson for The Green Road into the Trees (Windmill Books).

The other books on this year’s short list are:
The Moor by William Atkins (Faber and Faber), an account of the place of the blasted heath in literature, history and the national psyche;
Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker (Vintage), a year-long chronicling of the infinite variety to be found in one Norfolk village;
Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld), which traces the changing faces through the seasons of his hay-meadow in Herefordshire;
and Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden (Granta), whose move to a remote farmhouse in Cornwall prompted a journey through the myth-laden south-west.

Spring in the Quantocks

In the Quantock Hills in Somerset, Adam Nicolson, for The Telegraph, revels in the signs of spring that cheered Wordsworth and Coleridge on a trip there more than 200 years ago.

Land, language and Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, Landmarks, is due to be published on Thursday by Hamish Hamilton. It’s a celebration and defence of the words we have for the land and what happens on it and in it and to it. It’s an encouragement to add to the “word-hoard” Macfarlane has been amassing for years, and to revel in the poetry that comes with precision.  On the Isle of Lewis, for example, there’s a Gaelic word, èit, for “the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”.

The book is a celebration, too, of some of Macfarlane’s favourite writers; of those who, in Emerson’s phrase, seek to “pierce rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things”. Among them are JA Baker (author of The Peregrine), Tim Robinson, Roger Deakin and Nan Shepherd. Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Macfarlane says, transformed his perception of the Cairngorms, and taught him to “see these familiar hills, rather than just to look at them”.

Macfarlane introduced Landmarks with a cover piece in the Review section of The Guardian at the weekend. A film he presented about Shepherd and the Cairngorms, first screened last December, can still be seen on the BBC iPlayer.

The ‘journey of death’

“I met families scattered across the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe like the beads of a broken necklace. Having given up hope on Syria, they saw Europe as their only chance of coming together again. If even a single member could make it, perhaps they had a chance at reunification.” Priyanka Motaparthy, for The Nation, reports on the Syrian refugees intent on making a sea crossing from Egypt to Italy that they call “the journey of death”.

‘Venice Unravelled’ by Polly Coles

Polly Coles’s series of essays for Radio 3 about Venice, which I recommended recently on Twitter, is now available on SoundCloud. I’ve linked to the first one below.

Irishmen abroad

For James Joyce (or at least for Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Ireland was “the old sow that eats her farrow”. Joyce avoided being gobbled up by running off to the Continent, first to Trieste and then to Paris and Zurich. Three other writers who have slipped away for various reasons contributed this month to a Radio 4 series titled “Irish International”, reflecting on links between new home and old: Nick Laird, who is living in New York, Phillip Ó Ceallaigh (Bucharest) and Robert McLiam Wilson (Paris). McLiam Wilson had drafted his piece before the massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo. It turned out to be, in his own words, “unforgivably prescient”. You can still listen to the whole series on the BBC iPlayer.

A glorious year on Scafell Pike

Terry Abraham’s Life of a mountain: A year on Scafell Pike, was screened earlier this week on BBC Four. The broadcast version is half the length of the original two-hour film, which had its premiere and DVD release last year. But it’s still glorious. If you missed it, it’s on BBC iPlayer until February 13.

Will Self and the art of hotel reviewing

Here’s a hotel recommendation with a difference from Will Self in The New Statesman after a stay in Plymouth: “As I’ve had cause to remark before, there’s nothing I like more, when the evenings draw in and the wind gusts hard, than to lie in bed – preferably in an overheated old pile like the Duke of Cornwall – and read about the British officer class getting their bollocks frozen off in Antarctica.”

Capturing Carpathia in pen and ink

The illustrator and traveller George Butler, whose work among Syrian refugees has featured on Deskbound Traveller, has a new show opening in London next week. He was commissioned to document local life in the Carpathian villages of Romania (including Bunesti, below) by the Global Heritage Fund UK, which is working there to preserve vernacular architecture and revive sustainable building methods. I’ve written a short preview, which will appear on Telegraph Travel. For details of the show, see the site of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London.


Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall

To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9), two writers who have chronicled events in the city will be in conversation with Colin Thubron, president of the Royal Society of Literature, from 7pm in London on Friday, November 7. They are Maxim Leo, who grew up in east Berlin and who tells in Red Love how the GDR still haunts his family; and Rory MacLean, whose Berlin: Imagine a City was hailed by Jan Morris in The Sunday Telegraph as “a wonderful achievement… hauntingly representing, as in a tangled dream, 600 years of history”. The event is free, but early booking is essential; see