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How Dublin made Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry, who was this week named Laureate for Irish Fiction, is the latest contributor to a “Made in…” series in the redesigned Review section of The Guardian, in which writers reflect on how childhood places have shaped them and their work. “There is no corner or street of Dublin,” he says, “that does not trail or flutter a memory.” Other contributors so far have been Jeanette Winterson on Accrington, Fiona Mozley on York and Julian Barnes on suburban London.

The rhythms of life in ‘Reservoir 13’

I’ve had little time to read fiction lately because I’ve been helping to judge the Stanford Dolman prize. One novel I have read — thanks to my younger daughter, who bought me it at Christmas from a wish list on a website that needs no plugging — is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (4th Estate). I can’t recommend it highly enough. And I see from the author’s Twitter account that it’s out today in paperback.

  James Joyce once declared that “Literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.” Reservoir 13 opens with a news story, the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl in the hills above an English village over the New Year break. The puzzle over her fate lends a quiet menace to the book, which is otherwise full of the life that doesn’t make news; with things that wouldn’t interest a reporter — except, maybe, the one living in the village who singlehandedly writes and edits and prints the Valley Echo. In Northern Ireland, where I grew up, I would come home from school and ask my mother if there was any news. Most often she would answer:  “Oh, nothin’ pass-remarkable.” Nothing worth passing remarks on. Nothing worth mentioning. McGregor, having opened with the stuff of tabloid headlines, makes compelling what shouldn’t be pass-remarkable. 

   Most of the characters in Reservoir 13 are not introduced; they appear in the story as we would happen upon them in the street if we lived in the village. The first is mentioned in passing almost, in relation to his ownership of livestock: “Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear [spooked by the search helicopter] and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back.” 

   A few pages later:
“Jess Hunter came over from the main house with a cup of tea…”
“One of the Jackson boys bucked a quad bike across the field and told the journalists to move.”

  As in life, so in fiction: some of these people are more memorable than others, but like a new arrival in the village you quickly figure out not only who’s who but what’s what. When you learn (or maybe that should be hear) early on that “the police held a press conference in the Gladstone”, you don’t need to be told what normally goes on there.

  Passages are written without paragraph breaks, dialogue without quotation marks, so that everything flows into everything else, everything connects: “The cement works were shut down to allow for a search. In a week the first snowdrops emerged along the verges past the cricket ground, while it seemed winter had yet a way to go.” There’s a rhythm about sentences in keeping with the rhythms of day and season and year. 

  While the missing girl is being searched for, everyday life goes on, as it must, so Reservoir 13 is about teenagers growing up and a farmer growing infirm; about an opportunistic young stud and a lonely old widower; about the blossoming of love and the breakdown of relationships; about the joys and the pains of parenthood; about success and failure. It’s about well-dressing too. Somehow, it captures routine while being far from routine. 

  It’s also — and that’s why I’m mentioning it on Deskbound Traveller —  powerfully evocative of place. That place has reservoirs and a river, a cricket ground and allotments, a quarry and cement works. Its location is vague — though it’s one subject to flooding and freezing and riven with cloughs. (In the acknowledgements, there’s mention of the Peak District.) The village is never named, yet somehow McGregor manages to make it singular and distinctive while being instantly familiar. 

  The book has already won the 2017 Costa Novel Award and been short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I hope the publishers have entered it, too, for the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, which is for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”.

Danglers by the dozen

Some people collect vinyl records, some collect luggage tags, some collect ceramic bluebirds. I worked with a sub-editor years ago who used to collect danglers, emailing his latest find via the company message system around his colleagues in the office. Partly, no doubt, he was mindful that redundancies were coming in regular waves, and he might breast those waves by reminding his bosses how regularly he saved the writers and the newspaper from publishing scrambled sentences. Mainly, though, he was providing harmless entertainment for his colleagues. All of us enjoyed a dangler — but we also took care to ensure that danglers didn’t make it into print.

  They do now — all the time — in newspapers, in magazines and in reports, scripted and unscripted, on television and radio. There are more and more of them in books, too. Rare is the new book I’m sent that isn’t spattered with danglers, not just in proof but in the finished copy. A dangler, in case you need reminding, is a word or phrase that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up describing the wrong thing. I’m amassing quite a collection myself. Here are a few I’ve come across in the past few days: 

Lying on my back, the projector beam of the moonlight rattled into life on the canvas of the sail…

Without formal education, equality was an idea that I suspected had been put into my head and not theirs…

Making our way further from land, a longtail boat… came into sight.

With scurrying steps, his pale skin jumped out from where he kept safe distance…

  All of those came from one 200-page book.

  Many of the new titles I read, and most of those I review, are travel books. If a writer can’t guide me to the end of a sentence without getting lost, why should I stick with him or her to the end of a journey?

  A while ago, I reviewed a book that I’d enjoyed enormously apart from its profusion of danglers. The first two or three were funny, but a dangler in every chapter got irritating. I cited a few. After the review appeared, the writer emailed asking if I could direct him to the others I had spotted so that he could put them right for the paperback edition. He had a blind spot for danglers, he admitted. But why didn’t his editor and the proof-reader catch them? Danglers by the dozen might be excusable in unedited blogs, but they shouldn’t be acceptable in published books. 

  Mind you, if none of them got through, we’d be denied entertainment like this, my dangler of the past year:

Now 80 years old and straight-backed with a well-preened moustache, his manicured hands still looked strong enough to throttle a goat.

Abu Dhabi — where you can feel at home but not belong

Four-fifths of the population of the United Arab Emirates are classed as “foreigners”. So how do you find belonging in a place that will never permanently be home? Deepak Unnikrishnan ponders that question in a piece for the “Cities” strand on the website of The Guardian.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

Lewis-Stempel wins Wainwright Prize

John Lewis-Stempel, who had two books on the short list, yesterday won the Wainwright Prize for Where Poppies Blow (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). You can read an extract put online by the organisers of the prize.

Edinburgh’s ‘Outriders’ from the Americas

Travel writing features strongly on the bill for the Edinburgh International Book Festival (August 12-28). Earlier this year the organisers sent five Scottish writers across the Americas, each one travelling with a local writer, to “interrogate the socio-political landscape” of the region. These “Outriders” — including Matthew Tallack (author of Sixty Degrees North), who travelled from Fargo to Tennessee with the Boston-based novelist Jennifer Haigh — will be reporting in a series of events on what they saw and heard.

Other speakers include Garrett Carr, author of The Rule of the Land, about walking the Irish border; Julian Sayarer, whose story of hitch-hiking across the United States, Interstate, was the last Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year; and Madeleine Bunting, whose Love of Country, on her journeys through the Hebrides, has been short-listed for this year’s Wainwright Prize for nature/travel writing focused on the United Kingdom.

André Naffis-Sahely — who was born in Venice to an Iranian father and an Italian mother but grew up in Abu Dhabi —  will be introducing his debut poetry collection The Promised Land (Penguin), which tells of itinerant lives in “disposable cities”.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

‘Golden Hill’ is Book at Bedtime this week

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill (see previous post), which last week won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for a book “evoking the spirit of a place” — in this case 18th-century Manhattan — is the Book at Bedtime this week on Radio 4, starting at 10.45pm tonight.