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Jan Morris’s favourite travel book

Jan Morris has spent her life travelling and writing, but has never considered herself a travel writer, on the basis that her books have tended to be about places (Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, Sydney) rather than journeys. In an interview for the review section of The Observer at the weekend, she told Tim Adams that her Pax Britannica trilogy on the rise and fall of the British Empire was “the centrepiece of my life, really, I hesitate to say intellectually, but certainly emotionally”.

  Morris, who is 93 and doesn’t travel far these days from her home in Llanystumdwy, in Wales, is about to publish a second diary, Thinking Again. Its tone, says Adams, “is of someone who has seen the whole world and decided on this place as an ending”.

  A few years ago, I invited Morris to contribute to a series, “Companion Volume”, in which writers nominated a favourite travel book. This is what she wrote:

“They order this matter better in France,” announces the narrator in the very first line of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1763).

It is one of the best-known opening lines in literature, and I love it because it cocks a merry snook at what is popularly called travel writing. The narrator has not yet set foot in France, he never does get to Italy and the whole inimitable work might better be described as un-travel writing.

To my mind travel is incidental to most of the best travel books. It is merely a peg on which authors can hang reflections, humours, regrets and irritations, set for effect against the passing scene. Such books are not intended to tell readers what they will themselves find if they chance to go that way. They record the state of an author’s own sensibility, on a particular journey, at a particular time.

Sterne does indeed travel through France, but his France is purely personal to himself. He describes no great sights, he offers no descriptive passages, and he really might just as well be travelling through Ruritania — where they may also order matters better, for all I know.

Songs for rattling on the rails

“Música original patagónica” on La Trochita — the Old Patagonian Express — in Argentina. © MICHAEL KERR

The venue for next weekend’s BBC Six Music Festival in London is the Roundhouse in Camden Town, which, before it offered a stage to everyone from Pink Floyd to David Bowie, was an engine shed for the London & North Western Railway. That’s what prompted Guy Garvey to go for a train theme on his show for Six Radio yesterday, drawing on music from artists from Oscar Peterson (Night Train) to Vashti Bunyan (Train Song), by way of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys (Ben Dewberry’s Final Run).

  Many of his selections were new to me, and they prompted me to dig out a playlist I compiled myself, including a few suggestions from colleagues, when I published my first anthology of train journeys, Last  Call for the Dining Car, in 2009. That playlist is no longer accessible online, so I’ve made a new one on Spotify, adding a few songs I’ve come across since or couldn’t access first time around.

  Railroad lines and trains in the United States figure often, though Crosby, Stills & Nash (Marrakesh Express), Little Feat (New Delhi Freight Train) and Rickie Lee Jones (Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking) do range a bit farther afield. Then there’s Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains, which couldn’t be more British: “I dream of them constantly, heading for Paradise… or Basingstoke, or Reading.”

  Two songs on the playlist are from what you might call travelin’ albums. One of those albums is Shine A Light, for which Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recorded on the move — on trains, on platforms and in old station halls. Their version of Rock Island Line*, for example, was recorded in the Great Hall at Union Station in Chicago; Waiting for a Train comes from Room 414 in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Jimmie Rodgers, “the Singing Brakeman”, who is most closely associated with the song, set up home at the Gunter in 1930. Six years later, Robert Johnson made his first recordings there — in Room 414. 

  The other album is from Laura Cantrell: Trains and Boats and Planes. A celebration of life on the road? Not entirely: Big Wheel spells out the demands of the peripatetic life; several songs, including the title track (by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), are about the pain of separation; on Train of Life she’s “tired of sittin’ on the side track watchin’ the main line run”.

*Bragg presented an excellent programme for BBC Four, Rock Island Line: The Song That Made Britain Rock. First screened in April last year, it’s now available again for a while on the BBC iPlayer.

A tribute to Ciaran Carson, biographer of Belfast

Ciaran Carson, as I’ve mentioned here before, was one of the great conjurors of place, in prose as well as poetry. This week’s TLS has a rollicking tribute to him from his friend Paul Muldoon, recalling a “cigarette-safari” they made through London in Muldoon’s Triumph Herald Convertible.

Macfarlane wins Stanford Dolman prize for ‘Underland’

The £2,500 prize for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year went tonight to Robert Macfarlane (right) for Underland (Hamish Hamilton), a book in which he travels into the world beneath our feet and what we’ve made of it — physically, with mines and tombs, and metaphorically, with myths and legends. It takes him from Bronze Age funeral chambers in Somerset, via the catacombs of Paris, to a nuclear bunker in Finland.

  The prize, which the bookseller Stanfords runs in association with the Authors’ Club, is now part of a Stanfords scheme with awards in 10 categories, ranging from memoir to children’s travel.

  An award for an outstanding contribution to travel writing went to Paul Theroux, who has long written non-fiction as well as novels and whose latest travel book (and 51st book), On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip, was short-listed for the Stanford Dolman.

  An award for new travel writers, run in association with Bradt Travel Guides, went to Kirstin Zhang — who  was raised in Cyprus and Papua New Guinea and currently lives in Edinburgh — for an 800-word article about a trip to Uganda. She works for the arts body Creative Scotland and has written short fiction for magazines and for Radio 4. 

  For the full list of awards and the short-listed books, see the Stanfords website.

Hearing the music of Siberia

The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Transworld, £18.99), a debut in which Sophy Roberts explores “a world of snow, exile and music”, was reviewed in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend by Julian Evans. After a faltering start, he says, it’s a book in which Roberts “movingly demonstrates how a remote and limitless wilderness was transformed, for her, into the most intense, musical, intimately human space imaginable”. For links to other reviews, see the “Books in the Media” slot of The Bookseller.

Kassabova’s ‘To the Lake’ on Radio 4 this week

To the Lake (Granta, £14.99), in which Kapka Kassabova continues her sustained examination of the damaging legacies of fences on the ground and in the head, is Book of the Week on Radio 4 from today.

  Kassabova also contributes to Start the Week, in which Andrew Marr and his guests (the others are Dan Jackson, author of The Northumbrians, Emily Thomas, author of the forthcoming The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, and the economist Colin Mayer) explore “community cohesion and love of home”.

The new, longer, Stanford Dolman short list

The short list for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year has… lengthened. On December 10, there were six books on it. Now, according to a tweet posted this week by one of the judges, Benedict Allen, there are 10. Maybe the judges were unhappy with the list they were presented with by Stanfords, which, I’ve been told, uses “an academy of critics, booksellers and travel bloggers” when drawing up short lists for all its awards. Maybe the judges pointed out that the original short list included only one female writer.

  On December 10, the list was:

Last Days in Old Europe by Richard Bassett (Allen Lane)
Epic Continent by Nicholas Jubber (John Murray)
Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman (Picador)
On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton)
Lotharingia by Simon Winder (Picador).

  The four additional titles are:

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (Picador)
Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe by Rory MacLean (Bloomsbury)
Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh (Bloomsbury)
Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age by Sara Wheeler (Jonathan Cape).

  The winner will be announced on February 26.

  The most striking addition is perhaps the book by Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee and journalist, which documents life in Australia’s offshore detention system and has won him numerous awards. It was written in phone texts sent out on WhatsApp over almost five years. 

  Is it a travel book? Well, the author certainly glided over frontiers in its composition, according to his translator, Omid Tofighian:

Boochani has created a book that resists classification. It overlaps with genres such as prison literature, philosophical fiction, clandestine philosophical literature, prison narratives, Australian dissident writing, Iranian political art, transnational literature, decolonial writing and the Kurdish literary tradition.

  The Stanford Dolman, formerly the Dolman prize, after the Rev William Dolman, a member of the Authors’ Club, who had been sponsoring it through the club since 2006, was rebranded in 2015. It is now part of a scheme run by the bookseller Stanfords and named after its founder: the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards.

  The Stanford Dolman is the only award that brings a cash prize. When Stanfords first got involved that was doubled to £5,000, but it’s now back to £2,500, funded generously out of his own pocket again this time round by Dolman. At the time of rebranding the Stanford Dolman was very much the centre-piece of the awards. In the past couple of years, though, the judging process has become truncated and the prize seems to have got a bit lost in the scheme as a whole. In the press release on short lists I was sent in December, trumpeting 57 books divided into nine categories (with a 10th category for articles by new writers), it wasn’t even mentioned until the seventh paragraph.

  Books that would have been strong contenders for the Stanford Dolman in earlier years — when judges chose their own short list — are now ending up on a short list for one of the other awards. Last year, for example, Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine and The Crossway by Guy Stagg were in travel memoir of the year; Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth was under adventure travel. This year, The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden is short-listed as a travel memoir (as, initially, was Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars); Outpost by Dan Richards is in adventure travel. I’ve not read Last Days in Old Europe, but most of the reviews I’ve seen suggest it’s a memoir, so one might ask why it isn’t in the memoir category.

  One might also ask why there is a category for “fiction with a sense of place”. There is already a well-established prize for books “evoking the spirit of a place”: the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, which embraces non-fiction and poetry as well as novels and is worth £10,000.

  I’ve long been a customer of Stanfords, and I’m a huge admirer of what the company does to promote travel writing, but I do think that 57 books (61 now, at least?) in nine categories is overdoing it. Time to dwell more on the Dolman.

Taking an ‘Inventory’ of Derry

Inventory, a remarkable memoir by Darran Anderson of life in Derry at the tail-end of the Troubles, is published today (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). The Irish Times has an interview with the author by Seámas O’Reilly, whose own Derry memoir, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is due to be published in April. In a podcast, Anderson talks to Martin Doyle about the writing that’s inspired his own, the work of Lyra McKee, the legacy of the Troubles, and his luck in having parents who “refused to hate”.

The word’s out on ‘Outpost’

A review I wrote some time ago appeared in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, as if it had been sent by hand from some far-flung place, got lost along the way and finally surfaced. Maybe that was appropriate, for the review was of Outpost by Dan Richards (Canongate), a sprightly tour of staging posts — from the bothy to the writer’s retreat and the fire lookout tower — and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. It’s online on the Telegraph site, and you can also find it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Dee and Co at Daunt Books Festival

Daunt Books not only runs great shops, most of them in London; it’s also a publisher and has its own annual festival. The line-up for the next festival, on March 19 and 20 at its Marylebone branch, includes Tim Dee, talking about his latest book, Greenery, in which he seeks to travel with the spring and its migratory birds, north from South Africa to Britain; Simon Loftus, author of Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy (which Daunt republished last year); and Paul Wood, author of London is a Forest and London’s Street Trees, who will be leading a walk on the second day. Also on the bill are writers including Sebastian Barry, Colum McCann, Olivia Laing, Caroline Criado Perez and Max Porter.