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Where Suffolk heathland meets Arizona desert

Where does the heathland of Suffolk meet the desert of Arizona? In a moving essay for the latest Virginia Quarterly Review) by Francisco Cantú, former US border patrol officer, author of The Line Becomes a River, and keen reader of WG Sebald. Thanks to William Atkins — who knows a thing or two about deserts himself – for directing me to it via Twitter.

A wise and funny trip to the end-times

My review of Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta), a book that’s fretful, wise and funny, and often all three in the space of a paragraph, is now up on the Telegraph site; you can also read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

  Extracts from the book have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Slate.

Extracts from the RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

Extracts I’ve chosen from the books short-listed for the RSL Ondaatje Prize appeared in print in the travel section of The Daily Telegraph yesterday and have gone online today.

RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

The short list was announced today for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 for a book that best evokes “the spirit of a place”.

  Unusually, there’s just one work of non-fiction among the six books, which also include three novels and two works of poetry.


  Surge by Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus), winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, is an extraordinary debut collection responding to the New Cross Fire of 1981 in south-east London — in which 13 young black people were killed in a house fire at a birthday party — and tracing a line from it to the Grenfell fire in June 2017.

  Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi (Bloomsbury Circus) is a novel about a woman whose mother’s death prompts her to leave her unhappy married life in the United States and rebuild her home and family back in India — where she discovers she has a sister.

  Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton), which was Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, takes us into the world beneath our feet and what we’ve made of it — physically, with mines and tombs, and metaphorically, with myths and legends.

  A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson (Peepal Tree Press) won the 2019 TS Eliot Prize. John Burnside, chair of the judges, said that the collection — which includes poems reflecting on the Grenfell Tower fire — “finds in the bitterness of everyday experience continuing evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life’”.

  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (Viking) is a Booker short-listed novel that begins when the heart of its heroine, a sex worker known as Tequila Leila, stops beating. It is dedicated “To the women of Istanbul and to the city of Istanbul, which is, and always has been, a she-city.”

  A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo (Cassava Republic) is about the regenerative power of darkness and silence. An activist professor released from prison in Nigeria decides to live the rest of his life alone in the dark — until a young woman called Desire comes knocking on his door.

  The RSL’s Twitter account has brief passages read by each author and accompanied by animations by Liang-Hsin Huang, a Taiwanese film-maker who graduated from the Royal College of Art last year.

  This year’s judges of the RSL Ondaatje Prize are Peter Frankopan, Pascale Petit and Evie Wyld. The winner will be announced on May 4.

To Mexico, with Sybille Bedford

At the end of the Second World War, Sybille Bedford was tired of being cooped up in the United States. Born in Germany into a partly-Jewish family, married briefly to an Englishman so she could secure a British passport, she had fled across the Atlantic in 1940. Now she had “a great longing to move… to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible”.

  Mexico wasn’t her first choice, but she ended up there, and it became the subject of her first published book: The Sudden View, later retitled A Visit to Don Otavio. Bedford (1911-2006) was a novelist, a biographer (of her friend and mentor Aldous Huxley), a celebrant of food and drink, a journalist who wrote about criminals and miscarriages of justice. She was a travel writer, too, and A Visit to Don Otavio makes a good introduction to her many talents. You can read an extract in a page I compiled for Telegraph Travel last weekend, part of which is now online. If you enjoy the extract, you can order the book from Eland Publishing; it’s still fulfilling orders by post, and most of its books can be downloaded.

Virtually does it

You travel, you lock yourself away to write, then you come out again to hit the publicity trail when the book’s ready. That’s how it used to be. 

  Yesterday was the publication day for Notes from An Apocalypse, in which the journalist and essayist Mark O’Connell (who won both the Wellcome Book Prize and the Rooney Prize for To Be a Machine) makes an anxious exploration of the end-times. O’Connell is a writer whose work entails travel rather than a travel writer; his preoccupations this time around take him from survivalists’ bunkers in South Dakota, by way of an environmentalists’ retreat, to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. His publisher, Granta, sent the book out into the world on Twitter, with a promise that “It’ll be just like a real launch, only you’ll have to provide your own room-temperature white wine.”

  There were snippets from the text, endorsements from early readers and reviewers, an introduction by O’Connell’s editor, Anne Meadows, and a speech from, and a Q & A with, the author. His book couldn’t be more timely — but not even O’Connell could have predicted that he’d receive copies of it from a man in a face mask, and that he would open the box using gloves.

  There was a briefer, more low-key launch for Julian Sayarer (who won the Stanford Dolman prize in 2017 with Interstate, for which he hitchhiked his way across the USA). Yesterday was the official publication day for his latest book, Fifty Miles Wide: Cycling Through Israel and Palestine (Arcadia).  In a 47-second video posted on Twitter, he thanked all those who had helped him, particularly the cyclists with whom he rode, who had explained to him the politics of their countries. “I’ve always found the bicycle an amazing way of cutting through to some truth and the humanity of a situation,” he says, “and it was definitely no exception there. I hope that people reading [the book] enjoy coming along for the ride.”

  Helen Moat is another cyclist who hasn’t been able to make her publicity round. A Time of Birds, which came out on April 9 (Saraband), tells of a journey she made with her 18-year-old son from Rotterdam to Istanbul. It was prompted by a feeling that she was in a rut, with a dulled brain and a “blunted soul”. In her account of it, she reflects on her own upbringing in a Plymouth Brethren family during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and her relationship with her bird-loving father.

  For Helen Ochyra, the launch was another online event from home. She’s a Londoner who might, perhaps, have hoped to be sending her book on its way somewhere north of the English border. In Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes (The Book Guild) she sets out to get to grips with a country she had dropped into “dozens of times” but didn’t really feel she knew. Following the death in 2016 of her mother (her father had died when she was a child), she decided it was time she got round to it.

‘Greenery’: a book for this moment

“Nature Writing”, says the classification on the back of the latest book from Tim Dee. Partly true. He’s good at that. But leaving it there is a bit like saying that Wordsworth was a gardener and Springsteen is a harmonica player. Dee is one of our best living writers of non-fiction, and Greenery: Journeys in Springtime (Jonathan Cape) — which is travel and memoir and poetry and music and human as well as natural history — is perhaps his best book yet. 

  Having noted that spring moves north at about the speed of swallow flight, he tracks the season and its migratory birds all the way from South Africa to Scandinavia. His book is about how spring works on people as well as birds, animals and plants; about the possibility of life growing from death. It couldn’t be more timely. There’s an extract in the travel section, in print, of today’s Daily Telegraph. Buy the paper if you can and read it (there’s another extract on the Caught by the River website). Then buy the book, preferably from an independent bookshop

*Update, April 16: The extract that appeared in The Daily Telegraph has since gone online.

Lighting out for the territory with Jonathan Raban

I compiled a page for Telegraph Travel last weekend of literary escapes as a relief during lockdown. Some of the contents are now online (though you’ll have to register to read them), including an extract from Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory, which carried me off to the Mississippi once when I was laid low with flu.

Wordsworth, 250 years on


The summit of Loughrigg Fell, from which Wordsworth had an early glimpse of what would become his first real ‘abiding place’: Grasmere

In A Guide Through the District of the Lakes, William Wordsworth (born 250 years ago today) was firm on the best time to visit — and it wasn’t in summer. The colouring of mountains and woods then was “too unvaried a green”. The rain, “setting in sometimes at this period with a vigour, and continuing with a perseverance… may remind the disappointed and dejected traveller of those deluges… which fall among the Abyssinian mountains, for the annual supply of the Nile.”

  Autumn was much better: “The months of September and October (particularly October) are generally attended with much finer weather; and the scenery is then, beyond comparison, more diversified, more splendid, and beautiful…”

Wordsworth’s study at Rydal Mount

  I took his advice. Researching a piece for Telegraph Travel to mark the anniversary  of his birth, I wandered around Grasmere last October, guided by the prose writer rather than the poet. That piece has been shelved for now, lest it encourage others to go wandering at a time when we should all be staying indoors. I hope it will appear later. Meanwhile, I’d like to say thanks to all the people at Cumbria Tourism, Wordsworth Grasmere, Rydal Mount and Allan Bank who helped to arrange my trip and show me around, and to the Wordsworth Hotel & Spa, where I stayed.

  And thanks, of course, to Wordsworth. He died in 1850, but he’s a writer whose work is essential in 2020, when we earthlings — as scientists remind us almost daily — are making the weather on Planet Earth. After all, he was telling us, in the 1800s, that human intervention in the landscape must be “incorporated with and subservient to the powers and processes of Nature”.

Leigh Fermor and company on ‘The Art of Travel’

The fruity tones of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died four years short of his century in 2011, can be heard in a 1992 interview that’s now available again through BBC Sounds. He talks to Annette Kobak, recalling his walk in the 1930s with his “rooksack” from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople: “I’d got a pound a week, nothing else, and I thought I could just manage on that, you know, living very humbly, sleep out in summer, and doss down in  barns and that sort of thing, farmhouses in winter, and keep body and soul together…”

  Also featured in the “Art of Travel” slot are Caryl Philips, Colin Thubron, Tim Severin and Sir Laurens van der Post.