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Short list for the Ondaatje Prize

I’d hoped the presence of the poet Imtiaz Dharker among this year’s judges would ensure there was some verse on the short list for the Ondaatje Prize, announced yesterday, but it hasn’t. It’s a strong list, though, featuring two novels (one set in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region, the other moving between Bondi and the labour camps of the Burma Railway); a memoir by a former Labour Home Secretary of his London boyhood; and three books dealing in one way or another with natural history: on badgers, urban wildlife in Aberdeen, and green spaces ranging from the Cambridgeshire fens to the exclusion zone at Chernobyl. The green spaces are visited by Tim Dee in Four Fields, which has already featured on Deskbound Traveller. I’m looking forward to dipping into the other books for extracts to run in Telegraph Travel next weekend (in print on May 10, online possibly earlier).

Here’s the full list, with the judges’ summary of each book:

The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam (Faber)
Set in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the months following 9/11, this novel brings home the complexities of life and belief on the frontiers, reminding us that the essence of a place can be one of conflict rather than harmony, almost impossible to resolve.

 Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham (Granta)
A lyrical, deep and humane investigation of our relationship with one of the British countryside’s more controversial animals.

Spirit House by Mark Dapin (Tuskar Rock Press)
A compassionate, subtle and darkly humorous novel about a complex subject – it deals with male psychology and the architecture of historical wounds terrifically well.

 Four Fields by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape)
The seemingly restrictive framework of four fields is used to throw open a wide-ranging meditation on the world and how we live in it. There are moments of horror, beauty and sheer poetry.

 This Boy by Alan Johnson (Bantam Press)
A scrupulous yet moving memoir of a particular area of London, with its boundaries, streets, people and poverty – which also captures the elusive spirit of place that imprints itself on a child, and is never forgotten.

Field Notes From a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson (Granta)
Aberdeen has never seemed so rich in wildlife as it does in this book, which follows the rhythm of a year, moving from loving observation of local dunes, streets, woods and gardens out to wider considerations of the universe, and our attitudes to the natural world.

The winner will be announced on May 19.

A fortress home in South Africa

Absolution.coverWith the short list for the 2014 RSL Ondaatje Prize due to be announced later this week, I’m publishing here an extract from the last of three books I picked from last year’s short list. This one is from Absolution, by Patrick Flanery, a literary thriller set in South Africa. It’s an ambitious work for a debut, and one in which the ambition is fully realised. Its two central characters are both writers: one renowned and coming to the end of her career; the other starting out, hoping to make his name by writing her biography. It’s a book in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission features, and in which the truth itself is constantly just out of reach. Flanery powerfully evokes the sights, sounds and smells of South Africa, as well as the fear (see the extract) that afflicts its better-off citizens in their fortress homes.

Cornwall: a place set apart

The recognition last week of the Cornish people as an official minority was just a late acknowledgment of a truth, according to Philip Marsden. Their homeland, he writes in The Guardian, is certainly not England.

A tourist at Chernobyl

Alexander Nazaryan, born in Russia and raised mainly in the United States, reports for Newsweek on a visit to what was the scene, in 1986, of the world’s worst nuclear accident: “The toxic cloud that enveloped much of Europe that spring has intrigued me ever since. I can name all of the radionuclides it contained: cesium-137, iodine-131, zirconium-95,  strontium-90, ruthenium-103… But I longed to know its origins, the way a naturalist might yearn to see the source of a river somewhere high in the mountains, simply to fulfil the human need to discover beginnings and pay homage to them.”

Back to Rwanda with Hilsum and Gourevitch

A longer excerpt from Lindsey Hilsum’s article on Rwanda (which I recommended a few months ago when it appeared in the print version of Granta) can now be found on the magazine’s website. April 7, Memorial Day in Rwanda, marked the 20th anniversary of the genocide, a systematic attempt to exterminate the Tutsi minority. July 4, Liberation Day, celebrates the genocide’s end. Until the latter date, The New Yorker is allowing all visitors to its site to read the articles of Philip Gourevitch, who reported for the magazine on the aftermath of the slaughter and went on to write We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for non-fiction. They are introduced by his own commentary, telling how they came to be written and reinterpreting them in the light of subsequent events.

A memoir of the Troubles in Belfast

CallMotherjktI’m publishing an extract this week from another book that was on the short list last year for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, awarded for a work “evoking the spirit of a place”. It’s from Call mother a lonely field by Liam Carson, a memoir of growing up in an Irish-speaking family in Belfast at the time of the Troubles.

The title, incidentally, is borrowed from a song by Jackie Leven, who was lead singer in the 1970s of the band Doll By Doll before going on to a solo career in which he collaborated with, among others, the crime writer Ian Rankin.

In search of the best book on the British countryside

There’s been surprisingly little coverage of the short list for the new Thwaites Wainwright Prize, released last week. The £5,000 prize, designed to celebrate the best of nature- and travel writing about Britain, was set up last November 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  organisers’ website says that books can be narrative or illustrative “but must be focussed [sic] on the British countryside”. That stipulation could lead to a few arguments in advance of the prize-giving on May 8. One title on the short list is Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (my favourite non-fiction book of 2012), in which he tramps paths not only through the chalk-lands of England and the islands of the Scottish north-west but also through Spain, Palestine and the Himalayas.

The other books are:

Walking Home by Simon Armitage (Faber)
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham (Granta)
Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape)
The Green Road into the Trees: A Walk Through England by Hugh Thomson (Windmill/Random House)
Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson (Granta).

You can read an extract from each of the books on the Thwaites Wainwright Prize site.

García Márquez, poor scribblers and Michael Jacobs

A few hours before I heard of the death of Gabriel García Márquez, I learnt that a new beca, or grant, for travel writing, to be administered by García Márquez’s “new journalism”  foundation and the Hay Festival, had been set up. It’s in honour of my friend Michael Jacobs, who died in January, and is for $5,000 to be used to develop an in-depth article or travel book about Latin America or Spain. Michael knew from experience what it was to be short of both cash and time. At the memorial gathering in his honour last month in Shoreditch Town Hall, London, one of his old friends, Paul Stirton, recalled how the pair of them had once been commissioned to write a guide to art galleries in Europe, with a schedule that required they hare around five a day and write 1,000 words a night. When they arrived at one gallery to find it locked, Michael suggested he climb an outside wall, look in the windows, and shout down to Paul the “authoritative account” that their publishers had demanded.

The Ondaatje Prize and ‘spirit of place’

One of the purposes of Deskbound Traveller is to seek out great travel writing in places where it hasn’t been looked for much before — not just in the shelves marked “Non-fiction” but in those labelled “Fiction” and “Poetry”.  The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 (sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer), is for a “distinguished work” in any of those forms “evoking the spirit of a place”. Since the prize’s inception in 2004, winners have included titles as diverse as In the Country of Men, the debut novel of the Libyan writer Hisham Matar, and Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, Adam Nicolson’s account of life and times in his family’s stately home.

The books short-listed for this year’s prize will be announced at the end of this month or early in May. I’m hoping to publish short extracts from each of them in Telegraph Travel and then a longer piece from the winner or an interview with him or her. Over the next few weeks on Deskbound Traveller, I will be publishing extracts from some of the titles that were short-listed for last year’s prize. I’m starting today with an excerpt from Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis, who realised his dream of living alongside emperor penguins by signing up for a year as a doctor with the British Antarctic Survey.

Teju Cole and the ‘yahoo boys’ of Lagos

everydayisforthethief.jktEver had one of those emails asking you to provide bank details so that your long-lost relation’s bequest can be deposited in your account? Many of them are sent by the young men who haunt the cyber-cafes of Lagos, Nigeria. In Every Day Is For the Thief by Teju Cole, which Faber & Faber is due to publish in Britain on April 17, there’s a particularly good passage on how these “yahoo boys” peck out their messages on keyboards at night, when it’s cheaper to get online.

Teju Cole won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction and the Internationaler Literaturpreis for his novel Open City. He was also short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature (of which you’ll be hearing a lot more on Deskbound Traveller over the next few weeks). Cole, a writer, photographer and historian of early Netherlandish art, grew up in Nigeria and then moved to New York. The narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief is a young man returning to Nigeria from New York. A note on the copyright page says that this is “a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” Is it, now?

The places and locales are real enough to be pinpointed on a map, among them the Mayflower School in Ikenne, Ogun State, attended by one “character”, and the Tejuoshu Market (razed by fire in 2007 and still being rebuilt), the Ojodu-Berger bus terminal and the National Museum, all in Lagos. The book has the slimness of a novella (163 pages), but it might better be described as creative non-fiction. Its author, after all, told The New York Times recently: “‘The novel’ is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.”

However you read it, Every Day Is for the Thief is a vivid portrait of a country where everyone with authority or power is on the take, and the narrator in constant search of “a moving spot of sun”. There’s an extract on the website of The New Yorker.