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Women at war

The New York Review of Books has an excellent piece by Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News on women who are caught up in war and who go to report on it:

Any female reporter who covers the Middle East is asked if it’s a disadvantage to be a woman, but Westerners rarely ask about the advantages, which often apply even more to Arab than foreign women. In countries like Syria and Iraq, you can disappear into the background and are rarely seen as a threat in the way men may be. Wearing the hijab is useful because you look like other women, so you can get through roadblocks where you might be stopped if the gunmen suspected you of being a reporter. But there are techniques you need to learn. “Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover,” writes Hannah Allam, an Arab-American journalist who reported for McClatchy Newspapers during the Iraq war. “You use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under your chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike up the bottom to free your feet. Then you run in a zigzag pattern to avoid giving a clear shot to the snipers.”

Wind rewound

A BBC 4 film Richard Alwyn made of Tim Dee, birdwatcher and radio producer, trying to catch the sound of “pure” wind is back on the BBC iPlayer. It’s still as good as it was last time I mentioned it.

The new Laurie Lee that isn’t by the old Laurie Lee

I’ve been reading a new book with Laurie Lee’s name on the cover. Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape is, according to the press release that came with it from Penguin, “A never-before-published collection of essays featuring lyrical, moving memories of Lee’s beloved Cotswold home”. That’s not entirely true. The jacket notes say that it’s “a writer’s tribute to the landscape that shaped him”. That is true, sort of. The chapters of this 101-page book aren’t essays, and Lee didn’t write them. 

  As an afterword makes clear, the book is a transcription of recordings made in 1994 by David Parker, who was making a film about Lee, then in his 80th year, in and around his home village of Slad in the Cotswolds. Hence the regularity of passages opening with directions — “This lane next to us…”, “Up there…”, and “This is the grave of my old chum…” — as Lee sets the scene. 

  The text is poorly edited and oddly punctuated. If you’re expecting the rhythmical prose you enjoyed in Cider with Rosie and the books on Spain, you’ll be disappointed. There are passages here, surely, that Lee — who died in 1997 — would have groaned over:
  “And this is one of the reasons, apart from its splendour, its beauty, in season and out, it’s one of the reasons that I feel I’ve inherited, just by being here, inherited this ancient, pre-Roman and pre-Iron Age, almost pre-Stone Age civilization. And I do my best to carry it on, with all its ravages and contentments; which are many.”

  You do learn a bit more about the Slad Valley and how it shaped him and why it pulled him back, and there’s the odd good joke:
  “I was sitting outside the pub recently and two girls came up to me. They were part of a school group, it was about five to eleven. They were doing ‘O’ levels and they said to me, ‘Excuse me sir, can you tell me where Laurie Lee’s buried?’ A certain shiver of mortality ran through me and I said, ‘He’s in the public bar, otherwise he’d be up in the woods.’”

  Still, this is far from vintage Lee, and it’s bizarre that it’s appearing with “Penguin Classics” on the front. There’s an audio version, I see, which according to a page on the Audible website is narrated by David Sibley but has “original audio interviews with the author, Laurie Lee”. Maybe that’s the best way to approach Down in the Valley.

On the trail of ‘the lost man of science’

It’s 250 years since the birth of Alexander von Humboldt. Chris Moss, for Telegraph Travel, has retraced some of the South American journeys of this pioneering polymath — “the first person to think of nature as a complete interconnected web, spanning topographies and even continents”. (You’ll have to register to read the piece online.)

Harris wins Boardman Tasker prize

Congratulations to Kate Harris, who last week won yet another prize  — her fourth — for her wonderful debut, Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. She was presented with the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Writing at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival.

Judges named for 2020 RSL Ondaatje Prize

The judges were named yesterday for my favourite literary award: the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, £10,000 “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”. They are Peter Frankopan, historian and author of the bestselling The Silk Roads: A New History of the World; Pascale Petit, poet and winner of the Ondaatje in 2018 for her seventh collection, Mama Amazonica; and the novelist (and bookseller) Evie Wyld, author of the prizewinning titles After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and All the Birds, Singing.

  I’ve compiled my own roundup of travel books of 2019, shortly to be published by Telegraph Travel, so I’ll have plenty of non-fiction to recommend to them. I’ve had little time this year, though, for fiction or poetry because I’ve been swotting up on climate change (David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth, on the mess we’ve made; Nathaniel Rich, in Losing Earth, on the chances we’ve squandered  to put things right; and Mike Berners-Lee in No Planet B on what we and our leaders might yet be able to do). The poetry I read wasn’t new and the novels I enjoyed most (after The Overstory) did powerfully evoke the spirit of a place, but they were books that first appeared in 2018: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison, The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack and Middle England by Jonathan Coe.

  The closing date for submissions for the RSL Ondaatje Prize is December 11. The rules say entries “must have been published in the United Kingdom within the calendar year 2019 and entered only by publishers based in the United Kingdom. Entries may be written by a citizen of the UK, Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland or a writer who has been resident in the UK for three years.”

Jamie and company on ‘writing deep time’

Kathleen Jamie, with another poet, Denise Riley, contributed to a recent episode of Ian McMillan’s The Verb on Radio 3, on “the writing of deep time”. The episode, which can be downloaded from the BBC site, featured both Jamie’s new essay collection, Surfacing, and some of her poems.

Nansen’s polar ‘fairy tale’

On this date in 1894, Fritdtjof Nansen, icebound on the Fram while trying to reach the North Pole, was congratulating himself on his good fortune…

Tuesday, November 13th. Thermometer -38° C. (-36.4° Fahr.). The ice is packing in several quarters during the day, and the roar is pretty loud, now that the ice has become colder. It can be heard from afar—a strange roar, which would sound uncanny to any one who did not know what it was.

A delightful snow-shoe run in the light of the full moon. Is life a vale of tears? Is it such a deplorable fate to dash off like the wind, with all the dogs skipping around one, over the boundless expanse of ice, through a night like this, in the fresh, crackling frost, while the snow-shoes glide over the smooth surface, so that you scarcely know you are touching the earth, and the stars hang high in the blue vault above? This is more, indeed, than one has any right to expect of life; it is a fairy tale from another world, from a life to come.

And then to return home to one’s cosy study-cabin, kindle the stove, light the lamp, fill a pipe, stretch one’s self on the sofa, and send dreams out into the world with the curling clouds of smoke—is that a dire infliction? Thus I catch myself sitting staring at the fire for hours together, dreaming myself away—a useful way of employing the time. But at least it makes it slip unnoticed by, until the dreams are swept away in an ice-blast of reality, and I sit here in the midst of desolation, and nervously set to work again.

From Farthest North by Fritdtjof Nansen

Off-road and off-grid with Kate Harris

Kate Harris, author of the award-winning Lands of Lost Borders, was among keynote speakers at a conference this week in Toronto on environmental science. In an interview beforehand, she talked about her Silk Road journey — “an exploration of how borders of all kinds shape and shatter our world” — and about going off-grid in a cabin where British Columbia meets Alaska and the Yukon, a way of life that will be the subject of her next book.

Poems for a planet in peril

In the Poetry Please slot on Radio 4 at the start of this month, the writer Owen Sheers shared a fine selection of poems that touch on humanity’s relationship with nature and which speak particularly powerfully to us at this moment, when we’re in the midst of an ecological crisis of our own making. One of his choices was So the Peloton Passed, by Simon Armitage, who on his appointment as Poet Laureate in May said it was “absolutely essential” that poetry respond to the issue of climate change.

  Sheers told his host, Roger McGough, that the climate crisis was something “all storytellers need to address, because on one level where we find ourselves is the result of a failure in narrative, in storytelling”.

  Novelists, though, have recently been responding to a planet in peril, as Robert Macfarlane pointed out in an essay last weekend for The Guardian on the rise of “the new animism”:

A turning back towards “nonhuman interlocutors” has also occurred in recent fiction where “land” is encountered as sensate, memorious and even intentful, rather than a static stage set for human actions. From Australia there is the towering body of work – both novels and essays – by the lands-rights activist and indigenous writer Alexis Wright, which explore “special acts” of rights-giving to nature in both modern law and “ancestral stories”. In Britain, I think of Daisy Johnson’s dazzling Fen and Everything Under, Max Porter’s Lanny, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk, Richard Skelton’s Beyond the Fell Wall, and Laura Beatty’s quietly brilliant Pollard and Darkling, in which trees grow through human lives in shaping ways. 

  Macfarlane also cited the work of Amitav Ghosh, who has tackled environmental catastrophe in both non-fiction (The Great Derangement) and fiction (Gun Island), and Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which has haunted me since I read it back in June.