Six of the best travel books: short list for the Stanford Dolman prize

Which were the best half-dozen travel books published in the British Isles last year? And which living author has contributed most to travel writing?

The judges of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award have given their answer to the first question in a short list  published this evening. The bookseller Stanfords — which this year doubled the money (to £5,000) and added its founder’s name to the longstanding prize initiated by a member of the Authors’ Club — is now soliciting answers to the second. It’s asking members of the public to nominate their favourite living travel writer. Suggestions will be incorporated in a long list, from which a panel of booksellers will choose the winner. Nominations can be made through Twitter: simply tweet the author’s name with #ShowedMeTheWorld.

And the short list?

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee (Penguin)
Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare (Vintage)
Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt (Nicholas Brealey)
Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden (Granta)
A Journey into Russia by Jens Mühling (Haus Publishing)
Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani (Granta)

It’s strong, varied and hard to challenge, especially given the calibre of the judges: Barnaby Rogerson, publisher of travel classics at Eland, and a team of six who have all produced fine travel books of their own: Oliver Bullough, Jason Goodwin, Katie Hickman, Robert Macfarlane, Jeremy Seal and Sara Wheeler.

I’m particularly pleased to see on it Jens Mühling’s A Journey into Russia, from the small and enterprising London-based publisher Haus (which in its shop promises to match Amazon’s prices for printed books). Its German author is courageous not only in his travels but in barely mentioning a name one might have expected to see constantly in a book about modern Russia: “Putin”. Like last year’s winner from Sylvain Tesson, Mühling’s began life in another language and has been beautifully and seamlessly translated into English (in this case by Eugene H Hayworth).

Pisani’s book is an overdue one: a fascinating exploration of a country that, as she herself has pointed out, goes unreported until journalists hear the sound of tsunami, bomb or firing squad.

I bet the judges are glad they didn’t have to choose between Clare’s book and Rose George’s Deep Sea & Foreign Goingwhich is equally good in its own way on sea and sailors but came out in 2013 and so is outside their terms of reference.

Omissions? I’d like to have seen on the list The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti (Canongate), a story of an American in Spain that subverts the conventions of what we might call “flit lit”; and The Emperor Far Away by David Eimer (Bloomsbury), who travelled the borderlands of China — areas where a Chinese adage, “The mountains are high and the emperor far away”, still has meaning. But then what would I have left out?

The winner won’t be announced until September 28, but I suspect we’ll hear quite a lot more about the prize and “the greatest living travel writer” between now and then.

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