September 28, 2012

Dolman Prize for Serious Travel Book of the Year

This year's winner is John Gimlette. I'll drink to that!
 
Coming to work today I found myself driving along behind a Martian on a motorcycle. No, wait, it was a human being in a bright green jerkin with a box of the same colour bolted to either his back or to the bike, I couldn’t really tell, and then... what was that? some kind of little scooper attached to it. Peering harder I saw the words Auckland Council Litter.

I was trying to figure out what kind of litter would be small enough to fit in the little box and also need removal so urgently as to call out a special operative on a motorbike, when a large white scrap of something detached itself from the contraption and nose-dived into the gutter, the special op blithely chugging on up the road. Littering! The anti-littering special op was littering!

A few minutes later I was behind a large SUV called a… Murano! What? I asked myself incredulously. They named a SUV after that peaceful little island in the Venetian lagoon, the one with the sunlit waterfront lined with houses all in different hues and shops full of glass menageries and NO CARS? Nissan Marketing, listen to me. Murano: stray cats, yes; fishing boats yes; glassblowing, yes; cars, no.

This trip is truly a case of non-serious travel, I said to myself, having serious travel writing on my mind because I had been reminding myself that I needed to check if the winner of this year's edition of the Dolman Prize, "Britain’s only dedicated prize for serious travel literature" (in the words of the Authors' Club, who administer the prize) which rolls around every year in September, had been announced.

And the answer is, yes it has, and it is ... Wild Coast by John Gimlette. The judging session, the Authors' Club website tells us, was held at a bar just down the road from the Authors' Club. I love this! John Gimlette, chosen over drinks! No relation, I suppose, to Thomas Gimlette, the British Royal Navy Surgeon General who gave his name to the Gimlet, from having encouraged British sailors to add lime juice to their gin to ward off scurvy.

I have never actually drunk a gimlet, but I know all about them because the gimlet, and how to make one, plays a major part in Raymond Chandler's most sentimental novel (and my favourite of all of them), The Long Goodbye. A young man with white hair, good manners, a drinking problem and a scarred face practically falls into Philip Marlowe's arms out of a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, and becomes a drinking companion and perhaps a friend, for a time, during which he teaches him, and the bartender at their drinking hole, how to make a real gimlet, Rose's Lime Juice and all. When Marlowe learns that he has died, he goes back to their bar and orders a gimlet, to say goodbye. It turns out he is not the only person there drinking a gimlet; there is a woman dressed in black, also drinking alone, who also learned about gimlets from a friend, perhaps the same one. He lights her cigarette; she tells him her name. Linda Loring. As they say in Italy, a name that is a whole programme.

Gimlette's book is about the three South American Guianas, one of which, the French one, was where the penal colony of Devil's Island was located, famous in the book world as being the setting for one of the greatest prison escape books of all time, Papillon (made into a great movie starring Steve McQueen).

If you, like me, enjoy serious travel writing (defined by the Authors' Club as "works of literary merit that show excellence in the tradition of great travel writing, combining a personal journey with the discovery or recovery of places, landscapes or peoples to instil a sense of place, excitement and wonder in the reader", and by me as "talented writing and no gimmicks") all the Dolman Prize finalists will be good reading suggestions. Here they are, with a few lines from the publishers to pique your interest:

Wild Coast by John Gimlette
"In this compelling and elegant travel memoir, John Gimlette returns to Guyana, the "Wild Coast" in South America, to discover his ancestral colonial history - one of brutal, cruel and often uncomfortable truths. Intrigued by the tale of a distant ancestor who perished on the Wild Coast in 1630, John Gimlette returns to South America to find out what has become of this primeval land."

Harlem is Nowhere: a journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (Granta)
"For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. At a crucial moment in Harlem's history, as gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy."

Thin Paths; journeys in and around an Italian Village, by Julia Blackburn (Jonathan Cape)
"In 1994, while walking the Alta Via, the high path winding from the French border to the Bay of Lerici, a man stopped in a remote village, and found he couldn't forget it. 'I've just bought a ruin in the mountains of Liguria,' he wrote, some years later. 'You'd like it here.' Julia Blackburn married that man and moved to that house in 1999. What she found in the mountains was a new way of life, and one that is fast disappearing."

To a Mountain in Tibet, by Colin Thubron (Vintage)
"Colin Thubron recently witnessed the death of the last of his family. He is walking on a pilgrimage of his own.His trek around the great mountain, revered by multitudinous others, awakes an inner landscape of solitude, love, grief, restoring precious fragments of his own origins.This is travel writing at its consummate best from an author of unsurpassable experience, sensitivity, and sheer lyrical power."

To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface, by Olivia Laing (Canongate)
"To the River is the story of the Ouse, the Sussex river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. One midsummer week over sixty years later, Olivia Laing walked Woolf's river from source to sea. The result is a passionate investigation into how history resides in a landscape - and how ghosts never quite leave the places they love."

White Fever: a journey to the frozen heart of Siberia, by Jacek Hugo-Bader (Portobello)
"A lone journey by jeep (and occasionally kayak) across one of the world's most inhospitable and surreal landscapes. An unparalleled insight into the life in Siberia and its various communities and tribes."


And three more, which were on the longlist:

On Extinction: how we became estranged from nature by Melanie Challenger (Granta) Granta doesn't seem to do blurbs, but I can tell you that the contents include Beginnings: natural history museum, London -- First peregrination: West Penwith, Cornwall -- Wild flowers -- Tin -- Ghosts -- Second peregrination: South Georgia, Antartica and the Falkland islands: Whales -- Ice -- Savages -- The third peregrination: North Yorkshire, Manhattan Island and Baffin island: Bones -- Tundra --- Endings: Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire.

Street Fight in Naples by Peter Robb (Bloomsbury) (I got this out for a friend of mine who is from Naples and he loved it) "Street Fight in Naples ranges across nearly three thousand years of Neapolitan life and art, from the first Greek landings in Italy to Robb's own less auspicious arrival thirty-something years ago."


The Fetish Room: the education of a naturalist by Redmond O’Hanlon "Part biography, part musings on biology and nature, this title presents a moving portrait of one of Britain's greatest travel writers and eccentrics. On this joint road trip with journalist Rudi Rotthier, O'Hanlon visits the places that have made him - schools and vicarages, Oxford, Stonehenge and the Marlborough Downs and many more."














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