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ODDS-ON FAVOURITES
Round up of best travel books of 2014
Country Life, March 2015

Christmas comes but twice a year for book-prize administrators - especially if, like me, you have retained a child-like love of parcels. Admittedly there is no twinkling Christmas tree for them to be tucked under, but they form their own tottering pyramid on our circular table.

The office fridge has been prepared for bottles of Sancerre, and I am already thinking about an assortment of tapas. These are a necessary lure, for on the last day of February we close the doors on further submissions, invite half a dozen (unpaid) judges in and lock the door. The judges are all writers, though in this day and age they are hardly ‘alone and palely loitering’ types, prisoners of their ivory towers/garden sheds, tapping away like modern hermits. 365 British book festivals, book-launch parties, tutoring at writers’ retreats and giving lectures means that the modern writer is a highly socialized being.

But as one of Britain’s foremost travel writers confessed to me the other evening, you are more likely to get an elevated literary conversation at a dinner party of bankers and lawyers than at one full of writers, who tend to talk shop, at least to start with ¬– about advances, publishers and sales. This is why we need the wine, to get them to concentrate on the matter in hand, the books. Then off we go to read and read, come back together and decide the shortlist in May, read it over the summer and then argue over a long lunch until we agree on a winner in late September.

And there’s excitement in the air this year. For Edward Stanford, the oldest independent travel bookshop in Britain, has stepped in to double the prize money. It has only been the generosity of one of those unsung heroes of England, the Rev. Dr. Bill Dolman that has kept the prize going since Thomas Cook backed out a decade ago.

Readers wanting to place bets on the winner (to be announced at a party hosted by the Authors Club on 28th September in the Lloyd George Room at the National Liberal Club) have already been well served by these pages. Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground, Helen Atlee’s The Land where Lemons Grow, and Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up have all been reviewed. They would have been knocked down to favourite odds if this was a point-to-point race for the shortlist, with the last two as ‘dead certs’ with no price listed if it was a mid-afternoon ladies’ race.

But there are some other important male candidates to be considered. The influence of Paddy Leigh-Fermor is still tangibly with us. So keep an eye on three stout walkers in his wake. Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt literally follows his footsteps, and his mood and swagger is also caught by Like a Tramp, like a Pilgrim: On Foot across Europe to Rome, by Harry Bucknall, whilst Walking the Border: a journey between Scotland and England, addresses a field we all still feel very passionate about. Then there are the three city-men, writers of experience and proven worth at the top of their game: Rory Maclean addressing Berlin, Justin Marozzi on Baghdad and Ziauddin Sardar on Mecca. All fascinating subjects, though the Achilles heel may be how much the judges think these are histories rather than travel books - always a moot point. Then, alongside Helen Atlee, there are other Mediterranean works which need consideration: The Telling Room: revenge and life in a Spanish village, by Michael Paterniti, and Last Days of the Bus Club by Chris Stewart. Last year, two Siberia books ran neck to neck the whole way to the finish. Will this Slavophile mood continue, and favour Jens Muhling’s Journey into Russia? Or with his third travel book, will Horatio Clare’s Down to the Sea in Ships seize a prize?

And still the parcels keep coming. Nothing has been decided, all the field have a fair start, but with four dozen handsome entries already on the table, the one absolute winner, whoever the judges ultimately choose, seems to be the state of the nation. There has never been a land to match these islands for walkers and talkers, writers, readers and explorers, and since the exception proves the rule, last year we gave the award to a Frenchman!

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