Wainwright Prize – Two Down, Ten to Go

Dear Readers, you might remember that I was celebrating the release of the James Cropper Wainwright Prize longlist a few weeks ago (and lamenting that the shortlist follows on so quickly (on 10th August). Well, I have made a start, and have really enjoyed the two books that I have managed to get under my belt so far. When the shortlist is published I will probably try to get through that, and then return to the rest of the longlist. In the past, some of my favourites haven’t made the final six, so there will be no hardship in that!

First up was ‘A Line in the World – A Year on the North Sea Coast’ by Dorthe Nors, translated by Caroline Waight. I can’t remember a translated book ever being shortlisted before, and I am a great fan of the Pushkin Press, who publish a lot of works in translation. This book introduced me to a part of the world that I don’t know at all – the rugged western coast of Denmark and Germany, down into the Netherlands. This is where Nors grew up, and there is such a strong sense of place. Here Dors discusses the beach at Vedersø dune:

” It was there, one day when I was eleven, that I was nearly dragged out to sea by a wave. I was holding my mother’s hand: it was August. In those days I wasn’t familiar with the currents, and I didn’t appreciate their strength. But as we walked along the beach, letting the waves splash around our ankles, one of them dragged me out. My mother grabbed my leg and we both skidded on the shingle until it let us go. Afterwards we sat and cried a bit. Grazes on our legs, blood. My mother was clutching my hand and wouldn’t let it go. Since then I’ve called them Valkyrie waves, the kind that rove in from the North Sea in long elegant swells on otherwise mild days. They’ll take you to sea if they can. I’m afraid of them, and everytime I see them I remember love”.

She also gives a strong sense of what it’s like living in one of the small farming and fishing communities that pepper the coastline. After a wolf wanders into the area from Germany, the local people are terrified of it, and when Nors is interviewed on Danish radio and says that you’re more likely to be mown down by a tractor than eaten by a wolf, she becomes persona non grata overnight:

And then I disappeared. So did the man who was painting my woodshed. The woman at the end of the sunken lane didn’t give me any biscuits for Christmas. People stopped saying hello when they passed in their cars. I asked a nice old lady nearby how long I would be invisible before my sentence was served. I said it as a joke, but she answered, ‘A year and a half.’

She is a very close observer of nature. I loved this:

Some birds use their sense of smell to navigate and I have seen the waders’ long bills, the way they bend, double over, and operate in sandy beds like sewing needles.”

I can give this book no higher praise than to say that it not only made me think, about memory and place and how the two are intertwined, but it made me ache to go to those grey, windswept shores, to gaze out to sea and see what happened (hopefully without being grabbed by Valkyrie waves).

And then, howabout ‘The Swimmer – The Wild Life of Roger Deakin’ by Patrick Barkham? Certainly if you think all there is to Roger Deakin was ‘Waterlog’ and ‘Wildwood’, you’re in for a surprise, as I was. Deakin was an endlessly energetic man, full of ideas and schemes and plans. He worked for several advertising campaigns, and came up with the slogan ‘Come home to a real fire’. He was an eccentric but much-loved teacher of English in Diss in Norfolk, where his corduroy trousers and Byronesque curls were the talk of the school. He completely renovated Walnut Tree Farm, and he fought a long and ferocious battle to save the hedgerow at the back of his property. He was heavily involved in the ‘Save the Whale’ campaigns, made a number of documentaries, fell in and out of love repeatedly, and packed more into his short life than most of us will if we live to be a hundred (Deakin died of a brain tumour aged 63).

The biography is largely written in Deakin’s own words, and the words of his friends and family – Barkham has worked very hard to let Deakin and the people who knew him tell their story. This results in some very interesting juxtapositions, especially with regard to Deakin’s love life – sometimes he and his lovers have extremely different opinions about what was going on. Deakin sounds like a man who could be difficult: selfish, single-minded and determined to get his own way. And yet, what comes across most is a sense of how much he was loved, and there could be no greater tribute. I found Barkham’s account completely compelling, and although I knew how it would end I confess to still being greatly moved at the last chapter, telling of Deakin’s death and memorial.

Two very different books, but both highly recommended.

Next up: ‘The Flow – Rivers, Water and Wildness’ by Amy-Jane Beer, followed by ‘Why Women Grow’ by Alice Vincent. One on rivers, one on gardens – let’s see how we get on!

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