The Wainwright Prize shortlist has been announced, featuring six great books. Judge Dan Lewis gives you the low down
Ok, so, full disclosure, I am a judge on this year’s Wainwright Prize panel. I love all of these books. Except one. No, I’m kidding - they’re all terrific in entirely different and wonderful ways, which is what’s going to make arguing it out with my fellow judges so difficult. Fun difficult - not Brexit difficult.
For the uninitiated, the Wainwright Prize is awarded annually to the book perceived to best reflect the values of the celebrated British fellwalker, author and illustrator Alfred Wainwright. As ever, this years list is a glorious mix of nature and travel writing set throughout the United Kingdom. At this time of upheaval, such a fete of diversity in the very fabric of our nation feels all the more potent.
Anyway - onto the brilliant books you must go out and read immediately. The winner will be announced on 5th August
Rob Cowen (£8.99)
If there’s a theme running through the six books that make up this year’s shortlist it might be said to be that of the interplay between nature and ourselves - by which I mean our sense of self rather than just “us”. It’s perhaps best captured in the Prologue to Rob Cowen's Common Ground “nature isn’t just some remote mountain or protected park.
It is all around us. It is in us. It is us.” As Cowen moves from London to Harrogate in Yorkshire with his wife and unborn child, he finds himself being drawn again and again to a nearby patch of land on the edge of town. It is a place at once wild and peopled, known and ignored. He speaks eloquently of our human need to visit such places to “reset” ourselves amidst the deer, the hares and the swifts.
We are invited to share in the comfort he takes from this “edge-land” at a time of transition in his life, not just that caused by moving to a new place but that which awaits him as he becomes a father. Perhaps because it focuses in on a comparatively small area of land, the elements of memoir and musings seem all the more personal and compelling.
Amy Liptrot (£14.99)
In The Outrun, which was also in the running for this year’s Wellcome Prize, Amy Liptrot returns to a once familiar place, the Orkney of her childhood. If you’re familiar with the myriad of book prizes that are out there, you may be surprised that a book on the Wainwright shortlist, for UK nature writing, might also have been shortlisted for the Wellcome, a prize for books touching on medicine, health or illness.
It’s certainly testament to Liptrot’s bold and lyrical writing that such a thing should be possible. Her return to Orkney sees her seeking catharsis, and continuing the recovery from her alcoholism - or perhaps the opportunity to give into it entirely.
So far so (possibly) misery-memoir, but Liptrot’s easy lyricism, honesty and flowing narrative style make this stand out as something altogether different. But where does the nature fit in? Well, it doesn’t “fit in” but rather is the vehicle for the entire story.
Rather than being bland backdrops to a personal struggle, Orkney and its surrounding islands, its landscape and wildlife, are a compelling force that provoke memories and inspire action; they quietly offer a chance for consideration, confrontation and consolation. It is a book that defies categorisation, being far greater than the sum of its parts. And this is her debut…
Robert Macfarlane (£9.99)
No stranger to the Wainwright Prize, having previously made the cut in 2014 with the much-lauded The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane’s latest is something rather different altogether. When this first reached my desk back in March of 2015, I’m not sure I knew quite what to make of it. Looking beyond the beautifully designed jacket from the incomparable Stanley Donwood (no, no extra marks for this but it is a lovely thing), I began to look through pages of alien looking words and definitions:
fleeches - large snowflakes Exmoor
gurracag - heap of hay or corn not yet made into stacks Gaelic
canch - stone that is above or below a seam of coal and that has to be removed to reach the coal Pitmatical (north-east England)
As an erst-while student of linguistics, my interest was immediately piqued; these words which I had never heard or read before felt in some way alive, quickened by their link to the living, breathing world. But Landmarks is much more than a series of glossaries - in Macfarlane’s hands it is a passionate rallying cry for the re-wilding of the English language, which has dumped these words from its dictionaries and left them for dead.
As he travels through the country exploring landscape and the literature written about and in it, he collects these incredible abandoned expressions and their definitions which prove invaluable in our search to understand the world around us and, given there’s little more personal than language, ourselves.
It shouldn’t have been an unexpected book for Macfarlane to have written, yet how could I have expected it when there is nothing else quite like it?
Michael McCarthy (£9.99)
If you are a reader of nature writing, you are most likely familiar with The Independent’s former Environment Editor, Michael McCarthy, and, if so, will already have a pretty good idea of views on the threat posed to the nature by, well, us. Yet The Moth Snowstorm is bursting with originality and, unsurprisingly perhaps given the subheading, joy.
Whilst there’s plenty of shocking facts and figures to back up tales of nature’s destruction, past, present and likely future, they are tempered with a call to rekindle the joyous connection we should feel with nature, that which has been lost as we humans have set ourselves apart and, in many ways, above the natural world.
McCarthy does not hold back in his grief and anger, which might feel overwhelming and alienating were it not for his decision to weave all of this into his own deeply personal life story. Memories of childhood trauma, of fractured family and strained relationships, seep in giving the whole a sense of melancholy that is relieved by, that word again, the joy of the natural world that the young McCarthy became obsessed with.
A reminder, if one were needed, that we are as fragile, as wonderful and difficult to fully understand as every single thing on the planet; we are no different and might do well to remember as much.
Katharine Norbury (£9.99)
We at Stanfords were lucky enough to have Katharine Norbury speak in our Long Acre shop last year about The Fish Ladder, which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. I recall her readings that evening commanding an absorbed silence from the audience like few others I have witnessed, in part perhaps this was caused by her prose’s overwhelming honesty.
The Fish Ladder is a journey of discovery, or rather self-discovery as, prompted by a miscarriage, the adopted Norbury contends with unresolved issues surrounding the identity of her birth-mother and consequently her own sense of self. It would be wrong however to say that this narrative is that straightforward. In this book, time, like the water of the rivers Norbury walks the routes of, is fluid.
Sights and sounds provoke memories and tangential stories and musings - can you tell how hard it is to not make a pun on “stream of consciousness”? Death, sickness and grief are present too as we walk beside the life-giving water, which when combined with Norbury’s own diagnosis with breast cancer, might start to make this feel like quite a tough read.
However, not once are we left alone to wallow but rather we are presented with glorious vistas described in rare detail, delicate observations, passages of poetry and stories from mythology which serve to place grief, sadness, indeed all human hardships and questions in a far wider context where they begin to feel if not insignificant then at least relatively manageable.
James Rebanks (£8.99)
It would be fair to say that James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life was an unlikely book to wind up a number one bestseller, vying for shelf space with Lee Child and the like, and yet that’s just where it ended up. Rebanks lays bear the life of the modern shepherd through the story of his own family, whilst simultaneously highlighting the social, economic and political shifts which have moulded it.
The book has “heft” - a sense of deep attachment not only of livestock to land, but of people to a way of life and tradition. Time bends around the Lake District, around the Rebanks family and flock as we seem at times to slip seamlessly into other times where different generations are charting their course for survival through the seasons.
There’s an anger to be perceived here as Rebanks shakes us from our doe-eyed view of the Lakes with tales of hardship and struggle; battles with nature itself that cannot be fully understood by the weekend walker. It is an unsentimental love-letter, filled with profoundly understated eloquence, vividly painted characters and an unrelenting respect for the landscape the author is hefted to.
Don't forget that Wanderlust readers can get a 10% discount from Stanfords on these books by clicking here