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Travel book of the year – Down to the Sea in Ships: A tale of life onboard a container ship

Horatio Clare almost didn’t pick up his prize for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year last Monday evening; he had a near-fatal run-in with a hippo on a river in a Zambia wildlife park.

“One minute you’re having an incredible holiday as an observer of nature. The next, you’re a participant,” he told the audience at the National Liberal Club. “The hippo came up under the dinghy, and took a great bite out of the rubber tube. Had it followed through, it could have been quite nasty. We were thrown into the water. I started swimming away from the boat because of the danger of the hippo attacking again, but when we saw it had gone, we jumped back in because of the crocodiles ….”

Looking at the soignée Mr Clare, it’s hard to imagine him dicing with fanged and mortal terror in the bush. But it’s the role of the travel writer to tell bourgeois folk like us about the wonders and horrors of the World Out There.

Clare’s prize-winning book is Down to the Sea in Ships, a record of two journeys he made in two of the giant container vessels that ply the oceans bringing consumer products to their destinations: on the Gerd from Felixstowe to Los Angeles, via the Suez Canal and China; and the Pembroke from Antwerp to Canada. The book evokes life on board as the seamen unfold tales of their lives, and battle with hurricanes, exhaustion and the hell of the engine room.The prize is the first partnership between the Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award, administered for the past nine years by the Authors’ Club, and Stanfords, the travel bookshop in London’s Long Acre. The combined sponsorship offers £5,000 to the winning author.

The runners-up on Monday were: The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee; Indonesia Etc by Elizabeth Pisani; A Journey into Russia by Jens Muhling; Rising Ground by Philip Marsden; and Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt. Most of the authors were present at the ceremony, along with the cream of the travel-writing monde, six of whom were coincidentally the judges – Oliver Bullough, Jason Goodwin, Katie Hickman, Robert Macfarlane, Jeremy Seal and Sara Wheeler.

Also present was Bill Bryson, who picked up the Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing, which came in the form of a specially commissioned globe. “The characters peppering his journeys spring to life on the page,” said Stanfords boss Tony Maher, “his descriptions of places make you fight the urge to pack up and head out on the road …”

For this award, Stanfords asked thousands of readers “Who inspired your love of travel?” and the public nominations were passed to a committee of booksellers, to pick a winner. “I am hugely honoured to receive this award,” said Bryson, “particularly as it comes from booksellers, my favourite people on the whole planet.”

Aspiring travel writers who wonder about winning next year might heed the advice of Barnaby Rogerson, author, travel guide and publisher of Eland Books, who told the company: “A travel book is about seeing things for yourself, but ultimately it must be about others, not your heroic, darling self. And we want only the highlights, so murder the travel bore within you, purge that travel diary and spare us the adventures of your guts and genitals (but not your heart) … the writer has to be the one who says, ‘Yes, I will drink until dawn, take up this mad offer, follow this trail to the end, in order to discover a good story’.”

As Horatio Clare has discovered, there’s nothing like being in a Force 9 or a hippo-savaged rubber dinghy to feel nakedly up against elementalism. “All travel is about exposure, to Nature and other people,” he said. “After that experience in Africa, I had an extraordinary feeling of being gifted a life. I looked at my notebook and thought, ‘That could have been my last sentence.’ There was whisky at the bottom of a bottle and I thought ‘I wasn’t meant to drink this.’ I washed my face and thought, ‘Christ, I nearly didn’t get to use this soap.’ It all felt very immediate.” Welcome back from the brink, maestro.

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