The Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, which The Spectator has just relaunched, is awarded for travel writing that gives ‘the most acute and profound observation of a culture alien to the writer’. Here, its 1997 winner John Gimlette, whose most recent book has been shortlisted for the Dolman Prize, tells us what winning the award meant to him.
The most important taxi I’ve taken
I’m utterly delighted that the Shiva Naipaul Prize is back up and running. It’s completely changed my life, and I hope it will do the same for others. Until 1997 (the year I won it), I’d always known I wanted to write but I’d never had the courage to do much about it.
Then I saw an advertisement for the prize, on the Tube. I was travelling back from chambers (I’m also a barrister), and noticed that the closing date was the following day. As I wasn’t in court, I decided to take the day off and write about a recent journey through Paraguay. The next evening, I rushed my article across the city by taxi, and caught the deadline just in time. It was probably the most important taxi I’ve ever taken. When the prize was announced, I suddenly found I had the confidence to approach travel editors, and things took off from there.
Whilst I may have been a bit slow taking up the writing, the travelling had always been there. My parents are keen travellers, and always encouraged us to travel. They first let me loose on my own when I was twelve, putting me on the plane to Ireland where I used to spend the summers on a farm. Then, at the age of 17, they bought me a ticket for the Trans-Siberian railway. It was such an extraordinary journey that, after that, I felt anything was possible. During those eight days, I’d been spied on, admonished (for talking to the locals), half-pickled by the Soviet soldiers, and had neither washed nor eaten hot food. Oddly, I found it all utterly enjoyable.
I’m never quite sure which I like more, the travelling or the writing. Being on the road isn’t always a breeze. I feel culture shock very acutely – however well I’ve researched a place and however much I think I know what to expect. Very often it means that I don’t really enjoy the first week of my travels, and I just hope the feeling will pass. I also get lonely very easily. I can’t stand being by myself for more than a day or so, and begin to crave company – almost any company.
Perhaps all this is an advantage to a travel-writer. Looking back through my writing, I always seem to team up with the oddest of people; drunks, bums, philanderers, a fascist lawyer in Paraguay, bear-trappers in Labrador, and a homeless tramp in the Scottish Highlands. I remember one critic commenting that the only people I ever seemed to meet were oddballs and hucksters. Well, try being me; these are the people I meet, when I’m on the road.
The only tip I have for others will be unpopular: keep the day job. I happen to love being a barrister but it also means that I’m not dependent on my earnings as a writer. That’s quite liberating. I can write what I want, when I want – and writing is therefore (for all its ups and downs) still a joy for me. I can’t therefore imagine that there will ever be a day when I give up plodding round the courts, and that’s fine with me.
But, whether you write or not, enjoy the travel. It’s a fabulous world out there. I doubt I’ll ever lie on my death-bed wishing I’d never spent three months in the Guianas – or any of those places (although I’ll probably skip North Cyprus next time. It looks almost derelict).
To read John’s winning entry for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize of 1997, click here.