The Warwick Writing Prize & Skyfaring

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

I’m one of the five judges for the 2015 Warwick Prize for Writing and yes, I am a graduate of Warwick University. The panel of judges is chaired by A L Kennedy and include Robert Macfarlane, I recently read his enchanted walking book The Old Ways. It’s not my first time as a judge on a literary prize panel, I chaired the panel for the 2012 Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award.


We have 13 books to read on the Warwick longlist and the winner can be fiction, non-fiction (there’s even one book of poetry on the longlist), but there’s a theme and this year it’s ‘instinct.’ The titles are fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction (is Knausgaard’s A Man in Love – Book 2 in the My Struggle series – fiction or non-fiction, diary or autobiography or even, as the French term it, auto-fiction?). The judges had the option to nominate an additional title to add to the original 10 book longlist and I chose Skyfaring.

Well you would, I can hear somebody saying, knowing my interest in travel and aviation, but Mark Vanhoenacker’s book is a very different look at the airline, aviation and flying business. He’s not writing about the business of aviation or the technical side and what happens when things go wrong. I’ve read a number of William Langewiesche’s excellent books and articles in that field, he’s a regular writer on aviation for Vanity Fair.

What Skyfaring does and often in a quite magical fashion is bring alive the mystery, the delight, the astonishing wonder of flying. Yes, like Mr Vanhoenacker I’m a sucker for flying, just as long as I have a window seat so I can see what’s happening. He must also be the most poetic British Airways 747 pilot, even if he is still in the right hand, co-pilot’s position. In the air he’s poetic about the beauty of the world, but he’s equally adept at studying the curious situations that our ability to hurtle around the world brings home. That we can suffer from ‘place lag’ as well as ‘jet lag,’ it isn’t just our mental clocks running hours ahead or behind where we actually are it’s also the very concept of where we are at this moment. There’s a chapter – Night – on the mysteries of flying at night, how everything seems different in the dark. My most recent book posting was on Lights of Mankind, our planet as seen from space at night.

Coincidentally I’m working on an airline book and unlike Vanhoenacker, whose current flying is of the long haul intercontinental variety, I’ll be travelling and writing an hour at a time. Setting out from London, England and ending up a month or so and 20-plus flights later in Melbourne, Australia, all of it done on the ‘Low Cost Carriers’ which revolutionised air travel in recent years. I’ll be looking at the downside of air travel as well: the security hassles, the safety concerns and the ‘how much fuel are we burning’ environmental concerns.