It was a privilege to judge this year’s I Must Be Off! competition, and I’d like to congratulate everybody who made it onto the long and shortlists. Every one of the final nineteen writers deserved their place, and there wasn’t a single piece that could be cast aside with an immediate ’no’.
I’m currently reading Silverland by Dervla Murphy, one of my favourite travel writers. It’s a perfect mix of sparse, lyrical description of the Siberian landscape, Russian history, Murphy's own take on the world, and her interaction with the vast and disparate array of people she encounters on her journey. And those encounters, for me, are the most captivating parts of the book. I find myself reading faster, skipping some of the less interesting history, as I anticipate her next human story.
For a travel piece to work for me there has to be a human connection, or a meaningful interaction with nature. There are some beautiful descriptive pieces on the shortlist, yet a few are missing that interaction, or don’t have a strong story, and this is the reason they didn’t make the final five. There doesn’t need to be a tale of derring-do or fast action for a piece to be successful, however there does need to be a story of some kind.
A few didn’t reach the last five simply because one cliché too many or a weak final sentence can be the difference between getting there and not making it when it’s a close race. In a short piece of writing every word counts, so it’s worth thinking a little harder to find an original adjective. The sea should never be azure, markets should never be bustling, and buildings should never nestle.
I was in no doubt about my winner after the first read-through, however choosing the other four was difficult - so difficult that there are half a dozen pieces I’d like to mention in addition to the finalists!
I really enjoyed the elegantly written and enchanting story of The Dream Palace, and the Untitled letter, which is beautifully drawn yet feels a little more like memoir than travel writing. I felt the same about So Much New York!, which is a great piece of memoir writing, engaging, witty and entertaining. I love the phrase that sums it up - ‘tourists in each other’s lives.’  The writer of India Looks Like uses stream of consciousness to great effect in conveying the country’s relentless, overwhelming bombardment of the senses.
Two pieces that just missed the final five were Long in the Devil’s Tooth and Making a Whip out of Poo in Romania.
Long in the Devil’s Tooth is an entertaining whirlwind, a great story written in a captivating and charming style. It just feels a little cluttered as it stands - the final sentence, for example, feels superfluous - yet with another edit it could be honed to perfection.
Making a Whip out of Poo in Romania - what a fabulous title! This is another evocative piece, and I felt as though I was there in the snowy Carpathians, which is how it should be. The opening paragraph is strong, and the second half of the piece - the conversation on the train between the narrator and the wonderfully drawn Elena - is well-paced and works well. However, I feel the first half is a little clunky in places and needs a few tweaks.
The three commended pieces I’ve chosen are A Fighter in the Waste, Beyond the Reef, and A Peaceful Warzone.
I really enjoyed Beyond the Reef, with its vivid and colourful description of South Pacific ocean life. However, I feel there’s an opportunity to elevate this piece further by making more use of the tension created by the appearance of the shark. As the saying goes, start with something interesting, not necessarily what happened first.
A Fighter in the Waste is the story of Marcos, a boy in a Nicaraguan orphanage, who has come from La Chureca, Central America’s largest garbage dump. The description of the dump is relentlessly grim, assaulting all the senses, yet even here there is a flicker of hope - there is still Latino pride, and the children have clean clothes. Another moving piece, filled with poignant detail.
A Peaceful Warzone achieves a satisfying balance between the human story, the description of war torn Aleppo, the frisson of tension, and the narrator’s own experience. That said, it felt a little as though I was being kept at arm’s length - although I appreciate that’s in keeping with the central theme of facade and outward appearances.
The piece I’ve chosen as runner-up, Not Your Mother’s Travel Porn, certainly didn’t keep me at arm’s length. It sweeps you up, deposits you in Africa, and then makes you question the differences and similarities between us that are perhaps not quite what we thought, and the way we see ourselves in contrast to how we are perceived by others. This piece made me think about why we travel, and question which part of what we see is a show and which part is real. What do we ever really know about other people’s lives?
Finally, the winner - a piece of writing that moved me to tears, and the story I’m still thinking about long after reading it. My Name is Mai holds nothing back, yet is sensitively written; a bleak, sometimes brutal piece about a street child in Bangkok named Mai who will never be forgotten.
The writing isn’t word perfect, and there is the odd typo here and there, but this piece is so evocative and moving that those minor errors are inconsequential. The description of Mai at the beginning of the piece, with her dulled diamond ear studs, is poignantly contrasted with the glittering studs worn by the wealthy Thai student in the closing paragraph.
The last sentence, with its double meaning, is perfect, haunting, and will strike a cord with many fellow travellers. The memory of those daily encounters with Mai still resonates down the years for the narrator, and this heartbreaking story will stay inside my head for a long time to come.


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