In memoriam Michael Jacobs – by Ed Vulliamy

More about the Michael Jacobs Grant for travel reporters

Prizes get named after great writers 'in memoriam', in part because we want their names to live on, to speak them each year – but mainly because to create a prize in memory of a writer is to affirm that they inspire not only readers, but others who want to write. Others who write on their slipstream, in their shadow; happily haunted by their work. Such a prize is one which recognises and rewards an act of creative tribute: writing which incorporates what the great writer achieved, work worthy of their name. Like the Orwell Prize in the name of liberty; the James Cameron Award after the great reporter on war and society; the George Polk Award after the CBS journalist murdered during the Greek Civil War; the Ryszard Kapucinski Prize after the gold standard of reportage – they carry a name, which makes them different from a prize bearing a brand like 'Orange' or 'Costa' – or even Pulitzer, who was a publishing magnate.

To be involved in a prize named in honour of the late, great Michael Jacobs is itself a great honour for me. Michael was not only a precious and irreplaceable friend, he was a life-force and a writer of his very own kind. He was known as a 'travel writer', but the journeys on which he took his readers were more than geographical voyages; they were adventures of the mind and the imagination; through works of art as well as up mountains and rivers, through history with rapacious curiosity, through paintings and places with joy, fear and food. It testifies to the impoverished soul-illiteracy of those who award 'travel writing' prizes that Michael never won one – he was too good for the pigeon-hole, too free of spirit; it wasn't that he didn't deserve the prizes, they didn't deserve him.

For that reason, we'll have a Michael Jacobs Prize. An award for work that is inventive and written well enough be inspired by Michael and the things he loved or feared, relished or laughed at – and committed to words. It should be a journey: but that could be a journey to the ends of the earth, or from the cork to the bottom of a bottle of wine; it could be up hill and down dale, or – as Bob Dylan put it – ‘through the smoke rings of your mind’. The winning prose, poetry, memoir or play would be propelled by something that is quintessentially Michael: by a love and understanding of painting, of the Italy he so adored, or of his Irish Republican and artistic ancestry – or perhaps most importantly, by his life with and love of the Hispanic world.

No one would be foolish enough to try and imitate Michael Jacobs, but the prize would go to someone whose work is infused by his, whose words can twinkle in a way that reminds us of the way Michael's eyes twinkled. Learned but democratic. Gravitas with a light touch. There is no recipe for alchemy, or the magic Michael made, the spell cast by his books. But that is what it will need, to be Travel, Michael-Class.


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