Always just enough

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Another post about the Camino Inglés that isn’t really about the Camino Inglés. It’s about railways and languages and pizza. And I’ve been thinking about all this quite a lot over the past few days, because I’ve just booked myself an InterRail pass.

To begin the Camino Inglés you have to get to either A Coruña or to Ferrol, and, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, my brother and I chose to do this by means of the overnight ferry from Plymouth to Santander and then the narrow gauge railway east to west along the north coast of Spain. This takes two days whichever way you slice it, and on both days we found the trains afflicted by service alterations.

The first was due to line upgrades, and resulted in a very enjoyable rail replacement bus journey through a string of beautiful coastal villages from Llanés to Ribadesella. The second was due to a train failure, and resulted in a rail replacement car from Navia to Ribadeo. (In the picture above you see my brother waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol.)

All this was communicated with some difficulty, given the fact that the key players were:

  • railway staff – no English
  • a cyclist at Ribadeo who was trying to go west-east – no Spanish
  • my brother – no Spanish
  • me – some Spanish

And sometimes we could just follow everyone else, but that didn’t work so well when we were the only passengers going to Ribadeo. And having to explain to the conductor on the subsequent train that the reason that our tickets had been franked was because the previous train had broken down… that was a challenge. But we managed – because, I thought, I had just enough Spanish to manage.

I’ve always felt quite strongly about learning a bit of the language of any country I’m visiting. I’ve told myself that it’s about politeness, but I think it might also be about confidence, about control, about knowing what’s going on. Anyway, I spent the three months before our departure brushing up on my Spanish, and I was glad I did.

(Castilian Spanish, that is. If Duolingo had given me an option for Gallego I’d have taken it up!)

I did most of the talking all along the route – to the hotel proprietors, to the waiters and bar staff, to the lady handing out boiled eggs to pilgrims (who spoke Spanish and Italian, and I think German). And all the way I had just enough Spanish to manage.

But at the end of the fourth day of walking – we were less than 20km from Santiago at this point, and tired – I suddenly found myself unable to remember the Spanish for ‘four’, and therefore unable to order the pizza I wanted. So my brother did it. And of course he managed. He had just enough Spanish to manage.

So did the cyclist at Ribadeo. He didn’t speak any Spanish, and the stationmaster didn’t speak any English, but between them they transmitted the idea that the train was terminating and the cyclist would have to come back in the morning. When we arrived they asked me to translate, but in fact they’d already managed it. They had just enough, even though neither of them had any.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to carry this forwards into 2018. I’m planning on brushing up my German, but even with the best will in the world, I’m not going to be able to learn enough Hungarian to reach my standards of this time last year – and I would quite like to see Budapest. I’m not going to be able to learn enough Danish or Swedish – and I’m planning to start out with Copenhagen and Stockholm. I’m just going to have to trust that what I know is going to be just enough.

2017: the year I won a Betty Trask Award

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I was in Spain when I got the news, on the way to Ferrol to start the Camino Inglés to Santiago de Compostela. My brother and I had spent all day on a very slow train from Oviedo: along the north coast, through mist and eucalyptus trees, eating bread and cheese. We’d spent the previous day on a very slow train, too, and the day before that on a ferry from Plymouth. I’d turned the data off on my phone to avoid roaming charges, and there probably wouldn’t have been any coverage anyway.

So when we were checked into the Ferrol hotel and I connected my phone to the wi-fi, all my emails came in at once. Most of them were boring. But there was one that was from Paula Johnson, and it had the subject line Betty Trask Prize.

I did not have my author hat on. I had my pilgrim hat on. I’d sent the latest draft of A Spoke in the Wheel off to my specialist editors and put it out of my mind, and so far as I was concerned Speak Its Name was minding its own business. I’d been using the literary part of my brain for reading T. S. Eliot and translating between English and Spanish. At that moment I did not know what the Betty Trask Prize was.

Then I read the email about it, and I remembered. I remembered that it was awarded to the best debut book by an author under the age of 35. I remembered putting my book in for it. And now, it seemed, my book had been shortlisted for it.

I said, ‘Holy fuck,’ and showed the email to my brother. He was equally impressed, but pointed out that the email said that this was strictly confidential. So, rather than tell anyone else, we went downstairs and had a drink in the hotel bar.

There followed six days during which I could not talk about it with anybody other than my brother, who, obviously, already knew. It was just as well that I had a walk of 116 kilometres to keep my mind off it.

We’d reached Santiago and begun our journey home again by the time the news broke. I spent a scorching Palencia afternoon watching the Twitter notifications roll in and understanding that everything had changed. I hadn’t realised what a big deal it was, what big names had won it, what big names had said very complimentary things about my book. I hadn’t realised that I would come away with an award whatever happened.

I’d brought Four Quartets with me thinking that Little Gidding would have the most to say to me (‘We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started from/and know the place for the first time’), but really The Dry Salvages seemed much more apposite:

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.

When I returned my life was different, and so was I.

*

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

I’m not quitting the day job. (I like the day job!) Sales have settled down to where they were before, and I’m still self-publishing. No contract has materialised as a result of the award, and I have to say that I’m really quite relieved about that. Going back through journal entries from the last couple of years, I’ve found at least three instances of ‘they turned me down… and it was a massive relief, because the longer I went without hearing from them, the more I knew I wanted to do my own thing!’ You’d think I’d have learned by now.

Finishing the next book has been difficult: I’ve had to keep clambering over the conviction that this one won’t and can’t be as good as the last. Perhaps it would have been difficult anyway. Second novels are notorious, after all. Certainly all the palaver around the prize slowed up the publishing process for A Spoke in the Wheel. I’d meant for it to come out in July, but I’m glad it hasn’t. The extra few months have helped me get some perspective – and get several more edits in.

Being shortlisted for the prize gave me a credibility that I hadn’t had before. But I’d already had to move beyond worrying about credibility. I had to develop a strength of belief in the quality of my own work before I was able to self-publish. Having said that, it’s been a massive ego boost. The last lingering doubts that whispered maybe Speak Its Name wasn’t as good as I thought it was… they’ve been dispelled. Gone.

And it’s made it easier to talk about being an author. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience very little scepticism or hostility regarding my self-published status, but it’s always been at the back of my mind as something that might happen. These days I can introduce myself as an author, secure in the knowledge that I’ve got one hell of a comeback if it does.

So I’m going to keep on doing my own thing. I always was going to. But it’s very good to know that my decision to do so has been vindicated.

100 untimed books: slim

12. slim
12. slim

After posting a poem about taking three ‘slim volumes’ walking with me, it seemed only appropriate to include the third (the other two are here and here).

And while I’m on the subject, I’d like to wish all pilgrims a very happy St James’ Day, and hope that anybody currently on the road has ready access to plenty of shade and water.

100 untimed books

On top of the world

Santiago de Compostela
Well, on top of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, to be precise…

 

We made it to Santiago, we had a great deal of fun along the way, and I’ll tell you all about it when I’m typing on a proper keyboard.

And I know I said that you wouldn’t be hearing much from me until I got home, but I’ve had some immensely exciting news. In fact, I’ve had to keep it quiet all the way from Ferrol, but I’ve had plenty of other things to keep my mind off it. 1 in 5 gradients, leaking boots, ordering meals without meat in Spanish. That sort of thing.

Today, however, the press release has come out, and I can tell you that I’m the first self-published author to be short-listed for the Betty Trask Prize. I’m absolutely delighted.

Off on Camino

In a couple of hours I’ll be off to a wedding. Tomorrow morning I’ll be off to Plymouth to catch a ferry to Santander with my little brother, from which we’ll catch a train to Oviedo and then another train to Ferrol, and then we’ll start walking to Santiago de Compostela.

I warmed up for the Camino with an attempt at the Isle of Wight Coast Path. I’ve done this before, in six days. I think I could have managed it in the four I had available if I’d been a bit more efficient about getting out of bed and onto a bus every morning. As it was, I managed to get about three quarters of the way round, starting at Ventnor early on Saturday and giving up at Compton Bay at half past four on Tuesday afternoon.

I’m not too disappointed that I didn’t complete the circle. I did demonstrate to myself that I can sustain a sensible pace over a period of several days, I got my rucksack to settle into a comfortable position, and I reminded myself of some valuable lessons, for example:

  • knowing when to stop
  • knowing when to stop for lunch. (If you pass a pub at 12.30pm, you damn well stop for lunch. You don’t tell yourself you’ll push on to the next town.)

Irritatingly, my boots – in which I can barely have walked a hundred miles since I bought them in the summer – broke in an invisible but uncomfortable manner at some point during the last day, resulting in a weird and worrying pain across the big toe of my right foot.

I didn’t work out until I was on the ferry back to the mainland that the problem wasn’t with my right foot, it was with my right boot. This is, on the whole, preferable. And if they had to break, I’m glad it was at the end of a practice walk and not mid way through the real thing. So I’ll be doing the Camino Inglés in a pair of boots that I bought in my first term at university, rather more than a decade ago. It was annoying to have to throw away what feels like a new pair, but walking boots in which one can’t walk are pretty much pointless, no matter how much they sound like one of the wonders of the Isle of Wight.

I’ll do  a full write up – of both walks – when I get back. In the meantime, the 100 untimed books posts are queued up for the next couple of weeks. I may or may not be posting on Instagram, depending on how good the wi-fi is out there. And my army of editors and specialists are reading A Spoke in the Wheel and checking for inaccuracies and infelicities. At least, I assume they are. I haven’t heard back from any of them yet, but then I did say I wasn’t going to be thinking about it until the end of May.

The hoopiness of this frood is in doubt

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In two weeks’ time I shall be on the ferry to Spain, and I have to confess that I still don’t know where my towel is. I’ve taken everything out of the airing cupboard, the hall cupboard, the various boxes of cycling impedimenta, the suitcases and holdalls under the bed… And put it all back again, obviously. But no towel. At least, not the towel I was looking for. The airing cupboard was, of course, full of the things, but they were all the gigantic cotton bath sheet version, which won’t do at all. I did find two other microfibre camping towels. Neither of them are mine, but I’ve been offered a loan of one of them. I weighed them both on the kitchen scales to see which to take.

I also thought I’d lost my very lightweight fleece, but it turned up at the very back of the top shelf of my wardrobe. (It’s that shapeless brown object in the photograph.)

I found my hat and my waterproof (hmm, well, but it’ll do) and my Swiss Army knife and the bandana I bought in the cathedral shop in Santiago de Compostela the last time around. (This was easy. I knew where they all were.)

Also, I tried on all the walking trousers I’ve accumulated over the years. I have one pair that fits perfectly. Everything else is either too small (the ones I wore last time I did the Camino) or too big (the ones I’ve bought since). I’m going to take the ones that fit perfectly and the ones that are too big but don’t actually fall off.

And yes, one of the objects in that photograph is not like the others. Yes, that shoe box does contain shoes. No, I’m not planning on walking 110km in kitten heels from Hobbs. But I am setting off straight after a wedding, and I thought I might as well get everything down off the top shelf of the wardrobe at once.

Two tins of tomato soup, two bottles of water, and the Oxford Companion to English Literature

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Three and a half kilograms. I’m practising for the Camino Inglés by gradually increasing the weight I carry with me when I’m out walking. That was today’s load, and the first time I’d been out with the rucksack I bought at university, which I’ve never taken on a long walk. Previously I’ve used my godmother’s rucksack, which alas is no longer in a usable state. (If anyone reading this has ever experimented with re-waterproofing the inside of a rucksack, I’d love to hear about your experience!)

There are other bits of kit on my mind: sleeping bag; socks; sticks. Do I buy new walking poles (I have no idea what’s happened to my old ones) or do I take the more picturesque but less foldable hazel staff? But the question I really need to think about at the moment is: boots? Do I use my old ones, veterans of my university years, and trust they won’t fall apart on me? Do I use the current ones, which were meant to be a stopgap and feel a bit insubstantial, and trust they won’t fall apart on me? Or do I buy a new pair? If I’m going to do that, I need to do it soon, so that I have a chance to walk them in.

At the beginning of April I’m going to spend a long weekend walking the Isle of Wight Coast Path, to get some practice in on gradients. We are severely lacking in hills in Cambridge; I’m currently making do with climbing the stairs to the top of the building I work in. Meanwhile, my brother, who’ll be joining me on the walk, has spent the last few months working at a ski resort and is probably disgustingly fit. He was disgustingly fit before he left, after all. I can console myself with the thought that my Spanish is probably better than his.

It’s been good to think of Spanish as training, too; it’s meant that when I’ve found it difficult to get out of bed (this winter, with the boomerang virus; this morning, with depression) I can do five minutes of Duolingo on my phone and still feel that I’m making progress. I can also take small, practical actions that don’t take much physical energy but that still need to be done.

On Thursday, for example, I booked the ferry tickets. And that’s a momentous proceeding. All my practice walks, all my Spanish learning and my dithering over boots; all that could just be in the interests of general self-improvement. But a ferry ticket, now, you can’t argue with that. It’s going to happen!

Crossing the meseta, a rant that isn’t really a rant, and a status update

The meseta
The meseta

The film The Way follows a baby boomer dentist, played by Martin Sheen, and some acquaintances he picks up along the way, along the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela.

I am the worst person with whom to watch it – well, me and every other returned pilgrim, I suppose – because I find it difficult to restrain myself from giving a running commentary on every building and geographical feature I recognise. And, at a little more than half way through, screaming, ‘Where’s the meseta gone?’

The meseta is the plain that takes up a lot of Castile and a significant distance of the Camino – nearly two weeks, at the speed we went. It is day after day of flat, grinding, almost featureless, path. It’s either hot and dusty, as it was when we walked it, or bitingly cold, as it will be when my brother cycles it in November. There is an awful lot of it, and it goes on, and on, and on.

You wouldn’t know this from The Way. Oh, there are some shots of cornfields and what have you, but they come nowhere near conveying the sheer thirsty tedium of the meseta. In The Way, you get the mountains at the beginning and the hills at the end, but you don’t get the long, long plain in the middle. It’s like one of those greetings cards that pulls out from both sides to reveal as much again in the middle. It’s an oddly truncated pilgrimage.

Of course, a hundred kilometres of nothing would have made The Way a very different film. Havi Brooks talks about the slow motion montage, how practice (or any repetitive activity, really) feels like you’re not getting anywhere, and how in a film it would be over in a flash, except you’d still have the sense of time passing.

In terms of the current book, I am in the middle of the slow motion montage, half-way across the meseta. Slogging away. Cranking out another hundred words, another page, another five hundred words. Catching sight of a snippet, and thinking it’s terrible. Re-reading a page, and thinking perhaps it isn’t so bad. Re-reading a chapter, and counting the holes in the fabric.

Filling the holes.

Another hundred words. Another fifty words. Another sentence.

I am beginning to see a line of hills in the distance.

I want to do that

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Unexpectedly, I had lunch with two of my brothers last Thursday. If I’d thought about them at all when I got into London on Thursday morning, I’d have assumed they would be minding their own respective business on the Isle of Wight, but I got a text message at about half past ten asking if I had any plans for lunch.

It turned out that one of them had come up to London to get ski boots fitted and, while he was in the area, to visit the Confraternity of St James and see if they had any advice on cycling the Camino de Santiago.

Why do the Camino?

When one arrives at Santiago de Compostela, one is asked to give one’s motivation for doing the Camino, choosing from religious, sporting, cultural, historical, spiritual, and so on. Well, I am a fairly religious/spiritual sort (often coming down more decidedly on one side of the balance or the other, depending on my mood), and so, when offered a choice by the pilgrim office at the cathedral, I went for that, and got my certificate in Latin. But really, I can’t claim that religious and spiritual reasons were what sent me off down that road.

Why do the Camino?

Because it’s there.

But it’s more than that – at least, it is in my experience. The Camino isn’t pure nature, pure challenge, the way that Everest is. The Camino is a human construct, human roads leading to a human city, and it’s often the human connection that draws us to it.

My brother wants to do the Camino because I did the Camino, back in 2007.

I wanted to do the Camino because a group of family friends did the Camino, back in 2000. The postcards, in Andrew’s spiky or Heloise’s scrawly handwriting, arrived over the course of several weeks, bringing with them the sense of space, of adventure, of time, and leaving me with a tiny seed of a wish.

I wanted to do that.

I did it.

The way I get into most things is by hearing somebody else talk about them, and thinking, I want to do that. I bet I could do that.

My brother wants to do the Camino. He knows about the Camino because I did the Camino, and because Andrew and Heloise and John Murray did the Camino.

I want to do the Camino again because I did the Camino before, and my greatest regret is that Anne, my companion of my last Camino, is not well enough to join me again: my best friend, who, when I said, ‘I want do do this,’ said, ‘I want to do that too,’ and came with me.

As for my other brother’s reason for coming to London? He just thought it sounded fun.