Report from the Book Bus: new friends and old friends

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I am back on the mainland and back at my own computer, after most of a week at the Ventnor Fringe Festival, most of which I spent hanging around at the Book Bus.

I sold a few books. I wrote a few lines. But mostly I sat in a deckchair and chatted to Tom and Jen, who are in charge of the book part of proceedings (my father and brother look after the bus side of things), and to various family members and friends who were around for the week. I listened to poets and musicians. I bought some books I didn’t know I needed (a leather-bound copy of Prince Otto, which I finished in the form of a Project Gutenberg ebook a few weeks ago; an account of the Oberammergau Passion Play by Jerome K. Jerome; a Val McDermid so early it was published by the Women’s Press; a guide to the Offa’s Dyke long-distance trail).

And I reread my own book. I’m just beginning to work on the sequel to Speak Its Name, which will pick up on the action three or four years down the line, and I wanted to remind myself of what actually ended up in the book.

I knew most of what happened, of course, but I discovered that I’d got Colette’s brothers mixed up, and had given her a niece that I’d completely forgotten about. I discovered that the family dog appeared to be alive and well. I managed to distinguish the two separate parts of the Mel-and-Rose combination. I learned that Colette reads Trollope. I reminded myself of the names of all the churches in Stancester. I found that I’d already sown the seeds for one of the themes that I’m intending to develop in the sequel.

And I found myself filled with an unexpected affection for all my characters, but particularly for Colette and Lydia, who I put through hell and brought out the other side. I have found that all my major characters continue to sit in my head, and quite often I stop to think about what they would make of current affairs that affect them, but this felt rather different. This was more like sitting down with them for a long old gossip than following them on Twitter. It was lovely.

The next book will come from Colette’s point of view. I’m not planning any more Stancester books after this, but, you know, I said that last time. Either way, I’m looking forward to getting to know Colette and Lydia (not to mention Georgia, Will, and Peter) again. And it was great to have a week on a bus full of books to get things going.

Next time I’ll try not to bookend the week with the Discworld convention the weekend before and a wedding the weekend afterwards. But it was great fun, and I’ll definitely be back, so long as the bus is.

 

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Any illusions that I might have had about being the sensible one (who knew when to stop) were shattered by the third day. This was a day that would have been much improved by my stopping at Shalfleet for lunch. I didn’t, and I was miserable, although I did see some interesting things. Consequently, the first half of this post is mostly pictures.

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The Round House, from the Round House bus stop

I started out with a bus trip, of course, back to the Round House where we’d caught the bus home yesterday, and found my way back down to the seafront at Gurnard. The coast along this first stretch was not spectacular, with low earthy banks sloping gently down towards the sea, but there were interesting things to see: woolly black sheep; a fox; dwellings made from railway carriages. It was when I went inland that things got tedious.

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The north-east coast of the Isle of Wight, as seen from somewhere east of Gurnard

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Woolly black sheep

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Railway carriage house

 

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There was lots of this stuff about. I don’t know what it is. No doubt someone on the internet can and will tell me.

The trouble with the north-west coast of the Isle of Wight is that there’s a lot that has to be got around. There’s the Ministry of Defence land at Porchfield (which meant interminable road walking for me) and then there are all the creeks and swamps that go into the Newtown River. In between the two there is Shalfleet, where I should have stopped. Instead, I pressed on along paths and duckboards towards Bouldnor, hating everything. Particularly myself.

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Bluebells at Newtown

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Walked around the edges of a whole lot of this

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Sometimes I could just go straight across it, but not often

I’d meant to lunch in Yarmouth. And so I did. At half past four. I considered going on to the Needles, but thought it better not to take my bad mood along one of my favourite stretches of path. So I wandered around the town a little bit and then took the bus home.

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Stained glass window in St James’, Yarmouth, showing St James and St Paul

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Embroidered panel in St James’, Yarmouth, showing St James as a pilgrim

It occurred to me that it was possible that on my previous Coast Path walk I’d managed a five-day walk in six days, rather than (as I’d thought) a four-day walk in five. This being so, I was unlikely to manage the whole thing in four days. I decided that this didn’t really matter. I’d already walked the entire circumference before, and this was really an exercise in knowing when to stop.

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The Solent from the front at Yarmouth

The westernmost tip of the Isle of Wight is always beautiful, and on a sunny day it’s glorious. I got the bus back out to Yarmouth and set out westwards. After a quarter of a mile or so alongside the beach the Coast Path heads up and a little way inland into Fort Victoria Country Park. Wide paths slope upwards through woodland, and eventually a narrower one pulls you up above the tops of the trees, and the Solent is there, now with the context of Hurst Castle and the Hampshire coast on the far side.

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Hurst Castle from the top of Fort Victoria Country Park

I pressed on along a shore that was always changing and would always change, through sleepy Totland and down to the sea again, past the sad remains of its pier; up, along the springy turf and the gorse bushes of Headon Warren. The gorse was out in exuberant bloom and alive with bees: no question about whether kissing was in fashion at the moment.

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Kissing: still in fashion

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Towards the Needles

At the Needles Park I stopped for an ice cream, feeling sweaty and unkempt and wildly out of place among those who had come to ride on the chairlift and fill jars with coloured sands, although of course it was unlikely that I was the only walker there that day, or even that minute.

I kept going westwards, still higher, climbing the road where only the buses and the pedestrians go, and seeing the sea blue far below me, and the white crumbling chalk of the path, and the grass dotted yellow with cowslips.

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Sea pinks

I went as far west as you can without paying to get into the Needles Old Battery, and took a superficial look at the rocket launch site and the coastguard station. Then I turned east again, climbing a steep path up past the coastguards’ cottages and towards Tennyson Down.

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The south-west coast from Tennyson Down

I heard, and then saw, skylarks rising up from the long grass: the first time that I could remember. I kept on up towards the Tennyson memorial. The grass was very short here, by contrast, cropped close by cattle. Up and up, and over and down the other side: it was a lovely walk, but for the lingering spectre of the Last Bus. I didn’t really want to have to cut things short at Freshwater Bay, but if I went any further along the south-west coast and the Military Road then I’d be off the route of the regular service buses and would have to time things carefully so as to be sure of catching the once-daily-in-each-direction Coaster.

All the same, I stopped in a café for a sit down and a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar before I committed.

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Freshwater Bay, looking back towards the west

At the eastern end of the beach I met a whole party of walkers coming the other way. I had to wait for them at the bottom of the steps. 19, they said. I didn’t count them. After a sharp climb up, I was walking parallel with the road and watching the coast unfolding in front of me, bay after bay.

I did my best to ignore a dull pain in my toes. There were other things to think about. An adder, slithering out of the way before I reached the bottom of the steps down from road level. Cows. (I was more worried by the cows.) And where to stop. I thought about pushing on to Isle of Wight Pearl, but there are public lavatories and an ice cream van at Compton Bay, and both were worth stopping for.

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Waiting at Compton Bay

I got the bus home, and left the southernmost points unwalked. In fact, I’d walked around about as much of the Island in actual size as I had around the paddling pool. Coincidence, of course. Wasn’t it?

 

Next time: a family wedding; we actually set foot in Spain, crossing it in two trains; and what’s going on with that pain in the toes? Probably more photos, too.

See you on the Book Bus

2013 May 232

Later this week I’ll be back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe, an independent arts festival that turns every conceivable nook and cranny in this delightfully higgledy-piggledy Victorian resort into a performance space. Ventnor is possibly my favourite town in the entire country, but I have never yet managed to make it down there for the Fringe. Until now.

You may well find me in the Book Bus in St Catherine’s churchyard, where I’ll have copies of both my books on sale. (Mine are new. Everything else on there is second hand.) The bus (which is the one in the picture above) will be there all week, and is open from 10am to 6pm; I have to eat and sleep and would quite like to see some of the other events as well, so I can’t guarantee that I’ll necessarily be there when you happen to turn up. But hey, it’s a bus full of books; you don’t need me to be around to have a whale of a time there.

All this talk of independent events reminds me of an initiative I came across via Twitter this week, Just A Card. The idea is that if everybody who came into a [studio/craft shop/art gallery/bookshop] bought ‘just a [card/brooch/fridge magnet/book]’, that establishment would be able to remain in business for rather longer than it would otherwise.

Obviously I’m not advocating filling your house up with useless crap that you hate, particularly not if money’s tight; but if you find something cheap and pleasing, something that you think that a friend or family member might appreciate even if it’s not your thing, then buying it might go a little way to keeping an independent business going.

(Connoisseurs of British seaside towns may legitimately point out that this is obviously Brighton, not Ventnor. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the bus in Ventnor, although by this time next week I almost certainly will have fixed that.)

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

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The English Channel, looking moody

I went down to the Isle of Wight to walk the Coast Path over the long weekend of the May bank holiday. This was cutting things a bit fine, and I didn’t really have a plan for what I would do if I discovered that I wasn’t up to a long walk. I didn’t think too hard about that. The Isle of Wight is, quite literally, home turf; I know its footpaths and byways better than I know those of any other county. It was where I first discovered the sanity-saving practice of walking, and the combination of a familiar landscape and a moderately challenging parcours would make the perfect warm-up.

I took a train straight down from London on the Thursday evening, and started out walking from Ventnor the next morning. My mother accompanied me as far as the seafront. I walked around the edge of the paddling pool, which has a concrete map of the Isle of Wight in the centre. Perhaps I was setting an intention on the micro scale to work through on the macro scale or some woowoo like that. I didn’t walk all the way round, which, considering how things worked out, might suggest that there’s more to the woowoo than I’d first thought.

I set out eastwards along the sea wall; I’d decided to go anticlockwise around the Island, as I had on my previous Isle of Wight Coast Path attempt. Some public benefactor has set up a scale model of the Solar System along the coast between Bonchurch and Ventnor. I counted off paces between planets. The sun is about the size of a football, an orange-painted sphere springing up from the end of the railing. Shortly afterwards the path heads away from the sea, up the cliff, over a delightful little stream with wild garlic blooming on its banks, and past St Boniface Old Church. I looked in. It’s a lovely church: ancient, tiny, and set apart from hustle and bustle, even more than the rest of the Isle of Wight, even more than the rest of Bonchurch.

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Hartstongue and ivy underfoot at the Landslip

The sun was trying to break through as I kept on eastwards, and managing it in selected patches on the sea. I lost sight of the sea when I plunged into the tangled vegetation of the Landslip. I don’t think I’d ever walked through there in spring before. It was lovelier than ever, erupting in green, with intensely purple bluebells – possibly they weren’t bluebells at all. I followed the path up and down and up again, picking my way through tree roots and flights of worn steps, emerging at last between brick walls at Dunnose. I headed on past sprawling Victorian hotels into Shanklin.

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Extreme blueness

The great thing about going anticlockwise is that at Shanklin one goes down the steps that run between the clifftop and the beach, not up them. I stayed on the seawall all the way to Sandown out of sheer laziness: I couldn’t be bothered to find where the route goes inland. Besides, I thought, if one’s walking a coast path one might as well stick as close to the sea as possible.

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Black-headed gull on the beach at the foot of the Shanklin steps

I bought and ate Turkish Delight ice cream from the children’s activity centre on Shanklin seafront, which didn’t seem to be doing a huge amount of business otherwise. When I got into Sandown it was just about lunchtime, so I sat in a café and waited for their fryer to heat up, then ate chips before heading off on the long climb north-east to Yaverland and Culver. All day it had been getting steadily brighter, and by the time I reached the top of Bembridge Down there was brilliant sunshine.

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Looking south and west from Culver

This took me about as far east as it was possible to get; now I turned the corner of the island and went around the edge of the harbour at Bembridge, picking my way across the causeway and then moving a little way inland along the edges of fields. Unlike the last time I’d walked the Isle of Wight Coast Path, I managed not to get lost around the Priory Bay Hotel: there was some sort of organised run going the other way and lots of little pink flags marking the route. I had to stand out of the way of runners every so often.

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Bembridge Harbour

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Also Bembridge Harbour

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Crossing the causeway

I ate another ice cream – rum and raisin, this time – in a stiff breeze at Seaview. After that I thought I might as well push on to Ryde, where I had a better choice of buses, so I followed the sea wall around the edge of Puckpool Park. That meant more concrete, and my knees and the soles of my feet didn’t like it much. But the bus home to Ventnor was a nice forty-five minutes’ sit-down.

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The magnificently appalling Appley Tower

I ended up setting much later than I’d meant on the second day. I was just about to leave without John when he got up and wanted to come, and then we were about to miss another bus so delayed another half hour…

We messed around a bit buying snacks (vegan for John) in the Sainsbury’s at Ryde, then got going properly. We admired the magnificent Victorian houses on the way out of town, with their cupolas and their barge boarding and their fish scale tiles. We admired the lodges and the more modern houses on the way into Quarr, and debated a bit as to whether one of them had been on Grand Designs and, if so, which.

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A Quarr lodge

We talked to a jolly old buffer working in his front garden; he told us that at one point in the 19th century house prices in Ventnor outstripped those of central London. We stopped in the grounds of Quarr Abbey to look at the pigs; the previous time I’d done the Coast Path there were piglets as well, but not this time.

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Quarr Abbey

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A Quarr Abbey pig, reclining

It started raining at Wootton Bridge. This was at least an excuse to try my new waterproof trousers. John had the sort of poncho that’s basically an oversized binbag. On the way up through the housing estate above Wootton Bridge we met one of John’s colleagues, who was rather horrified by the state of his face and then caught him up on all the workplace gossip.

After that it was a long, long descent towards Whippingham, walking on the road all the way. A little way down the road I lost the vision in my right eye so stopped to take my jumper off and wait to be able to see again. This had been happening intermittently ever since I trapped a nerve in my neck the previous summer, and seemed to be associated with overheating. (Some months later, I took it to the GP, who had never seen anything like it, and referred me to a consultant, who had, and told me that it is fairly common in, I quote, ‘young people’. It had been a while since anybody had called me a young person.)

We met many cyclists coming the other way, some coping better with the hill than others. This was the beginning of a long tedious traipse into Whippingham (no pavement, a lot of criss-crossing the road to be on the safer edge of blind bends) and then East Cowes (pavement alongside main road). It was boring and, given the unforgiving surface, painful. I promised myself that I never had to do it again, and that I wouldn’t.

We stopped for lunch at one of the fish and chip restaurants in East Cowes. The floating bridge was out of action, so we were ferried across the Medina in a little launch called the Jenny Lee. It had stopped raining by this point but was still pretty gloomy. Having taken my waterproof trousers off, I managed to sit in a pool of leftover rain.

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Aboard the Jenny Lee

West Cowes seemed yachtier than ever. We went on along the sea wall as far as Gurnard, at which point we got the map out, engaged in some posturing about being able to go on if the other wanted to, and I finally called it in favour of giving up. This was, I thought, a useful data point for the Camino. I hoped there would be less road walking. We called on John’s local bus knowledge (he has driven a lot of Isle of Wight buses, on and off over the years) and walked up to the nearest bus stop and went home.

 

Next time: the rest of the Isle of Wight Coast Path – or is it? Will the paddling pool woowoo be too strong? Have valuable lessons been learned? How many more photographs of the Channel and the Solent can there possibly be?

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

The first time I heard about the Camino Inglés was when I was about to set off on the Camino Frances in the early spring of 2007. The credencial – pilgrim passport – issued by the Confraternity of Saint James had on the inside back cover a map of the various pilgrim routes across Spain. At the time, of course, I was interested in the one running due east all the way across the map from the French border. Almost a decade later –

‘What’s that little short one?’ I asked.

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‘That little short one’ was the Camino Inglés, and there was a reason for its being short. The English pilgrims would take a ship to the ports of Ferrol or A Coruña and head south. Considering the conditions of medieval ships, this would probably have been just as penitential as doing the whole thing on foot, the way that continental pilgrims could.

These days, the Camino Inglés is one for the connoisseurs. Short – too short (if starting at A Coruña) or only just long enough (if starting at Ferrol) to get the compostela, the certificate of completion and ticket to heaven – but none the less intense. I ordered a guidebook from the Confraternity and looked at the profile and distances with some horror. On the Camino Frances, we’d aimed to walk between fifteen and twenty kilometres every day. The Camino Inglés would call for days of up to twenty-nine kilometres, and steep with it.

When I walked the Camino Frances, I was twenty-one, had finished university with some of my student loan left over (that was just about possible, back then) and hadn’t started work yet. There was no reason on earth why I shouldn’t take seven weeks to walk five hundred miles. A decade on, and gainfully employed, seven weeks was out of the question: anything more than a fortnight required special permission from my line manager.

I’d considered the idea of walking a long Camino in stages, and discarded it again. It hadn’t worked for me on the Pilgrims’ Way (in fact, I’ve yet to make it any closer to Canterbury than Hollingbourne) and the complications of all those extra transfers out and back were too daunting. Plus, I suspected that for me it wouldn’t feel like a Camino. But the five days of the Camino Inglés had definite possibilities.

My brother John volunteered to join me on the walk. This was equal parts reassuring (while I’m not scared of travelling on my own, I wasn’t going to turn down the company) and daunting: John was a lot fitter than me, and had cycled the Camino Frances all the way from Mont-St-Michel the previous autumn. I was worried about keeping up with him, particularly after I, along with half the country, went down with a debilitating and depressing virus in January. I spent a lot of time lying on the sofa bed looking up at the scallop shell which I’d suspended from the curtain rail, and teaching myself more Spanish from Duolingo.

As I recovered, I assigned myself a regime of walks, increasing distance and increasing weight carried. To compensate for the notorious flatness of the Cambridgeshire terrain, I included an optimistically daily climb up the stairs to the top floor of my office. I actually managed an average of three times per week or so. I planned a circuit of the Isle of Wight Coast Path to get some more gradients into my legs, and then over-committed myself and postponed it.

I made kit lists and compared them with what I actually possessed. I considered the relative merits of the two rucksacks in my possession, and compared them both with the third option: buying a new one. There was the one that I’d taken when I walked the Camino Frances and St James’ Way, which fitted like a dream (at least once I’d got the straps adjusted correctly) but whose lining was collapsing into flakes; there was the one I’d got at university, which I’d never taken on a serious walk and which didn’t have anything impressive in the way of support; or there was the off-putting hassle of going to a shop and making a decision and spending another seventy quid. In the end I invested in a whole lot of waterproof bags and went with the one I knew I could carry.

I booked train tickets and ferry tickets and hotel rooms; I made the whole thing fit around my stepsister-in-law’s wedding and my father’s 75th birthday party.

Meanwhile, John was cycling home from his winter job in a ski resort in the French Alps. His Strava updates showed long distances and hours in the saddle, crossing off swathes of France. I worried some more about whether I’d be able to keep up with him.

Then he came off his bike. A very gory photo on Facebook told part of the story; a phone call from my mother supplied the rest of the details. He’d made it all the way to Lisieux before a stick got caught in his front wheel and brought the whole thing to an abrupt and bloody stop.

‘Will he still want to do the Camino?’ I asked, when we’d established that the only lasting damage would be cosmetic.

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I should think so.’

He did.

 

Happy St James’ day, to anybody celebrating it! I’m going out for tapas tomorrow.

This is the first of a series of blog posts chronicling my experiences on the Camino Inglés in May 2017. Next time: part of the Isle of Wight Coast Path, and a lot more photographs.

Upstaged! anthology out today

Prima Donna

I’m very pleased to say that Upstaged!: an anthology of women who love women in performing arts is available now, and that it contains my story Prima Donna. It’s a delightful selection of short stories published by Supposed Crimes, who specialise in F/F fiction across a variety of genres.

The ‘performing arts’ in question are many and varied – my story is (of course) about opera, while others feature panto, silent film, burlesque, plays and musicals.

The genres are many and varied, too. We have steampunk, sci-fi, romance, slice-of-life, and straight (or not-so-straight) historical. Settings range from the 1830s to the far future, from Broadway to New Helsinki. Not all the stories will be to everyone’s taste – that’s the nature of such a diverse collection – but all the same I think there is something in there for everyone.

There’s an interview with me about the inspiration for Prima Donna and about my future projects over at the publishers’ site today.

As for the book itself, here it is at Amazon.com…

… at Amazon.co.uk…

… at Kobo…

… at Smashwords…

… at Barnes & Noble

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Learning, past, present and future: judging the UNISON writing competition

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Last month I had the very great privilege of announcing the winner of UNISON’s first-ever creative writing competition at National Delegate Conference in Brighton.

I’d never judged anything before, and this was an enjoyable, if intimidating, place to start. We’d asked entrants to work with the theme of ‘Learning: past, present, and future’. My fellow judges were Genevieve Clarke, from The Reading Agency, Andrew Jennison, UNISON learning rep at De Montfort University and mastermind of the #DMUReads scheme, and Kirsi Kekki, Policy Officer for English and maths learning at Unionlearn.

Reading through all the entries was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and rereading and deliberating over my choices occupied my mind for the next couple of weeks. Names were removed, along with other identifying information, before the entries were passed to the judges. There were also a couple of genuinely anonymous entries, which we couldn’t consider. I took a look at those, too, out of interest, and I think one of them might have made the final six if it had only been sent in with a name attached. The moral of that is: be brave!

Interestingly enough, deciding on the winner was easy. There was only one entry that all four of us had on our own personal shortlists. It was agreeing on the rest of the shortlist that was difficult. Some of us had firm favourites that didn’t appear at all on others’ lists. And I certainly looked at a couple of other lists, saw entries that I hadn’t included, and said, ‘Yeah, good point…’ Writing is such a subjective thing to judge; readers’ tastes vary so much. At least, ours did!

What made the winning entry stand out from the rest of the field? In a word, consistency. Conservative Party Conference 2050 started strongly, with an attention-grabbing burst of onomatopoeia, and it never faltered. It built on that with a rousing testament to the power of learning, and finished with a twist that had more than one of us laughing out loud. There isn’t a weak word in it.

As for the rest of the shortlist, we tended to favour pieces that took risks, or that went in a slightly different direction from the obvious. Petrichor, for example, was the only entry that had a narrator who wasn’t human.

Three personal accounts of learning made it into the final shortlist, reflecting a heavy weighting of entries with that theme. However, one of those, A Teacher Prepares, was written from a teacher’s point of view rather than a student’s, and another, Learning: a love story, drew the theme of learning into all aspects of the writer’s life with rueful, self-deprecating humour.

With all that said, There, Inside Of Me didn’t try anything fancy, just told the poet’s own learning story in a few well-chosen words. And we had a few submissions involving post-apocalyptic visions of education; of these, A Different Class stood out because of its strong worldbuilding and bleak humour.

I got to announce the shortlist and the winner. My colleague Clair got to read the winning entry out, and had far too much fun pretending to be a Tory MP.

I very much enjoyed being a judge, although it did tie up more of my work time than I’d expected. Out of curiosity, I went Googling to see how the real pros do it. This is what one of the 2014 Man Booker Prize judges said:

All six judges read 156 books submitted by 94 publishing imprints, and argued about them. That sentence makes this part sound rather breezy. For just over six months, I read a novel a day.

Whew. Reading that, I’m very glad that we imposed a 1500 word limit on our competition.