Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

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

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

It’s at this point that I apologise to those readers who are here for the walking, because I am mostly going to talk about ferries and trains. If you aren’t interested in train journeys, then you should definitely avoid my series about my Grand Tour, which is coming up in six months or so. For the moment, however, you can skip this post and come back next week for the actual Camino Inglés.

On the catamaran back across the Solent I realised that the pain in my foot was not due to any injury; some part of the structure of my boot had cracked across the top, and was digging in with every step. I had no time to get new boots, let alone walk new boots in, so I resorted to the pair I’d bought in my first year at university.

My stepsister-in-law was getting married in Leighton Buzzard. My father was holding a 75th birthday party in Itchen Abbas. In between the two my brother John and I were walking the Camino.

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These shoes were not made for walking, really.

I constructed an elaborate packing plan across my rucksack and a suitcase, and smiled at the contrast between their contents. Walking boots versus kitten heels; waterproof rolltop bags versus satin clutch; thick socks versus white gloves. My husband hired a car to get us from Cambridge to Dunstable, and from Dunstable to the church, and back to the hotel for the reception (at which I tried a grapefruit-flavoured gin, and didn’t think much of it). And in the morning he took me to Luton station, and I took the train to St Pancras, and then another one from Paddington to Plymouth.

I met John at Plymouth station, together with a friend of his who at that time happened to be living in a camper van on Dartmoor, and we walked down to the port. At this point we had well over an hour to spare before we had to check in to the ferry, so we stopped for lunch at a yachtie place called The Dock. This was appropriate, as the service was laughably slow. Also appropriate was the item on the bill that read ‘BAD/HOUMUS’. The boys, being vegan, both ordered bread, houmus and taramasalata without the taramasalata. They were given the option of double houmus. The order took a very long time to arrive and then it came with taramasalata.

We were five minutes late checking in, which wouldn’t worry me at all on an Isle of Wight ferry, but which made me a little twitchy given the need for passport and security checks. It was fine, really.

The Pont-Aven was the sort of ferry that wants to be a cruise ship when it grows up, and we felt a bit scruffy with our giant rucksacks. The last time I’d done the Camino we’d crossed from Portsmouth to Caen, and skimped on such luxuries as bunks. This time round, a decade older and richer and wiser, I’d booked a cabin and everything. We sat in the bar and listened to a jazz band who were travelling to a festival in Santander, as the sun set over the sea.

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Sunset from the Pont-Aven

And when they sell rum called Saint James, there is really only one possible response. Mojito.

We retired at a relatively early hour, but I went up on deck at about 11pm to see if I could see anything of France. Not from the port side I couldn’t, but the lighthouse on Ushant was very visible, a double flash every four seconds, the very last flush of the sunset above it, and the moon waxing over the other side.

The next morning I woke up some time before John, and got up to see if I could find breakfast and see dolphins. I spent breakfast eavesdropping on my fellow Britons and thinking that the Brexit vote wasn’t such a surprise. They were whingeing about the breakfast, the price, quality, and quantity thereof. But I forgave them when they pointed out my first dolphins.

I saw three separate groups of dolphins in the end: the first through the ferry window at breakfast; then three side by side quite soon after we went up on deck to look for them specifically, and then, after a very long time in the wind staring at the sea and seeing nothing beyond the rainbows in the spray, just as we were about to give up and go down to pack up, one of the other people watching pointed out a group of six or seven, travelling at right angles to the ship and leaping right out of the water. They seemed quite small and almost luminous in the morning sunlight.

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From the station at Santander

In Santander we put our watches forward, which was ridiculous given how far west we were intending to end up, and ate lunch at Café Royalty, where I’d last been ten years before with Anne. The translation of the menu had improved somewhat in the meantime. Then we wandered around the town, poking our noses into shops and covered markets, and looking at street installations meant to show the devastation caused by the fire of 1941. There was also a monument to a ship explosion of1893, and a preserved air raid shelter from the Civil War. We would have gone to look at that, but it was closed. Eventually, being hot and tired, we brought some provisions for the train and went to wait at the station.

We’d previously stopped there to buy the tickets, where my first proper Spanish conversation in a decade had amounted to ‘You know it doesn’t leave until ten past four?’ We did know, and we got the train at ten past four. But I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to understand about the rail replacement bus service between Llanés and Ribadesella, and, once we’d worked out that was what the guard was talking about, I spent some time in a state of nervous panic before seeking clarification.

Between what the guard told me, logic, John’s memory of the train he’d been on last time, and some signs along the way, we worked out that the reason for the bus was the electrification of that stretch of line. The bus took us through some spectacular coastal villages. I was struck once again with an impracticable desire to walk the Camino del Norte. The bus driver clearly knowing everyone, telling one passenger to give his regards to his mother, and stopping at another point for a through-the-window conversation with an older man.

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View of the railway, from the rail replacement bus

We ate bread and cheese once back on the train (electric, this one). John had downgraded his veganism to vegetarianism for the duration of this Camino. On his previous trip along this stretch of railway he went all the way from Ferrol to Santander in a day, and didn’t bring anything to eat. We stopped for the night in Oviedo, staying in Hotel Favila, blessedly close to the station. After checking in we wandered around the city, and found very little going on. We concluded that either we’d been lied to all our lives about the Spanish nightlife, or that nothing happens on Mondays, or that nothing happens in Oviedo.

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Oviedo bendybus

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Spiritual succour, 24/7

The next morning it was more lively, and we got further, too, into the old town and the university quarter. They were setting up the market when we went there; the night before all the cafés were clearing up, sweeping the floors and stacking the chairs. After the market we worked our way back, through a park with mighty and dark trees. Where Santander does memorials to tragedies, Oviedo does sculpture. Every other street, every other crossing, a statue or a concept piece or a fountain.

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Oviedo breakfast

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Exploring Oviedo

We walked out towards the suburbs and back towards the station. We checked out of the hotel and drank thick, rich, hot chocolate from little cups in holders shaped like scallop shells.

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Hot chocolate

We kept finding ourselves on the Camino, mostly by standing on the pavement being indecisive for too long. Locals saw our rucksacks and directed us in what they assumed was the right direction. In Santander, we’d been accosted by a woman handing out business cards for a hostel on the Camino del Norte. Now, in Oviedo, having an hour or so to spare before our train, we thought we might as well go with it, and we followed the Camino Primitivo for half a mile or so. As far as a bridge over the FEVE line, at which point John saw a bridge a little further down that interested him, a sort of suspension bridge-cum-roundabout, so we went to look at that, and then turned back – and had to explain that no, we weren’t lost, we were going to catch a train to Ferrol.

We found our way back and drank coffee in Café Uría (because it was opposite the station and had a picture of a bicycle on the window) – then caught the train.

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North Spanish coastline, seen from the train

Two hours into the second leg, and the scenery was a sequence of tunnels and steep valleys, eucalyptus trees, viaducts of various ages, hairpin bends a long way beneath us, horreos, houses with shallow roofs of red tiles and yellow plaster walls; maps of the Camino in tiles on the walls of the station buildings; shells here and there. Very occasionally, we glimpsed the sea out to the north.

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Waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol

The second rail replacement in as many days (a car this time, not a bus) took us from Navia to Ribadeo. A few kilometres east of Galicia, it started to rain; then a yellowish mist rolled down. I read Four Quartets, and decided that I was growing tired of fog and eucalyptus trees. We could go back the other way, via Palencia.

Checking into the hotel at Ferrol, we found ourselves behind three Japanese men in their sixties – obviously pilgrims, and well-organised ones at that. They had plastic folders with step by step (not quite literally) instructions. As the week went on, we would discover that they rose early, walked fast, and enjoyed themselves when they got to the night’s destination. For the moment, though, we were mostly concerned with getting the key to our room.

There was wi-fi. There usually is, these days. The last time I did the Camino my phone had a screen of three square inches and if you wanted to get on the internet you had to hope there’d be a public access computer in your albergue. This was, no doubt, an excellent spiritual discipline, but in the year of Our Lord 2017 it turned out that daily internet access was a blessing.

Because when I connected my phone to the wi-fi in that hotel and my emails started rolling in, it turned out that Speak Its Name had been shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and the Society of Authors needed a biography, a photograph, and six copies of the book, all of which would have been very difficult to organise without the internet. Not that I did any organising that night. We went down to the bar and drank beer and red wine, and I was very glad that I had one hundred and sixteen kilometres of walking ahead of me to keep me distracted through the embargo.

Next time: we start walking the Camino Inglés. I promise.

A Grand Tour

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If we’re talking cycling (and we probably are, aren’t we?) a Grand Tour is one of the three big ones: the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta a España, or, of course, the Tour de France. Ben, the – hero? anti-hero? narrator, anyway – of A Spoke in the Wheel, never got quite good enough to ride one of those.

If, however, we’re talking travel, a Grand Tour is a circuit of Europe undertaken by the privileged youth of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before they had to settle down and be grown up, sometimes taking several years.

I couldn’t swing more than three weeks off work, but I am spending my Betty Trask prize money going InterRailing. When you read this, I’ll be somewhere between Brussels and Hamburg, assuming no undue disruption from the SNCF strike, of course. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home. (I am aware that I said this about the Camino Inglés. I’m still going to tell you all about that.)

And three weeks from now I’ll have a book to share with you, too. We’ll have a blog tour. A grand one.

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.

Second novel syndrome

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I thought I’d escaped second novel syndrome. By the time my first novel was out, I already had the first words of the second novel queuing up in my head, clamouring to be written down.

Speak Its Name didn’t make much of a splash, and that was something of a blessing. I was able to keep plugging away at A Spoke in the Wheel, here a word, there a paragraph, and by about April I had something that resembled a first draft.

Then I won a Betty Trask Award. And that was amazing and brilliant, and I am at this moment planning to spend my prize money on an epic Interrail trip around Europe, but it hasn’t half given the monsters a lot to talk about.

Here is a sample of some monster views on A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • this one’s not going to win you any awards, you know
  • it’s not as good as Speak Its Name
  • it is NEVER going to be as good as Speak Its Name
  • and everyone who reads both will know that and you will DISAPPOINT THEM
  • you’re a one-hit wonder
  • everyone who was impressed by the award? NOT IMPRESSED ANY MORE!
  • you have to create a COHERENT BRAND!!!
  • write what you know!!! why are you not WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW???

But that’s monsters for you. They don’t want you putting a substandard product out there, because then PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU.

And you know, it’s a reasonable point, if only they could make it without all the screaming. Nobody wants me to put a substandard product out there.

What I’d forgotten – what I always forget, every time – was that I’d been here before. I’d already run into moments of self-doubt, several times over the course of writing that first draft. I’d always been able to talk myself out of them. I thought this time was different, that this time it really was going to turn out to be unsalvageable.

That always happens, too. I always think it’s going to be unsalvageable, and it never is.

Second Novel Syndrome was only a recurrence of what had happened during the writing of the first. It’s always the same. I get a horrible sense of its not being good enough.

Then I see what’s wrong with it.

Then I see how to fix it.

And then I remember that all that the yelling really means is this:

It isn’t finished yet.

Three links

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Firstly, an interview with crime writer Don Massenzio. You can read my thoughts on ego (and why it’s necessary to have one), the pseudonym I’ll probably never use, and who I’d like to invite for dinner in the name of musicological research. It’s all here: Perfect Ten with Kathleen Jowitt

Secondly, the Society of Authors have put up a link to a recording of the Authors Awards ceremony from June. If you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, the presentation of the Betty Trask Prize and Awards can be heard beginning at 08:14, with specific reference to Speak Its Name at 13:20. But I’m really linking it for Ben Okri’s absolutely stonking speech, which begins at 25:35. Highly recommended for any author who occasionally (or often) finds themself wondering what the point of it all is…

Thirdly, I’ve now set up a Facebook page for me and my works. If you use Facebook for that sort of thing, wander over here and give me a like.

 

The Authors’ Awards

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On Tuesday evening, after much fretting over whether my shoes were classy enough for the Army & Navy Club, I headed across London to the Authors’ Awards.

As you can see from the photograph, I came away with a Betty Trask Award (and a cheque for £3000, not pictured).

The winner of the Betty Trask Prize was Daniel Shand, and very well-deserved. Fallow is a seriously good book, funny and creepy and very difficult to put down. Actually, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of the books on the shortlist. They’re all very different from each other, but they’re all of a very high quality.

I got to meet four of my five fellow shortlistees, and they’re all lovely people. In fact, everybody I talked to was absolutely charming. I was half-expecting some snottiness about my being self-published, but in fact my having got so far under my own steam seemed to impress people. And what people! Names that I knew from my bookcase and from my Twitter feed turned out to belong to real live human beings. I tried not to gush too much…

There was wine. There was water. There were little canapés, though I was too nervous to eat much at all. My book was for sale on a table with other people’s books! (Since all my books are sold via print-on-demand, this was something that I’d never seen before, and if I was being flippant I’d say that it did almost as much for my self-esteem as the fact that I was there to receive a very prestigious award…)

Ben Okri, who presented the prizes, gave a speech that affirmed the role of the writer as a person who touches truth, ‘the mystery and the miracle’, and talked about the way that a prize gives you ‘the quiet strength to go on being crazy’. Certainly that resonates with my experience so far…

Well, here’s to the mystery and the miracle that is writing. Tuesday evening, whether it turns out to have been my fifteen minutes of fame or the beginning of the rest of my life, was an event I’ll never forget. And my shoes were fine.