I only found out when someone mentioned it on Twitter a few hours ago, that today’s the anniversary of Patrick Leigh Fermor setting out on his epic foot journey to Constantinople. It’s rather pleasing, because I was thinking about PLF a lot when I was planning the journey on which I picked up this dragon.
My Grand Tour in 2018 was rather less epic than PLF’s journey. I only had three weeks to get it done in, though my budget was probably quite a bit more generous, courtesy of the Betty Trask Award. Going by train, I got some impressive mileage in. I didn’t get invited to stay in any castles, though I did end up having dinner with a coloratura soprano in Vienna.
But that’s by the by.
I loved Ljubljana, in much the same way as I loved Bratislava: they’re both capital cities that haven’t been capitals all that long; they’re easy to walk around, and hard to get lost in. Bratislava had the better food, and a cathedral with a wonderful eighteenth century St Martin in a pellisse. And trams.
But Ljubljana has dragons. They guard one of the famous bridges; there’s a legend about a dragon and Jason, of Argonauts fame. And actually there was some very good cake, too. And bendybuses. And a funicular.
I went to Ljubljana because two separate friends, both far more experienced than me in the art of adventure, recommended it. That was how I planned a lot of the journey: recommendations from people who knew what they were doing; places I’d always wanted to go to; things that looked good in Europe By Rail. A bit of wiggle room for emergencies, or just in case I wanted to change my mind. (I did, a couple of times.)
But all the time I was planning it I had to get around a voice in my head that was trying to tell me that this was the last fun thing, before… Before what? Well, before Brexit, before whatever horrors the next US election were going to inflict upon the world, before I lost my nerve.
And had Patrick Leigh Fermor, tramping across Europe and seeing the rise of Nazism on the ground, got into my head? Had Patrick Leigh Fermor, looking back on the adventures of his youth from the bitter experience of sixty-something (and a world war), managed to scare me, betwixt and between at the age of thirty-two, out of going? No: he was half the reason I wanted to go at all.
I can’t say that I saw a global pandemic coming. Sometimes the voice in my head tells me that it told me so.
But it wasn’t the last fun thing. It wasn’t even the last continental European holiday: we got to Lille the next year. It wasn’t the last public transport adventure: even this September we took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up the West Country on buses and trains.
The Grand Tour wasn’t the last fun thing. And actually, by the end of the trip it was feeling less like the end of something and more like the beginning of something. I’d learned a lot about travelling on my own, about not actually having to speak every language, about when to rewrite a plan and how absolutely anywhere looks better after you’ve had a shower. And I’d learned that very often it is just as simple as deciding that you want to go somewhere, and going there. Here be dragons. Let’s go and see them.
If you want to read about my Grand Tour adventures in more detail, perhaps excessive detail, start here.
What’s the name of the hall of residence at the University of Stancester where Lydia Hawkins is Christian Fellowship representative?
Well, you can find the answer in the extract on my site, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the book (and the award), because I know a lot of readers will very reasonably be reading that clue and thinking ‘what on earth???’ Because, let’s face it, that question (which I drafted) seems like a bit of an unlikely start for a WLW book. And yet there it is, in some excellent lesfic company.
Speak Its Name is (as you see) a university story and (as you can guess) a coming out story. It’s got a bit of romance and a bit of satire. It is, above all, a story about how it’s possible to be more than one thing at once, to claim an identity that might be more complicated than most people assume, about the joy and the tension and the grief of having both a religious faith and a queer identity.
Lydia Hawkins is the main character, and by now you’ve probably guessed that ‘the secrets she tried to keep even from herself’ include her identity as a lesbian. Which I suppose would be a bit of a spoiler, if you hadn’t come here from Jae’s crossword. Anyway, she manages to get her head and her heart around that, but that’s rather less than half the story…
In ‘very good timing’ news, I’ve just released the sequel. In ‘very bad timing’ news, I’ve been hit by a bug that’s kicked all my ebooks off the major retail platforms. I’m trying to get that fixed; in the meantime, you can still get everything in paperback, and the ebooks are available from Lulu.
The award that it won was the 2017 Betty Trask Award. The Betty Trask Prize is awarded every year by the Society of Authors to the best debut by an author under the age of 35. Submissions, it says, have to be in ‘a romantic or traditional style’. Speak Its Name is a bit of both.
I only entered because it was free to do so, and because they accepted self-published books (at least, they didn’t say they didn’t). Being shortlisted was a huge surprise. I was walking with my brother in northern Spain at the time, and had in fact forgotten that I’d even entered my book for the awards. Realising that I was the first self-published author ever to have been shortlisted blew me away completely. I’ve made a tiny piece of literary history, and I’m still immensely proud of that.
The delightful thing about it is that even being on the shortlist gives you a Betty Trask Award and a cheque for £3000 to be spent on foreign travel. (I went Interrailing and enjoyed myself hugely.) And again, I’m in good company. Previous winners include Sarah Waters – who I met at the awards ceremony, and who was absolutely lovely.
I have the certificate hanging on the wall to the right of my desk, and it makes me smile every time I see it. Writing a book is a slog. (So is self-publishing.) If my experience is anything to go by, all the authors on that list of clues will have put a huge amount of work into their books, and will have been delighted to have it recognised.
Good luck with the rest of the crossword clues – and I hope you find many more new authors to enjoy!
I was still limping the following morning, and my foot had come up in a spectacular bruise across the base of my toes. However, movement was less painful than it had been the day before, and I made it down to the station with only a token amount of wincing and cursing.
No train this time, though. I was taking the OuiBus – a very convenient service, which I’d booked online on John’s recommendation the previous day, and which would take me to Geneva airport. This was a much quicker way of getting back into Switzerland than retracing my journey to Martigny, spectacular as that had been.
Mont Blanc came out from behind the clouds just as John was waving me off. It seemed to be my luck with mountains. The OuiBus ride was a pleasant run through the foothills of the Alps, all green in the sunshine, and put me down in Geneva at an entirely sensible time to buy lunch before the next train.
French-speaking Switzerland was less mountainous than the parts I’d travelled through so far, but was still lovely. I let it slip past the window – Neuchâtel, Lausanne – lakes, narrow, pointed buildings, and a gentle green landscape.
At Basel I changed onto a train going north into Germany, and found myself in a compartment littered with newspapers and food wrappers. The landscape outside was not much more inspiring: cuttings lined with dusty concrete, with a few half-hearted trees here and there. We were approaching the Black Forest, though I had to say I couldn’t see anything of it. Why am I sad? I asked myself, and came to the conclusion that it was time to go home. I reached Karlsruhe, just as rush hour was getting going. I checked and rechecked the map: I had no desire to walk in the wrong direction on my injured foot.
It was the last night of my three weeks abroad. I’d been comparatively frugal up to this point. I couldn’t walk far on this foot of mine. For all these reasons, I’d booked a room in the Schlosshotel, and hadn’t flinched when the price went into three figures. The area in front of the station entrance formed an oblong, with the station and the zoo forming the long sides, and the hotel one of the short ones. I checked in – entirely in German, to my gratification – and took the lift up to my room. The lift was, I understood from a sign, an historic monument, but it still seemed to work all right.
My room was on the top floor, and looked over the square – which meant that I had a fantastic view of the trams. It seemed appropriate for the last night: they’d been a running theme of this trip. I took a shower and had a look at my foot. The bruising had come up in an even more impressive purple, but it wasn’t hurting so much.
[warning: after the picture of the tram, there is a picture of my bruised foot]
Then I took the lift downstairs again and limped a little way around the square, peering through the gates of the zoo to see what I could see (flamingoes, mostly) and looking for somewhere to eat. In the end I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant: a celebratory meal of pancakes with the local asparagus, and a glass of fizz. I enjoyed my own company, as I had, I supposed, most of the time.
5 May 2018
For the last day of my journey I’d planned to head north via Mannheim and Cologne, taking the slower route along the Rhine. Getting to Mannheim was easy enough. I tripped getting onto the train, but didn’t sustain any further damage to speak of. When I got there, however, I discovered that the train I had my eye on was running late, and if it got much later then I wasn’t going to have time to do things the interesting way.
I hung around on the platform, watching other trains, and tried to dislodge the earworm that the name Mannheim installed. Many hymn tunes are named after places, and I’ve spent enough time in church choirs to be able to match them up without really thinking about it. Aberystwyth: Jesu, lover of my soul. Wareham: Jesus, where’er thy people meet. Much closer to home, Coe Fen: How shall I sing that majesty? Mannheim is Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us.
My train got later and later. I realised that I was not going to get the leisurely journey alongside the Rhine. Not if I wanted to catch the Eurostar I was booked on. No, it was going to be an express train dash to Frankfurt. I dragged myself grumpily onto the ICE and resigned myself to a boring journey on a boring fast line. A complimentary packet of locomotive-shaped gummy sweets mollified me a little.
When I got to Frankfurt, I realised. In my end is my beginning. Of course I had to go back via Frankfurt. The towering glasshouse of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was where it all started, over a decade ago when I was an au pair in Germany. Back then, I was mostly using the Hauptbahnhof for the S-bahn. I only went outside the city by train twice, once to see a friend who lived in Würzburg, and once on my first great continental railway journey, back to England for my future sister-in-law’s wedding. But that wasn’t really the point. The first time I’d looked at a departures board and saw trains listed to Fulda (another hymn tune), Bruxelles-Midi, Stuttgart, and realised that I could go anywhere, that was Frankfurt. And the book that had won the prize and funded the whole trip, that had begun here, too. The first map of Stancester, the first diagram of the different relationships between the six characters at Alma Road, those were drawn out on my aunt’s dining table in Ober Erlenbach.
Between finding a postbox and feeding another euro into the lavatory gates and buying a cheese roll and dragging myself and my suitcase along platform 18 to zones D to F, I thought of my twenty-two year old self and wondered whether she would have believed that we’d actually get here. She might have done. She dreamed big. She wasn’t necessarily so good at making things actually happen, but that’s fine. I’ve learned how to do that over the years since.
On that first Frankfurt-London journey, back in the autumn of 2007, I went all the way from Frankfurt to Brussels. This time I had to change at Aachen, and get a rail replacement bus to Welkenraedt. Back through the Ardennes, back through Liège, back to Brussels.
On the Eurostar, I got out my diary, and I wrote:
I’ve just been sitting watching the northern French landscape go by, all lush and green, and golden in this evening light. When I came out the trees were more or less bare.
This isn’t the end of anything. This is about understanding that it’s all mine for the enjoying, that much more is possible than I ever thought, that in fact I can have both/and.
The couple opposite me are celebrating 44 years together and (I think) 38 years of marriage. Four children, six grandchildren. They’ve just been in Bruges. Loved it.
People say I’m brave, coming out and going around on my own, but it’s never felt like something I couldn’t do. My confidence with regard to specific tasks has improved (today I went to Sam’s Café in Bruxelles-Midi, which I didn’t have the nerve to do three weeks ago) but I always knew I’d find a way around it all.
Little moments of luxury elevate the whole thing. Last night at Karlsruhe, today getting a meal in the Eurostar, and the stale rolls and decaying tomatoes, the frayed carpet and cracked washbasin at Hamburg, don’t seem relevant. I’ve had my fun. And how. Another time I might… but that’s the thing; there can be another time.
In 2017, my novel Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, for the best debut by an author under the age of 35. I was the first self-published author ever shortlisted, which was pretty cool. And it was a great prize to be shortlisted for, because everybody on the shortlist won a Betty Trask Award and three thousand pounds.
So what do you do when you’ve got three thousand pounds that you’re pretty sure you’re meant to be spending on travel? Go to that place you always meant to, of course. Do that thing you always meant to do. In my case, that was loads of places. That was InterRailing.
I asked my friends for suggestions of where to go, and what to do when I’d got there. They obliged. Stockholm. Nuremberg. I knew I wanted to see Prague and Vienna. I wanted to visit the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg and look up family history in Stuttgart. I went to Stanford’s in Covent Garden and spent a happy lunchtime looking at maps and books and ingenious gadgets designed to improve the life of the traveller. I came away with a Rail Map of Europe and a book called Europe By Rail. Taking this home and reading through it, I immediately discovered several more places that I suddenly really wanted to visit.
I asked advice of a friend who does this sort of thing all the time. Travel first class and skimp on the accommodation, she said. Take a Tupperware box and a knife that you’re allowed to take through Eurostar security. Download the InterRail and Deutsche Bahn apps. And wear comfortable knickers.
Gradually, the outline of a plan began to emerge in my head. Scandinavia first, because it’s the most expensive. Then south. Prague, Vienna, maybe Budapest. A week that might or might not be spent messing around in Switzerland. That felt like enough planning, given the fact that it wasn’t even Christmas yet.
I bought my InterRail pass in the December 15% off sale, and spent the next few months feeling that I ought to be booking other things. By the beginning of April, I had worked out what the first week should look like, and had booked:
– three weeks of annual leave
– a night in the youth hostel across the road from Saint Pancras
– Eurostar tickets out to Brussels and back to London
– accommodation in Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Berlin
– reservations on trains in Denmark and Sweden
– a berth on a sleeper train from Malmö to Stockholm
– a berth on an overnight ferry from Trelleborg to Rostock
It didn’t feel as if I’d booked nearly enough; on the other hand, it wasn’t exactly spontaneous. I told myself that I’d found a nice balance, and left it at that.
A colleague lent me a wheelie suitcase. It had cute little cartoon animals all over it – not at all my usual style, but it was in all other respects exactly what I wanted (lightweight, with carrying handles on both the long and the short sides) and even the cute little cartoon animals would serve to distinguish it from all the other travellers’ baggage.
My friend had advised me to book the Eurostar leg via the Belgian railway operator’s website, because they give a discount to InterRail pass holders. I did this. My only regret was that I had to phone them up to rebook the outward journey when SNCF strikes led to the cancellation of my train. It was a relief to discover that the call centre offered me the option to speak to someone in English. I could have done it in French, but it was much nicer not to have to.
After that, all that I had left to do was pack.
There’s a youth hostel opposite Saint Pancras station, and a pub next the youth hostel. I summoned such of my internet acquaintances as might be in London, and at a loose end, to come and see me off, and we drank white wine and ate nachos and talked about books we’d read and people we knew and places we’d been to.
When they’d all gone I went next door to the youth hostel, and checked myself in, and took myself up to the third floor, and bagged a top bunk. I bumbled around a little bit finding my pyjamas and sponge bag and phone charger, double-checked my morning alarm, and went to bed. It had begun. I hadn’t got very far yet, but it had begun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 momentsofself-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:
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.
I’ve been talking to Jane Davis – fellow author, and the winner of the 2016 Self-Published Book of the Year Award – about my writing process, why I hate having to come up with titles for things, and why I love walking. It’s all over here.