The Real World is currently sitting at 83,000 words. This ought to be enough words, but of course not all of them will end up in the final version.
At present I’m wondering whether I’ve got to the point where I put it away for three months. I probably have. At the beginning of the year I told myself that I was aiming to have a first draft in October, and, apart from a few [insert science fact here] notes, I’ve filled in most of the gaps.
In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to compare it with its two predecessors – not in terms of word count (that wouldn’t take long) or in terms of what precisely I was panicking about, when (that’s a question for another post), but in terms of what you might call the emotional arc.
Thus far, I have always written about what one of my friends called ‘people sorting their heads out‘: characters who are stuck in their own assumptions, their own worldviews, and how they get unstuck.
What makes The Real World different is the fact that I show much more of the process of getting stuck.
Here’s a diagram:
Speak Its Name chugs along for the first hundred pages or so with Lydia operating within the same narrow constraints that she’s known all her life. When she takes a long, hard, look at herself, everything suddenly opens out – and keeps opening.
What we can’t see, of course, is how the increased exposure to people outside her own social group is affecting her without her knowing it.
In fact, all three diagrams show only what’s going on in the protagonist’s head, and only what they’re conscious of (or would be, if they thought about it). They don’t show the external circumstances or other characters’ decisions that are working on them. Nor do they show all the little accumulations and releases of tension that drive a story. Just the perceived stuckness, if you like.
In A Spoke in the Wheel, the most stuck part is actually before the opening of the book. When we meet Ben, he’s not quite at his lowest point: he’s just coming out of it; he’s made a major change in his life. He still has a very long way to go, and the process isn’t quite as smooth as the diagram implies, but the only way is up. Or, to put it another way, it’s all uphill from here.
The Real World starts out in Colette’s head with a reasonably broad worldview, and then compresses and compresses things until it’s almost intolerable. But, as you see, it finds a bit of space right at the end.
I’m a bit apprehensive about what people will make of it. Will it all be hideously depressing (or, worse, boring) – or will the increasing stuckness drive the tension up?
The answer is, I honestly don’t know, yet. It’s difficult to tell when I’ve been buried in the text. That’s why I’m putting it away until the new year. I’ll let you know.
Messing around on Twitter a while ago, I came across the Page 69 Test. Apparently this has been popularised by John Sutherland’s book How To Read A Novel, and originates in advice from Marshall McLuhan:
Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.
But why does it work? I suspect that it’s because by the time you get to page 69 you’re past all the introductions and scene-setting, but not far enough to encounter any meaningful spoilers.
Actually, it’s often that section of the book that I find most difficult to write. There’s something about managing the transition out of the set-up that causes me a whole lot of trouble, and I end up with an awful lot of square brackets saying: [link] [expand!] [something about the parents] [but why?]
I was therefore a little hesitant to look up my own page 69s (pages 69?), but actually I was quite pleased with what I found.
To make it easier for him to remember who he was actually meant to be dealing with, I turned my back while Polly told him what she needed to do. After a little while she wheeled herself off after him and I was left standing in the middle of the floor. I found an armchair and picked up one of the complimentary newspapers – though it wasn’t particularly complimentary. THE FRAUDSTER NEXT DOOR was the headline. I expected it to be about a conman raiding some poor old couple’s pensions or something, but it turned out to be some self-righteous hysteria about people claiming benefits they weren’t entitled to. Personally, having seen the hassle that Polly had to go through to get the ones she was entitled to, I couldn’t see why anybody would bother. I turned to the back page in disgust and wished I hadn’t. It was mostly taken up with a picture of a tennis player with her head in her hands. NO HOPER? NEW DOPE BAN FOR HOPE.
After that I gave up on the paper and sat there twiddling my thumbs and composing cutting replies to the woman on the bus, in case we ever had that argument again, until Polly came out.
I got up. ‘Sorted?’
‘Eventually,’ she said. She lowered her voice. ‘Come on, let’s see if we can get out the same way.’
We performed the previous manoeuvre in reverse, which was a little bit scarier because neither of us could get our heads under the top tape without Polly’s front wheels first being well onto the downward slope. I had visions of her sailing off down to the street below, clotheslining herself as she went, but she was too skilful to let that happen.
‘Right,’ I said when we were safely back at street level. ‘What a palaver. Library?’
She looked up at me, backwards, and I saw with a sudden shock that she was slumping in her chair, and her face was tense with the effort of controlling her fatigue. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And that had probably better be it.’
This comes in the middle of a chapter in which Ben accompanies Polly on some errands, and begins to appreciate some of the practical difficulties of life with a chronic illness. I think it would work well as a representative sample. There are quite a lot of ableist microaggressions in this book, and if that wasn’t what somebody needed to be reading about (and I couldn’t blame them!) then page 69 would be a reasonable warning. It also gives an idea of Ben’s personality, a more sympathetic and probably more representative one than the first page (he’s had time to unstick himself a bit). He’s well-meaning but clueless, clueless but willing to listen.
Tim Benton’s a Catholic, isn’t he, and nobody seriously tries to claim that Catholics are really Christian. I mean, they pray to Mary, that’s idolatry for a start…’
Lydia wanted to say that nobody was praying to Mary at the Vigil, but judged it best not to draw attention to her own attendance. Instead, she ventured, ‘I’m beginning to wonder, actually – whether any of us actually have the right to claim that somebody isn’t a Christian when they say they are…’
Ellie sent the surviving portion of the STANdard the same way as the Letters page. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s perfectly obvious with some people, isn’t it? No, Lydia, the Devil is at work on campus. This isn’t the only sign of it. Jake told me last week that you hall officers won’t be allowed to live-in next year. It’s all very worrying. I think we should pray about this.’
‘We what?’ Lydia exclaimed in horror.
Ellie, intent on praying, did not answer. Instead, she shifted her chair so that she sat directly opposite Lydia and grabbed both her hands painfully tightly. ‘Father God,’ she intoned, ‘we see Your people under attack, we know that the Enemy is moving on this campus, we pray, Lord, we just pray for Your help and guidance today.’ Squeeze, squeeze. ‘We know that You are in control of all things and we ask that You would show Your power here today, Lord, we ask that You would reveal Your truth, that You would convince those who are doubting,’ squeeze, this time with nails digging in, ‘that You would complete Your great work at this university, so that every student here will know that You are Lord. Lord, we just ask this today. Lord, You said that whoever is not for You is against You. We ask You to protect us all against these attacks from Satan, by these people who claim to speak in Your name but who are working to undo the great things You have already done here. Amen, Lord, Amen!’
This one I’m not quite so comfortable with. It’s cringey, and it’s meant to be, and I suppose that it’s good for anyone with an active embarrassment squick to know that this passage exists. In fact, this is peak cringe. If the reader can cope with this, they can cope with the rest of the book. And it is a reasonably good picture of the dynamics in the wider book: Lydia advocating for a wider understanding of the word ‘Christian’, and experiencing a more violent pushback than perhaps she expects. Ellie doesn’t appear in The Real World: we’ve moved away from the (Evangelical) Christian Fellowship and on to the Church of England. I miss her. A bit.
One thing I can guarantee is that this will no longer be page 69 by the time The Real World comes out, but what the hell. This is Colette talking to postdoc James about his upcoming wedding, and, in its combination of marriage angst and science angst, it’s fairly representative. It’s missing the Church of England angst, though.
… they couldn’t get it in the right size for one of them, so the whole idea gets written off and we have to start all over again from square one.’
‘I suppose you couldn’t get away with having one of them in something different and calling it a contrast?’
‘I think that’s the point of the bride,’ he said drily.
Colette shrugged her shoulders. ‘Well, you’re the expert.’
‘Of course, the other problem is that they then have to get the flowers matched up with the dresses, and Giselle really wants irises, because it was her grandma’s name.’
‘That’s a really lovely idea,’ Colette said.
‘In theory, yes, it is. In practice, it’s yet another thing that we have to work around. Apparently it rules out a whole slice of the colour palette.’
‘Oh,’ said Colette, who had never thought about it.
The lab door opened with a gentle swish. Just in time, James closed the window on his computer with the Science Today story and maximised the one in which he was writing his own report.
‘Good morning,’ Barry said.
‘Morning, Barry,’ James said, in a remarkably natural way.
‘Morning,’ Colette mumbled.
He glanced at her. ‘You told me last week that you wanted to ask about something?’
‘Yes,’ Colette agreed, her mind blank. ‘I – I can’t remember what it was now.’
He looked distinctly unimpressed. ‘Hmm. Well, if you remember before about three o’clock, give me a shout.’ He disappeared into his office. James and Colette glanced at each other.
‘What did you want to ask him about?’ James asked. ‘Or can you really not remember?’
Colette wriggled uncomfortably. ‘I couldn’t put it into words in the moment. It was that weird [thing] that I asked you about…
As you see, I’m still in the [square brackets] phase. I’ll be back in a few months with the real page 69.
The sequel to Speak Its Name has been coming along very nicely in recent months. It’s now standing at 75,000 words, with only a few holes left to fill before I can move into the editing phase.
But I’ve been having to refer to it in just those terms, because I have had dreadful trouble coming up with a title for it.
At first I was thinking of it as Scandal and Folly, but I had to admit that this sounded too much like a bodice ripper. I thought of doing something with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but no variation on that seemed to work. Later I came up with Truth and Power, but that sounded too much like a political thriller. In between times, I’ve just been calling it ‘the sequel’.
On Tuesday I had a rather varied evening. First I went to the pub with some people I used to work with, and a few people I still work with, and ended up spending most of the time I was there talking to the boyfriend of someone who’d only just started working with the people I used to work with. Then I dashed off to catch a train and then lead a session on the Holy Spirit with a small group from church.
And through the evening there was one phrase that kept coming up. The real world. Trade union employees tend to be pretty much resigned to the idea that people think they don’t live in the real world. One of the church group felt that it was very important to live in the real world. In actual fact, it’s a phrase that I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with: unless this is the Matrix, all of us live in the real world.
Anyway, I was walking home at the end of the night and thinking how many times I’d heard the phrase the real world over the course of the previous few hours, and wondering whether it held any particular significance for me, or whether it was just coincidence.
And I realised: that’s my title.
The Real World
It works across several of the themes of the novel (we are picking up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name, with the characters in their early twenties and trying to work out what they’re doing next) and it has a good few layers of irony, too. Not least, of course, the fact that this isn’t the real world at all. It’s fiction.
Last week I was back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe. I had good intentions about selling a lot and writing a lot. As it was, I sold very little and immediately spent all the proceeds on other books. I finished a short story (submissions deadline was today) and managed to get the current novel about a thousand words further forward and a little bit tidier.
Apart from that, I sat in the sun, and listened to and watched other people doing their thing. Poetry. Music. Theatre. Comedy. I looked for lizards (and found them) and drank Belgian beer.
In between times, I did quite a lot of thinking, and I noticed how my best ideas seem to come from thought experiments of the ‘What if?’ variety. For example:
(Answer: a modern Ruritanian adventure with ice dancing!)
Or, this week:
If I were going to write something that I could sell at a price point of £4 or under, so that buyers aren’t going to be put off it in favour of the cheaper, and excellent, second-hand books around it, what could that be?
(Answer: a little book that can double as a souvenir!)
So that’s two projects in the pipeline. I’m also attempting to write more short stories. Some of those I’m submitting them to other people’s anthologies and magazines; others, I have other plans for. For example, I’m thinking of setting up a mailing list, and I’d like to offer an exclusive short story as a thank you for joining it.
At the moment, though, my main focus is still the sequel to Speak Its Name, which is currently standing at just over 62,000 words. It still doesn’t have a title. I thought of Scandal and Folly (sounds too much like a bodice ripper). I thought of Truth and Power (sounds too much like a political thriller). I’ll just have to trust that I’ll come up with something before it’s finished. And that’ll be early next year, at a guess. I’ll keep you posted.
How To Tell If You’re In A Kathleen Jowitt novel*:
You’re not nearly such a terrible person as you thought you were. A red-haired activist from the North is trying to make your life better whether or not you wanted her to. You have devoted your life to this institution and it isn’t thanking you for it. You’re going through hell, but you come out the other side. Your friends spend their lives arguing on the internet. You can’t make any assumptions based on someone else’s religion, but you do anyway.
Oh, and you were never interested in the politics, but that hasn’t stopped the politics in being interested in you. And your parents are appalling.
The reader can also expect to find:
a fictional location
a bisexual character
a reasonably optimistic romance which might or might not be the focus of the story
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was writing and what he’d been watching. I’m writing the sequel to Speak Its Name, which in its current state is mostly about vocations and relationships and what they do to each other. He’d been watching Fleabag, and thought that it had quite a lot to say to what I was doing, and had I seen it?
I said that I hardly watch any TV at all, because I lack the staying power. I can keep up with something for one or two episodes, but then life gets in the way and I get behind. (So I mostly watch DoctorWho, where you can dip in and out and it makes just as much sense as if you had managed to see last week’s episode.) So no, I hadn’t seen Fleabag.
But it’s a very good point. Whatever you’re writing about, whatever genre you’re writing in, someone will have been there first. (And if you don’t engage with that tradition, then there’s a very real danger of making yourself look like an utter plonker. See: Ian McEwan and sci-fi.)
Speak Its Nameand whatever-the-sequel’s-going-to-be-called sit not quite comfortably within the Barchester genre. And that is a tradition that I’ve been engaging with ever since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation (Fit Persons To Serve In The Sacred Ministry of Thy Church: representations of Anglican clergy 1855-65) if not before (my mother, seeing me with a copy of Glittering Imagesshortly before my A-level exams, prudently removed it from me). Most recently, of course, there’s been Catherine Fox‘s Lindchester. Sometimes I think I’m engaged not so much in a dialogue with Lindchester as in a stand-up screaming match, while at the same time finding it intensely familiar and moving. So maybe I’ll get round to watching Fleabag, or more probably I won’t, but I think I’ve probably done enough homework there.
A Spoke in the Wheel is slightly different. Not so much in terms of genre – I suppose it’s somewhere between a romance and a social problem novel – but in terms of subject matter. I read loads of cycling books, but they were all non-fiction. Most of them were memoirs.
There isn’t really a tradition, you see. Elsewhere (and elsewhen – almost a decade ago, in fact) on the Internet, William Fotheringham has a list of the top ten cycling novels. They’re a mixed bag, and the diversity of genres represented suggests that he had to scratch around quite a lot to find any ten, let alone a top ten.
If I were feeling inspired I’d try matching the titles to the various roles within a team (sprinter, GC contender, domestique, grimpeur, rouleur, etc), but I’m feeling a bit too tired for that. And I’ve only attempted three of them in recent years. (I’m sure I must have had The Adventure of the Priory School read to me when I was a child, but it hasn’t stuck.)
Cat ought to be the sort of thing I’d love, but every time I’ve tried it I’ve foundered on the extended passages in italic type.
Three Men on the Bummel is not quite as good as Three Men in a Boat, and contains quite a lot of tedious national stereotyping.
The Rider was the one I saved for after I’d finished writing A Spoke In The Wheel, because when something’s been sold as ‘the best cycling novel of all time’, it’s a bit intimidating when you’re just trying to write a decent one.
Actually, the one cycling book I’m really glad I didn’t read before starting ASITW is Fotheringham‘s own Put Me Back On My Bike. I just don’t think I’d have had the nerve to write about fictional doping with that magnificent and uncomfortably vivid account of the tragedy of Tom Simpson always in the back of my mind.
* Having said that, I’ve now watched all of Good Omens, so it turns out that I’m perfectly capable of watching television when somebody else organises it and when it’s a day that I didn’t have earmarked for writing. I’m still two episodes behind on Gentleman Jack, though, and it’ll be three if I don’t get my act together this weekend.
I remain committed to my principle of reading whatever the hell I feel like, but I liked the look of this challenge and I think it’s compatible with it. It will be interesting to see what the balance between books from small presses and self-published books ends up looking like. My instinct is that I’ll pay more attention to self-published books, for fear of being bitten by imprints; on the other hand, I’d like to put less business in the way of Amazon this year, and more in the way of independent bookshops.
I’ll be posting brief write-ups on this blog, but if I don’t have anything nice to say about a book I won’t say much at all.
There’s a bingo card:
It would be very poor business practice not to point out that I have two books that are eligible for this challenge.
I can potentially help with the following squares:
Book that defies genre. Speak Its Name is LGBT university-set Barchester. A Spoke In The Wheel is… belated coming-of-age? Redemption? Maybe romance, if you look at it sideways? I tend to stick them both under ‘contemporary’ and dodge the question.
Out of your comfort zone. Depends on where your comfort zone lies, really. You may run screaming from Christian politics, and I really couldn’t blame you. I will say that a lot of reviews of A Spoke In The Wheel have led with ‘I know nothing about cycling, but…’
LGBTQIA. Both of my books feature queer characters in prominent roles (two bisexuals, a lesbian, and I’m still not sure about Gianna). If you want head-on engagement with the space where faith meets sexual orientation, try Speak Its Name. If you want a happy background f/f relationship, go for A Spoke In The Wheel.
Marginalised people. See LGBTQIA above, and there’s also Polly in A Spoke In The Wheel, who has a chronic illness.
A heads up for fans of f/f fiction: I Heart Lesfic is hosting a very large sale over the next few days. There are over one hundred books up there, by more than sixty authors. Enjoy!
The eagle-eyed will notice that none of those authors is me. This is because Amazon refuses to recognise that I set Speak Its Name to free (in ebook form, at least) several weeks ago. Lulu, Kobo, the iBookstore and Barnes & Noble have all caught on, though, so help yourself. (And if you’re dithering, here’s a recent review to help you make up your mind.)
As usual, I’m late to the controversy. As usual, I only have a hazy idea of what actually went down. But I think it was something like this:
A site went up which shared pirated ebooks in PDF format
Authors and publishers protested
Users of the pirate site protested in turn
Conclusions were jumped to (authors do not want people to read their books for free!)
Assumptions were made (authors do not want people to read their books in any way that doesn’t involve buying the book new!)
Somewhere in the middle of this, the site was taken down
But the controversy kept running
If you happened to look at Twitter at the wrong moment, you might well be forgiven for concluding that authors disapprove of: libraries, charity shops, jumble sales, second-hand bookshops, those shelves you find in cafés and staff rooms and railway stations.
(Although if you looked a bit harder you’d find plenty of authors who’d disagree.)
There simply aren’t enough hard copies of my books out there in the wild for this to affect me. If there’s somebody currently scouring the charity shops of Britain in the hopes of picking up a paperback of Speak Its Name, then all I can say is, good luck to them. They’ll spend more on the petrol or the train fare than they would just buying the thing new.
So really, I’m talking as a reader here, as a browser, as a purchaser.
I’m talking about charity shops here, and about libraries, and about bricks-and-mortar second-hand bookshops. I’m talking about places with actual shelves. I’ve spent a lot of time in that sort of place over the years. And I have picked up books by authors I’d never heard of. My eye has been caught by a title, a cover picture, a half-remembered name.
And I wouldn’t have spent nine pounds ninety nine on this whim, but fifty pence, two pounds, seems like a decent gamble. Because it is a gamble. I might abandon it after one chapter. On the other hand, I might end up devoting the next five years of my life to finding everything else that author wrote and buying it – yes! perhaps even new!
And I have never felt remotely guilty about any of that; nor do I intend to start now. I am pleased to support a small business or a charity. (Well, most charities – but that’s another story.)
If I like a book, I might keep it and re-read it. If I don’t like it, am I expected to throw it away? Because I certainly don’t want it around my house. No. I will pass it on to a charity shop, or leave it on a swap shelf, or BookCross it, and if someone ends up selling it for fifty pence or five pounds, then they’re welcome to it. And, if I’m honest, the implication that all books should be new books (because that’s where the other way of thinking leads leads) appalls me on ecological grounds, quite apart from anything else.
Many of my clothes came from charity shops, and many have gone back to others. I don’t see the difference when it comes to books. Nobody apart from me can wear the dress that I am wearing. (They can wear a dress very like it, but that’s another story.) But I can lend, give, or sell it to somebody else without the manufacturer having any reasonable grounds for complaint. Likewise, nobody except me can read (for example) the particular copy of The Birthday Party (Veronica Henry) that’s currently on top of my chest-of-drawers. But I could lend, give, or sell it to you, and then you could read it.
And I don’t think that’s depriving Veronica Henry of any income that she could reasonably have expected, because I’d never heard of her before a BookCrosser sent me that book. On the other hand, if I were to start making and handing out copies of it to anyone who asked – people who were actively looking for her book, say – then that would be illegal and immoral. And that’s what the PDF distribution site was doing.
But the existence of any physical copy of any book implies that at some point, perhaps way, way back in the dim and distant past, the author (or the author’s estate, or whoever managed to get the rights off the author**) has been paid for that copy of that book. That is what makes the difference for me between the second-hand trade and piracy.
Incidentally, if you do happen to want a free ebook, then my Speak Its Name is free on Kobo, the iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Lulu until the end of September. And if anyone tells you off for downloading it, well, you can tell them that I wrote it and I published and I’m the one who gets to set the price. My apologies to Kindle users: I’m waiting for Amazon to catch up. If you don’t want to wait, you can get an EPUB copy and run it through Calibre with my blessing.
* I also make extensive and enthusiastic use of Project Gutenberg, on the grounds that the authors represented there are far too dead to care, and for the most part, so are their heirs.
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.