2013: A dream come true and a pain in the arse

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Ros Barber wins the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013No question about it, I had an extraordinary year.

On my birthday in January I was given one of the best presents I have ever had: I was asked to step in and teach a week at Arvon Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, at short notice. Coincidentally I was just setting off that morning to spend my birthday weekend in York, so I grabbed a few extra jumpers and some teaching materials, and drove Northwards in the snow.  The week was amazing, and I could not have asked for a kinder or more-experienced co-tutor than Chris Wakling, who (with more than fifty Arvons under his belt) rapidly brought me up to speed. The week held some interesting challenges but I loved pretty much every minute of it and returned on a high…

Only to fracture my coccyx the very next day in a seesaw accident.  There are reasons for such an accident, and I won’t go into them except to say I obviously needed my husband to bring me down to earth with a bump. One thing I won’t miss about 2013 has been twelve months of sore sitting.  It still gives me gyp now. And for a while there, it was real pain in the arse.

Three weeks later (now February) and lunching with a writer friend, she mentioned she was guest-reading at Ty Newydd (the Welsh Arvon) the following week and I said ‘Oh, I would LOVE to teach a week a Ty Newydd’.  Apparently my wish is the universe’s command because the three days later I was called by Ty Newydd asking whether I could step in and teach the week at even shorter notice than the Arvon week.  I was called on 10.30, by 12 I was on a train heading (via London) for Wales and by 5pm that day I was meeting my students!  It was lovely to see Michael Laskey (my co-tutor) again.  The boys of Tonbridge School, and the Welsh coast, were equally invigorating.

So how could March improve on the year’s great start?  Answer: The Marlowe Papers getting longlisted for the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) for fiction.  I got the news in the middle of my week’s residence and Benenden School in Kent and it was very odd having no-one but the school librarian (who just happens to be the fine poet Abegail Morley) with whom to crack open a bottle of bubbly.  The school were pleased though, and pasted all over the English Department, and staff room, copies of the Guardian article in which my name appeared.  I must say, private school dining is extremely civilised and the girls couldn’t have been more delightful, especially in their enthusiasm for sonnet-writing.

April saw me appear alongside Professor Stanley Wells and the Rev Dr Paul Edmondson at the Stratford-upon-Avon Literature Festival: The Marlowe Papers and Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (in its release week) going head-to-head.  The live event to a full house of around 200 was followed by a global webcast where I had the opportunity to challenge a few long-standing issues with orthodox Stratfordian scholarship.  It was great fun to listen to the recording afterwards.  The two events were followed by a memorable celebratory dinner with fellow sceptical friends from the board of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust.  In the same month, I was told The Marlowe Papers had been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.

Desmond Elliott PrizeMay saw me standing at the window of Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, wishing my mum was still alive.  It was a very fine thing to see an entire window display dedicated to the Desmond Elliott Prize, with my book sitting so happily among the other nine. I stood there for a while until I could imagine Mum was seeing it too, and being proud of me.  She was my biggest supporter, but died before I’d had even a poetry collection published.  At her wake, the official eulogist (whom I had accidentally upstaged) said to me ‘Who will read your little poems now?’.  As it turns out, quite a lot of people.  I was at Foyles two consecutive Thursdays in May for events connected to the Dezzie and the BFNA.  At the Globe that month I saw a life-affirming As You Like It (in Georgian) and a spelling binding Tempest (in English).

What could be be finer, though, than June.  The month of Mum’s birthday, of strawberries and cream, of picnics and Wimbledon; the a fitting pinnacle to a splendid year.  First, The Marlowe Papers was announced joint winner of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.  The ‘joint’ smarted just a bit.   ‘Joint’ and I have a history.  Blue Nose Poet of the year 2000 – Joint first.   Hoffman Prize 2011 – Joint first.  BFNA 2013 – Joint first.  Never, in my life to that point, had a win gone unshared. Now I’m not ungrateful. Joint first is much, much nicer than any runner-up position (and I’ve known plenty of those). But how many times can you split a first prize and not be *quite* good enough to win the darn thing outright?   By the end of the month I had my answer: three.   The Desmond Elliott Prize – and the £10,000 cheque – went to The Marlowe Papers alone.

Ros Barber Washington DCJune really deserves a couple more paragraphs.  I had to fly back early from a conference in the US to collect the prize. I was presenting a paper on the strong possibility that Marlowe was Arbella Stuart’s tutor at the Marlowe Society of America conference in Staunton, Virginia. It was a huge shame that the Desmond Elliott prize-giving fell bang smack in the middle of this key (once-every-five-years) event for Marlowe scholars, meaning that I more or less delivered my paper and flew back home again, attending only one full day of proceedings.  For the three days I was in the States, however, I did at least take the opportunity to stay overnight in the city of my birth, Washington D.C.   Since I left the city when I was only weeks old, it was – technically – my first visit. I discovered I had, entirely by accident, booked a hotel only two blocks down from (and on the same street as) the building where I was born.  A humid early evening circuit took me past The White House, the (closed-by-earthquake) Washington Monument, the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial – all so familiar from TV, but so alien in the flesh – winding up at the very building, opposite Foggy Bottom station, where my mother had pushed me out against the wishes of attending staff, who had been pressing upon her the convenience of drugs and scalpel. I loved the fireflies. I loved the friendly greeting of a cop standing outside a government building. I loved the (totally non-European, therefore utterly unidentifiable) birds. I loved the ridiculous, kill-you-in-two-mouthfuls, bacon-syrup-almondFrenchtoast-and-ice-cream breakfast.

DC BreakfastIt was odd, the knowledge of how miserable my mother had been here, set against how happy I was in the same spacious capital. This was the city where I had, as a seven month foetus in utero, been present at JFK’s funeral. The same city where, my mother once told me, she attempted to seal her unhappiness by drinking neat gin. The next day I took the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park and was treated to a tremendous lightning storm that brought my car to a halt in zero-visibility rain, followed by near-instant clearance and a good luck rainbow.  Turns out that road is one of my father’s favourite places on earth. After just a day and a half in Staunton Virginia, with its re-creation of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars theatre and its over-attentive waitresses (“Why has she taken our drinks away?”… “To refill them”), it was no wonder that jet-lag and general too-muchness triggered my first ever attack of vertigo.  I woke on the day I was supposed to fly back to discover I couldn’t move my head without the whole world spinning like I was drunk. (And no, I wasn’t.)  For a couple of hours there I was genuinely worried I would not be able to drive back to D.C. for my flight back London and the champagne reception – and prize announcement – at Fortnum and Mason.  But as is usual these days, that magical force that glues the universe together was on my side.

………

Part 2 was intended but never written. Sorry about that!

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