It’s rather strange to revisit a book after a long gap – especially one you’ve written yourself. Going through the proofs for the new Kindle edition, I couldn’t help making a few small edits; but I didn’t want to change much. The voice is the voice of my younger self.
When the book won the Mail on Sunday/JLR Prize – an annual award given to a writer under 35 – I received a cheque for £5000, a commission to write a travel piece for the Mail (I chose Venice) and a piece of advice from Bernice Rubens, who was on the judging panel. She suggested I should write fiction – not because I’d made things up, I hasten to add, but rather because the book read in many ways like a novel, with a novelistic sense of pattern and rhythm. It took a good ten years for me to take that advice.
The prize was awarded at a lunch at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, and at the end of the lunch I suddenly discovered that I’d lost the cheque. Panic! Eminent novelists searching under tables, poets turning out their pockets etc. It was a waiter who finally presented it back to me with a flourish: £5000 covered in coffee grounds and gravy where he’d fished it out of the bins.
Some episodes in the book are funny, some sad, some gloomy; and it’s perfectly un-PC. The TLS called it ‘one of the truest portraits of present-day Central Europe available’, and though so much has changed in these twenty years I think it does convey something of the atmosphere and history of those fascinating European hinterlands. I hope so, anyway.
Perhaps I’m proudest of the fact that it’s very different from The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels Through China and India in Search of Tea. Neither of these books were written for money or prizes, just out of curiosity and for the sheer pleasure of travelling and writing.