When we arrived it was already dark. I hadn’t visited for four years and the rush hour traffic and mass of people on Euston Road – who seemed very sure of where they were going – felt incredibly disorienting at first. We disappeared down a quieter street and I remembered where I was going and I started to feel invigorated. We were looking for the British Museum and we must have come close but we didn’t find it. We walked through Russell Square and wandered around Bloomsbury, looking for the hubs of our favourite publishers.
We just wandered for a while, looking at the lights and the people and realising how much is actually happening in London on any given night. I love Christmas lights because they make everything in the middle of winter look less dreary and cold. We took whichever turn took our fancy and ended up in Trafalgar Square. In many ways, I think that London is almost a giant film set because everything is so famous.
We took a wrong turn looking for Downing Street but we eventually found it. I was more interested in Big Ben and took a lot of pictures of it, trying not to get in the way of locals who are probably sick of tourists doing the same thing every day. After taking pictures of the big clock we decided to head to New Oxford Street, for the reason we had come to London in the first place. We hadn’t come just to walk around in the dark for three hours; we had a party to go to. The Guardian First Book Award party!
I hadn’t been to a fancy literary party before, and this one was wonderful. We were 31 floors up and we had an amazing view of London; of more people going places, of the British Museum (we finally found it!) and other sights. There was an open bar and I was treated to a glass of Prosecco as I walked in. There were other drinks too and my head didn’t thank me the next day for trying most of them. Our reading group met up and marvelled, and I think that we all wanted this party to become a regular thing.
The shortlisted books were dotted around the room together as decoration. We had three out of the five books on the shortlist we submitted as a group, which wasn’t bad. This made me realise how much personal taste can account for winners and shortlists – perhaps there never is truly a “best” book. I thought that the final shortlist was representative and I can see why those books were chosen. The winner was announced fairly early: it was Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, a selection of short stories set in small-town Ireland. Barrett looked very shocked to have won. But his stories were well-written, combining lyricism with gritty working-class life.
Then we circulated a bit and met the very lovely May-Lan Tan, author of one of my favourite books on the longlist, Things to Make and Break. I like that two books of short stories found their way onto the shortlist. I am a fan of short stories.
After that the evening gets a little blurry. We caught the underground and headed to the St Pancras hotel for one last drink before our train left. Luckily we could see the station from the bar. So clutching my Guardian goody bag, we caught the 11:15 home, which was busier than I would have thought. With only a big bag of Doritos and a massive bottle of water to keep us awake we finally arrived home, incredibly tired, at just after two. It was a great night! But it took me a few days to recover. I’m getting old.