There’s nothing quite so exhilarating as a breaking political story just as Newsnight goes on air. Although “Brexit” and “breaking story” might seem by now an oxymoron, on the evening of Thursday 21 there appeared to be total confusion at the summit in Brussels – lots of dud leads, delayed press conferences and a dinner to chew over Theresa May’s bid for more time.
Then, just as we went live, the EU’s response, imposing two timetables, was about to break and Nick Watt, ahead of the game, was off. Hilariously we went to Jean-Claude Juncker’s press statement as he was (inexplicably) talking about fish, then we halted the next studio interview abruptly to go back to Brussels in time for the suave Donald Tusk, and finally to the Prime Minister live. We all heard the trace of contrition in her speech following the tongue-lashing she had given her parliamentary colleagues. Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving.
The seer on the sleeper
To Scotland on the sleeper train, and in the restaurant car a passing word with Murray Elder, Baron Elder, who told me that, for the first time, he had not booked a holiday in the April recess and opined that, given the Brexit farrago, there might not be one. He could be the new Brahan Seer. Then it was almost straight back south to Cumbria with my husband, Alan, to take up a charity auction prize of a weekend in a cottage near Caldbeck. We struck gold, dining at the Dog and Gun Inn at Skelton. It had won Dining Pub of the Year the evening before at the Cumbria Life Food and Drink Awards, and I would have voted for it ten times over. The Dog and Gun was bought by chef Ben Queen-Fryer and his wife, Lizzie, two years ago, and everything about the place was terrific: food, wine list, the relaxed company… and most important, they love dogs.
Sailing with Stella
In fact, Cumbria is the most dog-friendly area we’ve ever visited. There must be a dog for every human, maybe more, and they are a wonderful passport to conversation on the fells and in the villages. We sailed with Stella our black Labrador on the handsome 1935 steamer on Ullswater from Glenridding to Howtown and hiked the seven or so miles back along the Ullswater Way until we reached a lookout point where the view was so majestic, it resembled a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.
And we saw it all splashed with brilliant yellow daffodils just as William Wordsworth did in 1802, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know it was Dorothy Wordsworth who first wrote about the scene so passionately in her diary: they “reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake”, thus providing her brother with the most evocative image in the poem. By the end of the weekend we had travelled several times back and forth along the B5299 over the moors between Sebergham and Uldale, and I have added it to my list of the most beautiful roads.
Over the course of dinner, the scribbled synopsis for my third novel became, in my mind, a chapter, then a draft, and by pudding, the finished book was on the bookshop shelf, all in two hours. Oh how I laughed when I thought about it this morning (but probably not as much as my wonderful editor and publisher at Two Roads, John Murray Press, Lisa Highton, would have laughed). I have my diary in front of me, going through my marching orders for the June publication of my second novel, The House by the Loch, and I am looking forward to being in the company of book lovers at literary festivals. I am indebted to my daughter Caitlin for spotting an error in the proof that would have put, not one, but a dozen eggs all over my face. You never catch them all. My first novel was set on Arran, and in one scene there is a rainbow over Holy Isle. One kind (really) reader wrote to me to let me know that that was a physical and meteorological impossibility.
A question of judgement
I’m getting ready for tomorrow’s day of judging the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, founded by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and named after their distant relative. It’s awarded in June at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose. It is a privilege to read the longlist, and see how the prize has grown in renown from a stunning start with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The prize of £25,000 can be life-changing; as it was, by his own account, for last year’s winner, Ben Myers, whose novel The Gallows Pole about the Yorkshire poor in the 18th century told the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners. This year’s longlist is strong and I foresee robust discussion as we wrangle the novels down to six over copious amounts of coffee.
The Newsnight Presenters’ Social Club
I am so delighted that Emma Barnett has joined Newsnight’s presenter line-up but, as is the way with single presenter programmes, Emily, Emma and I will rarely be in the office together, so I am going to suggest we form a Newsnight Presenters’ Social Club. Sadly we won’t meet in Havana, but we can drink mojitos, listen to great music, and there may even, like daffodils but not so graceful, be dancing.
This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty