From The Guardian

‘It is like being on psychedelic drugs’: Benjamin Myers on the strange world of literary prizes

Heading to the Scottish Borders to win the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, Myers takes a strange literary trip involving Gordon Brown and a lot of potted shrimp.

Benjamin Myers

A strange thing happened this week: my dreams came true.

When I received a message several weeks ago to say that I had been shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize, the world’s richest prize for historical fiction, I was struck by one immediate thought: “I didn’t know I wrote historical fiction.” My nominated novel The Gallows Pole is the retelling of a true story of a murderous 18th-century criminal gang of forgers known as the Cragg Vale Coiners, who take on the might of an establishment who want to keep them poor and hungry. Up until then, I simply saw it as an allegorical tale for an austerity Britain ruled by a government not entirely favourable towards literature – writing the novel in a library felt like an act of defiance against the closure of 478 libraries between 2010 and 2017 – and particularly keen on squeezing the last gaps of life from some towns across the north of England.

It now seems that history is what I have been writing about. Consequently, my wife and I find ourselves driving down the vast driveways of Bowhill House in the Scottish Borders in my trusted Fiat Panda across which passing people regularly write “Wash me”, where the shortlisted writers are to be guests of Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch, descendent of Sir Walter Scott and organiser of the prize.

The duke, who is the largest landowner in Scotland, offers to carry my suitcase. Within two minutes of arrival, any feelings about the British class system and aristocrats are quickly forgotten. One of the prize’s judges confides that this quiet, humble man is rather enamoured by writers and just as nervous about meeting us as we are him. I spend the next two days in a Noël Coward song, being fed potted shrimp and smoked salmon at two-hour intervals.

As the ceremony approaches, there is something unspoken between us authors on the shortlist – Jane Harris (author of Sugar Money), Paul Lynch (Grace) and Rachel Malik (Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves): we are all in this together, yet in competition, too. After all, who couldn’t use the £25,000 prize money? Last year, I earned £9,000 pre-tax (none of which came from book royalties) and my novel is published by Bluemoose Books, a husband and wife operation run largely on coffee and grand schemes (for my first novel with them we once stocked an entire shop with just my book). This prize is just as important to their survival as it is mine; a win for Bluemoose would be like Liechtenstein winning the World Cup.

After a panel discussion at the nearby Baillie Gifford Borders book festival in Melrose, we return the following night, like condemned men being led to the gibbet. Literary awards ceremonies are a little like being on psychedelic drugs: one’s emotions often run wild, veering into loathing, joy, paranoia, bliss, anxiety and mild hallucination. Did Rory Bremner really just approach me and do a William Hague impression for no discernible reason? Broadcaster James Naughtie keeps coming over and gently tapping me on the chin with a big meaty fist, the taps getting progressively harder as the “Scottish wine” (his words for whisky) flows. Gordon Brown is blocking the foot of the stairs every time I try to go to the toilet, which is often. (Shameless namedropping? That’s what my good friend Elton John said.) Everyone else seems to be having a better time than the writers.

My parents are here, too. They pitched their caravan a few miles up the road three days earlier. Hearing this, the duke invites them to park it on one of his 280,000 acres, but my mother is a little embarrassed – though not so embarrassed to tell everyone she is my mother. As Kirsty Wark delivers heartfelt readings from each of our works, I’m distracted by a wasp that appears behind the writers, as if to torment us in the final silent seconds before the announcement.

The Gallows Pole wins and I hear myself making a speech that, inexplicably, mentions both Guns N Roses and last year’s winner Sebastian Barry’s “beautiful doe eyes”. I’m off my head. Another part of the prize is that for the coming days the Royal Mail will officially stamp every piece of correspondence in Britain with the words: “Congratulations Benjamin Myers, winner of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction”. That will appear on 30m letters in total. Utterly absurd. Completely psychedelic.

Back home, I bank the cheque and decide to celebrate my good fortune by doing what anyone unaccustomed to having money does: buying drinks for my friends in the local music venue. I go to the cashpoint. I have £12.

Benjamin Myers is the winner of the 2018 Walter Scott prize. The Gallows Pole is published by Bluemoose Books.

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