by Shweta Taneja
Speculative fiction author
Charles Wallace Fellow, Chichester University, 2016
What I like most about the Charles Wallace fellowship is that it can take any shape you want to give it, any direction you want it to take. This freedom of choosing, or not choosing, to write, to read and explore, worked quite well for me, someone who plans her book meticulously, with each scene in place and then decides to go into a tangent while writing it.
After the initial bouts of joy on being accepted had settled in (including a series of screechy phone-calls, a drinking party with friends and other distractions that expectedly derailed my work for a week in December 2015), I prepared for the UK visa. The process was as smooth as it goes considering one has to deal with the third-party clerk layer called VFS Global. I applied for the visa application with the following: The Trust’s letter; A letter from Dr Stavroula Varella from the Chichester Univerity; another letter from the British Council stating my travel details and the fact that I’d received the fellowship; a cover letter where I explained what this was all about and why I was heading to England; and finally, a print of my airplane tickets, though those weren’t required. I forgot to add in health insurance to the pack, but the Visa authorities-that-be must’ve understood the levels of my health from my cover letter, for within ten days I had my visa. (I took a health insurance later from HDFC, the cheapest one I could find.)
End of February 2016, armed with my passport, panic and excitement as well as a mini elephant, I left for London. London Heathrow was a breeze to negotiate. The marvellous Richard Alford, the one-man-army behind the Charles Wallace Trust based in London, had arranged for £600 to be collected at the Western Union, which happened with average ease. I chose to take this in cash (though they do give you a prepaid card loaded with the same money at a £10 fee, which is a better option if you don’t want to handle too much cash) and headed to Chichester.
From Chichester station, I took the bus, a rookie mistake when you have to drag the said mini elephant who is having a bit of a tantrum. I would suggest my successor to opt for a taxi from the station which takes a mere £5-5.5 to reach the campus. Dr Stavroula Varella, the linguistics professor who I’d been in touch with from India and who handles the CWIT fellowship at the university, met me at the library and helped me get a university staff card, an essential for making sure all doors open and you can issue books from the library. She also introduced me to that apartment that was to be my home for three months, located in the Oaklands building, a mansion house surrounded by lawns on all three sides and a road in between with beautiful sunset views and a few ghosts floating around. Creative.
There were two new things that happened for my fellowship in terms of logistics which I found really useful (the older fellows haven’t availed either of these facilities): One was the catering option I got added to my staff card. Catering option costs about £50 per month and gives you £8 per day allowance to spend at the campus canteen. The canteen offers hot meals for lunch and dinner as well as healthy sandwiches with a lot of vegetarian options if you’re so inclined. This covered two meals a day during the week and I just needed to arrange for breakfast and weekend meals. Saved me a lot of time, money and visits to the grocery shop. (Also helps if you’re sheer lazy when it comes to housework as I am inclined to be.)
The second thing was the prepaid card that Stavoula, the very helpful Lorna Sargent, programme administrator for the department and Jenny and Jody at the Finance department arranged. It was a University of Chichester prepaid card loaded with all the leftover grant money after the accommodation and catering had been subtracted. The card made it easy for me to book tickets, transact online and pay my bills, use in pubs and restaurants, anywhere really. I easily tracked all transactions on Expensify (a free app for most smartphones) and send the report to the Finance team at the end of my stay, with all the physical bills, something they would require as it’s a corporate card.
Another thing I found useful at the university was the gym. The membership to the gym is quite cheap for staff members (I got it for £12.5 for three months) and there are fitness instructors to help you with a personal plan if you’d like to know which machine does what to which part of your body. The gym also has an extensive indoor sports facility. Do bring your fitness gear with you.
WHAT DID I DO?
Having been a city-girl all my life, it took me a little time to adjust myself to quiet country life and set up a writing routine. After a rather late start, I managed to finish a draft of my long pending novel (the third in Anantya Tantrist series); took a two-week Easter break in London to explore exhibitions and get inspired in British Library reading rooms and museums; found the beginnings of a new satire I’m working on now; and finished the final editing of a paranormal novel which releases in July/August 2016 with Juggernaut Books. Alongside I wrote eight articles for my regular gig at Mint, attended classes, had conversations, travelled and read a lot, exposing myself to varied speculative fiction and comics. I also explored similarities and differences in social and political norms and perhaps came back with a somewhat clearer understanding of what makes us all humans.
I’d applied specifically to Chichester University for two reasons: One, the Folklore library, which intrigued the amateur story-collector in me. It’s located in professor Bill Gray’s study. Since Bill was unfortunately unwell, I couldn’t explore his library as much as I would’ve liked to. (Though the Folkore Centre was kind enough to accept and publish an excerpt of my latest book Cult of Chaos, in their journal Gramarye.)
The second reason was the phenomenal Creative Writing faculty in the department, something that turned out to be a brilliant decision. The English department at Chichester is small but very active and welcoming. They have a tradition where each of them take turns to take the CWIT fellow out for a cup of coffee or experience (which meant for most months, my timetable was packed with coffee/tea/cake treats, experiences and conversations). I not only made lasting friendships with most in the department, but also learnt a lot about writing, the business of it, and the challenges faced by others. Alison MacLeod, professor of contemporary fiction whose book Unexploded was longlisted for the Man Booker, taught me the art of writing short stories, a medium I’ve not really explored. She also played host to me, inviting me over to her lovely Brighton house and prepping breakfast as we discussed cultural differences, the business of teaching creative writing and what it takes to continue to write. With Dr Naomi Foyle, who is an author of a sci-fi series inspired by the political scenario of the Palestine-Israel conflict, I discussed elements in science fiction and fantasy and how to pace a story—over multiple fish and chips dinners. Hugh Dunkerley exposed me to modern poetry, while Stephanie Norgate explained to me the usefulness of writing workshops and feedback. Stephen Mollett introduced me to radio screenplays; Karen Stevens fed me food while we discussed the art of teaching writing and of writing. The department also had multiple author visits and events, which meant I met and interacted with established British and European authors like Jim Crace, Adam Marek, and Dorthe Nors and literary agents like David Godwin. Needless to say, it helped me learn and understand trends in contemporary writing in English and make some connections.
I’m a wandering soul and love to soak in nature and creative arts to inspire me into new directions. For this Chichester University was a hotbed as the university has active departments in dance, music, films and theatre. There was something or the other happening at least two-three evenings in a week, most of the things free. I became a regular at the jazz evenings, saw operas and orchestras, experienced modern dance, plays, dramatization of the Palestine-Israel conflict by a historian, attended a conference on Shakespeare and heard a panel on how sets are designed for theatre productions today.
Since I was in a university and had the freedom to choose, I’d decided in advance to attend a few classes. For this purpose I got in touch with Dr Hugo Frey, the HOD of History department at Chichester (who is also a fellow comic nerd and now a good friend), and attended quite a few history lectures on slavery, death rites, and racism. It was very interesting to go back in a class, listen in and also to understand how teaching happens in modern classrooms. It was also because of Hugo that I did a talk on Indian comics at the prestigious Cartoon Museum in London after attending a workshop there on British comics.
THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH
When you head to a new country, a new place, it’s both exciting and slightly panicky. A heartfelt thanks to Stavroula Varella, Simon Barker and Lorna Sargent for making sure I had everything I needed at the university and accommodating all my demands with bucket loads of patience and an unwavering smile. Though I’m a writer, I’m blessed with a personality which is hyper-extrovert. Which meant living in a mansion of 20-rooms, alone, wasn’t too much in the comfort zone. This loneliness vanished like smoke within a few weeks thanks to the welcome homes of Sandie Divers and her husband Ian who fed me multiple teas (yes the grammar works here) and loaned me a bike (loaning me another when my husband came visiting); Karen Stevens who let me sleep in her house, took me on hikes and multiple get-togethers. Other friends I made in and outside the university and my friends Anubhav and Neha who sheltered me while I was in London.
Finally an affectionate thanks to Richard Alford for meeting me at Trafalgar Square in London and then again coming to Chichester to spend a day around and making sure I was doing okay. And also listening in patiently as I rambled at the comic talk at the Cartoon Museum.
Here are a few images from my Instagram feed where I maintained a living journal of my fellowship. You’re most welcome to head there, browse through, see and comment.
Finished a draft of a novel; started a new work and edited a third which releases in July-August 2016 with Juggernaut Books.
Read a lot of unexpected titles and unexplored authors to force the mind to think and produce new ideas.
Explored the countryside, breathing a lot of the sea, the fresh air and the skies. Also realized why the British talk about the weather all the time.
Exposed self to a lot of pleasurable exhibitions and cultural stimuli. This is from the Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British Library.
Tried to understand the British culture as it’s now, its varied differences and similarities with my own.
Tried, really, really hard to understand the difference between dinner and supper. Realised that JRR Tolkien hadn’t imagined the word ‘elevenses’.
These are just tips and things I found useful as well as a few links for future fellows. Feel free to write to me and ask more on any of them.
- Hot and cold: I know it’s the obvious one, but I found the weather in UK fluctuating dramatically within a day, with cold winds that can grab by the neck if you’re not careful. Indians for most part are not used to it. My suggestion is cover up ears, head, neck and chest. Always, even when the weather feels warmer as it’ll happen in May.
- Hydration: All buildings in the UK have internal heating which can make it a very dry affair and even give you headaches if you’re not used to it. So drink a lot of water and eat fruits.
- Sickness: If you fall sick and haven’t brought any medications with yourself, the first step you can take is go to a Pharmacy. UK pharmacists can prescribe basic medicine. Also, the docs there don’t prescribe antibiotics easily, so do bring whatever you may need in a medical bag. For more serious things, head to St Richards Hospital’s Emergency ward, a small walk from the campus.
- Trains are really expensive but not if you book in advance. So always plan ahead and book your tickets at the NationalRail website.
- Local buses are expensive, each way costing £5 (this is in 2016, for West Sussex area), so plan your travel around the area. I got a bike from Sandie and her husband Ian and used it for two months to go around the city as well as explore trails across countryside. Would highly recommend that as Chichester is pretty bike friendly. I also asked a lot of people I met to pick me up. They did go out of their way and it was kind enough of them to show me around the city and the areas.
- Chichester University has tied up with HostUK, an organization that arranges for British families to host international students for a weekend. I would suggest you to try it out. It costs £20 and your travel to the British family’s home. I made some great friends due to this organization.
- Since I need to hangout with people when I’m not writing, I also found Meetup, a location-based social network quite useful. I was able to go on multiple hikes with groups found here.
- British Library: If you’re heading there, get your reader pass registration done online in advance. It makes sure you don’t waste a day when at the library.
- Home to stay: If you’d like to stay at someone’s home, my friends David and Oonagh, a really interesting couple who live in Finsbury Park, have a 4-BHK and are looking for tenants. They want someone for a minimum of 2-3 months. There’s a direct bus from their home to the British Library. You get quality conversation and a kitchen space to cook. Oh, and David also has occasional passes to Arsenal games (he’s a huge fan), so definitely think about it. You can email him for any queries you might have regarding London. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
All the best, you!