On a wet night in December 2013, I heaved a suitcase open in my tiny bedroom at the top of the Holloway Road and started throwing stuff into it. In less than 12 hours there was a flight to India and I was going to be on it, except I didn’t want to be. I remembered people telling me I should be thankful for the opportunity. I reasoned that, odd as it may seem, there was a higher chance of death while legging it across the Archway gyratory than cruising at 37,000ft, snug under a blanket and conked out on Sleepeaze. I tried to see it through the less anxious eyes of others. I checked my privilege.
My flatmate leaned against the door, smoking, holding out an overfull glass of livid amber liquid which tinkled as she thrust it into my hand. “C’mon babe,” she said, wisely, “it’ll be fine. Take Nancy and you’ll forget where you are.” At the time, I was working as a junior reporter on a car magazine and, as happened a few times throughout the year, I was going abroad to interview people and write about the automotive industry in India. I knew nothing about cars, swapping from zero-hours contracts six months before because my rent was due and my card had just been rejected in Wetherspoons. But I was 22 and I wanted to be a journalist. I had a whole rolled-up cone of Page 3-newspaper chips on my shoulder as I worried over shipments of steering wheels lost in Slovenia and received unintentionally hilarious emails (“Hi Zoe, are YOU in the market for forklifts?”). I was also watching a lot of House of Cards at the time, and tried to romanticise the experience by comparing myself to the other Zoe, that poor, shat-upon reporter. She’d do anything for a scoop! I told myself, zipping shut the suitcase. What a go-getter! She wouldn’t be fazed by all this guff. (Thank Christ the second season hadn’t aired yet.)
My friends couldn’t believe how much effort it took to prepare myself for these trips, but gradually I developed a pattern of coping mechanisms. Virtually all of these involved books. The “Nancy” to whom my slurring flatmate was referring was Nancy Mitford, and the book in question was The Pursuit Of Love. With a dread of flying, far from home in an anonymous hotel room I would open this book and disappear. It worked, every every time. Here were green hills and childhood anecdotes, eccentric uncles and sheep with names. I didn’t bring it halfway round the world for the romance or the eponymous pursuit thereof. I brought it, and others like it, because they helped ease the anxiety and homesickness that would descend long before I’d taken off my shoes in airport security at 5am. It was an England I didn’t recognise myself but loved, nonetheless, and all the more so for it being so far from me. I realise it’s odd to have disliked the travel plenty of people would have loved to experience. I get it. It makes me sound like some terrible hybrid of Karl Pilkington and UKIP. And to have relied so heavily on books painting pictures of home is probably both odd and ungrateful. I used to love the thrill of going somewhere new, but it had become a chore and all I wanted was to stay put. That was nearly two years ago, and for the most part, since then, I have.
Travel should be a delight – I wanted to make it good again. I thought about the books I had read and carted around and why I loved them. I thought about their authors and where they’d been when they wrote them. I decided to read around my country and try to learn more. I’m planning to read at least one novel set in or written by an author from every county in the UK and – dollah permitting – visit these places, too. It’s a deliberately loose criteria, so if it’s written by a Brit or set somewhere on the island, I want to read it.
England is imprinted all over our most famous novels: the Brontës, living above the plaguey graveyard at Haworth, Bram Stoker randomly writing most of Dracula in Whitby. Beatrix Potter falling in love with Lake Windemere, George Eliot moving restlessly around Warwickshire, Alan Bennett delving into Sheffield, Wordsworth moaning in Cumbria. Even the fictional places are full of truth, from Cold Comfort Farm‘s Howling in Sussex, to JK’s Little Whinging in Surrey. The best thing I’ve discovered so far is that Ashby-de-la-Zouch, a place I’d always thought Sue Townsend invented in Leicestershire, actually exists. I can’t wait to go.
I’m Zoë Apostolides and I grew up in Tooting before moving to Camden, Archway and now Waterloo. I did a degree outside the M25 and graduated in 2012, then headed back to the Smoke to peddle smut at Erotic Review.
I now work as a literary agent at Coombs Moylett Maclean, and as a freelance writer. I also write book reviews for the Financial Times Life & Arts and other features on film, theatre, telly, sex and yes, cars, for Good Housekeeping, GQ, Spiked, Sabotage Times, For Books Sake, White Coffee, Lifetime, The F-Word, Vagenda, Planet Ivy, Screen Robot and various south and north London local newspapers.
This project began in early 2014 and I have around 30 counties to go as of June 2016. This snazzy website was designed by my girlfriend Fiona Ryan.
Comments/suggestions/forklift queries? email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @zoebechamel.