Night Boat to Tangier – novel set in Algeciras and Cork (Waiting for Dilly)
Talking Location with author Simon Edge – La Gomera
12th July 2018
#TalkingLocationWith… author Simon Edge, who has set his novel, The Hurtle of Hell, in the Canary Islands, and how La Gomera inspired the setting.
It was 2001, and my then-partner and I had developed a taste for exploring off-the-beaten track parts of the Canary Islands. We had wandered around the interior of Gran Canaria, spent three villa holidays in the volcanic moonscape of Lanzarote, and had even – for special Canary nerd points – spent a night on La Graciosa, the tiny, low-lying island off the northern tip of Lanzarote.
Now we had come to La Gomera, a circular rock on the western side of the archipelago, which has an airport allowing short-hop flights from Tenerife, but is generally accessed by ferry, and is therefore untouched by the kind of mass tourism that characterises the larger Canaries.
The tiny port-capital of San Sebastian is on the northern, barren side of the island, but the Valle Gran Rey, on the opposite coast, is a lush ravine, with luxuriant terraces full of banana trees and bougainvillea, stepping down the impossibly steep hillsides to the ocean below. It looks like paradise as you prepare to plunge into it and, if you prefer peace and quiet to the blasting nightclub music on the larger islands, it really is.
Unfortunately, the dynamic of our group was wrong. We had a friend with us, with whom we had previously holidayed in a foursome, but his partner stayed at home this time and we discovered that three was a tricky number.
Furthermore, our villa was on a winding, single-track road, with absolutely nothing between it and a dizzying drop. The passing places had all been turned into parking bays as the village developed faster than the infrastructure, and the locals had little patience for tourists nervous about reversing over the side of the ravine. As the sole driver (and sole drinker) I did not cope well with having our lives in my hands every time we went out.
Just as memorable as the terrifying roads were the 10-foot breakers on the beach at Playa del Inglés (a misleading name, since we were the only Brits there). Since the island is volcanic, the sand was black, but whenever a big wave broke, the entire beach would disappear under a layer of frothing white water, making the mainly nude swimmers and sunbathers look like they were romping in the snow.
Those waves were thrilling. As they towered over you, the only thing to do was dive into the belly of them and come through the other side. They were not always a laughing matter, though: there was no lifeguard, and we noticed arms in slings on the beach.
That beautiful, dramatic, deceptively dangerous beach proved to be the perfect place to set the opening scene of my new novel The Hurtle of Hell, in which my character Stefano nearly drowns in a swimming accident. As he hovers between life and death, he has a near-death experience, in which he looks down on his own body and then travels up a shining white tunnel amid feelings of euphoria.
He has been an atheist up to this point, and lives a contented life with his partner Adam. But he is also impressionable. Persuaded by the vividness of his near-death experience that God may exist after all, he remembers all the hell-fire preachers he has heard denouncing homosexuality, and decides he needs to change his ways in order to save his immortal soul.
The twist of my atheist comedy (as it’s subtitled) is that God himself gets involved, although I should stress that he is not a creator that any of the established religions would recognise. My aim was to make God consistent with what we now know about the vastness of the universe, with 100 billion solar systems in our own galaxy, and at least 100 billion galaxies in total.
This means that astronomy and the ever-expanding possibilities for exploration are a theme of the novel – and the Canaries proved a good setting for that too. For the Greeks and Romans, this archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa was the outer limit of the known world and, for centuries afterwards, the westernmost island El Hierro was the location of the zero meridian.
As my characters go searching for it, the unnamed island in my novel effectively becomes a mash-up of La Gomera and El Hierro – which is, after all, the beauty of fiction. And, in what I hope is a neat symmetry, a crucial scene at the halfway point of the novel takes place in Greenwich, London, astride what is now the globally recognised zero meridian.
Since my novel is set in 1999, I didn’t need to go back to La Gomera to write it. I hope the island is still unspoilt. Even though I didn’t have a great time there, I remember it as a wonderful place, and the difficulties we had were very minor in the general scheme of things.
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