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Observer/Anthony Burgess 2017 Prize Winner's Blog | Outside In: An Introduction

  • By Susan Sheahan
  • 11th October 2017
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Susan Sheahan is the winner of the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, and is on a six-month residency at Free Word. As a writer and critic, she contributes to The Observer and The Guardian, exploring visual culture, novels, films and photography. In this special blog for Free Word, she will be examining the way our lives and personalities develop around the homes, towns and cities we live in. "My blog is a work in progress, a kind of journal, a place to develop my writing and interests, to talk to people I wouldn’t normally be able to speak to. My blog is a twisty thing."

Early in the year a prize gives me an unexpected, and delightful, chance to travel.

Supported by Free Word, I can take a journey that might stretch (if I am careful) across Europe. But once the usual problems of time and the money are negotiated and resolved, the choice grows broad and difficult.

The obvious destination is as far away as possible, which is what almost everyone expects (and, of course, suggests). I should probably aim for the outer reaches of Europe (just how stretchy is it?). The most up to date maps of constantly changing borders give me Finland, Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey for starters.

But to travel in the company of this prize seems to come with heavier luggage than I’m used to taking – an obligation to live up to expectations, to fulfil a brief, and the necessity to display inventiveness, intelligence and daring. And worse, I have packed this heavy luggage with constrictive clothing. I know that I want to hear other languages, to understand how the words they utter and the places they inhabit can contain, liberate and transform the people who speak them. I need to, I must, find a new art work, a new voice, a building or a street. Something.

All this involves discussions, trawls through maps and websites, hours mulling it over, and worry that I will fail, and publicly. If it seemed at first that the point of this jaunt was obvious, after weeks of thought the point is lost, it’s all wrong, and I am trapped and my longed for liberation founders. I am stumped.

For someone who is usually attuned to the potential of the places around her I am clearly going down the wrong road here. I enjoy the surprises that the familiar can bring, especially when it’s creative and liberating, and includes me, unexpectedly, in that space. I need to find a way of being both stranger and familiar.

I want to travel and be away from home which is London (this after all is a prize that wants to support me to go off my own beaten track.) I want a place that I can begin to scrutinise and map, even if I find that place will always remain, largely unknown terrain. I want to have conversations that I would not otherwise have had. Even if that is with myself.

In the end the answer is obvious. I shall go for a walk.

And once I make that choice the answer presents itself, without ceremony or fuss, with two invitations. The first from an old friend who is leaving her life on an island in the Irish Sea and asks me to stay, and another from a new friend who wants us to travel together across Scotland to an island in the Firth of Clyde. I am travelling to Mann and Bute, and the spaces in between.

I might never be myself again.

Susan Sheahan was crowned winner of the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. This blog is part of her six-month residency at Free Word. 

If you’re a journalist, critic, blogger or writer interested in examining the arts in the contemporary world, you could win a first prize of £3000 and have your work published in The Observer.

Deadline: 30 November 2017. Find out more here

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