All aboard the literature express

On the face of it, it sounds like someone's idea of penance

On the face of it, it sounds like someone's idea of penance. One hundred and seven writers from 43 European countries all together on a train for a six-week trip through 19 different cities. Lisbon to Moscow and back to Berlin in a hook-shaped journey through northern Europe. The idea was that we would read, debate, discuss, and try to get some idea of the unity and diversity of mother Europe.

I wondered could there possibly be a train big enough to contain so many egos and disparate visions, so many potential prima donnas. Better writers than painters, a friend said sagely when I told her my fears. Or actors. I wasn't convinced.

We were the last to arrive in Lisbon, Anne Haverty and myself. A fabulous banquet was laid on in the plush Alfa hotel. I was nervous. Everyone seemed to know each other already, everyone laughing and talking together like old friends. At first glance, the gender divide seemed 50:50. This was wishful thinking - women would in fact be outnumbered two to one. But they were the radiant ones. All done up in their summer dresses, they had twice the presence.

Across the table from us, a serious-looking Estonian told us confidently that Ireland's greatest writer was the medieval philosopher John Scotus Eriugena. I resented being thrown a curve ball so early in the experiment. Beckett, Yeats, Joyce - these I could have coped with. But Scotus! It was too late in the evening to go arguing reason over revelation.


Lisbon spoiled us. In terms of goodwill and creature comforts, we would never have it so good. From there on out it would be a succession of budget hotels, train stations and civic receptions. For six weeks, we lived on finger food and champagne, standing in town halls and municipal buildings listening to long speeches on the need for cross-cultural dialogue and harmony through diversity. But this was our remit: we were cultural ambassadors, we would listen politely and take on board any platitude or formula.

After the initial anxious readings in Lisbon and Madrid, the project gelled on the overnight journey to Bordeaux. The train's cramped carriages and narrow passageways provided the forced intimacy we needed. Some time in the early hours of that morning, as the train hammered its way through northern Spain, the whole literaturexpress 2000 project came together as one huge extended family. The swopping of cigarettes, currency, drink and manuscripts forged a spirit of togetherness which would carry us all the way across Europe.

It has nothing to do with being writers or Europeans. It was simpler and deeper than that - the noble human desire to reach out and get on with each other.

Those train journeys were the most valuable part of the project. Few of them clocked in shorter than six hours - long enough to walk through the train and make friends, long enough to settle down and read translations of Icelandic novels and Macedonian poetry. This was where the real networking was done, the place where the whole literaturexpress project put down its deepest roots. Books and manuscripts were swopped. Publishers, foreign residencies and bursaries were openly speculated on. This was where we got to know each other.

The train seemed full of heroes. There was the beautiful and witchy Danish writer Lotte Inuk. Inuk would have published her first novel at 11 but for a falling out with her editor. She had to wait a full five years before the book saw the light of day. The eastern Europeans were especially impressive. Everyone of them seemed to have two or three different lives.

One of the most enigmatic was Tschingis Abdullajew from Azerbaijan. His biographical note told us he was the author of 180 crime novels and that he had shipped two bullets in a previous career as a lawyer. There was Asli Erdogan, the 30-year-old Turkish anthropologist, nuclear physicist and novelist. She suffered from fainting fits, something to do with her blood sugar levels. It probably had more to do with an upcoming court case taken against her by the Turkish government for an article highlighting the plight of writers under government harassment.

On the journey to Riga I fell in with Bashkim Shehu, an Albanian writer who spent eight years in a military prison at the pleasure of Enver Hoxha. He wore his heroism lightly: "What I wrote was very little," he said, waving his hand blithely. "Very little."

By general consent the Baltic leg of the trip was special. One of those laugh-out-loud moments of pleasure happened to me in a medieval side street in Tallinn. I came on two young buskers with no word of English between them playing one of my favourite tunes - Julia Delaney. For some unaccountable reason I felt piss proud. Later that evening I was told the Estonian government was seriously considering using Ireland as an economic model. Julia Delaney, John Scotus Eirugena and Celtic Tiger - what, I wondered, were the connections. Tallinn was the city I vowed to return to.

By the time we reached St Petersburg, genuine fatigue had set in. Some of us had begun to hanker openly after home and loved ones. Finding middling restaurants had become a daily trial. Our mood hit a serious low in the enormous Russia hotel in Moscow. Six thousand beds and seemingly as many kilometres of badly lit corridor - the place was big enough to have its own dialect. The gloomy atmosphere was brightened not a bit by those phone calls in the dead of night inquiring whether or not we would like a charming girl or a charming boy. A discussion on translation in a public library told me that, after Shakespeare, John Galsworthy was the most widely read and translated English writer in Russia. Galsworthy?

A particular robust debate in Minsk brought out new anxieties. Ukranians and Russians locked horns over the conflict in Chechnya. A war against terrorism, the Russians said. An imperialist landgrab, the Ukranians countered. For all its heat, it was a whole lot better than listening to Ben Okri doing his star turn in the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin a few nights later. Listening to him declaiming poetry that sounded like an address to a junior labour party conference, I knew it was time to go home.

I crashed hard when I returned to Galway. It was good to be back among my friends, my books, sleeping in my own bed. But I missed my fellow travellers terribly - the friendly faces and camaraderie, the late-night discussions in hotel bars where we tried to draw a fine distinction between cultural self esteem and nationalism. This was our recurrent, unresolved theme, the one that goes on nagging me.

I was lonely beyond anything I would have thought. Worst of all, I believed I was alone in that. But then a few days later the e-mails came flooding in. Each one of them struck the same plaintive note. "I am so lonely," they said, "I miss you all." My feelings exactly.

Read more travelogues at Mike McCormack's last book, Crowe's Requiem, is available in Vintage paperback. £6.99 in UK.