Dominic Utton finds himself delighted every time he walks into a bookstore and comes across his recently released novel Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time.
Sure, it’s an accomplishment in itself to be published, it’s satisfying to see his hard work come to fruition, pleasing to see his name on the cover, but for the most part, it gives him a giggle that it all happened almost by accident.
To backtrack, Utton lives in Oxford, England and commutes to London each day. The planned route is estimated at an hour, which isn’t so bad, but that doesn’t include delays. Utton found himself regularly sending emails to his boss apologizing for being late or to his wife on the return trip home.
He writes about his experience in an article that appeared in The Daily Beast saying, “For 14 months, like most commuters, and British commuters especially, I did nothing more than internalize my anger, tut to myself at the shoddiness of it all, and carry on suffering with everyone else.”
One day he had had enough. Utton, a journalist at The News of the World, put on his investigator hat and tracked down the personal email for Mark Hopwood, the managing director of First Great Western train operating company. Utton shot off an email to Hopwood outlining his frustrations and promising to send him a similar email every time he’s delayed. Utton felt some relief but he didn’t expect an answer.
Lo and behold, he did get a response with Hopwood saying he’d read every complaint. Utton stuck to his plan and wrote a letter every time he found himself waiting.
If the train was delayed five minutes, then Hopwood would get a short, pithy note. If the train was delayed for 30 minutes, then Hopwood would get a much longer email with anecdotal stories and possibly some complaining.
Every time Utton sent off an email, he surprisingly received a response. This went on for almost a year.
Utton shared his email exchanges with friends and family, who urged him to set up a blog. He followed their advice and posted the back and forth online, which you can read at Letters to First Great Western. As expected, his friends and family read the blog, but it didn’t get a ton of readers beyond his immediate circle. Until … someone tweeted the blog, followed by a re-tweet, and the blog blew up with Utton getting attention from multiple media outlets including an on-air interview with BBC’s news program Panorama.
The next thing that happened sounds like it came straight out of a novel. A literary agent phoned up Utton asking if he ever considered writing a novel.
Well, he did after that conversation.
Utton found himself penning a story on his daily commutes from Oxford to London, sometimes simultaneously writing Hopwood friendly letters of complaint as promised.
The novel, while fiction, revolved around a frustrated train rider who writes letters to the manager of the train company.
The overlapping of real and not real letters became confusing with Utton writing, “After nine months, 98 emails, nearly 50 replies, and more than 100,000 words of complaint. I finally ended Letters to First Great Western.”
And ended up with a novel.
Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time is available on Amazon.com here.
You can read Utton’s first person account on The Daily Beast.
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