This is my fourth trip to the UK. Every time I have been in this corner of the world, I have tried to get to Bath, and every time, I have missed out. Until now! Before I left Australia, I saw that one of my favourite people, Marian Keyes, was going to speaking at the Bath Literature Festival. So I bought a ticket, put it in my diary, and then delayed organising how to get there until the day before I left Edinburgh. Excellent. But I booked a flight from Edinburgh to Bristol that was far cheaper than the train, so all good!
I arrived on a Friday night, around 10pm, after taking a bus from Bristol Airport into the centre of Bath. I found my way to my hostel which was above an extremely noisy pub, but by the time I checked in – yelling painfully over the sound of a bazillion drink students – I found my room up near the top of the building which was a little quieter. My roommates were very quiet, but I still had a pretty fractured nights sleep, mainly due just to being in a strange bed. I bounced out of bed the next morning with the determined – read: crazed – look of someone who uses the power of pretence to convince themselves they aren’t tired, and trotted down to the showers.
Perhaps I have discussed hostels with you in person and you have heard me lament of a hostel in Belfast that was home to the world’s worst shower. Friends, I stand corrected. I carefully hung my towel, pyjamas, and a plastic bag of toiletries on the little hooks provided. I am all for saving the environment, and the showers used those push button thingamies that I’ve used before, where you press the button and the water runs for twenty seconds before it shuts off, and then you press it again. That’s FINE. That’s GOOD. What I can’t get behind is the fact that the spray of the shower is so forceful, it slams into the door with a banging noise, or, if, like me, you had not yet stepped inside and closed the door, it just hits you in the face instead. Also, this first spray is never hot. Why should it be? The water has not had time to warm up, so the forceful drenching that accompanies that first push of the button is frigidly cold. The spray is so huge and all-encompassing, that there is no way to dodge or avoid it. The teeny-tiny cubicle is no match for the range of the spray’s reach. I hadn’t planned on washing my hair, but it was immediately saturated so it seemed as good a time as any. Once I’d gotten over my complete and utter shock, gasping for air and blinking all the ice water out of my eyes, I gritted my teeth and reached for the button again, willing the water to warm a little. I now had the foresight to close myself in with the door shut properly so it wouldn’t soak my towel, PJs, and toiletries anymore. I grabbed the soap and scrubbed furiously as the water hit again, trying to use the vigorous motion to warm myself up a little. The water ran out once more, mid-soap, so I pressed it again. Then again. And again. NOTHING HAPPENED. The showerhead looked down at me, smug and superior, as I stood naked and shivering, half covered in soap. After a period of about two freezing minutes, it deigned to send a dribble of icy water down and I leapt under it and rinsed as quickly as I could to get all the soap off me. When I tried my luck again, it declined, so I said ‘well, fuck you too then,’ and got out, wrapping the towel around me and trying to convince myself that I was the winner in this particular rumble, or at least the bigger person for walking away.
Sorry, bit of a tangent. For anyone still reading, I avoided that particular cubicle like the plague afterwards and took my chances on a different bathroom. Far more satisfactory. The free breakfast almost made up for my violation at the hands of shitty plumbing, and then when I exited the hostel, I found a truly delicious chai latte at a bakery before going on a free tour of the city! They run every day by a group called the Mayor’s Guides and they strictly accept no tips, which is brilliant for a two and half hour tour! Bath, and the colourful characters who lived here, present a fascinating history. Also, the architecture makes you want to weep. It is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen. I don’t know if the word ‘Bathitecture’ has been coined yet, but I’m claiming it.
After the tour and lunch with a view, I visited Bath Abbey. It’s free to enter, though they encourage donations, and is a gorgeous way to pass the time. Of course, I need a little soul food after so long, and to top the experience off, there was a choir practising for a concert later that day. Their sound was utterly angelic. I sat with my eyes closed, listening. A visit to the Roman Baths was next – the entrance fee might seem steep to tight-asses like myself, but really, 15 pounds is very good for what the museum offers. It included audioguide hire, and they have multiple tracks in different languages, for children, and also one by the American writer Bill Bryson at various points around the place. The museum is really informative and interesting, delving into ancient history and showcasing many ruins, but it is the actual hot springs that I found the most fascinating. The large green pool in the middle you are not supposed to touch because that water isn’t treated (everyone sticks their fingers in anyway to see how warm it is), but there is a fountain inside the museum with water from the spring that is safe to drink. It is WEIRD. Unlike a lot of other natural mineral springs, it doesn’t contain sulfur, so it doesn’t smell or taste bad, but it definitely doesn’t taste like normal tap water. And of course, it’s warm, which makes it even stranger!
I was now on the hunt for tea and cake, and found a beautiful tea shop on Pulteney Bridge that delivered (though beautiful tea shops really are everywhere in Bath). I had the best slice of carrot cake I’ve ever had, all fragrant and cinnamon-y, with a pot of Earl Grey tea. I read my Marian Keyes book and watched the dusk happen out the window. (I also had a moment while ordering where I asked for my Earl Grey tea and the guy looked at me like I was wearing my bra on my head – he completely misunderstood my accent and just heard gibberish and I felt like a huge bogan, but I’ll not think about that bit).
That evening I attended my first festival event – Shakespeare Gala! The first half was great – a group of performers who had practiced the old-fashioned way: learned their lines and their cues, but had not rehearsed together until that night onstage! They performed scenes from particular Shakespearean plays with remarkably few errors! The second half however, was FABULOUS – a duo called Rhapsodes, who IMPROVISED an ENTIRE PLAY in iambic pentameter, gathering anecdotes, titles, and words from the audience to include in particular scenes and to write sonnets. It was insane. It was so, so funny, but I also sat there with my mouth hanging open for a lot of it in awe. I have never seen performers so quick to think on their feet. I got chummy with one of them the next night at another event and he said they will be coming to Edinburgh for the festival so HUZZAH! I can take Sean and I can force everyone who hasn’t seen them yet to GO GO GO. One of the cleverest theatre experiences of my life so far.
I embarked on a fruitless search for a burger afterwards, and ended up eating convenience store pasta. It was highly entertaining to watch the Saturday nightlife around me. By day, Bath is full of tourists, but at night it becomes apparent that this really is a city full of students, and every one of them was out after dark.
The next morning I ducked into another church, just to sit and breathe and listen to another music rehearsal. This one was St Michael’s, right near my hostel. They invited me to stay for the service, but I had an event to go to, so I trotted off for a cup of tea and arrived at a panel called ‘Creating Suspense’. The crime authors Sam Baker and Susie Steiner were being interviewed about their latest novels by Stephanie Merritt, and they said some brilliant and insightful things about writing crime (or, ‘grip-lit’, a slightly better term than the awful ‘domestic noir’). It’s a genre I haven’t read a lot of, and one I don’t write in (yet), so it was really interesting to hear their perspectives. I bought a copy of Sam Baker’s new novel, The Woman Who Ran, because it’s inspired by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, and asked her to sign it. It’s a brilliant novel, combining politics, the internet, domestic violence, and Syria, all the while weaving through the links back to Anne Bronte’s original. Sam said she took strands of her favourite writers – Daphne du Maurier, the Brontes, Patricia Highsmith etc. – and tried to combine them. She said there are too many expectations on female characters in crime – the woman is either the victim, or too ‘strong’; they can never just be normal. For her research, most of it involved simply talking to people. A Twitter campaign on domestic violence earned her more abuse than any other campaign (go figure). When she started in journalism in women’s magazines around 1990, every second story involved domestic violence, yet marital rape wasn’t illegal yet. For Sam, suspense is a process of cranking up the tension, then loosening it, then cranking it up once more. Susie Steiner cherry picked from the things she wanted to read about – suspense isn’t just about finding a body, or awful violence. There is suspense in the small things too, like falling in love. It’s on the same spectrum of fear and hope. Susie spent time in the major crime unit with the Cambridge police, and witnessed several murder investigations – women were pretty much always killed by familiar men. All the police she spoke to were really helpful. Susie’s plots become complex through rewriting – she rewrites about 18 times! The first draft is ‘awful’, so rewriting is a pleasure. In rewriting, you can backfill a lot of suspense, and delete the obvious clues left over from first draft. You can trace in new things, and in literary thrillers, the reason the jeopardy matters is that you care about the characters. By engaging the reader’s empathy, jeopardy can be contained in the small things. Susie says that fiction is easier than journalism – it’s freer, more fun and playful because you can go where you want, not where you have to. She also mentioned that she thinks flashbacks are sometimes unnecessary. Often the author has to know something, but not necessarily the reader. Information comes from the orbit of the victim, not from one place, and this is why it’s useful to use multiple characters and narration.
I then went to a panel with Stephanie Merritt, Viv Groskop, and Mark Lawson, who were honouring the theme of this years festival – ‘Forever Young’ – by discussing the 21 best coming-of-age novels. The list was really interesting, and they basically spent the hour arguing in favour or against the inclusion of particular works. They defined coming-of-age as an individual moving from innocence to experience (and of course the German word ‘bildungsroman’ is also a definition in itself). Mark Lawson mentioned the concern he felt at the popularity of Catcher in the Rye (no. 1 on the list), and the glorification and fetishisation of lonership and alienation it contains. He also pointed out that the most often used word in a coming-of-age novel tends to be ‘I’. In The Virgin Suicides, it’s ‘we’, which is highly unusual, due to the books narration. The panel tended to disagree quite a bit regarding Go Set A Watchman. Mark Lawson loved it, and Viv Groskop won’t read it, and it was recommended to the audience to read Sarah Churchwell’s opinion on it, so I’ll definitely look that up. Mark Lawson told a funny anecdote about nearly killing Maya Angelou by accident when he realised he’d accidentally stood on the tube of her oxygen tank, and at the end, they each ‘championed’ a novel – for Viv it was To Kill a Mockingbird, for Stephanie, Jane Eyre, and for Mark, Oranges are not the only fruit – and the audience voted. Mockingbird won by a landslide! At one point they spoke about YA as a genre and how they felt the two distinctions differed – YA vs coming-of-age – and how they intertwined. I disagreed with a few of the things said about YA…there seems to be a tendency to not regard it at a level equal to ‘adult’ literature, and that always grinds my gears. Of course there is plenty of tat within the genre, but there is an outstanding body of work within it to, just as exquisitely written as plenty of adult fiction I have read.
I found lunch at the famous Sally Lunn bun shop (super yummy!) and then it was time for Marian Keyes. Okay, so for those of you who don’t know, Marian Keyes writes ‘commercial women’s fiction’ or ‘chick-lit’, and I apologise if you take issue with either of those terms, as I myself do, but that is what her work is widely known as. They’re always funny, romantic comedies that tend to deal with darker themes such as addiction, depression, and domestic violence. I’ve read all her books and I love them. But she’s also written a lot of journalism and personal publications about her struggles with mental health. She had an awful few years where she contemplated suicide every day and thought she would never be able to write again or do any kind of book promotion or public speaking. She tried so many different ‘cures’ and has come to some really wise realisations about acceptance and how to live life in a way that’s gentle and kind to yourself. Her writing about mental health has helped me so profoundly. When I was going through some of the darkest times of my life, which I have written about on my blog before, I started reading her writing just to feel like I wasn’t alone. Everything she writes about mental health is so relatable, while making me laugh at the same time. And then to see her in front of me, glowing with good health and making jokes and doing the sort of events she thought she would never be able to do again, was such an emotional experience for me. First of all, she is BLOODY TINY!! Like a little Irish elf-queen! She brushed right past me on her way to the stage and I will never wash my jeans again. She was being interviewed by Sali Hughes, and described her new book, Making It Up as I go Along, as a sort of ‘anti-self-help book’. Her husband was sitting about two feet from me, and the audience was enraptured as she spoke about how she has realised during her MITH-ness (Mad-In-The-Head-ness) that we are not meant to be HATT (happy all the time) and how accepting this has, in fact, made her happier. She is a feminist, she has the most gorgeous accent, and she gave us tips on what has worked for her – using Twitter to connect (one time after she tweeted about feeling awful, people who lived near her posted Magnums through her letter box), rising above social media trolls and arsehole journalists who write nasty things about mental illness and call it ‘self-pity’, and working on keeping gratitude lists for help with reflecting. She also passionate about #RepealThe8th, which is a movement in Ireland pushing to decriminalise abortion. She praised fellow Irish writer Louise O’Neill, who I also love, and told us as an audience that ‘there is an awful lot of love and support in the world’, which had us all feeling warm and fuzzy. THEN everything sort of became a massive blur. It came to question time and I had the most eloquent, articulate speech in my head to give her, which basically boiled down to thanking her for her writing about mental health because I think it partially saved my life, and how I was sure I spoke for a lot of people in the room. Instead, it went something like this:
Me (into microphone): Hi Marian, I don’t usually speak up at these things and I’m quite nervous. My heart is pounding.
Marian Keyes: Oh don’t worry, we’re all friends here!
Me: Okay, I just wanted to say thank you for the writing you’ve done about your mental health and I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that- *huge sniff*-it’s okay, I’m not going to cry- *proceeds to burst into noisy tears*
Everyone else: makes cooing noises and tries to comfort me.
Me: BLUB BLUB GARH I’ve been through some SNIFF hard stuff and GAHHHH BLUH BLUB I think your writing saved my life SNIFF BLUB GAH and I FLSJKEJKJNX just wanted to BDLJHESH say thanks
I hurriedly hand the microphone back and try to wipe my nose
Marian Keyes: That’s so kind, and the best thing I can say to you is to just endure. Endure when things get terrible.
Me: I’m feeling JFBLJDH better, I don’t know GAHRBLUB why I’m crying.
Thankfully, we moved on quickly to the next question. After the talk, we all got up to go and get our books signed, and a whole lot of people came up to check if I was okay and to thank me for speaking up and to say they understood and everything and it was really nice, but every time someone spoke to me I’d feel myself welling up again! Gah, it was awful! I have rarely been more embarrassed. When I got to the front of the signing queue, Marian was her usual beautiful self and signed my book, listened while I explained that I really have been feeling better, and have in fact just moved to the UK from Australia (something I thought I would never be able to do) and when I’d finished speaking she told me to be kind to myself, and I think I’m going to get it tattooed so I’ll never forget she told me to.
Feeling emotionally crippled, I went outside to call Sean and tell him about it, and then cried all over again (not really surprising). THEN, I composed myself and went back to the venue for the final event I had tickets to – Writing History, with Stephanie Merritt and Kate Williams, chaired by James Long. Kate Williams is a social historian who has written lots of books and appeared on television lots. Stephanie Merritt writes books set in the 1580s about Giordano Bruno – her latest is set in France with the crazy House of Valois royal family. It was a wonderful panel and the women were wonderful speakers, but to be honest, I was so emotionally wrought after the Marian Keyes event, that I didn’t take this event in like I wanted to! I did however, have a good chat to both authors afterwards as they signed my books for me, talking about Anne of Green Gables and Reign of all things!
I went back to the hostel afterwards and chatted with my roommates for a bit. I’ve met some lovely people on this trip, and the weird thing about hostels and travel in general is that you meet all sorts of great folk and you might have a couple of hours of deep and meaningful chats, and might never learn their names! I’ve started adding more people on Facebook because of this – it’s always nice to reconnect later.
The next morning I stumbled across a lovely book shop – Mr B’s Emporium – and managed to only buy one book. They have a bibliotherapy room with complimentary tea and coffee. I also spent some time in front of a real estate agents window fantasising about being able to buy a Grade II listed manor property with 5 bedrooms and a woodland for the price of an inner-city Melbourne apartment. But then, it was off to the Jane Austen Centre! This was a lovely little museum, smaller than I expected, but with an introductory talk about Jane’s life and a film with Adrian Lukis about her time in Bath, so the 11 pound entrance fee is more than fair. They have costumes and signed posters from the film adaptations and a much-publicised wax mannequin of Jane, as well as a display of the different portraits associated with Jane over the years. They also have a lovely tea room on the top floor. I had lunch with a girl from my hostel who is from New Zealand and traveling around the UK with her partner and we drank ‘Jane Austen blend’ tea and talked about books and travel. Bliss! Oh, and I only bought one book from the museum because I am disciplined as. I spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the souvenir shops (I bought the Bath Gin with Jane Austen winking on the label. It’s a pure tourist trap – Jane never mentioned gin in any writing – but it was cute, so I got it). I went to the library and read some of the books that I have bought over the past couple of days (I needed to save some money, as I spent way more than I meant to over the festival), and then I chatted more with my roommates. By the time I got back to Edinburgh the next night, we were ready to sign the lease for our new apartment – one of the only things worth leaving Bath after only three days for!