2018 has been mad and wonderful

I’m aware it’s not the end of the year yet, but I did realise how long it has been since an update, so I feel as though I should document it all before it grows even more unwieldy. I’ve thrown chronology out the window – it’s all already happened, so the order is not important (and I’m pretty sure about three people read this blog apart from myself, so it matters even less!)

New places I have seen in Scotland (and some I have revisited) include: North Berwick, Dunbar (and the fabulous CoastWord festival), my beloved Scottish Borders (especially Scott’s View and Dryburgh Abbey), my even more beloved Loch Ness and Glencoe, and the utterly fabulous Moniack Mhor writers retreat. We have also bought a CAR (huzzah!) which means we can take leisurely drives to lovely places (such as Dalgety Bay) whenever we fancy it. We have also had visitors, which has made some of this travel even better! The Moniack Mhor writers retreat has been long-awaited, and was even better than I imagined – brilliant people, feedback for my novel, interesting stories, wonderful food, and the most beautiful surroundings to write in. I must go back as soon as I am able!

Edinburgh has continued to delight us. We have moved house yet again, but hopefully for the last time in a decent while. Our new flat is gorgeous and very spacious, but I do miss living right by the Water of Leith (especially after brand new baby cygnets were born in May that we have watched grow up!). I was lucky enough to do more cat sitting, to see the beehives that my friend helps to looks after in Polwarth, and to take advantage of the enormous range of events taking place on a daily basis in Edinburgh – including a night with Caitlin Moran, the launch of my friend’s translation of German spoken word poetry, and the many glories of the Edinburgh International Book Festival! This year I saw Ruth Jones, Greg Wise, Alison Weir, the launch of the SPL’s new poetry anthology for teachers, and I was also lucky enough to run a Nothing But The Poem session on the poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Professional development has been a joy for me this year – I was accepted into the Knowledge Exchange Week 2018 run by the University of Edinburgh in June. This conference runs for a week, and I was one of two delegates from Scotland (the rest of the delegates were from Europe or Argentina). This also included my first ever conference presentation (just a wee one) and I presented on poetry indexing. I met some amazing people and saw some truly brilliant libraries in Edinburgh that I had not had the chance to see before. I have also tried to attend as many events as possible run by ELISA and CILIPS, including the Librarians Uncorked sessions, visits to local libraries and archives (again, several I have not seen before), and have enrolled in chartership. Exciting times!

Finally, I have had two brief but enjoyable jaunts down south. In June, Sean and I went down to Hampshire to meet up with some beloved colleagues (and special guests) from the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. Seeing Chawton House through the eyes of the family that once lived there was a brilliant experience, and I even got to meet Simon Langton and Susannah Harker (the director of the 1995 BBC production of Pride & Prejudice, and the brilliant actress who played Jane Bennet in said production!) It was also a pleasure to meet my fellow JALF volunteers in person – wonderful women who I have corresponded with for months, but was not able to meet until now! Can’t wait to do it all again next year.

I also had a weekend in York, though did not get to see any of the city this time – because I was in a hotel all weekend taking part in the Bronte Society’s 2018 conference celebrating Emily’s bicentenary! What a treat – to hear some brilliant academics and speakers discuss Wuthering Heights, Emily’s poetry, and the various representations of Emily herself was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it was lovely to reconnect with some delegates I had met two years previously for Charlotte’s bicentenary conference, as well as meet new people.

Well, thats’s all for now. I am currently in the midst of a fabulous holiday with my parents and grandmother which involves traipsing all about the Highlands and other places in Scotland, but I wanted that to be its own post – hence my tardy update to bring this blog up-to-date for the rest of the year so far.

Until then!

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A very late update

August has been such a bizarre, wonderful month. The Edinburgh International Book Festival was such a great experience last year, and this year I got to be part of it! I was part of Story Shop 2017, which involved reading my work in the Speigeltent one afternoon. I met the nicest people while doing this – the lovely staff at the City of Literature, my fellow Storyshoppers (all 17 of us!), and previous participants who came to support us. It was even live streamed on Periscope so my parents could watch it from Melbourne. I even met one of the judges of The Emerging Writer Award – the award I was lucky enough to win second place in earlier this year. She was watching my reading totally by chance!

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I also was lucky enough to chair an event. The brilliant poets J.L. Williams and Rachael Boast were appearing together and I was privileged to introduce them and ask them a few questions after their reading. We had a small, appreciative audience, and the poets signed some books afterwards.

I went to so many events! It was wonderful to see such a wide variety of writers, and I can’t possibly list them all here, but a selection of the people I got to watch/meet/chat to includes: Geraldine McCaughrean, Katherine Rundell, Amy Liptrot, Donald Smith, Beth Underdown, Kirsty Logan, the contributors to the Nasty Women anthology, Jo Baker and the nominees and winners of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Polly Clark, Annalena McAfee, Meg Rosoff, Zadie Smith, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Brian Bilston, Daniel Piper, Hera Lindsay Bird, Vanessa Kisuule, Ali Smith, Sarah Dunant, Jenny Lindsay, Rachael McCrum, Sara Hirsch, Jo Whitby, A New International, Chris McQueer, Claire Askew, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, Russell Jones, Harry Giles, Jane Yolen, and Finola Scott.

Other festival-type fringey bits:

Edinburgh International Film Festival – we went to a screening of Final Portrait, Stanley Tucci’s directorial debut starring Geoffrey Rush, Clemence Poesy, and Armie Hammer. Stanley Tucci himself was there to introduce it! We also went to a screening of Born in Flames, the 1983 dystopian film written and directed by Lizzie Borden, who was also there to answer questions afterwards!

Edinburgh Festival Fringe – I saw Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, a one-woman show that resets the poem in the American South. I wasn’t sure how well it would work, but I was pleasantly surprised. Jennifer Jewell is a wonderful performer. We also went to Lilith: The Jungle Girl at the Traverse, and it was like watching a socially-conscious episode of The Mighty Boosh onstage. Loved every weird minute of it!

Golden Hare bookshop – I went to the Hear Hare Hear event with Christine De Luca, Katie Ailes, and Iain Morrison reading. These three poets are always interesting, and it was a pleasure to chat to them afterwards (and win a prize in the raffle!). I was also a guest on Bibliophile, the podcast produced by Golden Hare, where we discussed the modernization of classic texts. It was great fun to be involved!

Travel wise, we’ve had a wee day trip to St Andrews…

…and a few days in London. It was a pleasure to go with Sean’s sister, it being her first trip there, and I spent most of it wandering around the Brick Lane market or in the National Portrait Gallery, getting acquainted with history and saying hi to the Bronte’s.

We stayed in a hostel in Swiss Cottage for a couple of nights and saw Tim Burton buying breakfast in a delicatessen, then I stayed in Soho with a lovely couple I met at the Bronte conference last year. I saw Eddie Izzard walking down Carnaby St. I finished my trip with a visit to the delightful Persephone Books.

Brace yourself for a level of nerdiness that surpasses even my own past efforts: I’ve managed to join two book clubs, three societies (Jane Austen, Bronte, and Richard III), and am looking forward to the festival finishing so I can get back into the walking group as well. The 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death was marked with a church service and another meeting involved Dr Cheryl Kinney from the USA lecturing on Persuasion and Austen’s use of illness and injury in her novels.

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I have also been hard at work editing Pride & Possibilities and have been loving the contributions I get to work with! I’ve done two online courses – one that tied into the book festival and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize called How to read a novel and one on the life and times of Richard III – and have been working on my professional development for the scheme I am enrolled in, including attending a seminar at the National Library of Scotland on the RDA update and a workshop at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow on libraries, social inequality, and activism. I’m also about to embark on another online course focused on Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, and this can be claimed for my professional development as well, thank goodness!

And amongst all this, I have been attempting to take care of the everyday business of life, and prepare for a longer stay in Edinburgh. I had a haircut – bless the lovely hairdresser and her poker face when I told her it hadn’t been cut in almost two years.

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I’m going to run out of time to get my wisdom teeth out this year, but next year it will happen, mark my words! We are moving to a larger, more comfortable flat and we have booked flights back to Aus to take care of our visa requirements. I have been treasuring the Skypes and the correspondence from Australia, as well as the groups of friends I have made here – dinners, afternoon teas, and drinks have been some of the most enjoyable times in the last couple of months! We have had numerous visitors from Australia and from other parts of the UK and Europe and it’s been brilliant to revisit those friendships. Also, I am now a cat-sitter – spent a weekend last month with the handsome fellow below, and looking forward to next month when I get to sit for two kitties at once.

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Well, if you’ve got to the bottom of this blog post, congratulations. You must be my parents – hi, Mum and Dad! I’m off to rest my sore typing fingers in ice and to prepare for a hopefully quiet few months before we skip back to Melbourne for a visit.

The Brontes in Brussels

I love a good excuse to travel. This trip to Belgium came about entirely due to an earlier trip – when I went to Manchester for the Bronte Society conference last year.

One of the speakers at that conference, Helen MacEwan, is the founder of the Brussels Bronte Group, and she had mentioned to me the dates of their upcoming events. Saturday April 1st was a double lecture and Sunday April 2nd was one of their guided walking tours of Brussels. What better excuse to book some flights and a couple of extra days to sightsee?

So after our lovely couple of days in Bruges, I made my way to the Universite Saint-Louis (managing to order my breakfast in French, hooray!) and listened to Helen deliver a lecture on Charlotte’s legacy in Brussels, and what the Belgians thought of it. It was a wonderful, very interesting lecture – Charlotte is not known for her kind remarks about Brussels and, in fact, said some quite nasty things about Belgium and the Belgians. And of course, she was struggling with the agony of unrequited love while staying here – Monsieur Heger, a married man, ran the Pensionnat where Emily and Charlotte were staying and was the object of Charlotte’s affections.

Both Villette and The Professor were heavily inspired by Charlotte’s experiences, and both novels are filled with thinly-veiled autobiographical detail. Charlotte and Emily lived in Brussels between 1842 and 1843. Charlotte was there for longer – Emily was far more homesick, and refused to go back after returning home for Aunt Branwell’s funeral. The girls had originally gone to Belgium to gain a proper education in French and perhaps German in order to open their own school back at Haworth. Helen has written extensively and brilliantly on the sisters’ time in Belgium and I would strongly recommend her book The Brontes in Brussels.

We broke for lunch and I ate mine (ordered in French again!) in the Botanic Gardens overlooking a pond. There were the tiniest ducklings I had ever seen, as well as tortoises, two very self-important mallards, moorhens, and even a small marsupial that might have been a water vole or a rat…I’m not actually reading a Bronte novel at the moment. I’m getting through L.M. Montgomery’s backlist and am up to Rilla of Ingleside (yes, reading it for the first time – shame!) I was thoroughly enjoying it, while still managing to get distracted by the menagerie of animal life around me.

After lunch we rejoined for a talk from Sam Jordison focusing on the Brontes in the public eye. This turned into a discussion of Haworth, and why the village made it into a series called Crap Towns that Sam has written about the worst places to live in the UK. He made a few points worth noting though – Haworth used to be such a health hazard, that it is no wonder the Brontes didn’t live longer. Now the town that killed them is cashing in on their legacy! It’s a harsh viewpoint, but an interesting one.

After the talk a large group of us went to the pub where I had a proper Belgian hot chocolate, before I met up with Sean again. We took a quick excursion to Waterstones to buy Helen’s book and then went back to Bier Circus for dinner – it was so lovely we just had to revisit. On the way home, Sean bought me a proper Belgian waffle – they are best with no toppings because the dough they are made with is so good on it’s own!!

The next morning it was the guided walk around the Bronte related places in Brussels. It started out the front of the Chapelle Royale, the Protestant Church of Brussels. Charlotte and Emily worshipped here on Sundays. It’s in the Place du Musee, which also houses the site of a former art salon that Charlotte attended. From here, we walked up to the Place Royale and the Parc de Bruxelles, both of which Charlotte would have been very familiar with, and both of which appear as disguised locations in Villette. Down the Belliard steps, just across the road from the Parc de Bruxelles, is the former site of the Pensionnat Heger. It has been completely demolished, and nothing remains, but the research by Helen and others has placed it almost exactly. A plaque was mounted in 1979 to mark the location. We finished up on Rue Villa Hermosa, one of the only streets left that would have been there in Charlotte’s time, and used to lead directly to the Pensionnat.

We had lunch in the garden of the Belvue Museum in the blazing sunshine and chatted, trying to keep ourselves from snoozing in the unseasonable warmth. Then Sean and I made two more Bronte pit stops – first, to see another, less legal plaque that was put up in honour of the Brontes about fifteen years ago and never removed, and second, to see the inside of the Cathedral of Saint Gudule. This enormous church was where a desperate Charlotte made confession on the night of September 1st, 1843, despite not being Catholic – another event that made it into the pages of Villette.

Afterwards, we had time to kill and gorgeous weather, so we drank more beers and tea, sat in the sun, ate frites and a massive meringue-and-cream confection, and eventually moseyed to the airport. Despite the holiday being busy, I really did feel rested afterwards. Perhaps it was the sun, or the beautiful scenery that did it. I would go back to Belgium in a second, regardless.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child! And other things…

 

So quite a bit has happened since my last foray into blogging, the main event being that my beloved friend Michelle came to stay! She came to Europe for about three weeks and arrived in Edinburgh to visit us first. It was the best thing in the world to see her (and an excuse to revisit Edinburgh and Craigmillar Castles, as well as eat lots of cake and take a very jet-lagged guest to the final night of Harry Potter trivia)

She traipsed off to Austria and Slovenia to go paragliding(!) and other fun things and Sean and I got our tourist on again and went to several events that were fundamentally Scottish:

Neu! Reekie! Celts! – Neu! Reekie! Is a monthly showcase of music and poetry and film (all very avant-garde and interesting) and this one took place in the National Museum of Scotland to mark the end of the Celts exhibition. Highlights included Liz-freaking-Lochhead, fast becoming my favourite poet of all time; Charlotte Church – yes, that Charlotte Church – and her 10-piece electro-pop orchestra; free whisky tastings; and free entry into the exhibition, which we’ve seen before but did again because it’s amazing.

Doors Open Day – similar to Open Doors Day in Melbourne – we went to the Canongate Kirk and the John Knox House. I’d been to the John Knox House before but Sean had not, and it was interesting to see it again because I had the audio guide this time that told me a bit more. We had been to the Canongate Kirkyard before – it holds several people of note, including the poet Robert Fergusson and what is rumoured to be the body of Mary, Queen of Scots’ murdered secretary, David Rizzio. But the actual church I had not seen inside, and it is, surprisingly, strikingly modern inside. It actually felt a bit nautical with the colour scheme and the various insignia adorning the interior.

McGonagall nite – a night of bad poetry, music, and speeches celebrating the life of William McGonagall, fondly remembered as Scotland’s worst poet. It began in Greyfriars Kirkyard where he is buried (interestingly, it is his gravestone that J K Rowling was supposedly inspired by to name Hogwarts’ Transfiguration Professor and general all-round badass, Minerva McGonagall). The bagpipes played a lament, and then we followed the piper through the streets to the Captain’s Bar, a FANTASTIC little pub that sits below the flat he died in. There, we were treated to more bagpipes, many poetry readings of severely awful poetry, and speeches about his life. We were instructed to stand and toast everytime his name was mentioned, reciting the phrase ‘Sir William Topaz McGonagall, poet and tragedian, Knight of the White Elephant of Burma’ – the way he styled himself. What an unapologetic sweetheart. Loved every moment!

The Palace of Holyroodhouse – I finally went to see this palace with my friend Sophie. We wanted to catch the end of an exhibition of the Queen’s outfits, currently being shown around the UK to celebrate her 90th birthday. It was a smaller exhibition than I expected (the bulk of the collection being in Buckingham Palace), but the garments on display were incredible. They were accompanied with photos of Her Majesty wearing them, as well as information about the design and designers. The Holyrood Palace segment of the exhibition obviously included all the royal tartans and the robes she wears as head of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle – Scotland’s order of chivalry. But of course, we got to see the rest of the Palace itself. It is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, so still a working palace, but you can go through the historic State Apartments when they are not in use and even see the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots (including the rooms where her secretary was attacked and murdered in front of a heavily pregnant Mary). Intense and amazing experience. I have a yearly ticket now, so will go back another time and do it again. There was so much to take in at once, so, like Edinburgh Castle, if you can manage a second visit or multiple visits, it is worth it. There are also the ruins of Holyrood Abbey to see and the beautiful Palace grounds, overlooking Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags.

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Other things I have done that warrant a mention:

  • Bridget Jones’s Baby! Loved it! Was worried it would not live up to the first two, but I was happily reassured. Renee Zellweger is luminous. I laughed loudly. A perfect success!
  • Went to a launch of a literary journal, edited by a friend of mine. The theme of this edition was poetry in translation, so the launch included some beautiful performances of multi-lingual music and spoken word.
  • Went to Stockbridge with a friend and visited Golden Hare Books, potentially my new favourite bookstore in Edinburgh. A beautiful oasis of calm and quiet. Dangerous for the bank account.
  • Had a corporate induction at work! Not particularly exciting, but important nonetheless.

However, the main purpose of this blog was to tell you about London. I’ve had this trip booked for months, but only found out when Michelle arrived a couple of weeks ago that she would be here too! So I’ve spent the last couple of days with Michelle again! We have continued our tourism-and-cake escapades, doing a walking tour of the Old City of London and finding the most charming little bakery (Primrose Bakery) to treat ourselves to some delicious cake-ventures. The walking tour included all kinds of historic information about the actual City of London (as opposed to Greater London) that boggle the mind, and finished by part of the Roman Wall. Definitely a solid recommendation from me! I also nerded out and went to get my one-year Reader Pass from the British Library – now I have no excuse! I have to return for study. I stayed at a hostel near to Kings Cross – six-bed dorm, free and simple breakfast, and GOOD SHOWERS for about 20 pounds a night. If you’re not afraid of roughing it in a hostel, I would recommend it (ask for a bottom bunk as the top bunks can’t reach the power points to charge your phone…)

But. But. The reason for my visit. A Facebook contact in Melbourne had mentioned months ago that she had a ticket to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child going begging. I had written off this experience, convinced when the tickets went on sale that I didn’t have the money or even the knowledge I would be in the UK when the play was on. I knew we were going to Edinburgh, but I didn’t know if it was going to work out, if I’d be in a position to get to London over six months after we had arranged to leave Australia. What if we had to come home and my money was wasted? But now, settled in Edinburgh, knowing this was happening for the long haul, I was able to seize the opportunity. I went to the launch of the play script earlier this year, got my copy, and DIDN’T TOUCH IT. I wanted the proper experience, seeing it onstage without knowing anything about the story and allowing myself to be surprised by the spectacle. I know this sounds smug – I’m sorry, I don’t mean to – and it frustrates me that this is such an exclusive experience. It’s a financial and geographical privilege that I don’t think should be associated with a story this popular. I appreciate that the script was released worldwide to allow readers everywhere to know what happens, but scripts are not written to be read, they are written to be performed. And that means that unless you have the means to get to London and pay for a ticket, you are excluded from seeing this story the way it was conceived to be seen. There are stage directions in the script that are just that – stage directions. They can’t possibly compare with the awesome and intense experience that actors, music, sets, costume, special effects, and the feeling of being part of an enraptured audience brings to the table. And enraptured we were. Spontaneous applause, laughter, audible gasping and (in some cases) swearing were all heard throughout the show from the spectators, and there was a standing ovation at the end.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show like it. It is in two parts – you are supposed to see Part One as a matinee and Part Two in the evening, OR Part One and Part Two on consecutive evenings. Both parts are just over two and a half hours long including a twenty minute interval in each, which leaves us with a show more-or-less four and a half hours long. The actors must be absolutely knackered at the end of every day. I don’t want to spoil anything, so this review won’t, but I am more than happy to discuss in private with people that have read or seen it, or people that don’t mind being spoiled. All I will say is this: the storyline was 100% not what I expected. I don’t exactly know what I expected, but it wasn’t that. I am so glad I stayed away from the script! But it was 100% more wonderful than anything I expected as well. The magic onstage was an interesting mix – half of it seemed to be more stylized – you could see how the magic had been created and carried off, but it worked as part of the show. The other half was just baffling. We were sitting five rows from the front in the stalls with a perfect view, and I was completely stumped by how some of it was done and I was looking very carefully. The casting – utterly perfect. Ron, Harry, Hermione, Ginny, Draco and all the other characters we know were up there on stage and I might have even shed a tear or two watching them deal with the crazy shit J. K. Rowling and the two dudes she wrote the show with put them through. It probably took me about ten or fifteen minutes to get used to seeing the actors as the characters – they are all very different from the portrayals we are used to for obvious reasons – they’ve aged. But the characterisation was nearly perfect. I suppose if I had one criticism it would be that Ginny was too similar to movie-Ginny rather than book-Ginny…but it is a small criticism indeed.

The ‘new’ characters (ie the ones we didn’t meet properly in the book or film series) were wonderful, the sets were a masterpiece, and the music by Imogen Heap put it on another level entirely. Most of all, it was entertaining. It’s without a doubt the longest show I have seen and I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want this journey to be finished again.

I know some people have been disappointed with parts of it and that is understandable – this series and this world means so much to so many people. It is impossible to please everyone and to take the story in a direction that all the billions of fans would agree with. I feel very lucky that I was one of the ones who loved it, who will treasure the memory of seeing it onstage forever. I’m sure it will tour, and I’m sure it will end up on screen in some sort of format at some stage. I hope everyone who wants to see it gets the chance. I would thoroughly, heartily recommend it.

So yeah, I didn’t really sleep after seeing it. Was too excited, with it all running through my head. I should also mention that the two girls I saw the show with were lovely. They were obviously friends of the girl back in Melbourne that I had bought the ticket from, so I didn’t meet them in person until I was at the theatre. But they were great, and took me to see the House of Minalima between shows, which is the shop set up by the graphic designers of the film series. It’s like a kooky little museum of all the different designs used in the Potter franchise, from the textbook covers, to the letters, the ‘Wanted’ posters, and the Marauders Map. It is insanely expensive so I didn’t buy anything, but you are permitted to take photos! We went for Spanish for dinner, briefly saw Michelle who brought me hazelnut and carrot cake because she is brilliant, and I stopped on my walk back home to help two tourists whose phones weren’t working and apartment wasn’t open. I should have slept really well! But I was too busy thinking of Harry.

I checked out after breakfast the next morning and met Michelle at Kings Cross where we stored our luggage and browsed the Harry Potter shop (of course). Then we had a cup of tea and visited the Treasures of the Collection exhibition at the British Library. This exhibition is one of the best in London (says me, a librarian, of course) and includes original books and documents that pretty much shaped society as we know it. I think the earliest item I saw was an 8th century Qu’ran, but there may have been something(s) older. Obviously the main attractions for myself were Jane Austen’s writing desk, a draft of Persuasion, letters from Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, and the Brontë material, which include a mini-exhibition on Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea.

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There is so much else in there though – the Magna Carta! Gutenberg’s Bible! Handwritten documents from The Beatles! Beowulf! DaVinci’s notebooks! I would definitely see it if you have an interest in history. And it’s free! After we left the library, there was time for one final cake date at Kings Cross before I had to say goodbye to Michelle. I will miss her so much! But seeing her and spending the time with her that I did was good for my soul.

The train ride home went fairly quickly – I was devouring the Cursed Child script, finally, with the memories of the night before playing through my head as I read. Back to reality now, but a pleasant reality it is. I really doubt my next blog is going to be this exciting….

Farewell to the festival

Just a wee post to summarise the last few events of August that I have attended. I am exhausted, but exhilarated, and I can’t wait for next year! I’ve still managed to fit in work and recover from a cold this week, so I’m feeling pretty accomplished.

Meg Rosoff – so great to finally see this author in person!! I am a huge fan of her work and she was so warm and friendly and funny and took the time to have a good chat with everyone in the signing queue. She has recently won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, placing her alongside the likes of Sonya Hartnett and Shaun Tan, two Australians who are previous recipients.

Jane Austen Society Scottish Branch meeting – okay, so not a festival event, but an important one nonetheless. This was unfortunately accompanied by some awful news – Nora Bartlett, the American academic who spoke at the meeting in May, has very recently passed away after a short, fierce battle with cancer. She was immensely kind to me when I met her in May and was still finding my feet in a new city. She was really welcoming and spoke to me a lot about St Andrews where she lived and her work and career, and was very encouraging when we chatted about my own career and literary aspirations. By all accounts, she was a popular and well-loved person, and her loss was quite a shock for a lot of people. After this news was imparted to us though, we were treated to a wonderful talk from another American academic, Dr Sheryl Craig, who spoke to us about William Wickham. He was the real-life head of the British secret service and Jane Austen named Pride and Prejudice’s infamous cad after him. He was a colourful character, to say the least. He laundered millions of pounds over the course of his career and ran a large network of spies that included the actual, real-life Scarlet Pimpernel. Naming a character after him was a very politically charged literary device of Jane’s – it’s sort of the 19th century equivalent of naming a character ‘George Trump’.

Claire Harman – I saw her speak only a week ago at the Brontë conference, but I couldn’t resist a ticket to her event at the Book Festival. She did not disappoint, and even after being steeped in Brontë information last weekend, I still learned new things about Charlotte and her family after hearing this talk. I finally got to meet her in the signing queue and got to tell her how much I had enjoyed her talk at the conference as well.

Joanne Harris – I have been reading Joanne Harris’s books since I was about thirteen years old – over half my life. I have read every book she has ever published except the cookbooks and she was the first author who I remember going to an event for and getting my book signed. I told her all this in the signing queue today of course, because I can’t shut up when I get near writers who I admire. Her newest book, Different Class, is a sort of sister book to Gentlemen & Players, which is perhaps my favourite book of hers (after Chocolat).

We’ve said farewell to some Australian friends that we met over here who are moving back to Australia, and welcomed some friends of ours from Melbourne who are here on holidays (with more coming later this week). I do plan on having a much quieter month though, sleeping and saving money and reading all my new books!

Brontë Society Conference 2016

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My brain feels like it is leaking out my ears in the best possible way. The 2016 Brontë Society conference has just concluded and I am drinking tea in a Manchester café trying to process everything I have heard over the last 48 hours. It has been a brilliant weekend, full of thought-provoking, challenging, fantastic ideas and new readings and theories that were both surprising and strange. I had previously deliberated over attending, unsure if I could justify the cost to myself. I am so, so glad I went with my gut. Not only was it Charlotte’s bicentenary (and therefore a once-in-a-lifetime event), but it fitted nicely with my philosophy of trying everything in the UK that is unavailable to me back in Australia. I’m very lucky that I was able to find the money and go.

The Midland hotel in Manchester is just as grand as I had imagined, and is far more pricey than the usual hostel dorms I would travel in, so it was nice to spoil myself for a few days. After taking the train from Edinburgh, grabbing some lunch, and checking in, the afternoon kicked off with an introductory lecture from Professor Christine Alexander on Charlotte Brontë’s early literary ambitions. The theme of the conference was: “the business of a woman’s life” – Charlotte Brontë and the Woman Question. This title refers to the infamous exchange between Charlotte at the age of twenty and the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, who (probably meaning well) advised her that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be”. Professor Alexander’s lecture was therefore well-placed to introduce us to Charlotte as a young writer, and explore how this advice was to affect her literary trajectory, transitioning from her copious amounts of juvenilia through to her adult, post-teaching career as a novelist.

This was followed by a drinks reception doubling as a launch for a bicentenary publication by the Bronte Society – Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre. The authors, Professor Alexander and Sara L. Pearson were both present to sign our copies and tell us about the writing process, and so commenced my potentially unwise spending spree at the conference book stall. Dinner was lovely, and was my first proper opportunity to get to know the other delegates. The Brontë community is exceedingly welcoming and warm – all weekend I was introduced and included and drawn into friendly conversations, given phone numbers and email addresses, and engaged in fascinating discussion with my fellow Brontëphiles. After dinner, Helen MacEwan, who has written extensively on the Brontë’s experiences in Brussels, gave a talk on how the Belgians perceive Charlotte, both in the past and present. As Charlotte was generally less than complimentary towards Belgium and its inhabitants, this talk was quite funny, though Helen MacEwan was careful to detail the reasons why Charlotte held the opinions that she did. Helen was written extensively on Belgium and the Brontës, and guides literary tours around Brussels, for which I will now commence saving…

My bed was king-size, comfy, and I was too fast asleep to properly appreciate it. Breakfast was enormous and delicious, served buffet-style with all manner of options you can imagine. Unfortunately I had not bought my bathers with me, otherwise I would have been sure to use the spa/sauna/relaxation pool available and fully enjoy the hotel experience. But it didn’t matter – we started again promptly at 9.30am on Saturday morning for the keynote address from Professor Germaine Greer. I just can’t overestimate how wonderful this was. It was bold and controversial (no surprises there, it was written by Germaine Greer), and argued that Jane Eyre as a text broaches the last great taboo, positioning Rochester as a father-figure and Jane as the daughter-figure and seducer of the father. Basically labelling the novel as an exploration of father-daughter incest is an unusual claim to make in a room full of Brontë devotees, but in true Greer fashion, she was unapologetic without being aggressive, firm in her words while inviting us to argue with her, and presented some truly nuanced and brilliant observations on femininity, physicality, the relationship between Patrick Brontë and his children, and Charlotte herself. I know Germaine Greer is a divisive figure, and there are positions of hers that I most definitely disagree with, but hearing her speak was an honour, and a memory I will cherish forever.

Tea and cake played a large role in this conference. There were lots of breaks for both, and it delighted me. After a short indulgence, we re-assembled to hear a group of speakers discussing Charlotte Brontë’s 20th century impact – Dr Siv Jansson on the biographical films of the Brontës, Dr Catherine Han on contemporary literary adaptations and how they relate to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 seminal critical text, The Madwoman in the Attic, and Dr Sarah E Fanning on feminism and representations of Jane Eyre on screen. All of these presentations were wonderful, and this section was a conference highlight for me.

After lunch, a group of us went to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, and although the visit was a bit rushed, it was a delight to see the residence that Charlotte had visited during her friendship with Mrs Gaskell and hear about the way the Gaskell family lived and worked. I will definitely return for a longer visit at a later date.

We returned to the hotel just in time for the next set of speakers, discussing the theme of writing and a woman’s life – Heather Williams on the plight of unwed daughters standing in as substitute wives for their widowed fathers in Victorian literature, Professor Temma Berg on the business and representation of coquetting in fiction, and Dr Jian Choe on Charlotte’s urban experiences and the impact on her life and art. (Unfortunately Dr Choe was not present, but the paper was read to us by Jan Lee). Dinner was a formal affair followed by a talk by Claire Harman on the lives of Charlotte’s schoolfriends, Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey, and their behaviour and influence on Charlotte’s work. I really enjoyed this talk, though by this time it was so late that I couldn’t absorb it as thoroughly as I wanted – I am looking forward to seeing it reproduced in print further down the line, hopefully.

This morning after another delicious breakfast, Professor Sally Shuttleworth spoke to us about justice and injustice in Charlotte Brontë’s fiction, particularly as seen through the experience of the child characters. Professor Shuttleworth has written extensively on child psychology and how this is represented in literature of the Victorian period, and just happens to be Professor of English Literature at Oxford so, y’know, she knows what she is talking about. A truly brilliant lecture. We leapt straight into the last section afterwards, on employment, education and economics. Margaret Mills was also absent, so the Vice President of the Brontë Society, Dr Patsy Stoneman, read her article on education and employment in Charlotte’s work, while Professor Joanne Rostek spoke about feminist economics and different economic readings of Shirley, and Professor Deborah Wynne discussed the influence of the textile trade and manufacturing industries of Yorkshire and how they framed Charlotte’s life and work.

And just like that, the conference was finished! Thanks were given and lunch was eaten, contact details were exchanged and goodbyes were said. It has been an absolutely mind-blowing experience for myself, and I am trying to figure out how to get back in 2018 after my visa has expired in order to attend Emily Brontë’s bicentenary conference…

I have to finish writing this blog now. My mind needs a rest, but I wanted to get all the details down before I forgot them! My train leaves shortly and this café is closing soon, so until next time, you will find me reading my enormous pile of new books.

 

Fringe!

Okay, now for something a little cheerier than my last post.

It’s August! Which means if you live in Edinburgh, it’s the most expensive time of year! (But also the best time of year.) It’s the FESTIVAL. And when I say “the festival”, I mean it’s actually a whole bunch of festivals including but not limited to: The Edinburgh International Festival, The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and The Edinburgh International Book Festival. And I have spend hundreds of pounds on tickets. I tried to save some money in July to prepare, but I still managed to catch up with some good pals from Aus (Picks, Amy, Alison, Tim, and Helen), go to the Real Mary King’s Close (finally! A super cool underground Edinburgh tour), and go to the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child launch party at Waterstones (insanely fun. Totally worth the $ and nerd points).

But now August has begun, and with it, the Fringe! So far I’ve seen eight shows. I’m going to summarise them super briefly because I aim to do the same for every event I go to this month and it’s going to get real lengthy real quickly if I’m not careful.

Paper Hearts: The Musical – really sweet musical set in a bookshop, jumping between today’s world and the world of the novel that the protagonist is writing (war-torn Russia). The music was outstanding, and the cast doubled as the orchestra, a bit like in Once.

S’Pun – pretty much an hour-long stream of puns. Look, it was great. We sat in the front row and got roped into lots of good bits, and I didn’t want to throw myself out a window when it finished which is how I usually feel about puns, so well done Darren Walsh.

Jane Eyre: An Autobiography – a one-woman version of Jane Eyre by a truly consummate actress. Her energy amazed me. I often find it a little awkward when so many characters are being crammed into one space, but she pulled this off with aplomb.

Rhapsodes – saw these guys in Bath earlier this year and fell in love, so I took Sean along with me this time and they were just as brilliant. They improvise a new “Shakespearean” play, making sure they stick to all sorts of complicated rhyme schemes and using material suggested by the audience. Sean and I became characters in the play (represented by masks) in a segment on Brexit…

Dolly Wants to Die – with Helen Monks aka Germaine from Raised by Wolves!! She plays a doll who is suicidal but can’t kill herself because…she’s a doll…actually had some poignant things to say about the state of the world today and the poverty and anxiety currently bulldozing our generation.

The Bookbinder – creepy, Gaiman-esque fairytale about an apprentice bookbinder and his adventures, with some truly beautiful props to help tell the tale. So nice to hear a New Zealand accent as well! Done by Trick of the Light theatre.

Nzinga, Warrior Queen – Mara Menzies is an amazing performer and I was sitting next to her mum in the audience! This is a true story about a seventeenth century African queen who defended her people from the invading Portuguese forces.

Leaf by Niggle – this was recommended to me by a dear friend because she has read the short story it is based on. It’s by Tolkien! One man tells the story to us, but before he does, he shows us all the beautiful props and artefacts that he’s going to use and tells us their real history, all from his family attic. Just gorgeous.

So that was a full weekend, and it’s back to work tomorrow. There are plenty more events to fit in over the next few weeks though…