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!

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August in Edinburgh

I have had a very busy month. It’s been wonderful, because I have also done my best to prioritise sleep and getting enough rest in between enormous amounts of running around, so I haven’t become ill or crazy. In my previous blog post I mentioned the things I’ve done this month thus far, and I’ve done even more since. So, in-between work and even some social events, here is what I have been up to since…

Night at the Museum – went to this with a British lass I met in Paris at the start of the year! She had popped up to Edinburgh for the fringe with some mates and we had a quick drink before seeing several comedians pretend to be experts in artefacts found throughout the National Museum of Scotland’s collections. Pretty nice improv, I must say.

Dr Neil’s Garden – not a fringe show, but a nice visit nonetheless with an Edinburgh friend of ours. This is a beautiful little oasis in the middle of Edinburgh, situated in a corner of the enormous Holyrood Park, just near Duddingston Loch. Beautiful garden, peaceful environment – definitely a place to go back to!

Best of the Bohemians – a variety show by a local theatre group. A friend from work was performing in this and it brought me right back to being involved with theatre back in Melbourne. Very nostalgic, and some beautiful voices on display.

Northanger Abbey – with puppets!! This little company is brilliant, with the two actors adapting the material, performing, and making all the puppets themselves. It was entertaining and polished and showcased immense talent as the performers moved between their own characters and the puppets they were using.

Austentatious – this is a fringe favourite for a lot of people and had been recommended to me multiple times. It definitely lived up to the hype, mainly due to the mad improv skills of the ensemble cast. They are obviously well-matched and have worked together enough to achieve a really seamless style of performance, despite improvising an entirely new show from scratch, every performance, being prompted by a title suggestion from the audience.

Eimear McBride – My first ever Edinburgh International Book Festival event! A Girl is a Half-formed Thing remains one of the most interesting (and devastating) books I have ever read, and Eimear was at the festival to talk about her newest book, The Lesser Bohemians. Hearing her read her work, and talk about the process of writing it – such an honour. And I met her in the signing queue afterwards!

Half Blood Prince trivia – our monthly Harry Potter pub quiz and we won! A 30 pound bar tab to spend 😀 These questions are HARD WORK and I am very proud of us!

Philippa Gregory – The way this woman talks about feminism and women in history makes me so happy. She is so knowledgable and witty, and a really passionate defender all of kinds of women that history has deemed either unimportant, stupid, evil, sluttish, or prudish. She spoke about what she calls the ‘she-wolf/dolt’ complex and pointed out the many double standards that exist in the reporting and interpretation of the personalities and actions of historic men and women. A wonderful experience (and I met her in the signing queue!)

Alison Weir – a historian and novelist that tortures me with the amount of work she has written that I haven’t had the chance to read yet. Her latest book is about Katherine of Aragon and the breadth of her knowledge and research is staggering. She also has some interesting things to say about the age-old question of the legitimacy of Katherine and Henry VIII’s doomed marriage and whether her marriage to Arthur was consummated or not, but more importantly, whether or not it actually mattered in a scriptural sense. And I met her in the signing queue 😀

Tracy Chevalier – the problem with going to these events to see authors you admire speaking, is that you leave them with an urge to buy every book of theirs and that is an expensive impulse. I resisted – just – but as I don’t yet own Tracy’s new novel At the Edge of the Orchard, I will need to save my pennies in order to get my mitts on it asap. It sounds amazing. I asked her to sign my copy of Reader, I Married Him, an anthology that she edited of stories inspired by Jane Eyre.

This afternoon I am off back to the book festival to see Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, and then first thing tomorrow I am off to Manchester for a weekend with The Bronte Society for their annual conference, this year celebrating Charlotte’s bicentenary. This month has been one of the best of my life.

Six months away!

A few days ago (the 29th of June) marked the six month anniversary of leaving Australia. In some ways, it has absolutely flown by. I never anticipated time would move this fast. And then other days I wake up and think back to Melbourne and it seems like a lifetime ago! The only thing for sure, is that it has been so much easier than I thought it would be. I steeled myself for a really difficult emotional transition that just…hasn’t happened. I am certainly not complaining, it’s been really nice to not have a hard time.

For those playing at home, we sort of killed it at Harry Potter trivia. By “sort of killed it”, I mean we got 32 out of 35!! But we still came fourth (winning team got 34, and two teams tied at 33). This competition is fierce and bloody and I love it.

I’ve leeched all the money from my bank account to buy tickets for the Edinburgh Book Festival, and, after a few days consideration, forked out an atrocious sum for the Bronte Society annual conference in August. I don’t regret it – it is Charlotte’s bicentenary this year and it will be amazing – but it is more money than I would ever usually spend on a two-night holiday. I also now have to wait until the end of July to buy Fringe tickets/extra book fest tickets/anything at all, because I need to conserve my cash!

Game of Thrones has finished for another year and I am BEREFT. This television show just gets better and better as it goes along. The only other show I can think of that does that is Parks and Recreation. So much to talk about. So few friends who want to talk about it at length. The struggle is real.

Huh. Brexit. The less said about that the better, because Mum asked me not to swear so much on social media and I don’t want to disappoint her. Similarly, regarding the Australian election. I’m writing this at 3am Australian time while they are still counting those DARN votes and everyone has embarrassed themselves and the whole country is going to hell in a handbasket. Hooray.

HAPPIER STUFF THEN:

  • We had a lovely day with a friend from Melbourne trooping up and down Leith and the New Town
  • I went to the Isabel Dalhousie Lecture at the National Library. Juliette Wells, an American academic who I have seen speak before, talked to us about the 1816 Philadelphia edition of Emma, the only edition of Jane Austen’s work to be published in America in her lifetime. The lecture was also introduced by Alexander McCall Smith (the fellowship being named after one of his characters) so it was cool to finally see him in person.
  • I had proper haggis, neeps, and tatties for dinner last night, and it was so delicious but WAY too much food. I should not have finished the entire thing.
  • We had another free ticket to a film festival event but we arrived late. Instead, we revisited a lovely wine bar that I’d been to with the book club and had a couple of drinks and had a super evening!
  • We ended up in a parade for Pride Edinburgh 2016 today. It was fabulous – so many people, dogs, rainbows, musicians, dancers, and organisations showing support for the LGBT community, including churches, banks, unions, and political parties. Love, love, love.

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More #Edinburghlyf

Our friend from Australia, Bec, is here! She has made the move, probably permanently because she has a British passport and is CRAZY LUCKY. But despite my insane jealousy it’s been delightful to catch up with her, and the two of us even went clothes shopping together, which is a huge deal for me because I hate clothes shopping with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. But now I have summery clothes and will hopefully never have to shop again!

I’ve been to a few services at the local Church of Scotland. It’s quite similar to the Uniting Church that I grew up in and the familiarity is very comforting. The people are nice and it’s good soul food for me to go and sit and listen and pray in welcoming surroundings.

I’ve also been watching movies – the new Jane Austen flick, ‘Love and Friendship’ (based on Lady Susan and not actually Love and Freindship) is brilliant – witty and clever and brilliantly acted. It’s an excellent portrayal of Jane’s work and I think will hold up to critics and fans alike. I’ve seen it once but I get to see it again this weekend! Huzzah! I’ve also watched two films based in Edinburgh to spot locations – ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Sunshine on Leith’. I’ve seen ‘Trainspotting’ before, but not for years and it was just as weird and depressing as I remember!! Good film though, even though most of it was filmed in Glasgow masquerading as Edinburgh. Sunshine on Leith was a DELIGHT. The cheesiest of cheesy jukebox musicals, celebrating the music of The Proclaimers. Such a feel-good hug of a film. And of course, we’ve been keeping up-to-date with ‘Game of Thrones’. That show is an emotional rollercoaster and I can’t get enough of it. HODOR 4EVA.

The weather has stayed beautiful, and I’ve witnessed this amazing weather phenomenon that occurs at night after a nice day. It’s something to do with the warm day and the cold sea air that rolls in over the east coast of Scotland and Northern England. It’s called ‘the haar’ and it’s a very dense, fast-moving fog that creeps in and makes everything look super spooky. But during the day I’ve been getting sunburnt. Such a land of contrasts. The other day I went for a longgggg walk through the Princes St Gardens. The lawns were covered in people sunbathing and I was listening to Harry Potter and it was perfect. Then I went to the cafe in Waterstones and had tea and cake while I looked at the view of the castle. It is wonderful to have the time to enjoy these moments.

I’ve been busy though, and getting busier. I’ve been getting super organised with my writing projects (spreadsheets, guys!), as well as doing another free online course, this time on mindfulness. It helps to balance out the busyness with remembering to slow down and be in the present as much as possible. I’m working on it. I’ve Skyped with my parents and have been collating a list of places to show them around when they are here in December, including the absolutely epic savoury French toast at Mimi’s Bakehouse which I would eat every day if I had the money. I’ve also picked up two more days of work – at my favourite place, the Scottish Poetry Library! I’ll be getting some temporary shifts over the summer there and be getting paid for it! Everything’s coming up Milhouse.

I’ve been catching up with friends for dinner, cake dates, films and, hopefully, next week for my birthday. I’ve also been to Linlithgow Palace (birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots) with the Jane Austen Society Scottish branch and we had a delicious strawberry tea afterwards. The ruin is brilliantly preserved and you can walk all over it. It’s crazy atmospheric, and the peel and loch surrounding it are beautiful. Also apparently appears in ‘Outlander’ so I will simply have to rewatch the entire thing and look out for it…

 

 

An update on #Edinburghlyf

So much has happened since Denmark! I’ve tried to summarise the high points below, though I will undoubtedly forget something. I’m loving Edinburgh. I’m loving its people and its places and its character, charming and rough-round-the-edges as it is.

I have a job! An actual paying job in a LIBRARY! It’s at Queen Margaret University and it’s wonderful. I started my career in an academic library that was far bigger than this one – working for a smaller university with a smaller team is a breath of fresh air. It’s very quiet at the moment because it’s summer holidays, but that gives me plenty of time to get used to how things run before the crazy September new year madness. We went on a work outing to the National Library of Scotland the other day to do a behind-the-scenes tour (a fascinating place!) and went for a cream tea afterwards. The team is lovely, and the job is two days a week, giving me plenty of time for sightseeing. Obviously I’ll need to find something else to supplement my income, and I am 99% sure I’ve obtained a casual job, but I have to wait a couple of weeks to find out, so we’ll see how that goes.

We are making some good friends over here, and have been catching up for dinners and gatherings and book clubs and Eurovision nights. (Walking home from Eurovision we saw an actual hedgehog, which is perhaps the highlight of my life). I’ve also been a bit lax with Skyping home due to starting so many new things and suddenly being (somewhat) busy again, but the other day I Skyped with my bosom chum Alfie and it made my day! There is a pub about a one-minute walk from our place and they run Harry Potter themed trivia nights. I went to the last one (Prisoner of Azkaban) and these quizzes are HARD. I have to reread Goblet of Fire properly before the next one (which is handy, as Stephen Fry has been rereading them to me over the last few weeks). They do a mean boozy milkshake as well.

I went to my first Jane Austen Society Scottish Branch event and met a whole lot of lovely people, including the speaker, a brilliant scholar named Nora Bartlett. We bonded over children’s literature and libraries and creative writing, and I want her to adopt me (no offence Mum and Dad, but she could give me UK citizenship that way). I’ve also finished the first draft of a new manuscript I’ve been working on. It’s nearly 76,000 words, and it the fifth novel-length manuscript I’ve finished in my life. One of these was the greatest masterpiece to ever grace an exercise book (80,000 words of piratical adventures I wrote with my bestie in high school), one of these came close to being represented by a literary agency last year, one of them is utter shite, and one of them was 50,000 words spewed out over Nanowrimo. This latest one is…not awful. It needs a good polish, but it’s not awful. Anyway, I am thoroughly sick to the back teeth of it and need to put it away and not look at it for a year. This week I’m planning to start work on one of the many half-finished things I have floating around my hard drive. Unemployment and having no friends is a great way to get stuck into those creative projects! Now I have gained a job and friends, so hopefully I can keep the practice up…

We’ve also been doing important things like watching Parks and Recreation. I’ve seen it before but Sean hasn’t and it is a joy to rewatch. Amy Poehler is a perfect human. We also experienced the absolute mania that overtakes people when their football team wins. We live not far from the stadium where there was some sort of important sporting event, and walking through Leith that night was like walking through the end of the world. People EVERYWHERE. Most of them very drunk and joyous and singing at the top of their lungs. They held up the traffic until the police arrived, and used the actual entire weekend to carry on celebrating. It was pretty amazing.

When Sean left his job in Australia, they gave him a ghost tour as a gift! We used the voucher last week and went on a tour of the historic vaults beneath the South Bridge. It was fun to be down there, but there was so much emphasis on ghosts (go figure) and not enough on the actual history of the vaults. They are fantastic, and I wanted to know more about why they were there! Speaking of Sean, he’s a good egg. I’ve had a couple of down days, anxiety being a heartless horror that strikes when I really don’t want or need it, and he has been patient and lovely as always, and I’m feeling much better now. So relearning a few keys aspects of self-care has been important as well!

 

Finally, I’ve just come home from my third volunteer shift at the Scottish Poetry Library. This. Place. Is. Amazing. As a volunteer, I help out at events (setting up chairs, serving drinks and the like) and also take Saturday shifts to make up staff numbers so the library can be open. On Saturdays there is lots of shelving and working at the front desk and ad hoc jobs like labelling books. It’s a peaceful job in a beautiful building, and the events are always vibrant and fun to watch/take part in. I initially wanted to sign up as a volunteer to keep my foot in the library industry door, but I have found it to be such a welcoming and comfortable place as well as an interesting library. Last night I went to the retirement event for Robyn Marsack, who has been Director of the library for sixteen years. The place was full to bursting, crowded with brilliant and creative minds. Hearing about Robyn’s career was inspiring and had made me want to jump back into studying (alas, money). I’m looking forward to many more hours of work there.

Hopefully I’ll blog again soon! It’s one more thing that has fallen by the wayside now that my life is marginally busier, but I don’t plan to neglect it too much. xx

Celts, Jane Austen, illness, Cullen skink

I have been ill. So ill. And extremely self-pitying. But I feel like I’ve turned a corner today. I can breathe through both nostrils and I have gone approximately two hours without a coughing fit. Yass. At least I haven’t had to rush off and go to work or keep any urgent appointments. I’ve stayed snuggled up on the couch watching Parks and Recreation and Outlander (still catching up on Season One but appreciating it even more now that I live in Scotland!) and doing some creative writing. As of this morning, I have 40,000 words on a current project. Unemployment win! However, I shall not be unemployed for much longer! Mid-May, I start a two-day-a-week job in a library! I am over the moon. I would like a few more hours, but I have the chance to look for additional work now, while still knowing there will be some money coming in, and that the work is related to my career path (something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to obtain while living overseas). In the meantime, I’ve still managed to get out and about to see a few things, in between bouts of resting. Sean and I went to the National Museum to see an exhibition on the Celts. This was awesome. I could not get over the artefacts they had on display – jewellery and handicrafts and stone work that were around 2,500 years old, discovered all over Europe, and revolutionising the way historians think about the Celts as a social group. Oh, and afterwards, we found an excellent Thai restaurant and I ate my weight in soup. Sean has also been baking bread. It tastes amazing and is best when it is still warm from the oven. Not having work can be boring at times, but you get to do cool things like bake bread, so it’s not all bad. I also have made contact with the Scottish branch of the Jane Austen Society. My buddies back home actually contacted them before I left Australia and told them to expect communication from me. As a result, I was taken out for lunch by three members of the branch and we had a wonderful time talking all things Jane and eating Cullen skink, a traditional Scottish meal that tastes so much better than it sounds! The first meeting I will be attending is in May, in Edinburgh, but there are other meetings throughout the year in Glasgow, Linlithgow, and Dunfermline, so I’m looking forward to getting out and about with them. We’re currently waiting for an electrician to come and fiddle with our flat, so I’ll hop off the internet now. I’m re-reading The Kite Runner for a book club that I’ve joined so plenty to get through in the meantime 🙂

Bath, finally!

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).

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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!