Last saturday I was delighted to be back in Edinburgh for the International Book Festival. My event was on day one of the Festival fortnight, and this year it was the 30th anniversary - an especially special place and time to be there.
I was appearing with the acclaimed American author Lucy Ellmann, whose most recent book is called 'Mimi'. Our event, Literary Genius and Genius Loci, was chaired by the excellent Diana Hope, and we were back in the Writers' Retreat, the same stage I shared with Karl Ove Knausgaard last year - the setting for many happy memories of my first ever lit fest. Over the hour we talked about unlikely friendships, the isolating facets of grief, strong-minded female characters, conveying the spirit of a place, and a cat called Bubbles. As ever the Edinburgh crowd were a delight; lots of great questions, and friendly faces at the signing table in the bookshop afterwards. While A Heart Bent Out of Shape isn't out until September, an advance run of books were made available to Festival go-ers, and I couldn't resist a snap...
As soon as I'd finished one event, I was into the next. Like last year I'd volunteered to read for Amnesty, as part of their Imprisoned Writers series. Unlike last year... I didn't actually read... The piece that was given to me was by the Ugandan poet Jade Amoli-Jackson, from her collection Moving A Country. Jade's husband, sister and father were killed during a period of internal conflict, and her children abducted. She escaped from military captivity and sought refuge in England in 2001. In her poem 'Faded Dreams' she describes the experience of having to bribe soldiers for the release of her husband's headless body. It's an incredibly powerful poem. The language is sparse, each word weighty with emotion. It's graceful and heartbreaking and... very difficult to read. I'd practised it at home, and cried then, but I thought that on the day I'd be okay. The Amnesty events always attract great writers willing to read, and a packed audience wanting to listen, so I figured that I'd be able to rise to the occasion, and do Jade's words justice. In my introduction I talked about how, at a Festival such as Edinburgh, it's easy for a newbie author such as myself to get an inflated sense of their own worth. For a couple of days we get to swan about with our lanyards, enjoying our free coffee, surrounded by book lovers, talking about and signing our novels. And then we do an event like Amnesty and feel very small again - in the best possible way. Jade had spent a week at Totleigh Barton, the Devon Arvon house, just as I had, and I felt that that was a connection between us - just as by reading her poetry aloud on that day was another connection created.
But... I was barely through her biography when my emotions got the better of me, and I knew that I couldn't carry on. I'm not a pretty crier, I can't maintain a just-cracking voice, instead once I'm gone, I'm gone. As the tears came I did the only thing I could think of in that split-second, I bent to the mic and croaked 'this is a bit unorthodox, but could I ask my husband to come and read for me instead...' Bobby jumped up from his seat, all the way down at the back, and without any warning or preparation took to the stage and launched into the most beautiful reading of 'Faded Dreams'. I sat listening, trying to collect myself, feeling a bit of an amateur, but immeasurably glad that Jade's words were being read fluently, powerfully, and affectingly - just as they deserved to be. Thinking about it now I feel a bit foolish, and wish I'd been able to carry on reading with strength and grace, instead of breaking down. But then, isn't that what such an event is really about - genuinely stopping and thinking and feeling - so often we're guilty of sleepwalking through our own small and comfortable worlds. On balance, I think I'd rather be the kind of person who is torn up by a poem like 'Faded Dreams', and doesn't mind showing it. Jade Amoli-Jackson's collection is available to buy on Amazon. You should buy it. I think it's probably important that you do.
That night we celebrated the opening of the Festival, and its 30th anniversary, with a fabulous party in the Guardian Spiegeltent, a jumping band, and abundant drinks. I was thrilled to catch up with Jenny Brown, Founder Director of the Festival, who chaired my event last year, and it was a real treat to chat to Peggy Riley, another Headline author and Twitter pal. My ace publicity manager Ben Willis kept the drinks, and the gags, flowing. We rolled home to bed, 20 hours after we'd woken up in Bristol, and slept the sleep of the happy and weary.
Then woke up to this... sunday morning over the Edinburgh skyline.
2013 was, for me, another very memorable Edinburgh experience. I'll be back again in two weeks to watch my husband and his brother - The Etherington Brothers - do their thing on stage. I'll sit poised, just in case I'm needed to step in... but somehow I doubt that'll happen. Meanwhile we'll be heading to the Fringe to catch some music, some comedy, some anything... It's always good in Edinburgh.