ILS Norwich 2017

Today is the first day in 26 consecutive days where I have not been at a literary event. Tonight is the first night in 15  nights where I have not ended up in the pub talking about bookish things, (“How great is Sally Rooney?” “Aren’t book festival tote bags so much better if they have a gusset?” “The semi-colon, just an indicator of a particularly long pause, or a slightly more complex grammatical concept?”) As a result I look and feel like a used tea bag. I have spent the day sleeping, eating vegetables and doing three loads of almost entirely black laundry, (note to self, must start experimenting with more brightly coloured on-stage outfits). Am going to write a very quick blog about how amazingly wonderful the ILS was and then mainstream three weeks of missed Casualty and Holby episodes and pretend I do not have a book to edit because I think I might have reached maximum literary capacity. (Who am I kidding? There’s no such thing).

Norwich is probably not the first destination which springs to mind when you think of super places to mini-break. Granted, it is the home of Alan Partridge and it does have the Colman’s Mustard Museum, (probably the world’s most popular mustard-based tourist attraction), but it’s really just one step up from Ipswich AND is also located in the most awkward-to-get-at-from-Belfast spot in the whole of the British Isles. (On Monday it took almost 12 hours to get from Ballymena to Norwich train station, a timeframe usually more representative of transatlantic -or even space- travel, and made even more unbearable by the 3 hours and 10 minutes spent stuck outside Stratford train station in a boiling hot Greater Anglia train, being placated with lukewarm, bottled water whilst an angry woman stripped down to her underwear and tried to provoke a riot. Gah). However, in retrospect the last five days have been so incredibly, inspiringly brilliant, I’m starting to wonder if the summer might have peaked too soon. And, in Norwich of all places.

I’m not sure I can succinctly summarise what we’ve all been up to for the last week. Suffice to say there were about 100 people who live, breathe and occasionally birth books, all thrown together in a series of medieval buildings, reading, eating, drinking and, most importantly, talking about why words are important and how they can change the world. Much ice cream was eaten. Many drinks were downed. Everyone present sweated through every item of clothing they’d packed and, by the end of the week, were somewhat ripe and mostly recycling the previous day’s outfit. Good ideas collided with other even better ideas and birthed collaborations which are, even now, beginning to ricochet backwards and forwards across the planet, (did I mention there were people there from pretty much every corner of the globe?) We lived in each others’ pockets for an entire week and, leaving to make our lonesome ways back to the various corners we’d come from, wondered why the train/plane/taxi back felt so much quieter than it had on the way to Norwich.

What an incredible week. So many ideas. So many good thoughts to mull over in the weeks to come. So many brilliant new friends to conspire and plot with, and wasn’t it particularly heartening to bump into the Canadian/New Zealand/South African/Turkish/Scottish versions of myself, as if it should be surprising to find there are bookish thirty something women all over the world, furiously programming literary happenings with cake and gin and tireless good humour, and that I should get on with these ‘other mes’ like an absolute house on fire. I am grateful to have been in Norwich this week. Grateful for the opportunities the ILS might present in the future, and grateful to have had the chance to sharpen my own creativity off so many incredible talented individuals. But, I have to say the best part of the week was the realisation that very few of us are ‘just writers.’ We are festival programmers and outreach workers, facilitators and academics, activists and community growers. People who care about important stuff and are actually doing their best to provoke change. And yes, writing doesn’t pay and this economic climate is forcing us into juggling jobs and writing, and don’t we all occasional fantasise about sitting in a garret writing all day? But, I truly believe you lot are the sort of people who couldn’t content yourself with ‘just’ writing.

I listened very carefully to you all this week. I listened to what you said on stage and what you said over cake and beer and morning coffee. I listened to what you said very late at night when there had been tremendous amounts of wine consumed. You’re all, without exception, bloody marvellous writers. You don’t need me to tell you that. Between you, you’ve got an armoury of literary accolades which would make Hilary Mantel feel inadequate. I know you can work wonders with words. I was much more interested in how you talked about words creating community, and words provoking social change, and words celebrating diversity, fostering inclusivity, offering dignity, and basically, making a significant impact on whatever broken, under-funded, potentially beautiful little corner of the world you’ve found yourself calling home. And I was most heartened to see the room full of writers and bookish people who have not yet become worn down. Who aren’t content to just write and leave it at that. Who actually believe that what they say, and how they say it, can make a difference. There was very little talk of defeat this week. I liked that a lot. Am back home with fire in my belly, and the beginnings of a head cold, and a unsquashable desire to keep pressing on. Thank you all. It was great to be among such good souls

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