John Hewitt Summer School 2017

Another week, another book festival. Another twelve hour stopover in my own house. Another frantic scramble to find enough clean socks to make it through ’til Friday. Another futile attempt to coerce my plants back to life with a half-hearted weekly water. Another scenic run up the M1. Another attempt to pre-think exactly which short story collections I will want to refer to in my workshops which inevitably ends in brain muddle and the decision to just bring all the books in the world with me anyway. Inevitably I will cart all the books in the world about in Tesco bags for life, (bag for lives?), for the duration of the week, putting my shoulder out and never once referring to any of them, all the time quietly confident that if a question about Bridget Jones’ Diary or Faulkner or The Da Vinci Code were to come up, I’d be fully equipped to answer, quoting directly from the text.

After three weeks on the road I am beginning to run out of Book Festival steam. I have forgotten what it is to be quiet. I am making the assumption that everyone I come across, (shop assistants, baristas, people trying to have a peaceful pint of a Thursday afternoon), are also attending a book festival and that it would be rude not to at least try to draw them into conversation about Colm Toibin or poetic form. My throat feels broken from talking about books and I am glad to be heading off to Spain this afternoon to lie by the pool for a week and not have to talk about authorial responsibility, or writing practice or the bloody DUP coalition. I am tired, but it is a good kind of tired, the sort of tired you are the morning after a stupendously enjoyable dinner party, and I’m very thankful for all the fantastic, encouraging and downright weird experiences of the last few weeks. I am particularly glad that I managed to keep a little energy on hold for the John Hewitt Summer School because it is my secret favourite.

The John Hewitt Summer School was 30 years old this year and I don’t think I’m alone in saying it was easily the biggest, the best and the most enjoyable summer school yet. I could talk at length about how amazing the Wednesday morning poetry reading with Luke Kennard and Malika Booker was. I could wax lyrical about the sheer loveliness of being interviewed by the legend that is Peggy Hughes or discussed in a lecture by the powerhouse that is Caroline Magennis. I could enthuse about chats with Lisa McInerney, both on stage and off stage and boast about the fact that I finally beat Stephen Sexton at pool in the parrot bar. I could say fabulous things about the John Hewitt Committee, their tremendous hospitality, their friendship and encouragement over so many years, their constant endeavours to ensure the JHSS extends a welcome to a huge crowd of very different people and manages to foster real, deep community in a very short time frame. I could put Hilary Copeland on a big pedestal and say, with great pride, not only is this woman one of my dearest friends, but man, does she run a tight ship when it comes to book festivaling. I could say, once again, aren’t we all lucky to have David Torrance and Damian Smyth and Paul Maddern and the Bleakneys and Maureen and Malachy, and a bunch of other wise and wonderful souls on hand to offer insight, encouragement and the odd, well-timed piss take. I could talk about the tremendous fun I had teaching a short story workshop with a bunch of very talented beginner writers. I could even say many enthusiastic things about the tea and mammoth jammy scones which form the bedrock of any John Hewitt Society event.

But, I’ll not say any of this. I’ll just say that coming to the John Hewitt Summer School is like coming home for me. It’s good to gallivant all over the place but it’s only good if you have a home to come back to and if this week taught me anything, it was the importance of having book family to return to, and what a marvellous, eclectic, talented, encouraging and incredibly supportive family it is. I am a very lucky writer. Off to unpack the suitcase and hit the road again, (Hums the theme tune of The Littlest Hobo/wonders if it’s ok to turn socks inside out and get a second wear out of them).

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