This is the 11th time there has been a Nottingham-based Bold Strokes Books festival. It’s an event that spans a whole decade. Way back in 2010, the first occasion was one quite formal afternoon in the upstairs room in Waterstones. It’s grown into a two-day celebration, welcoming international authors most years, spilling out of Waterstones into social events, and more. In 2018 we even had Radclyffe herself – and many more of our US friends – for a festival that turned into a whole week.
The festival is one of those fixed points in my year, the beginning of summer. It’s become so familiar. That escalator ride to the fourth floor in Waterstones. The inevitable sense of imposter syndrome as I arrive in the room and try to pull on my ‘author’ hat. The genuine excitement of seeing all the wonderful books on sale – my own included – and the wonderful warm thrill of seeing familiar faces, be they readers or authors. Hopping up to the front to take part in a panel and laughing nervously with friends I only ever see in this context: There are people I only see during this one weekend a year – but I’ve been seeing them, hugging them, taking part in panels with them, at the same time every year. Spending two wonderful book-focused days in their company. Some of them I’ve now known for a decade, whilst others have come and gone. And it’s remarkable how little we all change, really. New books, new life events: same wonderful Bold Strokes UK family. Some things stay the same.
But some things change too. And yes, this year is going to be a very different Bold Strokes UK festival. We can’t be together, we can’t hug each other, we won’t be in Waterstones, drinking too much coffee between panels and going to the pub at the end of it all. We’ll be online, joining in from home, with the new video conferencing skills we’ve all developed lately. This change made me reflect on my own journey, and where this event fits with it every year. Is this the biggest change?
In that first year I was a newly published writer, with Truths only a couple of months old. I had three more novels to come. Now, it’s four years since the latest, Fragile Wings made its appearance. I’m still writing but not, in recent years, for publication. From the thrill of being newly published in 2010, I now often forget to tell people I’m a writer: I’m lots of other things in my life too and, for now, those have been taking priority in my life. In that first year, I was also still in the process of escaping from a stifling abusive relationship, which I see the influence of in every line I wrote in those early novels. At the age of 28, I was just starting to learn to live in the real world, having been trapped since I was 18. I’d only moved back to the UK from an isolated rural life in Slovenia a month or so previously. The Bold Strokes authors and associates who entered my life that weekend were some of the first people I met in my new life. I encountered them in the same month I met the therapist who essentially saved my life. When the Bold Strokes Books UK festival comes around, I can’t help but remember those circumstances, and it’s bittersweet. It took me another two years to really escape that dark place I was in.
So, the Bold Strokes UK festival is inextricably linked to my mental health too. I still see the same therapist, there are still shadowy traces of that darkness in my life. Some things stay the same. But oh, how they’ve changed too. I’m very happily married now, and I know the full scope of how wonderful life can be. The person who abused me is dead. I am free to be whoever and whatever I want to be. When I attend the Bold Strokes events, I see my name in the list of authors and think how very different that person is, from the one who was first listed as attending one of these events.
This change will manifest in my writing now. Although I put my heart and soul into my novels, I was always constrained by something. Self-doubt, fear, ghosts of something I couldn’t quite explain. Those things have drifted away. I can feel words and stories wanting to spill out, to be written to be claimed and explored and – eventually – shared. After four years, I’m ready to write again. Which is very exciting.
All of which is why, when I sat down to write a blog about ‘change’, the lyrics of ‘Hymn to Her’ by the Pretenders came into my head. Some things change, some stay the same. In this year’s Bold Strokes Books UK weekend, there’s a bit of both. It’ll be very different – as all our lives have been since the spring and will be for some time. But it’ll also be the same community, celebrating the same writing, at the same time as we have done for a decade, and sharing a moment with each other.
My conclusion is that there’s something to celebrated in both. Some things should be celebrated for staying the same, for consistency and familiarity and security. But in change, there is also opportunity and adventure. And I think we all need to hold onto that idea right now.