Last week I went to the launch of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival programme. It was the first official book festival event I’d been to since coming off the board last October, after 14 years.
I felt oddly anxious about it – something to do with loss of status, I think. Though I needn’t have worried. The Jam House, a trendy jazz club in the old BBC building on Queen Street, was packed with familiar faces and old friends.
Susan Rice, the long-standing chairman, had stepped down at the same time as me. Her successor, veteran BBC journalist Alan Little, spoke about how in many of the countries from which he has reported over the years, people would be locked up and tortured for doing what this and other book festivals do in the West – which is to bring people together for free and open discussion of all the important issues of the day.
Then the director, Nick Barley, and the children’s programme director, Janet Smyth, unveiled the programme – the annual Charlotte Square banquet of some 800-plus events, with its theme this year of Imagine Better. In turbulent times, Nick said, it’s the job of writers to imagine how things could be better, because all change begins in the imagination. And with forces both reactionary and radical gaining ground almost wherever one looks, we need that imagination as never before.
Of course, it’s not only writers who can imagine better, but the written word has a particular power to get into our thoughts and feelings. It’s a theme that sits at the very heart of what we do on Dark Angels courses, and one that I’m keenly aware of today having just read through the final draft of a new, 60-page compendium of all our exercises. We’ve produced it for the benefit of our new associates, to help them prepare for the courses they will be running in future. In a sense it’s the very soul of Dark Angels laid bare for a select few to see.
Imagining better is also a strong theme of The Stories We Tell, as we invite people to look at the stories they tell about themselves to themselves, and consider – especially if the stories are habitual, lifelong ones – whether they continue to have any currency in the person’s present life, or whether they may even be acting as a hindrance. Imagining better is a first step towards living more fully and purposefully, more creatively and authentically.
For me personally, at this moment, imagining better means creating more space for myself to imagine anything at all. It’s probably age, but this has felt like an imagination-deadening year of activity on all fronts, and the weariness makes itself most strongly felt on Thursday afternoons. A Few Kind Words are proving harder and harder to muster as each week goes by, and I’m finally admitting to myself that after very nearly seven years of continuous weekly posting – the anniversary’s in August – I’m running out of steam.
So now I’m imagining a sabbatical. Not necessarily a long one, but two or three months, say. Folklore has it that snakes change their skins every seven years. I could do with a new skin. In fact, I’m off for a good, long wriggle right now. I’ll be back in the autumn.
As a final reminder, before I slither away, we’re running a The Stories We Tell foundation weekend in Birnam on August 20/21. There is also a Dark Angels intensive foundation course in Co Meath, Ireland, October 19-22, and a full foundation course at Moniack Mhor, Inverness-shire, October 31 – November 5.