Memories of NYWF

Photo by Seb Tonkin

I’ve had various titles at the National Young Writers Festival over the years, official and unofficial. Artist, volunteer, celebrity blogger, director’s assistant, co-director, fairy godmother. But I think my favourite title is one that former co-director Ben Jenkins once gave me – daughter of the festival. NYWF is my family. This festival has made me the person that I am.

For every year except my very first, I’ve written blogs about NYWF. So to celebrate 20 years of festivals here’s seven of them, as told through some of the things I wrote at the time.

It’s 2010. I’m 19 and have come to the festival knowing no one. The ball theme is American Gothic; no one knows what that means. I go as a bar maid.

Two hours later I am sitting in Staple Manor talking to the first of many new people. I sat down beside Erin at random, afraid she’d find this weird. But soon we’re chatting like friends. We gain people. Our circle moves around the room slowly gathering more. Eventually I look up to realise that everyone else seems to have gone and we’re still discussing the merits of being vegetarian. Random people joining our circle assume that those already present know each other. In fact we’d only just meet. Its a nice way of making friends.

In fact, I’m rather keen to get back out there. There is excitement, adventure and really wild things happening nearby and I’m in a McDonald’s using the damned wifi. There are new and exciting people to meet!

Immediately after I posted that blog, I met another person who was also using the wifi. I spent a lot of that weekend hanging out with the new friend I’d made at McDonalds. His name was also Alex. He’s been my boyfriend for five and a half years now.

It’s 2011. I’m living in Newcastle. The ball theme is Big Top. I go as a ring master. We play a game of Never Have I Ever that will become semi-legendary.

We’re standing outside Staple Manor (this year it’s above a pharmacy in Hunter Street Mall). Ben Jenkins (festival co-director) and someone else (who’s name I didn’t catch) are throwing rocks at the windows to try and attract the attention of someone inside.

The whole situation is a pretty definitive signal that we’ve entered the mythical other world in which NYWF operates. Another definitive signal emerges from the darkness a moment later. The signal is Lizzy. Lizzy and I have never met before. As I say to my brother, in a high pitched, excited voice- “This is Lizzy. My friend from The Internet.” Only at NYWF would randomly bumping into someone like that feel normal.

Photo by Jonathan Brent

It’s 2012. Alex and I are finally officially dating. The ball theme is Hip Hop Safari. I go as a giraffe. Alex and my brother go as a stretch jeep. Sadly no photos of that exist.

Standing on stage at the Great Northern is a man dressed only in a musky tweed jacket and a string of plastic bags. It is possibly unusual that none of us actually expected to see a penis during an event with “orgy” in the title. The man does several flips and a handstand, now completely naked. The lights go up, editor Sam Cooney steps on stage and attempts to tenuously segue the naked man into reasons why people should buy a copy of the Lifted Brow. I turn to my friend Tim, a festival virgin, and whisper “Welcome to NYWF.”

When I talk about NYWF I can’t help mentioning that it isn’t reality. It’s better and bigger and more simple than reality. It’s a place where you can hug people you only see once a year and greet them like old friends. Where you make new friends by accident, without really meaning to.

If this is your first year attending, the best advice I can give you is to dive in head first. It might seem like everyone knows everyone, like there’s no room in this orgy for new people. But if you come and say hello we will welcome you will open arms.

It’s 2013. I’ve been roped into working on the festival as a “director’s assistant”. The ball theme is paranormal formal. I go as an undead magician’s assistant.

Late that night, at the sea baths I walk in the rock pools and tiny phosphorescent organisms scatter from my footsteps. Their trails are like tiny blue-green stars fizzing across the surface of the dark water. All around me there are squeals of delight as people stamp in puddles and watch the glittering trails that the ripples create. The reflection of the real stars is almost as pretty as these pretend ones and the two mingle in the black, black water of the sea baths. I talk to people on the tiered, concrete steps beside the baths and we all say how beautiful it is. Hellos and goodbyes start concertinaing until they’re happening far too close together. It is peaceful and none of us have anywhere to be except bed.“NYWF,” I say in a sleepy mumble, “is an annual reminder that actually, everything is going to be alright.”

It’s 2014. I’m a co-director, literally a dream come true. I get to program an event about sandwiches and help pick the ball theme. It is intergalactic. I go as the solar system.

As with so many moments over the festival, the room is empty and then suddenly it is full.

The next few hours are a blur of talking and laughing and drinking. Lefa buys me a drink. Fiona buys me a drink. Several people buy me drinks.
Discover that gin glows under blue light. Am delighted at the way this transforms a gin and tonic into a space cocktail.
The bar runs out of gin is less than forty five minutes. Later decide we should include in future funding proposals.
Bar is also out of tequila. Order wine?
Dance and talk and laugh. Get more glitter off someone? Put more glitter on my face.
Am now tipsy enough that ordering a vodka raspberry seems like a good idea.
Am happy. Almost unbearably happy.
At some point the happiness bubble bursts and I am completely overwhelmed. The overwhelming feeling manifests itself as panic. Not for the last time that weekend, I somehow carry on more or less as normal.
Drink more vodka raspberry. Feel like a teenager.
Talk. Dance. Resist feeling overwhelmed. By this stage it’s like I’m just feeling everything at once. In the same way that all the colours at once make brown, all the feelings at once make overwhelm.

Photo by Alan Weedon

It’s 2015. My second and final year as a co-director. The ball theme is enchantment under the sea. I go unpretentiously as the Queen of the Sea.

Despite spending many, many hours at these baths late at night, this is the first time I have ever swum in them under the cover of darkness. It’s important, cathartic. This swim is washing away an awful lot of things. I float on my back and look at the stars and I feel so profoundly at peace. Someone brings beers and I drink one, the rim of the bottle salty from the water that keeps sloshing over it.

Someone starts a whirlpool. We kick ourselves around the pool in a circle, faster, faster. Soon the whole mass of us are being swept around in a gyrating, messy loop. More than once, my feet lift off the ground completely and I feel myself being swept along by the current we created. There is a sing-along, then a short sermon. I imagine someone arriving at this moment, walking into the baths at two in the morning to discover a hoard of cheerfully exhausted young people, singing as they spin in a circle in the black water.

After the festival, several people ask me what my favourite part of it was. I reply that it was probably the baths on Sunday night. At least one person is very surprised by this. I can understand how odd it must seem when, having programmed four days of events, my favourite part of the festival is swimming in the ocean at 2am. But that’s NYWF for you.

It’s 2016. It’s the first time I have ever been to the festival as a punter. I swim a lot. Laugh a lot. The ball theme is Enter the Labyrinth. I go as a fairy.

I am different at NYWF. Not radically different. But different in subtle, tiny, earth shattering ways. On those days I am the very best version of myself. I am happy and I am kind and I am brave.

At NYWF I am fearless. I dance without worrying. I laugh without hesitating. I talk without second guessing myself. I can be me, completely, because I don’t worry that that isn’t enough. Because NYWF will always, always be ready to catch me if I fall.

Photo by Katie McAllister

Further reading

December – home

I spent the first minutes of 2018 on the beach. I’ve never actually spent New Year