Oh, I’ve missed book festivals.

Most of us have grown accustomed to more and more virtual events popping up over the past year (thanks Coronavirus pandemic), and when I saw the programme for Paisley Book Festival 2021, I felt rather excited.

With more than 50 events to choose from, I was surprised to find out that the festival was only in its second year.

This year’s theme ‘Radical New Futures’ promised “a plethora of stimulating delights” with the likes of Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart, award-winning singer-songwriter Karine Polwart and talented cartoonist Kate Charlesworth contemplating what kinds of futures they would like to see post-pandemic.

In the opening event, Laura Waddell told us about her book Exit, in which she examines the cultural history behind exit signs and looks at how we use physical objects. She said: “It was liberating to write and not know where I was going. I explored other places in the world where exit signs are even more of a class issue than they are here.”

Hearing Hannah Lavery read some of her poems from 2020, lines that she wrote during lockdown while “reflecting on some of the things I was forced to think about”, really moved me and made me want to consider writing poetry like hers.

One of the most thought-provoking festival events focused on ‘Hags, Hexes and Harpies’, featuring Rebecca Tamas, whose poetry collection Witch is full of earth, blood, sex and curses, and Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who researched 17th century with-hunts for her work of historical fiction The Mercies. It was fascinating to hear about the history of witches, why those without power were silenced and persecuted by those with power, and why witches have again become part of the cultural conversation.

“As new waves of feminism develop, we look back to the past at powerful women of different kinds,” Rebecca said. Kiran revealed that her book was a direct response to Donald Trump using the term ‘witch-hunt’ so frequently.

‘What happens when you are de-railed in midlife?’ was the sobering question the festival audience was asked to consider when we heard from Melanie Reid, winner of the 2019 Saltire Scottish Non-Fiction Book of The Year for The World I Fell Out Of. In her book she tells the story of how, at the age of 52, she fell off a horse and broke her neck.

“It was like my own personal nuclear explosion. I saw nothing but red,” she said.

Now in her sixties, Melanie speaks very openly about her experience of chronic disability, and her ongoing bereavement for who she used to be: “I wish I would have appreciated my body while I had it and understood that my body was beautiful because it worked.”

This event has really stayed with me and made me think about the things we take for granted in life. During lockdown, because we have had to stay indoors a lot, we have all had a taste of what it’s like to be disabled. Melanie hopes that when lockdown ends, people will be more appreciative of all that is out there, that people will come out of their houses with a real thirst for libraries, music festivals and togetherness.

As a non-gamer, I was intrigued to hear from video gaming journalist and mental health advocate Joe Donnelly, who believes that video games are becoming recognised as an art form. It turns out that gaming isn’t just about stealing cars and committing crimes in Grand Theft Auto (admittedly, that’s a game I did play on my brother’s PC as a kid). Video games can help people in moments of crisis and indie developers are now making games which tackle depression.

“In a video game, you can meet up in a world that is unaffected by the pandemic,” Joe’s words made me understand why gaming is so popular. This event taught me a lot about why people play video games – to escape from what can be a difficult reality, and that gaming provides opportunities for learning and making friends.

It was a real pleasure to hear Karine Polwart read from her first children’s book A Wee Bird Was Watching on the final day of the festival. Since this event was aimed at children and families, the multi-sensory format included storytelling, singing and a charming quiz. Karine and illustrator Kate Leiper were full of enthusiasm and did an awesome job despite not being able to see the audience and only being able to connect with them via the YouTube chat function.

How wonderful it is to discover new books that you want to read! Cartoonist Kate Charlesworth’s graphic novel Sensible Footwear, A Girl’s Guide, is a graphic guide to LGBTQI+ history. “I wanted to make lesbians more visible,” Kate told compere Val McDermid, who heartily recommends Kate’s book: “Once you start it, you will not want to put it down!” It was cheering to hear Kate say that she thinks we are in a huge explosion of change, with the release of more and more books coming out about queer history, from trans, gay and bisexual writers. In her radical future, she would like to see more older women represented in the world of comics.

Paisley Book Festival provided a welcome escape from the global pandemic. Undeniably, ‘going to’ a virtual book festival does result in weary eyes and Zoom fatigue. I did feel for the speakers who admitted that they really missed having an audience in front of them. Ultimately, this virtual version of the festival was well worth tuning into – whether you were watching on a laptop in your pyjamas or watching on your mobile phone in the bath. I’m excited to see what the third edition of this festival has to bring and really hope that I’ll be sitting in a hall somewhere in Paisley, clapping along with a real-life book-loving audience in 2022.

You can find out more about Paisley Book Festival via this link