Edinburgh Book Festival: Susan Calman strictly looks on the bright side

Susan Calman says taking part in the BBC's ballroom dancing competition change her life. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Susan Calman says taking part in the BBC's ballroom dancing competition change her life. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
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No, said Susan Calman, answering the first question from the audience. No, she’d never go on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! First, because it’s edited, and secondly, “Because they’d put me in with a racist homophobe and I’d be thrown out for punching them”.

Strictly Come Dancing, though: that was different. So, so different. She found out she was in it a lot later than anyone else. There wasn’t too much time to prepare. And when she saw how brilliantly Alexandra Burke danced, she just knew she’d get voted off in the first week.

She was so far out of her comfort zone it could have been a different planet. This was about dancing, and showing off, and strutting around the dance floor, and she’d never been good at any of that because – well, because she’s from Glasgow, because she had hardly ever danced with a man (not closely, hip to hip, not ­showily) and in any case she was hopelessly self-conscious about her body. When she had to strip down to her bra and pants in front of the five women who made the costumes, and they asked her which bits of her body she hated, she answered by sweeping her hands from her head to her toes. “I quite like my nose,” she said.

• READ MORE: Interview: Susan Calman on her Edinburgh Festival talk show Fringe Benefits

As we now know, she lasted into Week Ten, and changed in the process. Sewn into her costumes, wearing a dress, not her usual uniform of waistcoat, jacket and trainers, but heels too. And sometimes a Wonder Woman costume – the one that she chose to take home when it all ended.

This, you have to remember, was the same woman whose last book, Cheer Up Love, was about depression. Her latest – Sunny Side Up – out in a ­fortnight, is about kindness and finding moments of joy.

It’s not, she explained, that depression has left her for good. “But when I was writing Cheer Up Love I was angry at myself and at the world. And I realised I had missed out on so much in life by being depressed.”

Now, she makes a point of treasuring those tiny moments of joy she had blanked out before. Moments of simple pleasures like watching Miss Marple in freshly ironed pyjamas, with a cat purring on her lap. Savouring a perfect cup of coffee. Even just hoovering the stairs in her new house – because, well, “We’ve never had stairs”. She remains shy, but she is no longer going to let that stop her being kind to strangers. Or crying at other ­people’s kindness (she got a bit weepy at this point). Maybe Strictly isn’t the whole reason she’s changed, but it’s a big part of it.

“It’s changed the way I look at me. I can wear what I want and not be frightened by it. Strictly was about letting go, and being kind to myself. Dancing with Kevin [Clifton, her Strictly partner] was the most joyous thing I had ever done in my life. I never thought I’d feel that kind of happiness, When we did the quickstep, it was like a Biblical moment of joy.”

Wasn’t she shy, someone asked, at events like this? “No. Strictly changed my life. And (pointing to the ­audience) you all changed my life. So I’ve come here to thank YOU.”

• READ MORE: Edinburgh Book Festival: Pat Barker is giving voice to silenced women

Earlier, there had been a smaller scale love-in on the Spiegeltent stage when Melissa Harrison and Mick Kitson confided how much they’d each enjoyed the other’s novel. While this isn’t completely ­unusual, it is comparatively rare that the authors’ discussion also included a few spoilers. As Harrison’s Among the Barley is only published today, it’s only fair I should forget I heard them. Both ­novels have teenage protagonists – in the case of Kitson’s novel Sal based on the “clever, difficult, smart 12-year-olds” he’d taught in Scotland. And Sal and Peppa have, it’s fair to say, a lot more agency than Evie, the 13-year-old who, in the extract Harrison recited from memory (plenty of poets do this, but very few novelists) was saying goodbye to the horses she looked after on a farm in 1930s Suffolk before walking into a lake.

This, I realise, makes it sound ­hopelessly depressing. Yet from ­listening to Harrison talking so movingly about the centuries-old way of life that was coming to an end at the same time as (apparently) Evie, I can tell that there’s far more than that going on beneath the surface.