Politics, first dates, psychosis and the streets of Evanton — another excellent weekend enlightens and entertains. MICHAEL RUSSELL reports…
Three years ago, politics dominated the Ullapool Book Festival. Last weekend it did so again.
In 2011, the scale of the SNP’s victory in Scottish Parliamentary elections gradually became apparent as the opening Friday got underway. This time around it was a certain day in September that focused minds.
One of the top draws at this year’s festival was Iain Macwhirter (pictured above), political commentator for the Herald and Sunday Herald. By the sound of it, what finally confirmed him as a supporter of independence was Chancellor George Osborne’s visit to Edinburgh back in February.
“Osborne essentially said we will not allow Scotland to use Sterling — we will destroy the Scottish economy,” Macwhirter told session-chair James Robertson. “It was a massive mistake by the unionists to tell Scotland ‘if you don’t behave we will take the pound away.’
“The UK, when it was formed, was meant to be a voluntary arrangement, the free association of nations, but Osborne’s comments amounted to a retrospective annexation, where Scotland can be bullied and threatened into voting no.”
Much was made by Mr Macwhirter of the pernicious effects of finance-based turbo-capitalism, and its erosion of the post-war consensus. His contention that Scotland has remained true to the vision of a more communitarian, if not left wing, society, while London and the south east of England have abandoned that ideal, is set to be tested by one of Scotland’s finest living writers, William McIlvaney. A short tour of public engagements will inform a series of articles where the creator of Inspector Jack Laidlaw explores this apparent division of the British Isles into socialist north and neoliberal south.
“I want to find out if that’s a myth,” he told session chair Ruth Wishart. Despite the “malignant infiltration” of an opposing value-system emanating from the Square Mile, McIlvanney himself was adamant that “our values are not for sale.”
Macwhirter said devolution has been “disastrous” for the Scottish Labour Party; McIlvanney imparted a more poetic spin: “Labour now is like a man who has volunteered for a vasectomy and then says he will go out and father the new generation.” Both agreed that the party could be reborn, at least in Scotland, if the 18th of September delivers a Yes vote.
AL Kennedy now lives in London and has English parents. But she was born in Dundee and is, therefore, a Scottish writer.
Although she refused to give a definite opinion on the independence issue, she did say that London is now a “sad city” that’s “all about money, and full of people who are in pain”.
“This is not the England I remember,” she remarked, before embarking on a passionate and, at times, inspirational denunciation of a society that has forced the poor to pay for a crisis that was not of their making. Somewhere along the line, the conviction that literature is a bulwark against the forces of oppression has been lost, she said. The result is rampant commercialism within the publishing industry and the kind of risk-averse mindset that excludes new and different voices.
Politics aside, Kennedy read “This Man”, a short story from her latest collection, “All The Rage”. An awkward first (and last?) date is subjected to a forensic examination. Personal interaction is a shadow play of non-verbal idiosyncracies and fragmentary disclosure. Few are better than Kennedy at communicating that fact.
Neil Mackay is perhaps better known as the investigations editor of the Sunday Herald than as a novelist.
“He loves the art, craft and mischief of being a journalist,” said Faith Liddell, “but finds writing novels leaves him more fulfilled as a human being.”
In “All the Little Guns Went Bang, Bang, Bang” fulfillment, I imagine, comes from being able to hone a narrative in a way journalism — with its reliance on real-world fact — can never quite emulate. Mackay does this to illustrate a simple truth: a rotten society gets the criminals it deserves, although, in the novel, the two children who embark on an increasingly violent campaign of revenge in 1980s Northern Ireland are meant to be viewed not as villains, but as victims.
Alice Thompson’s most recent novel “Burnt Island” owes much to the horror genre and the Gothic tradition. A fan of Stephen King and science fiction, Thompson has produced a work she admits is unclassifiable when measured against those same commercial standards so roundly condemned by AL Kennedy.
Such an approach won’t make her rich. It also has an upside. Thompson, who now teaches creative writing at Edinburgh University (and who used to play keyboards for 80s indie band The Woodentops) more or less decides what artwork appears on the covers of her books.
“Very successful writers get a lot of interference from editors/publishers, often even to the extent where they will be told what to write. Ironically, smaller publishers and less commercial authors have more control over what they write and even what their books look like.”
“Burnt Island” owes something to “The Shining” — placed in the wrong environment, flawed psychologies can be stress-fractured into psychosis. In Thompson’s novel, this happens to her protagonist, an obscure writer who yearns for the big time but who soon finds his Overlook Hotel on what, initially, seems to be an ideal retreat.
As the programme director of the Moniack Mhor creative writing centre, Cynthia Rogerson knows all about ideal retreats. Having moved to the Highlands from San Francisco in the 1980s, she also knows the area well and has even incorporated actual street names from her home town of Evanton (wrongly identified as ‘Everton’ in a Guardian review) within her latest collection of short stories, “Stepping Out”. This was considered a brave move by session chair David Robinson.
Alongside Rogerson was fellow American exile Elizabeth Reeder, who read from her second novel “Fremont”, an embodiment of the old adage “marry in haste, repent at leisure”. Both their readings focused on two very different times of life — the gnarly co-existence of old Jack and Mildred from Rogerson; the unruly brood begotten by young Hal and Rachel from Reeder.
“Fearless, unflinching but never ostentatious” was Ruth Liddell’s description of Jackie Kay. It was hard to disagree with any of that.
As with AL Kennedy, Kay has found strength in vulnerability. In the short story “These Are Not My Clothes”, from her collection “Reality, Reality”, articulating the unheard pain of marginalised voices is where she excels.
A warm, engaging presence, Kay also read an excerpt from her memoir “Red Dust Road”. The journey to Nigeria to meet her biological father ends in shocked disappointment. He is a born-again Christian who, as soon as they meet, spends two-and-half-hours trying to convert his daughter (the product of his sinful past) with a combination of bad dancing and Biblical exhortation. She leaves, never to see the man again.
Also at the 10th Ullapool Book Festival were two newbies, myself, reading some short fiction published in ‘Gutter’ and ‘Northwords Now’, among others; and Mairi Wilson, whose poems and short stories have also been published in ‘Gutter’ and in ‘Pushing Out the Boat’. Other highlights included Tim Armstrong discussing his Gaelic science fiction novel ‘Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach’ and Glenn Patterson on his coming-of-age novel ‘The Rest Just Follows’.
This year marked the retirement of novelist James Robertson as the festival’s honorary president. In assuming the role, novelist Louise Welsh compared herself to Doctor Who. Regeneration is obviously an ability shared by timelords, honorary presidents, and the Ullapool Book Festival. Every incarnation seems at least as good as the one that came before.