From Sutherland to Palestine, division and dispossession were among the themes at the 12th Ullapool Book Festival, held last weekend. MICHAEL RUSSELL was there to hear for himself…
Norman Hector Mackinnon Maclean transforms from frail old man to livewire entertainer in the blink of an eye.
Sitting on stage in Ullapool village hall, waiting for the crowd to settle, he looks every one of his 80 years, if not a dozen more. But when session chair Mark Wringe introduces the man “who needs no introduction to a Highland audience” the effect is dramatic, and the show begins with a booming ‘Hi’ from this most venerated of iconoclasts.
He opens with an apology. “There is something wrong with my throat. I have never treated my body as a temple and I can blame 60 Marlboro red a day for that. It is only my superhuman physique that keeps me going.”
“The dualism of two cultures is the core of my identity. My whole life has been divided between working class Glasgow culture and residual Hebridean culture. That’s what makes me crazy. I don’t get many invites to book festivals – I don’t know why.”
Norman was in Ullapool to talk about and read from his second autobiography, ‘Eavesdropping on Myself’ that covers his early and teenage years. The first, ‘The Leper’s Bell’, published in 2009 dealt with his adult life and, he admits, documented a time when he was “at war” with his mother. Now, he says, the divided self is at peace, and he reels off a long list of Gaelic patronymics – his slionneadh. After decades of struggle with one demon or another, Maclean now knows where he belongs.
Thoughts of division and reconciliation, dispossession and restoration, ran deep at this year’s festival.
Fiona Rintoul’s debut novel ‘The Leipzig Affair’ spans the dark days of dictatorship in East Germany, through reunification, to the present day. A student herself in Karl Marx University in Leipzig in 1986, Rintoul told chair David Robinson that the complexities of Soviet Bloc societies are often overlooked.
“Everyone knows about the Stasi, but there were also things in East German society that people valued and which they miss. Not everything was bad. A lot of the people who went out and marched before the wall came down considered themselves socialists. A lot of the people who were active in the pro-democracy movement did not want reunification but wanted a better East Germany. The state didn’t fail because it was a socialist state, it failed because it was a dictatorship.”
Sharing the stage with Fiona Rintoul was Merryn Glover, whose novel ‘ A House Called Askival’ spans 70 years of Indian history from partition in 1947 to the present and is centred on a remote hill-station in the far north. The child of missionary parents, Glover was born in Kathmandu and has vivid memories of the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.
“In the school I remember there were lots of kids who were away on activities all over the country, and some of them were Sikhs. And then when the assassination happened the teachers had a terrible time getting them back safely. Because Indira Gandhi had been killed by her Sikh bodyguard we had to hide the Sikh kids under the bus seats in case we were stopped by the marauding gangs during the riots.”
Avi Shlaim is emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University’s and a fellow of the British Academy. A contented mild-mannered individual, he declared himself both an Israeli and a Jew. He also launched a blistering attack on his homeland and on the recent “scandal” of antisemitism within the Labour Party.
“The security barrier that Israel built is an exercise in land-grabbing – that’s the real purpose of it. The essence of Zionism is the acquisition of more and more land, and 100,000 Arabs are affected by the wall. They say that good fences make good neighbours, but not when you build the fence in the middle of your neighbour’s garden.
“As part of the 1993 Oslo accords Palestinians gave up their claim to 78 per cent of pre-Mandatory Palestine – they could not have made a bigger sacrifice. But Israel was not satisfied with 78 per cent and built more and more colonies, settlements, which are illegal. Land grabbing and peace making do not go together.”
“The British press connives in conflating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism because, as with the British Government, the press is biased against the Palestinians. The Guardian has been at the forefront of these attempts to smear the Labour Party. This has been done under the leadership of Jonathan Freedland who is an arch-Zionist and who gives a voice to embittered Blairites who are against Jeremy Corbyn.”
On stage with Mr Shlaim to discuss ‘Shifting Sands’ – a series of essays on the Middle East – were Raja Shehadeh, lawyer and writer, and his wife Penny Johnson, associate editor of Jerusalem Quarterly. Both live in Ramallah on the West Bank. In the chair was Ruth Wishart.
Professor Jim Hunter knows a thing or two about dispossession. Forty years ago he produced the landmark ‘The Making of a Crofting Community’. Now, in ‘Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances’, he seeks to right a wrong that he himself committed.
“On reading the ‘The Making of a Crofting Community’ someone said to me ‘you would not know that half the population were women. In reaching vainly for an alibi I can say that most of the source material was produced by men.”
Stepping away from tackling the big picture head on, Hunter’s new book focuses on some very personal stories – many of them from a female perspective. He reads us an account of what happened in Strathbrora at 2pm on 31st May 1821, when the life of mother-of-three Jessie Ross “began to be taken apart”.
In order to make way for the expansion of the Askil Mor sheep farm the Ross family were being evicted, lock, stock and cradle. Three weeks after being cast out upon the moor, Jessie and husband Gordon’s three-year-old daughter died of whooping cough. Overseeing the process was Sheriff Officer Donald Bannerman, who the year before had been stripped naked and held over an open fire by a squad of angry women. Enforcing eviction notices could be bad for your health, and Bannerman’s callous attitude towards the Ross family, and their neighbours, in 1821 might be partly explained by being humiliated the year before.
Hunter likens Gordon Ross to Winston Smith in Orwell’s ‘1984’. Ross was an educated man, fluent in both Gaelic and English, and was considered a threat by the Staffords, later the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.
“In the end, like Winston Smith, he came to love the dictator,” said Hunter. “His was a tragic story, and a lot of effort went in to discrediting and humiliating him.”
Many other writers made this year’s festival, like the other 11, a weekend to cherish. In no particular order, while discussing her short story collection ‘Jellyfish’ Janice Galloway told us how a double bereavement caused her to “fall into writing.”
“I didn’t ask for a life in literature, I thought that’s what well off people did.”
Kevin MacNeil satirises book festivals in ‘The Brilliant and Forever’ and told us how “every writer loves Ullapool because it is so egalitarian and open-hearted”.
Crime writer Doug Johnstone fesses up to penning “domestic noir” that eschews “police procedurals and grumpy cops”. His latest, ‘The Jump’, is about the ripple effects of a teenage suicide.
Helen Fitzgerald stood firm against the imprecations of her publishers, which means her new novel ‘Viral’ still opens with a first line that is not suitable for a family newspaper.
Discussing her novel ‘The Antagonist’, Lynn Coady talked moral codes with session chair Stuart Kelly. She has a “vexatious” relationship with her birthplace in Nova Scotia. “There wasn’t a huge cultural life unless you played the fiddle. I felt I did not belong there.”
And to close we had Bernard MacLaverty telling us about how the Celtic View phoned him up to write a “football story”. The result was ‘A Belfast Memory’, which takes as its inspiration a match between Belfast Celtic and Linfield Rangers on Boxing Day 1948 during which several Celtic players were badly injured when Rangers fans staged a pitch invasion. MacLaverty’s reading passed without incident.
Every year the volunteer-run Ullapool Book Festival runs like clockwork. Writers love it, which is why they all want to be invited back.
“No other book festival looks after its writers the way Ullapool does,” said Bernard MacLaverty, closing this year’s event.
That fact is down to a dedicated band of locals.
On the committee are chair Joan Michael, secretary Liz Beer, treasurer Effie Mackenzie, and members Chrissy Boyd, Sheila Didcock, Catriona Martin and Kathy Ross. Volunteers who “oil the wheels” are Rosemary Burnett, Katie Hume, John Innes, Tina Macdonald, Audrey Maclennan and Margaret Steventon. Maree Todd also merits a mention, but as she was last week elected MSP for the Highlands and Islands her involvement in future festivals might be in doubt.
“Everyone mucks in at various points,” said Joan Michael. “But collectively they sell tickets, chat to and welcome audience members, set up the village hall, keep the toilets clean, move furniture. They make soups and salads to feed the team at lunchtimes. Additionally, they bake cakes, serve coffees, make tablet and sweeties, sell raffle tickets, pick litter at Loopallu – all to raise funds for the festival. And all generally see what needs doing and do it. It is a real team – and great to be part of.”