Michael Russell was in Ullapool last weekend to cover the annual book festival. Here are just some of the highlights, including the Moniack Mhor prize winners…
In 2008, Fifer Paul MacAlindin was sitting in a bar in Edinburgh reading a Glasgow newspaper when he came across an article that would take him to Iraq.
The subject of ‘The Herald’ piece was 17-year-old Iraqi pianist Zuhal Sultan. She was determined to set up a National Youth Orchestra as a symbol of unity and wanted a British conductor to lead it. A year later and Paul as the “lead nutcase” was able to open the first tuition courses in the Kurdish part of that shattered country.
“We held auditions by YouTube and as there was very poor internet coverage back then in Iraq it took forever to upload, but it showed the students’ resilience and determination to do it,” he told session chair Ruth Wishart. The whole story is contained in his book, “Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq”.
With road blocks every few hundred yards and bomb attacks a regular occurrence, attending rehearsals was a huge problem. Eventually, the orchestra were good enough to perform in France, Germany and in Edinburgh, once the issue of funding was solved.
In 2010, engineering firm Weir Group was fined £3 million for bribing Saddam Hussein during the UN’s oil-for-food programme.
“Everyone was bribing Saddam,” said Paul. “The Weir Group was just unlucky to get caught.”
So culture secretary Fiona Hyslop agreed to give £100,000 of this fine to enable the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq to play in Edinburgh. With a few Scottish musicians in their ranks, they actually played music by Scottish composers.
“Members of the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra would never normally perform music by Scottish composers – but the Iraq youth orchestra did, so there was a certain irony to that. Scottish composers are tied to contracts with agents in London and that hugely affects what goes on up here. Scottish orchestras do not reflect our musical tradition.”
As a child, Edinburgh-based GP Gavin Francis was fascinated by maps and had every intention of becoming a geographer. Then someone gave him an atlas of human anatomy.
In ‘Adventures in Being Human’ he gives us a grand tour around the human body, focusing on the “artistic beauty” of such areas as the large bowel and rectum.
One particular encounter, while he was working in A&E, was with a man who had somehow contrived to have a glass ketchup bottled inserted where the sun don’t shine.
“The X-ray was something that could have been in the Tate Modern,” he observed. “It drew quite a crowd when I put in up on the lightbox.”
The patient had to go to surgery to have the bottle removed. “Is there an X ray?” asked the orderly. When Dr Francis went to retrieve it, there was no sign. Someone had pinched it.
One questioner from the floor informed the good doctor that he had taken LSD after breaking two ribs and how did he feel about the use of psychedelics to change our relationship with pain? Francis said he was sceptical. Surprisingly, he was less uncertain about complimentary medicine.
“If you have diffuse symptoms then you might well do better with someone who has a completely different vision of how the body works, but if you have a fractured pelvis then stick with western medicine because it is very goods at doing certain things.”
Purely for research purposes, AL Kennedy attended Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in 2013. Well, she was one of thousands who lined the route.
“I turned my back on the hearse and acquired three policmen, one a woman. The hearse went past at 60mph in case the waves of love overwhelmed it, and as it did the woman police officer said “Gawd bless her” which is just like people punching themselves in the face all day and then blaming the French.”
In Ullapool to talk to Stuart Kelly about her eighth novel ‘Serious Sweet’, which tells the story in the on-off relationship between a civil servant and a bankrupt accountant, Kennedy admits to recently moving from London to Essex because the former is a “big cruel place”. She spent a year recording random acts of kindnesses performed by strangers. This was done to confound the “frog-faced man in tweed with a pint in his hand who keeps telling you to hate everybody.”
One such random act made it into her new book. An old woman fell backwards on to an escalator onto her own dog, bashing her head in the process.
“This was in a shopping centre and I thought I was the only one around but then people came running out of nowhere and by that time I got there, a big crowd were round here seeing if she was OK.”
Val McDermid is motivated by a “perennial state of rage” that finds its way into her work.
“Unfairness and injustice – this is what the crime novels allow you to explore. Literary novels seem to have abdicated this responsibility and have become very inward looking.”
Now on her 30th novel, ‘Out of Bounds’, McDermid said she can spend as little as four months writing a book but it can germinate for years. Her current effort took root when she went to a forensic science seminar a few years ago.
“Testing for familial DNA is why they are now getting hits on crimes that are 20 or 30 years old, because relatives are being tested. There was this one recent case were the father was done for rape/murder because the daughter was arrested on civil disobedience charges, tested, and there was a search on the national DNA database.”
Smarting at being pegged as the Queen of Crime, McDermid said she preferred one reviewer’s description of her as the “gobby chief shop steward” of crime. “Anyway, I’m a republican,” she added.
Thorough research is essential for any writer, but must be worn lightly, she says. If you don’t fact-check you can make mistakes and one such error caused an entire book to collapse because of a “massive hole”. Her many contacts usually keep her on the right path, including one woman who is licensed by the Home Office to produce crystal meth.
“This is done to see if you can identify the batch where a drug seizures comes from. But this woman realised that street cooks would not use lab chemicals, so her assistant go round chemists to buy their two boxes of Sudafed, which is all you are allowed. Sudafed contains a precursor chemical to crystal meth.”
Dundee poet Don Paterson has won just about every poetry prize going. He also likes rappers Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West (his first two albums, anyway).
Is he now at a stage in life where he should write a long poem? Session chair Stuart Kelly wondered why none had been chosen to appear in his Selected Poems.
“You can hear a 100 trombones going down when you read a long poem at an event,” was the reply.
Instead, Paterson read sonnets from his latest collection ’40 Sonnets’ and some aphorisms, which are “the equivalent of ringing the doorbell and running away.” One in particular is worth repeating: “To a poet, a friend is an inconvenience standing between him and a decent elegy.”
Paterson is “bad tempered, not cynical” and is not averse to a bit of swearing.
“I tell my kids you can swear, but make it funny, otherwise you are on the dishes.”
James Robertson apologised in advance for “channelling Terry Wogan” as he prepared to mimic a west Highland accent, not just for the sake of it but because he was reading from his new novel, ‘To Be Continued’.
Drawing from the rich seam of Scottish comedy that passes through Walter Scott, John Galt, Compton Mackenzie, among others, the book follows the familiar path of a journey into the Highlands that leaves the main character transformed. In this case, Douglas Findhorn Elder, a former journalist from Edinburgh, is accompanied on his travels by a talking toad, Mungo, whom we first encounter in the ‘sitootery’ in the back garden of Elder’s city home.
Robertson said he has a “great affinity and fondness” for toads. Before writing the book, one sat outside his own back door for several nights running and appeared to be seeking admission. The Robertsons decided against letting the creature in.
The festival’s final session featured Graeme Macrae Burnet, who has been giving readings all over the world since his second novel ‘His Bloody Project’ was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Detailing a fictional triple murder that took place near Applecross in 1869, the book was inspired by real crimes that took place in Benbecula in 1857 and France in 1830. Macrae Burnet read all the about the former in the National Archive of Scotland in Edinburgh.
He also tells of a remarkable coincidence while writing the book: “I was writing a scene which involved two brothers, uncles of the main character, drowning in a boating accident. At the same time as I was writing this, I learned that my great-great grandfather, who was the Bard of Applecross, drowned along with his brother in a boating accident. It still makes my skin tingle when I think about it.”
Readers might be aware that ‘His Bloody Project’ won last year’s Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year – Scotland’s premier literary award. But, as session chair Mark Wringe wryly observed, they wouldn’t have learned this from the BBC’s English language coverage, because there wasn’t any.