There was no 9.30pm Saturday session at this year’s Ullapool Book Festival. Like every other hour of this annual gathering, it would no doubt have been filled with insight, intelligence and more than a little laughter. But the death of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, whose body was found on the South Queensferry shoreline just two days before his scheduled appearance, meant that the village hall was left silent at the appointed half-hour. His role as illustrator of the new Michael Pedersen book ‘Oyster’ was left unexplored. Instead of poetry and song there were empty chairs facing an empty stage. For that hour, a void moved in. Mercifully, it didn’t linger; not over Ullapool, anyway.
The antidote to deathly silence and the empty stage is a packed hall; it is 200 people paying rapt attention to their favourite writers; a 48-hour conversation that begins in Market Street, but which fans out across Scotland when the final act leaves the hall on Sunday afternoon.
This year, the honour of bringing the festival to a close belonged to Bernard MacLaverty.
The author of ‘Cal’ and ‘Lamb’ took 16 years to produce his new novel, ‘Midwinter Break’. Why so long? Writing libretti for Scottish Opera explains, partly, the hiatus. But the main reason, he told session chair Faith Liddell, was the arrival of eight grandchildren. In fact, ‘Midwinter Break’ – which tells the story of an old married couple on holiday in Amsterdam – is dedicated to them.
A writer takes from his own life, and the idea for the book came to MacLaverty during a visit to Amsterdam for a “horny and porny” short story event (his own entry was entitled ‘A Pornographer Woos’). During this trip, he chanced upon one of the oldest buildings in the city, the English Reformed Church. Invisible from the street and accessed only through an inconspicuous archway, the 700-year-old building stands alone in a grassy courtyard. In ‘Midwinter Break’, its cloistered stillness, far removed from the urban bustle, is sought by the main female character, Stella. While she retreats into faith, her husband of 50 years, Gerry, sinks into alcohol dependency.
“What is love but a lifetime of conversations?” the book asks. MacLaverty himself has been married for nigh on 50 years, so should know a thing or two about provoking, and resolving, conflicts.
Canadian playwright and novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald spent a long time at war with the people she loved the most. After coming out in the early 1980s, there were no conversations with her parents for many years.
“I was pretty much exiled,” she told session chair David Robinson. “But then it was like the Berlin Wall came down and there was this big, warm embrace.”
Initially, her devout Catholic mother was horrified. But MacDonald’s relationship with fellow playwright Ailsa Palmer, with whom she has two children, helped achieve a rapprochement, which brought with it a frank admission.
“My mother said to me you and Ailsa are better mothers than I ever was. Well, I didn’t know if I could survive the love – that just about killed me.”
The scars and joys of parenthood form the basis of her most recent novel, ‘Adult Onset’ – her most autobiographical book yet. The main character is a lesbian writer with two children who goes by the name Mary-Rose Mackinnon. Ann-Marie MacDonald was upfront about the parallels. Incest, child murder, and maternal rage and frustration are the foundations of her three novels to date. Such darkness was touched upon during her hour on stage, but it was not plumbed to any abyssal depths. From time to time she receives “postcards from the unconscious”, and those brief flashes are enough to signpost the way to her next book.
Too much information is having the opposite effect on journalism, according to Peter Geoghegan, the founder of online investigative unit The Ferret. His joint session with feature writer Peter Ross was chaired by Ruth Wishart.
“So much information is being created everyday that most people switch off – they don’t want news stories to change every five seconds,” said Geoghegan.Overall, traditional news outlets are under-staffed and under-resourced. The result is a declining industry too reliant on “churnalism”, where inexperienced graduates are handed a sheaf of press releases and told to make stories out of them.
“Press releases used to be the first things that went in the bin,” observed Ruth Wishart.
Peter Ross specialises in longer-form pieces that are “increasingly rare” in most newspapers. They are based on the close observation of ordinary lives as they are lived.
“I try to bring these stories to life, to beat the drum for the humdrum,” he said. “Features can be the midwives of empathy. Kindness is not valued in journalism. But empathy is not weakness, as journalists need to be able to access other lives. Stories should not just be delivery mechanisms for information – they should have a certain elegance in the prose. If you want to be a features writer you can learn a lot from reading Dickens or PG Wodehouse, but people don’t think of journalism in that way because it has been toxified as a profession.”
When, as Geoghegan said, student journalists name TV football pundit and former Celtic star Chris Sutton as their favourite “journalist”, you know the industry is in a spot of bother.
If Peter Ross likes to take his time to tell a story, James Miller nails his weekly column in the Inverness Courier at exactly 700 words. Journalism has taught him to condense, to cut, to keep the flow and the rhythm of the sentences.
In ‘The Finest Road in the World: The Story of Travel and Transport in the Scottish Highlands’, Miller crams 300 years of roads, coaches, trains, ferries, planes and bridges into 300 pages. Chair Mark Wringe was mightily impressed with this feat.
The perception held by most people is that the Highlands were roadless before General George Wade built them, for military reasons, in the 1720s. Miller gives plenty of evidence why this was not exactly the case. True, it took the 11th Lord Lovat, Simon Fraser, 12 days (and three broken axles) to travel by coach between his home, near Beauly, to Edinburgh, but for those on foot or on horse-back, there was actually a “denser network of routes” – river crossings and drove roads – than there is now.
“For instance, there were twice as many places where people could cross the River Dee, whether by ford or ferry crossing,” he said.
Miller was asked about that “major gap” in the north’s railway network – a line between Dingwall and Ullapool. Such a route was proposed in the early part of the 20th century, he said, but a succession of lairds blocked access to their lands. By the time one finally agreed to give ground, the age of steam had given way to the motor car, and the chance to connect Inverness to Ullapool by rail was gone.
Poet Douglas Dunn would have benefited from just such a link. Commissioned to write a poem, he told the audience on Saturday he had to produce the work by Monday. “I’ll have all the way on the train back to St Andrews on Sunday, so I’ll write it then.” He’d have at least an hour longer in which to write if it departed from Ullapool, rather than Inverness.
Bestowed with most of the major honours the world of poetry has to offer, Professor Dunn has just about made peace with the fact that he is no longer Head of School at St Andrew’s University. In ‘Thursday’, drawn from his new collection ‘The Noise of a Fly’, he describes his retirement as “terrifying”. From clearing out the “archival dross” during his final day at the office, to tripping over the additional piles of books he consequently accrues at home, this poem is attuned to many of its companions: they are spare, elegiac, and sweetened with a gnarly humour. ‘A Teacher’s Notes’ advises a young student to “stay off the hard stuff until you’re famous” if he or she wants to make it as a poet; in ‘Idleness’ the old poet urges himself on with the thought of a “poem trapped in an empty fountain pen.” Dunn confessed to chair Kevin MacNeil that he was “so unhappy” when he retired, in 2008. But he is laughing now. At one point he informed a doctor he was depressed, only to be told that he was in fact just bored. Perhaps he wouldn’t want the old days back, not with the fire that’s in him now.
If writing poems on a train works for Douglas Dunn, writing a novel in a small boat worked for Mandy Haggith. As ‘The Walrus Mutterer’ is set in 320 BC, she chose this unusual creative space to imagine herself back in time. “The sound of the boat on the water and the contours of the landscape would have been the same. I wrote most of the book at sea and edited at anchor.”
Set partly in her native Assynt, the novel’s publication in March of this year was presaged by the first visit of a walrus to Scottish waters, to Assynt no less, in over 60 years. In fact, Haggith was talking about the book at an event in Harris when news of the walrus’ visit appeared on the BBC.
‘The Walrus Mutterer’ centres on a young woman from the Assynt area who is enslaved by a powerful local trader. It is well-researched fiction. However, it features a famous person who actually did live in 320 BC – Pytheas the Greek. As the first Mediterranean – a geographer and explorer – to document the existence of polar ice (he may even have reached Iceland) there is no firm evidence to suggest that he ever set foot on Highland soil. Haggith is convinced that he did.
No such doubt hovers over Olga Wojtas novel ‘Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar’.
“It has as much to do with history as the Marx Brothers ‘Night at the Opera’ has to do with opera,” said session chair David Robinson.
Wojtas shares an alma mater with Muriel Spark. James Gillespie High School in Edinburgh was aghast when the play and then the film of Spark’s novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ came out, but now they cannot get enough of the association. There is a Muriel Spark wing and even a Brodie’s Café.
In Wojtas’ novel, librarian Shona – proud pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls – is chosen by the founder herself to time-travel back to 19th Century Russia to play the role of match-maker. ‘Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar’ is a homage and a comedy crime caper, but it is also, as readily acknowledged by David Robinson and by Sara Hunt of publishers Saraband, unclassifiable.
Saraband published ‘The Walrus Mutterer’ and Wojtas’ novel. They took a risk in doing so, said Hunt. “It would have been a crime against culture not to help them come out, as they are both incredibly original.”
That is the joy of Ullapool in May. It is the place where the risk-takers gather in their ongoing fight against crime. Not even death can subdue that for long.