Does progress always come at a price? If so, it is an established law that many of the writers at this year’s Ullapool Book Festival felt compelled to explore.
For Canadian novelist Kathleen Winter, the adoption by the UK in 1752 of the Gregorian Calender is the device through which her protagonist finds out that all is not well in the 21st century.
The main character in Winter’s novel ‘Lost in September’ may or may not be a reincarnation of General James Wolfe, famous for winning Quebec, and thus Canada, for the British Empire; and infamous for the brutality of his methods, sharpened in the aftermath of Culloden and pursued with wanton relish along the St Lawrence river. The author provides harrowing accounts of how the civilian population of that time and place was deliberately targeted by the redcoats.
The significance of the new calendar in all this is that Wednesday 2ndSeptember 1752 was immediately followed by Thursday 14th September, depriving the real James Wolfe of 11 days of much-needed downtime in Paris. So off he had to go, back onto the battlefield, his revels cut short. In the novel, his modern-day incarnation is condemned to repeat this lost furlough as a homeless ex-soldier, suffering from PTSD and wandering the streets of Montreal. Trapped in a time-loop, Jimmy/James asks what his fighting and sacrifice actually achieved.
War, trauma and recovery are explored against the backdrop of a “mercenary and materialistic north America hurtling towards doomsday.” Not much has changed, then, since two empires clashed on the Plains of Abraham.
Angus Peter Campbell often gets lost in cyberspace, usually due to repeated viewings of Lionel Messi goals. Once upon a time he could just as easily have been ‘glamoured’ by the inhabitants of a fairy knoll.
Those two realms of forgetfulness – one old and supernatural, the other new and algorithmic – provide the narrative spark for Saltire-winning novel ‘Memory and Straw’. Both are ways of making sense of the universe; both, too, have certain rules that dictate our place in the grand scheme of things.
In ‘Memory and Straw’, Campbell demonstrates that the realms are not so far apart after all. The past, that wellspring of cultural and genetic identity that flows through every one of us, is not dead or even that distant, a fact discovered by protagonist Gavin McDonell, an artificial intelligence expert from Manhattan whose ancestry is rooted across the Atlantic, where they were known (of course) by the more familiar patronymic of Macdonald.
We can get lost in fairy land, cyberspace – or even, as Campbell memorably put it, in the Pollochar Inn – but if we choose to pay attention, the past is always close at hand, exerting its influence on us. To be human is to tell stories, to hand down a psychosocial thread of meaning. This is something artificial intelligence will only ever mimic, at best. ‘Memory and Straw’ is a warning that commercialising such ingenuity dehumanises those it professes to serve.
Technology also carried a threat for journalists Neil Mackay and David Pratt. Both agreed that social media and the internet are driving a coach and horses through the business model that has traditionally underpinned the world of journalism. But both were hopeful that a new way would emerge from the ashes of the old. Call it progress, if you like.
“The entire world is going through a great disruption, but all the pillars of society will come out the other side, whether they are journalists or taxi drivers,” said Mackay.
Pratt – who has to pay his own way to every warzone he reports from – said the new business model should rely on subscriptions, not advertising revenue.
During this session, a certain recent column in the ‘Herald on Sunday’ was also discussed.
Mackay, its author, said his piece on the damage done to the cause of independence by so-called cybernats was intended as “friendly criticism” of the Yes movement; Pratt observed that the column’s “timing was unfortunate”, coming as it did the day after the All Under One Banner march through Glasgow. He reckoned it had “undoubtedly been damaging”.
Mackay said the reaction on social media proved his point: such “manic anger” does not foster healthy debate. And healthy debate is exactly what is required, he said, if sufficient numbers of Unionists are to be attracted to the Yes camp in time for IndyRef 2.
Whenever the next vote takes place, the pro-independence movement might struggle for recruits in the Shetland Islands.
With their own distinct cultural identity, our friends in the north are used to hearing how remote they are from the Central Belt. Malachy Tallack, who has lived in Shetland since the age of 10, has a problem with the word ‘remote’. That being so, he named his novel ‘The Valley at the Centre of the World’ as a riposte to those who use the word without considering its implications.
“The title of the book was partly a provocation,” he said. “We are told that Shetland is far away from power and politics and from everything that is important. But everywhere is its own centre and every community has a sense of itself. To call a place remote is to dismiss it, to define it against somewhere else.”
Tallack’s fictional valley is vulnerable. Its ways are being undermined by the onslaught of commerce and technology. Call it progress, if you like. But, as many an old crofter will tell you, the old ways are worth passing on to others, even now.
Definitions, toponymically speaking at least, are everything for Robert Alan Jamieson, a Shetlander from birth who shared the stage with Tallack. His novel ‘macCloud Falls’ (correct spelling) is set in Canada, in British Columbia, and the title, as arranged on the book’s front cover, suggests an uneasy relationship between its three syllabic elements. This is mirrored in BC itself, which Jamieson has visited four times. Scottish and English settlers, First Nations’ inhabitants, modern Canadians: colonised and colonisers co-exist, their respective narratives either coming together or remaining stubbornly other. The result, said Jamieson, is a “fraught and troubled” land where place-names are overwritten, languages lost, and where identity is multi-layered and often fractured. It’s a familiar story.
Such is life. Such is progress.
Estonia and Ullapool forge book festival links
Last year author James Robertson, who has been a guest at both Ullapool Book Festival and HeadRead Literary Festival in Tallinn, said that, having experienced both festivals, he thought they had much in common.
Although Tallinn is much bigger than Ullapool, he said both festivals have a shared ethos and commitment to good writing and to readers, and they both treat visiting authors extremely well.
So began an email conversation between Ullapool Book Festival chair Joan Michael and Krista Kaer, director of HeadRead Literary Festival, resulting in Krista coming to Ullapool for the festival earlier this month. The British Council generously funded this visit.
The hope was that it might result in some development of cultural links between the north-west Highlands and the western Baltic. And that is exactly what happened. A new cultural alliance was established with Estonia – a ‘’twinning’ arrangement with HeadRead. Ullapool Book Festival chair Joan Michael has been invited to the festival in Tallinn at the end of May next year. One of Ullapool’s guests this year, Shetland poet Roseanne Watt ,who was winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize last year, has been invited by Krista Kaer to read at HeadRead next year. And an Estonian poet will be at Ullapool in 2020, between 8th and 10th May.
Joan Michael said: “We feel that it is really important that cultural and other links are retained with Europe. We are delighted with the link we now have with Estonia and look forward to it flourishing over the years. We already have a well-established tradition of bringing Canadian authors to Ullapool and we have also invited writers from Guatemala, Catalonia, Palestine and Germany. We are a Highland festival with an international outlook.”