The most important literary news in Scotland this week is that I have had a haircut, which was not wholly successful. In fact, it makes me look like an evacuee who had been discovered to have nits. But a very close second to this weaslaphobic catastrophe and the results of the Zen Election (everyone loses, especially however wins) was the wonderful Ullapool Book Festival.
As the outgoing honorary president, Donny O’Rourke, said, Ullapool is the Scottish of the Scottish Book Festivals. In particular, the fact that it’s a linear programme in a relatively remote place means that the audience tends to be a constant. The same people are at a majority of the events, and it becomes a kind of dialogue rather than a series of performances. The authors attend most of the events too, rather being sequestered in a green room, and refer in their own events to things that have occurred beforehand: for example, the whole weekend began with Andrew Greig’s homage to Norman McCaig and the landscape of Assynt, which was picked up by Stewart Conn, reading from his new collection of poems but dipping back to works written for the McCaig edition of Chapmna, which was in turn linked to Mandy Haggith reading a contemporary reworking of the themes of McCaig’s great poem, “A Man In Assynt”.
It was especially gratifying that so many writers either read from or discussed forthcoming work. I’ve groused about this before, but the logic of spending £8 to hear an Author read words you’ve already read never makes much sense to me. So we ended the festival with James Robertson reading from And The Land Lay Still, an epic novel charting Scotland’s relationship to self-determination and subaltern status paralleled to the changes in liberation and entrapment in the private lives of its inhabitants; a whopping, big, big-hearted and radically ambitious novel, due out in August. Kevin McNeil read from his new work, again due out in Autumn, entitled A Method Actor’s Guide to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. McNeil takes contradiction, self-division and schizophrenia and reinscribes Stevenson’s quintessentially Scottish myth at the level of the sentence. From the extract he read, he’s raised the oxymoron to the literary sublime. Iain M Banks – who gets joke of the festival for standing on stage and testing his microphone by saying “ridiculous… just some bigoted woman” – read from Surface Tensions, the new Culture novel: it’s fascinating how, as the Culture becomes every more technologically magical, Banks sets more and more portions in archaic, almost medieval, settings. Iain Finlay Macleod, the playwright whose St Kilda was the must-see of last year’s Edinburgh International Festival, read from his new novel, Impireachd (Empire); an exceptionally moving extract about the metaphysic of loss as the protagonist has home, job, money, language, family and even name stripped away. Jason Donald, author of Choke Chain, discussed his new project: a novel set in Glasgow with a majority cast of non-white Glaswegians: change, it seems, governs the Scottish literary imagination even as its electoral status remains in an ossified limbo. McNeil, incidentally, gave an astonishing answer when I questioned him on-stage about the tensions of being a Gaelic and avant-garde writer: he deliberately eschewed being influenced by the greats of Gaeldom (Sorley Maclean, William Ross etc) – in contradiction to Sorley’s own quest for a form that united “Yeats and Blok and William Ross”, saying Gaelic couldn’t cannibalise itself. He preferred to be influenced by Kawabata… Did I mention that Ullapool also featured a Guatemalan poet, the grandson of a shaman, who read indigenous sound poetry? So much for the kleinstadtisch Scotland.
Speaking of which: the election. Literature gives us a clue to this entire fiasco. Brown, on being asked for a favourite poem, once chose a piece by James Stockinger, which transpired to be part of a sociology doctorate. David Cameron might have been snapped, expediently, reading On Chesil Beach (a book about premature ejaculation / election), but has Louise Bagshawe as one of his MPs. And poor old Nick Clegg said his favourite writer was Beckett, which is the ideal opportunity to repeat the great man’s words from Worstward Ho: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
PS: the anagram in the last sermon – the source text is “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
PPS: the new chief executive of Creative Scotland, Andrew Dixon, made an appearance at the Ullapool Book Festival, as part of the induction scheme he has set himself of spending his first two months in the post actually meeting Scotland’s artists and creative professionals. It’s enough to make me ditch my cynicism. The Scotsman has a full report.