Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Third Time's a Charm

This post first appeared in the December issue of Words With JAM

Some traditions should have gone the way of Lib Dem credibility years ago. Who really likes Mulled Wine? It’s a hideous brew and should be allowed no part in Festive festivities. Enlightened, 21st Century humanity could probably live without setting off hundreds of barely controlled explosions for hours on end, every bloody night of November, too (dog owner). And don’t get me started on religion.

Now and then, though, a new activity justly gains the status of ‘tradition’ and WWJ’s annual trip to The Wigtown Book Festival is one such deserving, if drunken, pursuit.

Plus, given that this issue’s theme is World Literature, what better way to celebrate than a Scottish columnist writing about a literary festival in a Scottish town, at which mostly Scottish writers talked about their mainly Scotland-based writing? Scotland is in the world, after all. Okay, a couple of the writers we saw were English, but it was clear they really wished they were Caledonian (for our international readers, England is a small annex of Scotland, just to the south).

As is traditional with traditions, we did everything the same as last year and the year before that and the … wait, no, this is only the third time we’ve been. Anyway, same hotel in nearby Newton Stewart (tiny telly, tastiest steak and chips anywhere, welcoming staff); same chippy lunch on day one (nothing like fat, salt, carbs and fat to get you ready for the day); same drunken midnight pizza on night two, from the wee shop across from the hotel staffed by the New Yorker who’s lived everywhere on the planet including, apparently, just round the corner from both the Ed and me at various times. (We made one deviation from the norm and got spicy chicken. This was a mistake.)

Actually, at this point I’m going to give an entirely unsolicited extra shout-out to The Galloway Arms Hotel, Newton Stewart. Three years in a row we’ve been treated superbly by the staff and owners, fed to a standard that most posh restaurants could only dream of attaining (Best. Nachos. Ever.), and Craig, our more than genial host, looked on us forgivingly and not too patronisingly when the drink took command of our higher functions. He even pretended to remember us from last year. More importantly he sorted us out with a taxi, which is a big deal when you’re in the middle of fucking nowhere at 1am and it’s pissing down.
Enough of this catering balderdash. It’s not as if I’d rather be a restaurant critic, or run a wee café or anything. That’s just daft talk. So, books and stuff.

Robert Douglas, author of numerous books including Somewhere to Lay my Head; Whose Turn for the Stairs? and his latest, Staying on Past the Terminus, spoke warmly, eloquently and Scottishly about his life and work, and the fact he tried and failed to retire years ago. Luckily he’s lived in England for a fair chunk of his life so the Ed was able to understand him. Douglas started out writing memoir, with Night song of the last tram: A Glasgow childhood, published in 2006. Previous to that he had a proper job as a prison warden. He spent time with many of the UK’s most notorious criminals, including Ian Brady and the Kray twins. He was one of the ‘deathwatch’ team who sat with Russell Pascoe, the last person to be hanged at HM Prison Bristol, in 1963, a few months before the death penalty was abolished in Britain. This experience prompted Douglas to write his first short story. After reading it, a friend encouraged Douglas to write professionally. A mere forty plus years later, he’s a bestselling author whose chronicles of Glasgow life in the forties, fifties and beyond, both autobiographical and fictional, have been lauded as some of the finest, most accurate and least cynical (and funniest) literature about the era. Glasgow, like most other cities, used to have a tram system. Douglas will give you a thousand reasons why such a service was a huge boon to ordinary, working class people and justly laments its demise in his latest novel, Staying on Past the Terminus. Ask him about the disaster that is the current Edinburgh Tram Project/Fiasco and he will, appropriately, get a bit Glaswegian on you.

Full of chips and vigour/vinegar, it was time for the next ‘event’. Being a cynical fool, I didn’t have high hopes for Edwardian Tea with Geraldine McCaughrean. I had two questions: Who is Edward and, being a coffee drinker, why would I want his tea; and, who is Geraldine McCaughrean? Shows what I know.
Cucumber sandwiches. I’d heard about them cos of cricket and stuff, but I didn’t really believe in their existence. Certainly never seen one (Scottish). The only thing I know about cucumber is that it uses up more energy to digest than it gives you when you eat it, so what’s the point? Sitting down at a table laden to breaking point with the things wasn’t the most auspicious start to an event. Thank Christ for that sausage supper I had earlier. And then …

Yes, I did eat one, but that’s not the point. It’s not about catering! Okay, it was a bit tasty, but no one cares. It was the butter, not the green watery thing in the middle that mattered. Then I saw the cakes. Started thinking this Eddie guy, whoever the hell he was, knew something about culinary pleasure. He may be someone I’d get on with. I looked round the room trying to spot the kitchen, thinking I might have a chat with him, see if he was interested in supplying a small café that may or may not be opening in 2014 or so, depending on the state of the economy.

I digress.

Turns out Geraldine McCaughrean is only the person who won the job of writing the official Peter Pan sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet. She saved the lives of countless children, cos of the hospital thing, or something. Great Ormond Street, I believe. That aside, for it is meaningless, Geraldine spoke for a good twenty minutes as we munched. She was fricking fabulous. Funny, self-deprecating, charming, humble, all the good stuff. Charity can look after itself, I care not a jot. I’d buy Geraldine’s book(s), and support the tremendous work she does, and is done by Great Ormond Street, because she’s funny and it’s a bloody good book.

Blaming poor weather, Elaine C Smith hurried in late to discuss her autobiography, Nothing Like A Dame. Ever the professional, she spent the next hour discussing almost everything except her book.
If you’re Scottish you know who Elaine is. If you’re not Scottish you may not, and you are much the poorer for that. A stalwart of Scottish comedy television and stage, she’s an actress, a comedienne, a singer and a writer who has been making us jocks (I feel it’s time we reclaimed that word) laugh our bahookies off for years in such classics as Naked Video, A Kick Up the Eighties and Rab C Nesbitt. She does panto as well but we won’t talk about that. More recently she starred in the stage version of Calendar Girls and is -  hold the front page – being lined up to star in a big screen version of the life of Susan Boyle. I’m only vaguely aware of who Susan Boyle is and intend to keep it that way, but good luck to them anyway. More importantly, Elaine C Smith is hilarious in person. Full of energy and anecdotes, opinions and piss takes (‘Aye, wee Eck’s doing all right I suppose’ was her opinion of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond). A perfect end to our first day at the festival. Actually the steak and chips was the perfect end to our first day. Really, it was the several beers after the steak, but you know what I mean.

Day two started with us accidentally gate-crashing a live broadcast of Brian Taylor’s Big Debate, the Radio Scotland political panel show (it’s like Question Time but with Scottish people). We were a bit bewildered by it all to be honest – I honestly don’t care about devolution/independence or whatever, I just want to be paid more for doing less -  but it turned out Elaine C Smith was on the panel so at least it was funny.

We then eventually found, in a leaky tent in the garden of a book shop, a discussion about literary magazines. The Ed and I thought we’d be treated as star guests at that one, given how mega successful WWJ is, but it turned out they meant proper literary magazines like Gutter, with poetry and stuff, so we kept our heads down. There were seven people at this event, which says more than I care to know about the state of Scottish literature.

Julie Myerson is no stranger to controversy. She has controversy round for afternoon tea at least three times a week. In between, they Skype. She got into all sorts of bother a couple of years ago after writing The Lost Child: a True Story, in which she detailed her son’s battle with drug addiction and the extreme (to some) steps she and her husband took to help him. What becomes clear after only a minimum of research (my favourite kind) is that most of the people lobbing pelters at her back then hadn’t even read the book, just jumped on the wagon with the loudest band. In person, Myerson comes across as articulate, self-aware and quietly defiant. Although obviously scarred by the whole furore she has few regrets, and those she does have are rooted in a fierce love of her children and their continued wellbeing and have nothing to do with her own ‘image’. I liked that. She also writes some seriously mind-fucking novels, which I like also. Her latest, Then, is mental, but in a good, if disquieting, way.

Our time at the festival was almost at an end but we still found time for A Night in the Gutter, a celebration of music and poetry with free drinks. Guess which of those attracted us most. I am unequipped, both emotionally and linguistically, to comment much on proceedings beyond stating that we witnessed the drunkest poet on the planet give a reading. And yes, he was Scottish.

Looking back, I have only two regrets about our time at the festival. The first is that Iain Banks wasn’t there this year, thus destroying what has hitherto been a lynchpin of the whole thing. Write quicker, Banks! How hard can it be to make sure your next book is out by September every year? Get it together, man! The second regret is that, once again, we missed Christopher Brookmyre by a day. Every bloody time. It seems I am destined never to see that man in the flesh. Perhaps it’s for the best. Maybe he’s a dick and I wouldn’t like him.

As ever, between events we toured the local book shops picking up bargains and marvelling at the shite some people try to sell for cash money. It was a sad indication of current events that two of the eleven shops were holding closing down sales. We pondered this for a while, got all existential, then had a spicy chicken pizza. 

The heartburn felt appropriate, somehow.

Got a Bit Bored

Boxing Day, the usual mixture of exhaustion, skintness and anti-climax. What to do, what to do?
Watched the Doctor Who special. It wasn't all that special. The illegally downloaded American shows have dried up because of their bizarre habit of taking Christmas off (light-weights).
So, I spent a couple of hours messing about with Windows Live Movie Maker, because I only spotted last week that I had it (hey, I've only had this computer for 18 months, these things take time).
I do enjoy a project, it has to be said. Even a shite one.
So, I did this:


I'd say 'Enjoy', but that's probably not the appropriate term. Endure!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christians

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Jolly Hanukkah. Decent Solstice. Enjoyable Winter. Desirable Gift-giving.
When did it get that difficult?
Easy – it didn’t.  Winter is shite. It’s rubbish, it’s horrible, it’s unproductive and it is, frankly, depressing. It’s cold, the choice of food is limited and travel-options can often be stifled at the last minute, leaving us stranded in the shithole we call home whether we’re wealthy enough to pay for travel or just desperate enough to hoof it to greener-pastures for a wee while, should the opportunity arise.
Winter is, well, winter. The tough bit of the year; the bit we’d rather do without, given the choice. It’s a struggle, even these days. We even invented a syndrome to make us middle-class people feel better about feeling awful at this time of year. We get disordered, seasonally.
And so, being, collectively if not individually, marginally intelligent, we decided, a very long time ago, it might be a decent idea to have a bit of a party in the middle of this shite, to stop us gouging our brains out. This was a great invention. One of our best, I reckon. Up there with recorded music and cheese in terms of quality additions to the general wellbeing of the human race.
Way before anything in the bible happened, humans sussed that somewhere slap bang in the middle of this winter horribleness,  the Sun changed its mind, stopped being a wuss and started getting shinier for longer every day. Turns out that’s anywhere from the 21st to the 23rd of December, by modern reckoning.  That’s what’s called a Solstice.
I could never have worked that out. I don’t know anyone who could, frankly. I know I’m not clever enough to figure out the movements of the sun from first principles. I don’t doubt humans exist who could, I just know I’m not one of them, and neither are you (statistically speaking). But they did, way back when. When they hadn’t figured out what that burny thing that sometimes happened to wood and made the dead rabbit taste better, they’d figured out the seasons. And they knew winter was shit. So they had a party in the middle, to retain the option of not going nutfucked wiith the misery of it all. That very fact gives me so much hope.
But, many thousands of years later, where do we find ourselves?
‘Christmas is being hijacked!’ ‘Political Correctness is Killing Christmas!’ ‘What Happened to OUR Holiday’. Etc.
Jesus. And yes, I do mean ‘Jesus’.
Nice man, I have no doubt. If he said and did half the things attributed to him he deserves all the praise in the world. ‘Love thy neighbour as you love thyself’ – Best. Life-lesson. Ever.
But he, himself, personally, as far as I can tell, didn’t tell anyone when his birthday was. Neither did his mum. Or step dad. Or actual dad, depending what you believe. The phrase ‘25th of December’ does not, to my knowledge, occur in the Bible. So shut the fuck up. You don’t own it.
We all need a break in the middle of winter. Life is pretty difficult for everyone. I admire and, sometimes, envy the ability some people have to attribute both suffering and joy to a higher being. Good luck with that. I’m not asking you to stop believing.
What I am asking you to do, though, is to give the rest of us a fucking break. We get tired, too. We need a day off, too.
Some of us just need an excuse to have a party in the middle of a shite winter. We’re not taking anything away from you or your beliefs. We’re just gearing up for another year, without divine assistance.
That we manage to be moral, and just, and compassionate and graceful without the fear of Hellish punishment should we not be, makes us what? Less than you? Damned?
Explain that.
Festive Festivities!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

BigAl's Books and Pals: Scratch / Danny Gillan

BigAl's Books and Pals: Scratch / Danny Gillan: Reviewed by: BigAl Genre: Contemporary Fiction/Humor Approximate word count: 95-100,00 words Availability Kindle US: YES UK: YE...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Smash my Face In. With Words.

Wrote a book. E-Pubbed it. Spotted shit-loads of mistakes. Fixed as many as possible. E-pubbed it again on a smashing site that does all the hard work. Happiness.

Go here, do whatever the hell you like 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New Book, Oblogatory Plug

Once upon a time in a land far, far away (Mount Florida, three miles east of here), a man, a very simple man in every sense, found himself alone with a computer, rudimentary typing skills and vast amounts of time on his hands.

He therefore assumed he had both a right and an obligation to write stuff down and force others to read it. This is not uncommon for men such as he - he was a twat, after all.

The results of his months of labour can be found all over the world wide web if you can be arsed looking. They're mainly in forums and chat-rooms disputing things like the current identity and whereabouts of Elvis Presley or whether Barry Allen really is The Flash anymore.

In between taking great pride in destroying the confidence and self-esteem of eleven-year-olds the world over, he wrote a few stupid stories.

Some of them got published, most of them didn't. He chose to ignore the second half of the previous sentence and publish all of them himself. All of the ones he remained sober enough to finish, at least.

He then turned this scurrilous attempt at conning good, honest people out of their harder than ever earned cash into a travesty of a book and foisted it unasked on the ebook reading population. He deserves nothing but your scorn.

Anyway, it's only 70p. Worth a punt.

A Selection of Meats and Cheeses

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cover Story

Just finalised the cover for my upcoming short story anthology. I like it!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kindling an Interest

*This post first appeared as a guest spot on Susanne O’Leary’s blog.*

Yep, I’ve jumped on the Kindle bandwagon. Enticed by tales of thousands of sales and generous royalty rates, I recently stuck up my second novel, Scratch, and sat back, waiting for the cheques to roll in.

I did it for various reasons. Or at least I could pretend I did. My experience with ‘traditional’ publishing didn’t go too well with my first novel, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, so I could say that’s what put me off this route and made me go out on my own. I could also say that my writing is far too unique and experimental to find a place on celeb hungry trad publishers’ lists. I could even say that I’m joining the band of hardy pioneers blazing a trail into the ‘new’ publishing model because I’m all cool and stuff. I could say all of that, but it would be bollocks (especially the ‘unique and experimental’ thing).

I put Scratch on Kindle for two reasons and two reasons only. I’m lazy, and I’m skint. I want some easy money, and I want it on a monthly basis - a modest second income to supplement my extremely modest first income. Not too much to ask, surely? So, to achieve this, do I spend months (or years) sending samples out and failing to get an agent, or do I put the book on Kindle for relatively little expense or effort? Guess which one I chose.

So, what now? The book is there, it’s got a good cover, it’s a reasonable price, it’s not the worst book ever written. When does the cash arrive? Seriously, when?

That’s when the ‘lazy’ bit started falling apart. I quickly learned from other writers that, to get any kind of buzz going about the book, I would have to dive headlong into the world of self-promotion and, more specifically, the Amazon Kindle Forums. ‘Get your name known’. ‘Take part in discussions’. ‘Look for threads with people who’d like your writing style and genre’. All sounds fair enough. ‘But, whatever you do, don’t push the book too obviously’. Huh?

I quickly learned there is a highly vocal and significantly large number of Kindle Forum contributors who actively, and sometimes viciously, dislike authors who use the forums to promote their book(s). This seemed a bit odd to me, but again, fair enough. Apparently the best strategy is to simply become a regular forum user and hope that sales will be achieved through some sort of osmosis. A bit like Bruce Lee’s technique of ‘fighting without fighting’ (wee Scratch reference, there), we must master the art of ‘promoting without promoting’. I’ve barely mastered the art of feeding myself, so this was a daunting prospect.

But, needs must. So, armed with a bottle of red wine and a willingness to make friends with complete strangers for entirely selfish purposes, I found what seemed like a relatively ‘author friendly’ thread on the Amazon US forum and said hello. I even got away with mentioning Scratch a few times. It was all going very well and I was pleased with these early efforts. A few people even said they’d download a sample of the book. Excellent! This was going to be easy. There were a few users who seemed to be a bit cheeky about each other for no reason I could fathom, but that happens everywhere.

I had some fun making up new swear words to get round Amazon’s ‘decency’ policies (I am Glaswegian). I joked I could become the thread ‘bouncer’ to fend off trolls. It was all very jolly. Then I noticed that the ‘cheeky’ stuff was getting a bit personal between some users. Hmm, I thought. Why are they ripping into each other like that? I did a little digging and discovered that I had inadvertently landed myself smack in the middle of one of the fabled ‘flame wars’ of which legends tell, between two competing factions from different threads who had seemingly been involved in a prolonged and bloody battle for months. Oops. I then had a wee look at the other camp’s ‘home’ thread to discover I had apparently been added to numerous people’s ‘do not buy’ lists because of the made up swearing and the fact they thought I was taking sides. Again, oops. I did what all decent, honourable people would do is such circumstances and ran away, never to return.

So, not the best start, after all.  I learned a valuable lesson on that strange, corpse-strewn night, though – people take this shit awful seriously. For me, the internet has always been about trying out jokes and taking the piss out of my online mates as they do the same back to me. Not on Amazon, it seems. Oh no. I’ve since been far more reticent to jump in, all ‘farktwits’ blazing. I just respond to anyone who asks me a question and try to mention Scratch when I think I can pretend it’s relevant to the discussion. Then go back to Facebook to have a swear, take the piss and try out jokes.

It’s not so easy, this self-promotion thing. The slightly baffling factor, though, is that I sold more copies in the US that night than on any since. Maybe I should have kept calling people ‘bastiging iceholes’ and making enemies, after all. Dunno.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. When does the cash arrive?  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Words with JAM: Launching 22 Britannia Road

Words with JAM: Launching 22 Britannia Road: "On a mezzanine floor above the café at Dance East in Ipswich, in a space that is more used to hosting a small reading group, it’s standing r..."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Booked Up: Author Q&A with Danny Gillan

Booked Up: Author Q&A with Danny Gillan: "After a bit of a break I'm happy to bring you a new Friday Author interview. Paraphrasing Danny, as a youth his main ambition was to fi..."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Glasgow has a book festival? Aye, Write!

Very old joke – A school teacher is trying to wedge the laws of grammar into the minds of her 9 year-old Glaswegian pupils.
Teacher: Although a double-negative can give a positive meaning to a phrase, the opposite is never true. A double-positive can never result in a negative statement.
Wee Boaby: Aye, right!
Another issue of WWJ, another book festival report. How you must all envy us with our bohemian lifestyles and complete lack of friends/normal social lives.
It’s a shocking indictment of modern life (or maybe just mine) that Glasgow has had its very own shiny book festival for well over five years now (by which I mean six years) and I’ve never been. That all changed this year, though. Armed with our barely credible journalistic credentials, the ED and I felt it was high time we checked out what all the fuss was about.
Aye Write! took place over a balmy nine days in March and based itself in The Mitchell Library in Glasgow’s Charing Cross (yes, we’ve got one too). I’m ashamed to say that the last time I set foot in the magnificent institution that is The Mitchell was when I was 16 years-old and pretending to study for my Highers. I’m also slightly ashamed to say that they haven’t changed the carpets since then, it seems. Bizarre 70’s day-glo floor coverings aside, it’s still a beautiful building and a perfect setting for what is fast becoming one of the most prodigious literary festivals in the world.
This year’s programme had more highlights than a first division footballer’s hair.  Shirley Williams was there, as was Alexander McCall Smith. Cartoonist Steve Bell appeared, as well as Tariq Ramadan, Barry Cryer, Val McDermid, Manju Kapur, Niall Ferguson, Iain M Banks (he’s definitely following us), Ken McLeod and Alex Bellos. These were just some of the many, many writers we didn’t get to see because we couldn’t scrounge free tickets to their events. I have no doubt they were all very impressive, of course.
Instead, we focussed our attention on just three events we felt would best illustrate the overall ambience and intellectual depth of the festival. We didn’t just pick the three we wanted to see most that happened to fall on the days the ED and I could get off from our day jobs, honest.
First up was Jasper Fforde, author of the Thursday Next series and the Nursery Crimes tales. He gave a very funny, open and honest interview in which he discussed his writing career as well as the couple of other careers he’d had before the writing took off. Fforde is one of the few writers who has been able to make a living from writing about the world of writing. His Thursday Next books take place in a world where every character from every book ever written is alive and well and generally up to mischief. If you haven’t had the pleasure I can highly recommend the series. He manages the tricky feat of being highly literate, bloody clever and extremely funny, much like he seems to be in person, as it turns out. He answered all questions candidly but with humility and great humour, even the one from the guy who seemed to be attempting to accuse Fforde of being a fraud of some sort for being so ‘together’ (no, we didn’t understand what he meant either, nor did Fforde). The main thing we came away from the interview thinking was that Fforde is a man who very clearly views writing as fun.
The following afternoon I treated the ED to a tour of The Mitchell Library before our next scheduled event. Unfortunately she seemed to be expecting something along the same lines as the US Library of Congress, with its vast marble atriums, domes and balconies and general sense of being the largest, most impressive library in the world. The swirly-patterned orange carpets and functional, square rooms of The Mitchell were a bit of a let-down, then, even after I pointed out I could personally attest some of the graffiti in the lifts had been there for at least 24 years. The place has history. Of course, the majority of the original (and highly impressive) 1911 Mitchell building was out of bounds due to the festival and we were only able to explore the extension built in 1972 (hence the carpets). She cheered up when we found the café (it sells wine).
Anyway, back to the festival. The next event we attended was a double act. Jo Nesbo and Mark Billingham are two or the leading crime thriller writers around, and proved to be a very funny pairing as they bantered with the audience and one another. After bemoaning the fact that his Harry Hole books’ humour could often be lost in the translation from their original Norwegian to English, he proved this isn’t the case when he is speaking English himself after being asked to describe the plot of his latest novel, The Leopard. Nesbo thought for a moment before explaining – ‘Someone gets killed. Harry tries to find out who killed them.’ By the way, did you know Jo Nesbo was both a successful professional football player and (and still is) a major rock star in Norway before he took up writing? And that he gave a false name when he subbed his first novel to publishers so they wouldn’t just give him a deal because he was already famous? I don’t hate him at all for that, not at all.
An animated Mark Billingham was equally entertaining as he openly admitted that the writers of the recent TV versions of his first two Thorne books regularly came up with far better plot twists than he’d ever thought of (not sure I agree with him there). He went on to marvel at how writers can describe in morbid detail the mind-set and deeds of the most horrific criminals and serial killers and no one they know ever thinks they have first-hand knowledge of such things, but as soon as they write a sex scene their friends, family and parents automatically assume they’re speaking from direct experience and give them funny looks for days if not weeks after reading. By the way, did you know that Mark Billingham got his book deal after subbing only thirty thousand words of the incomplete first Thorne novel? I don’t hate him at all for that, not at all.
The final event of our brief Aye Write! sojourn coincided with the much vaunted and justly lauded World Book Night event (of which more elsewhere this issue), and featured Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet author Sarah Waters in discussion with her editor. To celebrate World Book Night, Waters gave away free copies of Fingersmith to everyone attending, which delighted the ED no end (expect them to be appearing as WWJ prizes in the very near future).
Waters is intelligent, politically astute and philosophically aware, both as a writer and a human being, and made some frighteningly valid points about how many of the hard won advances made by, and on behalf of, the working classes after the second world war are being systematically removed or dismantled by our current government in the name of ‘balancing the books.’ She was also warm, funny and accessible and her giddy joy at seeing her work successfully transferred to television was obvious.
At events such as these I have one simple test I apply when deciding if I’ll either start or continue to read the work of the writers appearing – would I want to go for a pint with them. I, perhaps stupidly, can’t appreciate the work of anyone I think is a dick, no matter the quality (yes, I mean you, Oasis). In this instance, four out or four writers passed the test easily. I’m sure they’ll all be very relieved to learn this, obviously. First round is on them, mind.  
So, another book festival and another affirmation that writers seem to be a decent lot, all in all. Roll on Edinburgh.
Oh, before I go, you may remember I had a ‘comedy God’ moment at Wigtown when I spotted Dylan Moran wandering about the place. Well, I’m delighted to report I had another one at Aye Write! Okay, he was actually appearing at the festival this time, though we didn’t manage to his event. I only saw Graeme Garden meandering through The Mitchell, didn’t I? How cool is that!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Return to Syrupville

As has now become a tradition, nay institution, the boss and I made a triumphant, wine-fuelled return to the Wigtown Book Festival late last year.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, Wigtown is a wee place in Dumfries and Galloway that has the distinction of being officially hailed as Scotland’s Book Town, thanks to the ridiculously high proportion of book shops there. And they’re all second hand book shops, at that. Heaven.

In 2009 we were there as book fans but this time was different - this time we were journalists. The difference? We got some free tickets for stuff (thank you, Adrian) and so were able to attend a few more events than our negligible funds allowed last year. To be honest we were kind of hoping for backstage passes to behind the scenes parties with the drugs and the strippers etc, but it turns out book festivals aren’t quite the same as Jedward gigs, or at least they didn’t invite us if they are. No matter, maybe they’re waiting for us to prove ourselves and we’ll get to venture further behind the veil next time.

The festival began in 1998 and has steadily built itself into one of the premier literary events in the country, attracting big names from all corners of the writing world. This year was no exception, and numbered among those writers we didn’t see were Ian Rankin, Michael Foley, Margo McDonald, Val McDermid, James Robertson, Alasdair Gray, Alex Bellos, Fiona Watson, Matt Haig, Kathryn Schultz and Martin Berners Lee, to name but a, eh, eleven. I’m sure they were all superb and their books wonderful but I didn’t see them and haven’t read them so can’t really comment (got a few on the pile, mind). Those writers we did see, however, were uniformly excellent, as I shall now explain.

I can only assume Iain M Banks heard we were turning up again this year and so decided he, too, would make it a tradition to talk about his latest book at Wigtown. Proudly sporting his middle initial as well as some natty slacks he unveiled Surface Detail, the latest in his series of Culture novels. And I do mean unveiled. The book was not yet available in the shops and those of us in attendance were literally the first people able get our hands on a copy.
The highlight of his, first ever, reading from the novel was the moment he spotted a typo on page two. The delight he felt on realising that many thousands of copies had now been printed and there was nothing he could do about it was clear to see. It was possibly funnier for us than for him, to be fair.
As ever, he made for an excellent interviewee after the reading as he discussed with Stuart Kelly (hey, I remembered his name this year!) his writing career and answered questions from the audience. One slightly annoying person stated that he felt Banks seemed to be running out of ideas in his more recent ‘M’ books. Instead of diving into the crowd and punching the fool as would have been his right, Banks was extremely gracious as he acknowledged that it wasn’t unusual to have your best ideas when you’re young, but that you get better at using them as you age. Then he dived into the crowd and punched the fool.  
Incidentally, after having read only a few chapters of Surface Detail, I can attest that he is about as far from running out of ideas as I am from the Man Booker.

The event we’d hoped to see that night had sold out before Adrian could squirrel away a couple of tickets. Undeterred, we went anyway. Des Dillon is an award-winning Glaswegian (okay, Coatbridge) author and television writer with seven novels, several successful screenplays and a number of acclaimed stage plays to his credit. He’s also skint, which is a bit scary for the rest of us, and so has turned his hand to stand up comedy to pay the gas bill (look him up, check out his credits, then ask yourself if you really want to be a writer).
We arrived early and the boss managed to sweet talk the lady on the door into giving us a couple of ‘spare’ tickets, cash in hand (then handbag - do not pass go, do not go anywhere near the cash tin). The venue - the gorgeous, whisky-soaked Bladnoch Distillery - quickly filled to capacity. Just before Dillon hit the stage a small argument erupted at the door. A couple of people were remonstrating with the door staff, waving around what they clearly felt were genuine tickets for the event in an unhappy manner as they surveyed the hall and it’s lack of available seats. They made far more fuss than was appropriate - they were allowed to stand at the back, for goodness sake. The one on crutches was the most annoying as she muttered and blasphemed under his breath for the rest of the evening, though her mate with the guide dog wasn’t too happy either. Some people.
Although clearly a bit nervous, Des (I feel I can use his first name, given our shared heritage of Glasgow Catholic guilt) was very, very funny. I can only imagine that his rapid-fire delivery and thick Glaswegian accent may have left a few in the audience bemused at times, but I thought he was a triumph of foul-mouthed brilliance as he explained how ‘cunt’ is just another word for ‘person’ in most parts of Scotland and that dogs with epilepsy need love too. A fine night’s entertainment was had by all. Even the blind nun at the back laughed.

Despite my prayers that everything would be worthy of a piss-take, it turned out there was some serious stuff happening.
Martin Bell, he of the white suit and sore leg, discussed his book A Very British Revolution,  in which he confirms that MPs are, with a couple of exceptions, a bunch of greedy, self-serving borderline criminals. While that is no surprise, he also spoke at length about his work both as a foreign correspondent and an ambassador for UNICEF, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the horrors both innocent civilians and our own armed forces are faced with daily as a result of politicians trying to score electoral points.
 Kevin Ivison was there to discuss his book Red One, a true account of his time as a bomb disposal expert in Iraq, and the disgraceful way he was treated by the Ministry of Defence after being injured, and very nearly killed, in the line of duty. His moving account of the actual circumstances of his injury and the death of his friends was humbling, but the shocking failure of the MOD to recognise the psychological trauma he suffered afterwards was frankly disgusting.
If you want to learn some real truths about both our political system and the atrocities of war carried out in our name, I suggest you pick up both these books and don’t just believe what you see on the news.

Anyway, enough of the heaviness. Probably the highlight of the whole festival for me was seeing one of my comic heroes, Dylan Moran. He wasn’t speaking or anything, I just spotted him browsing on one of the book shops, but it was still cool.

Annelise Freisenbruch gave an entertaining presentation on her book The First Ladies of Rome, in which she explores the oft forgotten wives, mothers and sisters of the Ceasars and explained how, even back then, the tabloid press was only too happy to spread lies and gossip about the celebrities of the day.

We also attended the Unpublished Writers’ Jam (no relation), in which a few brave souls gave live readings of their work and were judged by a panel of worthies (think X-Factor without the budget or the evilness). To our ears all of the work read was of a decent standard and the advice given sound. It did amuse me to hear the judges repeat those phrases all unpublished writers dread– cut out the adjectives and show don’t tell. Either they’re actually useful bits of advice or the judges had just come off a session on the YouWriteOn forum.

Our budget and livers exhausted, we had time for one last event. John Byrne, a fine Scottish writer and artist, probably best known for his TV series Tutti Frutti (recently released on DVD for the first time), arrived late and a little bedraggled thanks to the foul weather. Fortunately he’s a man who is at his most entertaining when he’s in a bit of a bad mood, and he was soon raging wearily at the Americanisation of our culture. He despaired that we in the UK seem to be in thrall of all things US related and spoke of his admiration for the French’s ability to hold on fiercely to their own national identity in the face of ever-encroaching American cultural dominance. He then paused, muttering – ‘Right enough, they’ve got Disneyland Paris. How the fuck did that happen?’
It was a great way to end our visit to Wigtown, and it’s personally gratifying to know that curmudgeonly old Glaswegians still have a place in this world.

Wigtown remains a wonderful town to visit at any time of the year and I would urge all book fans to add it to their itinerary. If you can make it to the festival itself, so much the better. We’ll see you there.

A final thought: given that it’s a small town and all the book shops are exclusively second hand, do you think there’s essentially just one big stock of books in the town that gets rotated in a cycle as they are bought in one shop, read, and then sold on to another? I like the idea of a self-sustaining book population, it feels right, somehow.