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!

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