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!