Aye Write!

The 10th annual Aye Write! has just finished at the Mitchell Library – what does the name mean? In my review of the festival two years ago, I wrote:

There are several levels of pun involved in the title of Glasgow’s book festival: Aye Write! “Yes, write” and “I write” are probably obvious to all, but non-Scots might not know that “Aye, right!” is a Glaswegian expression of some scepticism, a rare example of a double positive making a negative.

So now you know! As two years ago, I attended several sessions in return for volunteering – directing people to the right venues, checking tickets and taking round the microphone for Q&A sessions. It was great fun being able to help and, because I didn’t request any specific sessions that I wanted to attend, I heard from authors that I’d previously known nothing about.

There’s a whole range of talks to suit every taste from celebrity writers, who naturally can turn their event into a performance, to special interest writers, some of whom are obviously not used to public speaking.  Panel and interview formats are also popular and can work very well. Here are my highlights.

John Mackay : The books that made me

Road DanceJohn Mackay is a well-known Scottish political journalist. I didn’t know he was also a novelist – he has written a trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, the first of which is The Road Dance. In this session, he talked about five books that had influenced him, starting with the Bible. John was born in Glasgow, but from a Hebridean background. His family were members of the Free Church. Favourite part: when he had to explain to his childhood pals that he wasn’t allowed to play football on Sundays because of his church. “Free Church? Does that mean you don’t have to pay a collection then?”

Crime and the city

Crime writing is not my genre of choice, so I didn’t know any of these authors. Stuart McBride, Neil Broadfoot and Malcolm MacKay discussed the importance of, respectively, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow to their novels and why they chose the location in the first place. Favourite part: the Q&A. Chair Russel D MacLean (another crime writer who sets his novels in Dundee) exhorted the audience not to be shy – their questions couldn’t be any worse than one he had been asked: “Have you, or any of your characters, ever been made into bubble bath dispensers?” Then I took the mic to a lady who started “Stuart, I’ve never been able to finish any of your books…..” She went on to say that they were too gory, she worried about him and was relieved to see that he looked normal and quite human! Fortunately, Stuart took this in good part and banter ensued. Kudos to Russel for introducing the signing session by saying “and if you can’t read the books, I’m told they make excellent paperweights”

My era is better than yours

Three historical fiction writers made a pitch for their chosen period: Lindsey Davis (the Georgians), Rory Clements (the Elizabethans) and Michael Arnold (the English Civil War). Favourite part: the result. The chair allegedly had a clapometer which measured audience applause and produced – a three-way tie! I don’t believe it. Not only are the Tudors obviously the best, but I thought Rory Clements was the best speaker and made a proper case rather than just telling anecdotes from his period. But what do I know?

Nikolaus Wachsmann / Eva Schloss

9780374118259These were two separate talks, but they were programmed consecutively and it was obvious that many of the audience for the first had stayed on for the second. Nikolaus Wachsmann is the first historian to write a complete history of the Nazi concentration camps in KL. He tells the full story of the camp system’s development and the everyday experiences of its inhabitants, both perpetrators and victims. It was the question of the perpetrators that fascinated me. How could anyone do such things? Wachsmann outlined a range of reactions:

  • The SS man who vomited at his first sighting of mass murder then got used to it and participated.
  • The SS men who saw it as a profession and were quite business-like about it. One said of a Jehovah’s Witness when asked why he buried him alive: “He was a Conscientious Objector and had no right to life in my view”.
  • One officer wrote to his wife that he “put his head in the sand”. This was a common reaction. Wachsmann says that the claim after the war that the population did not know what was going on was a myth. The camps and the prisoners were in plain sight.

He concluded that, on the whole, perpetrators lived quieter lives than those who suffered – they seemed to be able to forget.

Eva SchlossEva Schloss and her family were taken to Auschwitz in May 1944. Her father and brother died, but she and her mother were freed by the Russians in 1945. Wachsmann cared deeply about his subject, but Schloss’s session (in the form of a discussion about her book, After Auschwitz, with Ruth Wishart) had the added passion of the survivor and bears out Wachsmann’s theory. She was filled with hate for years, also jealousy. After the war her mother remarried – to Otto Frank, making her Anne’s step-sister. She felt side-lined; that her own identity had been overwhelmed by this connection. For years, she didn’t talk about what happened for fear of burdening her own children. Now, she sees this as damaging and wishes she had spoken about it more. The floodgates, for her, were opened when Ken Livingstone asked her to take part in an exhibition.

Schloss also had her views about the perpetrators. She might be happy now (she has had a long marriage and children and grandchildren) but she cannot forgive the perpetrators, nor does she want to. She has no truck with the “only obeying orders” excuse, citing an officer in the early years of the camps who had expressed distaste for his role and been moved elsewhere. What if they had all done that? Not only that, she feels some of the guards took pleasure in inventing even worse things than those that they were ordered to do. Like Wachsmann, she feels that they were, unaccountably, able to live with themselves afterwards and some were just sorry that they didn’t finish the job.

This was a very moving, even traumatic, evening. One audience member I spoke with wondered whether it would have been better to have the sessions on different days, then decided that would lessen the impact and it was better to confront ( I can’t say enjoy) both at once. I agree.

Tony Roper : I’ll no tell you again

tonyroper_cover01This one I actually had a ticket for. Tony Roper is one of Scotland’s most recognisable faces. He is best known for playing Jamesie Cotter in Rab C. Nesbitt and for writing the classic comedy-drama The Steamie. I’ll no tell you again is his autobiography, telling of his Glasgow childhood and his early working life in coal mines, building sites and ship yards before he found his vocation as an actor and writer.

Roper is very, very funny and kept the theatre laughing for an hour. Who knew he was 73? I’d never have thought it. And his real name’s not Tony – not unusual for an actor to have a stage name, but his renaming long predated his acting days. He was called Dennis after his father, but his mother didn’t like his father very much so young Dennis was always known as Junior until he went to work at Bilsland’s Bakery. The van driver he was assigned to kept calling him Tony, because that was the name of his last assistant. Everyone else took it up, and he’s been Tony ever since. Favourite part: Tony imitating Rikki Fulton as Rev I M Jolly.

Apologies to non-Scottish readers who have missed out on some of the cultural references in this post!

My “Aye Write!”

Aye Write! takes place at Glasgow’s magnificent Mitchell Library

There are several levels of pun involved in the title of Glasgow’s book festival, which finished on Saturday: Aye Write! “Yes, write” and”I write” are probably obvious to all, but non-Scots might not know that “Aye, right!” is a Glaswegian expression of some scepticism, a rare example of a double positive making a negative. I’m not sure what this says about the festival – Glaswegians take little on face value and might be more likely to question the veracity of the speakers? Well, not in the sessions I attended anyway in which remarkable consensus ensued.

This is the eighth Aye Write! In previous years I’ve been a ticket-buying punter; this year I was lucky enough to be invited to staff the doors in return for free events, nine in all. I had a great time, particularly as most of the talks were not ones I’d necessarily have chosen myself, so it was definitely mind-broadening. Here they are in chronological order:

Tuesday: Patrick Ness and Matt Haig; Unstated

Patrick and Matt had an interesting discussion based on their new books,  both of which have fantastical elements. Why does this make them less literary in some eyes? Would Shakespeare’s agent have suggested he should lose the supernatural, e.g. the ghost in Macbeth? Fantasy is no more “made up” than any other genre and the only rules should be dictated by the story, not imposed from the outside. They liked distinctions by age as little as by genre: who says a book is YA? (Though often, Matt suggested, teenagers are more open to fantasy, because life hasn’t yet taken their imagination out of them.) Another strand to the discussion was their stimulus to write: Matt sees writing as a compulsion, therapeutic, almost therapy. Patrick likes to use rules to stimulate creativity e.g. the words “I love you” are never used in The Monster Calls. I knew Patrick Ness’s work already – I went away wanting to know more about Matt Haig and to read his book.

Unstated brought together the views of 27 writers and activists on independence and Scotland. In this session, editor Scott Hames discussed some of the issues with three contributors, Margaret Elphinstone, Meaghan Delahunt and Alan Bissett. As they were all writers, talk focused more on the cultural and social justice arguments in favour of independence rather than economic ones. It was interesting that in a wide-ranging audience discussion, no voices were raised in favour of the Union (though one admitted to scepticism). Preaching to the converted?

Wednesday: Mona Siddiqui; Anne Lorne Gillies

I didn’t get a lot out of Mona’s talk on the centrality of Jesus in Christian-Muslim relations. Not her fault – the acoustics were against her rather quick, light voice. The Main Hall certainly seems to be the Mitchell’s weak spot, with sound troubles in several sessions.

Anne Lorne Gillies told the story of three female Gaelic song collectors spanning a century and a half: Frances Tolmie (1840-1926), Marjory Kennedy Fraser (1857-1930) and Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004). The first and last were more serious; Kennedy Fraser spoke no Gaelic and rather romanticised her “translations” or, reading between the lines, made them up, though this did result in the beautiful Eriskay Love Lilt. Anne’s presentation included images and song, an all-round delight.

Friday: AL Kennedy, Jackie Kay

AL Kennedy’s On writing is a collection of blog posts, essays and the transcript of her stand-up show. She read two sections which were very droll, one on attending writing workshops and what she would like to do to some of the less attractive characters there (not pretty) and one on defending the arts in hard times, which she has been doing since “the kind and smiling days of Thatcherite cuts” (cue cheers.)

Jackie Kay was hilarious: effervescent, engaging, risqué – is it only in Glasgow that a douce, middle-aged, audience will laugh like drains at jokes about orgasms and breadbins? (Read the book, Reality, reality, a collection of short stories, to find the connection!) There was also a definite food theme – after all, food can be an indicator of character. How many of us judge a person by the contents of their supermarket trolley? Jackie read a “tapas” from her book. The Chair told us she made excellent broccoli soup (not something he often got when interviewing writers). One story was about a serial dieter and, in another, an old lady dreamed of having a red cardigan, the colour of her soup. This was the stand-out session for me, and also included the best audience question of the whole programme – when the serial dieter fell off the wagon, so to speak, into a curry, the food was lovingly described. “How much research did you have to do to get this right?” Jackie was asked (answer, a copious amount.) Reality, reality is now in my collection and I can’t wait to read it.

Saturday: Ronald Frame; Seamus Milne and Daniel Stedman Jones; John Gordon Sinclair

Two very different fiction sessions on Saturday, and one non-fiction two-hander. Ronald Frame has written Havisham, a prequel to Great Expectations, and said he was surprised that no-one had attempted this already given that Dickens offers quite a bit of back story. He was inspired by an old brewery to write about Miss Havisham, the daughter of a brewer, and the book started life as a radio play. He doesn’t think Dickens would mind other people taking over his characters, but felt he had to win over the Dickens fans.

Ronald Frame is an established writer; actor John Gordon Sinclair has written his first book, an IRA thriller. This, too, started life as something else, in this case a proposal for a screen play – when he was asked to write an autobiography, he decided to develop this instead. He felt being well-known already played against him – people might expect an actor to write about the theatrical world, and some publishers couldn’t get past the idea of Gregory, his most famous role. This must be irritating for him, but I see where they are coming from. Funny and self-deprecating (he doesn’t do readings from his book because he is “shite” at it) he is exactly how I would imagine Gregory at 50.

Finally, a session on neo-liberalism with Seamus Milne and Daniel Stedman Jones. I thought this might be a bit dry, but found it fascinating and curiously uplifting. Seamus is of the opinion that opponents of the existing world order have been wrong on the major world events of the 21st century and their opponents have been vindicated. For example, the “war on terror” exposed the limits of US and western imperialist power (he was proud, in 2001, to be on Tony Blair’s list of 10 journalists who were “wrong” to predict that this would lead to guerilla warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan). The crash following 2008 had the greatest impact on the most deregulated economies, yet the Right are still crowing and asserting that neoliberalism is the way to go. The Left should capitalise on being right and mobilise policy and social pressure to turn the tables. Daniel’s book is more historical and goes back to the inter-war years where neo-liberalism emerged in response to the Depression. He was more cautious than Seamus, though hoped he was right that 2008 was a watershed for neoliberalism (and Seamus certainly was so confident that he was almost convincing). However, Daniel can’t see any ready-made alternatives on the horizon. I now feel 50% optimistic that there is a way out of this!

So – that was my Aye Write! It was a great experience, and I thank Mary and Josie at Glasgow Life for offering me the opportunity to hear so many wonderful authors. For a completely different selection of events, see this review by Helen McKinven. There was just so much going on. See you in 2014!