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
John 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
These 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 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
This 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!