Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Three Days in Syrupville

Not for me your package holidays, with the sunshine and the beer and the food and the dysentery. Not interested. Nor do I entertain the notion of a couple of weeks travelling this or any other country in search of new cultures and experiences. Pah.

I’m a writer you see, and that means, above all else, that I have no money.

Normally the closest I get to a summer holiday is avoiding incompetent suicide bombers as I drop various members of my family off at Glasgow Airport then pick them up again two weeks later, pretending not to be bothered about their tans, stories of adventure and stress free state of mind as I break the news that I’ve forgotten to re-stock their fridge, water their plants, record CSI Miami or feed their pets (or children, in some cases).

This year was different though. I actually left the city for more than an hour. I took it upon myself to suggest to a dear friend and fellow writer that we might venture forth on a trip to the fine hamlet (I should point out at this time that I have no idea what a ‘hamlet’ is) of Wigtown, which is somewhere in Scotland but quite far away from Glasgow and therefore counts as ‘travel’.

Wigtown is known as ‘Scotland’s Book Town’, because it has more book shops per head of population than anywhere else in the country. It has twelve, which gives you a rough idea of its size.

This would be reason enough to visit the place, but Wigtown also hosts a Book Festival every year and it just so happened that this year’s coincided with one of the weeks annual leave I randomly assigned myself in January (I’m a writer not an idiot, of course I have a proper job).

More important than any of this was the fact that I found online a really cheap hotel with a couple of rooms to spare in nearby Newton Stewart - cheap but extremely well run, I hasten to add.

And so, I went on holiday. It was great.

The festival lasts for ten days, though for reasons too financially embarrassing to go into we were only there for three. It was only going to be two originally, until I discovered that one of my favourite writers, Iain Banks, was making an appearance on the Wednesday and hastily decided Jake the dog could survive on Cheerios for another few days (hey, I did too). Another of my favourite authors, Christopher Brookmyre, was also appearing but that was on the previous Saturday so he had no chance.

We booked tickets for Iain Banks in advance, but, to be honest, nothing else really grabbed out attention for the days we’d be there. I did spot, though, that there was going to be a special showing of The Wicker Man on the Thursday and booked a couple of tickets for that, too. You should never turn down the chance to see Christopher Lee in a dress, I always say.

By way of an apology to Mr Brookmyre I listened to the audio version of A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away on the drive down, coming to the uncomfortable realisation as I did so that I’ve stolen far more from him in my own writing than I’d previously realised, heh. Anyway, moving on …

Iain Banks did not disappoint. As soon as I saw how horrible he viewed the idea of doing a reading from his latest novel, Transition, I knew he was a good guy. He read the prologue. As he put it, the only point in favour of the existence of prologues in novels is that they allow the author to read something without having to explain any context to the audience beforehand.

Following the reading, which was executed with eloquence and grace but enough of a sweaty brow to prove he wasn’t having any fun, Banks was interviewed by a man from a newspaper (I know, I know, I should remember who it was but I can’t, and research isn’t, and never will be, a strong point. Literary editor of one of the posh papers, I think). Three things struck me about Banks over the course of the interview. One - he’s a very, very intelligent man. Two - he’s a very, very Scottish man. Three - he’s a very, very funny man. Oh, and four - he’s happy to say ‘fuck’ in front of a live audience (that probably just reinforces the second point, right enough). He was brilliant.

One of the big fears I’ve always had about attending such events is that writers, in the flesh, tend towards the introverted and, dare I say it, boring. I know I am. But I urge you to go and see Iain Banks if you ever get the chance, you won’t regret it. Oh yeah, his books are fucking (that was a tribute) superb, too.

Over the next couple of days we also ended up seeing Nick Nairn talking about food (funny, smart, slightly smarmy but refreshingly honest), and David Aaronovitch talking about how conspiracy theories are a load of rubbish (probably got a point, to be fair). More importantly though, we went to all the bookshops.

As previously mentioned I on occasion pretend I’m a writer, and words are therefore important to me. They should be carefully, surgically even, chosen to esure they elucidate precisely the point one wishes to make, leaving no room for doubt or confusion. With regard to the bookshops of Wigtown, then, I can phrase my reaction in only one way - Holy Shite!

I could, happily and forever, live in any or all of those little havens (especially the one with the free coffee). They were all, all, second hand stockists! Is there a finer thing on the planet that a room (or several rooms found via winding corridors and unexpected starways) full of old books? I don’t think so.

I held, opened and yes, bought, books I didn’t know existed, I’d forgotten existed and was delighted to discover still existed.

I went to the counter in one shop and was served by two dogs, for God’s sake! Okay, their owner (and the shop’s as it turned out) soon appeared to shoo them away, but that just isn’t going to happen in Waterstones, let’s not kid ourselves.

Here’s to the small things; be they towns, shops, writers, festivals or egos. And yes, I spent a bloody fortune on books. Jake is still on the your-owner’s-a-twat diet, but I don’t regret it for a second (other than when he gnaws hungrily at my elbows).

As I drove home, still listening to Christopher Brookmyre’s amazingly prophetic pre-echo of my writing style (the man must have a time machine, it’s the only explanation) I thought several things: One - I’m glad I have a good friend who’s willing to put up with my whims, wistfullness and the fact I’m a bit of a wanker. Two - I’m glad my car’s exhaust held out. Three - I’m glad one of my heroes didn’t disappoint. Four - I’m glad places like Wigtown exist.

My advice? Go.

* this article was first published in issue 1 of Words With Jam