Sunday, March 20, 2011

Return to Syrupville

As has now become a tradition, nay institution, the boss and I made a triumphant, wine-fuelled return to the Wigtown Book Festival late last year.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, Wigtown is a wee place in Dumfries and Galloway that has the distinction of being officially hailed as Scotland’s Book Town, thanks to the ridiculously high proportion of book shops there. And they’re all second hand book shops, at that. Heaven.

In 2009 we were there as book fans but this time was different - this time we were journalists. The difference? We got some free tickets for stuff (thank you, Adrian) and so were able to attend a few more events than our negligible funds allowed last year. To be honest we were kind of hoping for backstage passes to behind the scenes parties with the drugs and the strippers etc, but it turns out book festivals aren’t quite the same as Jedward gigs, or at least they didn’t invite us if they are. No matter, maybe they’re waiting for us to prove ourselves and we’ll get to venture further behind the veil next time.

The festival began in 1998 and has steadily built itself into one of the premier literary events in the country, attracting big names from all corners of the writing world. This year was no exception, and numbered among those writers we didn’t see were Ian Rankin, Michael Foley, Margo McDonald, Val McDermid, James Robertson, Alasdair Gray, Alex Bellos, Fiona Watson, Matt Haig, Kathryn Schultz and Martin Berners Lee, to name but a, eh, eleven. I’m sure they were all superb and their books wonderful but I didn’t see them and haven’t read them so can’t really comment (got a few on the pile, mind). Those writers we did see, however, were uniformly excellent, as I shall now explain.

I can only assume Iain M Banks heard we were turning up again this year and so decided he, too, would make it a tradition to talk about his latest book at Wigtown. Proudly sporting his middle initial as well as some natty slacks he unveiled Surface Detail, the latest in his series of Culture novels. And I do mean unveiled. The book was not yet available in the shops and those of us in attendance were literally the first people able get our hands on a copy.
The highlight of his, first ever, reading from the novel was the moment he spotted a typo on page two. The delight he felt on realising that many thousands of copies had now been printed and there was nothing he could do about it was clear to see. It was possibly funnier for us than for him, to be fair.
As ever, he made for an excellent interviewee after the reading as he discussed with Stuart Kelly (hey, I remembered his name this year!) his writing career and answered questions from the audience. One slightly annoying person stated that he felt Banks seemed to be running out of ideas in his more recent ‘M’ books. Instead of diving into the crowd and punching the fool as would have been his right, Banks was extremely gracious as he acknowledged that it wasn’t unusual to have your best ideas when you’re young, but that you get better at using them as you age. Then he dived into the crowd and punched the fool.  
Incidentally, after having read only a few chapters of Surface Detail, I can attest that he is about as far from running out of ideas as I am from the Man Booker.

The event we’d hoped to see that night had sold out before Adrian could squirrel away a couple of tickets. Undeterred, we went anyway. Des Dillon is an award-winning Glaswegian (okay, Coatbridge) author and television writer with seven novels, several successful screenplays and a number of acclaimed stage plays to his credit. He’s also skint, which is a bit scary for the rest of us, and so has turned his hand to stand up comedy to pay the gas bill (look him up, check out his credits, then ask yourself if you really want to be a writer).
We arrived early and the boss managed to sweet talk the lady on the door into giving us a couple of ‘spare’ tickets, cash in hand (then handbag - do not pass go, do not go anywhere near the cash tin). The venue - the gorgeous, whisky-soaked Bladnoch Distillery - quickly filled to capacity. Just before Dillon hit the stage a small argument erupted at the door. A couple of people were remonstrating with the door staff, waving around what they clearly felt were genuine tickets for the event in an unhappy manner as they surveyed the hall and it’s lack of available seats. They made far more fuss than was appropriate - they were allowed to stand at the back, for goodness sake. The one on crutches was the most annoying as she muttered and blasphemed under his breath for the rest of the evening, though her mate with the guide dog wasn’t too happy either. Some people.
Although clearly a bit nervous, Des (I feel I can use his first name, given our shared heritage of Glasgow Catholic guilt) was very, very funny. I can only imagine that his rapid-fire delivery and thick Glaswegian accent may have left a few in the audience bemused at times, but I thought he was a triumph of foul-mouthed brilliance as he explained how ‘cunt’ is just another word for ‘person’ in most parts of Scotland and that dogs with epilepsy need love too. A fine night’s entertainment was had by all. Even the blind nun at the back laughed.

Despite my prayers that everything would be worthy of a piss-take, it turned out there was some serious stuff happening.
Martin Bell, he of the white suit and sore leg, discussed his book A Very British Revolution,  in which he confirms that MPs are, with a couple of exceptions, a bunch of greedy, self-serving borderline criminals. While that is no surprise, he also spoke at length about his work both as a foreign correspondent and an ambassador for UNICEF, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the horrors both innocent civilians and our own armed forces are faced with daily as a result of politicians trying to score electoral points.
 Kevin Ivison was there to discuss his book Red One, a true account of his time as a bomb disposal expert in Iraq, and the disgraceful way he was treated by the Ministry of Defence after being injured, and very nearly killed, in the line of duty. His moving account of the actual circumstances of his injury and the death of his friends was humbling, but the shocking failure of the MOD to recognise the psychological trauma he suffered afterwards was frankly disgusting.
If you want to learn some real truths about both our political system and the atrocities of war carried out in our name, I suggest you pick up both these books and don’t just believe what you see on the news.

Anyway, enough of the heaviness. Probably the highlight of the whole festival for me was seeing one of my comic heroes, Dylan Moran. He wasn’t speaking or anything, I just spotted him browsing on one of the book shops, but it was still cool.

Annelise Freisenbruch gave an entertaining presentation on her book The First Ladies of Rome, in which she explores the oft forgotten wives, mothers and sisters of the Ceasars and explained how, even back then, the tabloid press was only too happy to spread lies and gossip about the celebrities of the day.

We also attended the Unpublished Writers’ Jam (no relation), in which a few brave souls gave live readings of their work and were judged by a panel of worthies (think X-Factor without the budget or the evilness). To our ears all of the work read was of a decent standard and the advice given sound. It did amuse me to hear the judges repeat those phrases all unpublished writers dread– cut out the adjectives and show don’t tell. Either they’re actually useful bits of advice or the judges had just come off a session on the YouWriteOn forum.

Our budget and livers exhausted, we had time for one last event. John Byrne, a fine Scottish writer and artist, probably best known for his TV series Tutti Frutti (recently released on DVD for the first time), arrived late and a little bedraggled thanks to the foul weather. Fortunately he’s a man who is at his most entertaining when he’s in a bit of a bad mood, and he was soon raging wearily at the Americanisation of our culture. He despaired that we in the UK seem to be in thrall of all things US related and spoke of his admiration for the French’s ability to hold on fiercely to their own national identity in the face of ever-encroaching American cultural dominance. He then paused, muttering – ‘Right enough, they’ve got Disneyland Paris. How the fuck did that happen?’
It was a great way to end our visit to Wigtown, and it’s personally gratifying to know that curmudgeonly old Glaswegians still have a place in this world.

Wigtown remains a wonderful town to visit at any time of the year and I would urge all book fans to add it to their itinerary. If you can make it to the festival itself, so much the better. We’ll see you there.

A final thought: given that it’s a small town and all the book shops are exclusively second hand, do you think there’s essentially just one big stock of books in the town that gets rotated in a cycle as they are bought in one shop, read, and then sold on to another? I like the idea of a self-sustaining book population, it feels right, somehow.


  1. Aha ... I've seen the name, Des Dillon, appearing in the comments on your posts from time and I recognised the name but have only just made the connection! I kept thinking he was someone I knew from Heraghty's but no, I used to teach 'Me and ma Gal' to my classes in my pedagogic past. Excellent book!

    Oh, and excellent article, Danny - really enjoyed it.

  2. Hi Mary. I'm afraid it's two different Des Dillons. The Des in the above article isn't someone I know personally, but I do admire his work a great deal. One of his biggest hits was called 'I'm No A Billy, He's A Tim'.