Wigtown Book Festival 2009: Highlights from the final weekend
First on our programme was Diana Athill, the nonagenarian former editor and writer whose latest memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, was published in 2008. She was joined by Irma Kurtz, author of About Time: Growing Old Disgracefully, and the topic of conversation was ‘aging’.
Athill displayed wit and common sense in equal measures. When asked what the old can teach the young, she warned that even the wisest grandparents should avoid re-telling their anecdotes and becoming ‘prune faced old bores’.
Both Athill and Kurtz spoke warmly of the positive aspects of aging. It was a great relief, they agreed, to be released from ‘the tyranny of lust’. For Kurtz, it was ‘just like giving up cigarettes – the day was longer!’ ‘And the wonderful thing,’ added Athill, ‘was being able to love a man for being a nice person. Back then, one loved a man and was lucky if he was also a nice person.’
But the best bit about growing old, she confided, is ‘not actually giving a damn what people think – one used to mind awfully.’
Whether or not she gives a damn, I thought she was brilliant.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Next up was a panel of four classicists set to tackle the question ‘Does the ancient world still matter?’ Allan Massie introduced Charlotte Higgins (Guardian arts critic and author of It’s All Greek To Me), Philip Parker (The Empire Stops Here) and Douglas Jackson (author of the historical novel Claudius).
Higgins started us off with a brief but most engaging inventory of our Greek and Roman debts. Law, freedom of speech and Obama’s rhetorical tropes were high on the list. The roots of contemporary drama and film, she argued, lie in the direct speech of Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
‘But it is dangerous,’ she warned, ‘to imagine we are like the Romans or the Greeks.’ Athenian democracy, an oft quoted example of our classical inheritance, was unlike that of modern Britain: back then, it was the preserve of just a third of the population – women, slaves and foreigners could not vote.
It can difficult for a four-way discussion work well. Though much of the hour was stimulating, it felt at some points less ‘In Our Time’, more in a pub – with indulgent tales of personal odysseys in classical scholarship.
The Black Farmer
Stood at the front of the stage in a fitted waistcoat, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones cut a dashing figure. ‘It’s important to have a dream,’ he opened. What followed was part life story, part motivational speech – at points clichéd, but genuine throughout.
Indeed it was hard not to be impressed by him. Born in Jamaica and raised on a Birmingham estate in a family of eleven, Jones left school at sixteen with only his headmaster’s assurance that he would soon be in prison. He had his own, secret promise, though: he told himself, when tending his father’s allotment aged eleven, that he would one day become a farmer.
Forty years later (and after a successful career in television), he bought his own farm in Devon and formed a cooperative with local farmers, and began to sell sausages to supermarkets under the ‘The Black Famer’ name.
Jones runs The Black Farmer Scholarship Scheme, which gives underprivileged teenagers the chance to prove themselves on his farm, and campaigns for better understanding of dyslexia (he is badly dyslexic). There’s something about him that inspires confidence – as the number of people afterwards queuing to buy his fusion food recipe book, The Black Farmer Cookbook, made clear.
Stories from our neighbours
Despite a programme offering Gaelic lessons and whisky tasting, this year’s Wigtown Book Festival wasn’t just a showcase for Scottish culture: it was Wales and Ireland that stole the show on Sunday.
First up was Owen Sheers, the Welsh poet and novelist whose new novel, White Ravens, is a modern reimagining of Wales’ great myth cycle, the Mabinogion.
His creative process, he said, involved seeking out the ‘essence’ of the myths and the meaning of the word ‘translation’. A particular description that stuck with him was of the ‘unfaithful beauty’ of translation. As he read from the novel in soft, lilting tones, this seemed an apt phrase of his own literary achievement. In its balances and rhythms, White Ravens is a thing of beauty that seems to hover between prose and poetry.
The next event promised more storytelling, this time from the Irish writer Claire Keegan. Like Sheers, she is concerned with notions of familiarity and foreignness, and her writing draws on the peculiar habits and idioms of a place.
She read from ‘Night of the Quicken Trees’, the final story of her much-praised collection, Walk the Blue Fields. Its characters (who include a spoilt, tame goat named Josephine) are inward-turned and more than mildly eccentric; Keegan had mad, delighted look in her wide-set eyes as she related its increasingly absurd twists.
‘I rely a great deal on the irrational to make sense of the day,’ she explained. By this stage her audience were helpless with laughter.
But her writing is sustained by more than humour. She is interested, she said, in ‘what we lie down with at night’. Quasi-Gothic, face-achingly funny and poignant by turns, I have rarely witnessed an audience so rapt than when listening to Keegan’s short stories.