As has now become the way of such things, I have waited for almost two months to write this recap of the Ed and my’s experience at this year’s Wigtown Book Festival. Being very careful at the time not to take any notes or even keep a copy of the programme, I have found over the years that this approach allows my thoughts to coalesce in a more satisfactorily freeform, amorphous way and leads to an article unburdened by bothersome impediments like facts and things that actually happened.
It was only a flying visit this year. Normally we like to spend at least two or three days checking the quality of wines and spirits in the many, many pubs of Dumfries and Galloway, however a combination of inconveniently ill husbands (the Ed) and a terminally sick bank balance (me) meant we were limited to one night only. We were forced to miss out on a few traditions – we didn’t manage a late night pizza, or even a lunchtime sausage supper, but we still drank a lot so it wasn’t all bad.
We made it to four events in total and, impressively for a book festival, only one of them involved an author with a book. One was a play, another was something to do with a bus and the fourth was Joanna Lumley.
As mentioned above, I can’t remember anything anyone actually said or did so I’ll stick to general impressions.
As you’ll know if you’ve been paying more attention than I have for the past few years, Wigtown is officially classed as Scotland’s Book Town. It is essentially a wee village, but chose to reinvent itself a while back by focussing on an already existing literary tradition and now boasts more book shops per head of population than any other town in, eh, the world (I’m guessing that last bit, but there are loads).
The town holds a variety of literary events throughout the year, but the big one is the two-week book festival in September/October. Its reputation has grown year-on-year and it is now held in such high regard that it regularly attracts literary luminaries like Joanna Lumley.
The Festival also has the downright decency to occur over my birthday, which means I can generally con a steak dinner out of the Ed as a birthday present, and for this I am truly thankful.
This was WWJ’s fifth visit to the festival. Although it took until last year for us to discover where the toilets are, most things have remained consistently impressive. The organisation is always impeccable, with all events starting on time and most of the people on stage being the person who was advertised. Equally impressive is the ability of the box office to lose our press passes every single year, but they’re always very nice about it so we don’t mind really. The Ed just holds up her phone displaying the confirmation email at them till they give us our pick of events. It’s possibly not the most efficient system, but we’ve come to find it endearing.
Sadly missing from the programme this year was the much-missed Iain Banks. He’d been there almost every year up until illness took him to the big book shop in the sky. Wigtown was the first place I saw him speak and, although already a huge fan of his writing, I instantly became an even bigger fan of him as a human being. Between our first visit in 2009 and our second the following year, I read every one of his ‘M’ Sci-Fi books, having previously limited my reading to his mainstream literature (never has the term mainstream been more misapplied). By 2010’s Festival I was full of questions about this magnificent new universe to which I’d been introduced. Obviously I didn’t ask any of them because I’m both a star-struck fanboy and a terrible journalist. But I like to pretend he caught my eye at one point and we came to a silent understanding. I miss that man.
Another yearly occurrence has been not seeing Christopher Brookmyre. He and Mr Banks are probably tied as far as favourite author status goes. Unlike Banks, that Brookmyre fool has had the sheer balls to schedule his appearances at Wigtown just a day or two before or after our visits. Every. Single. Year. I know he does it deliberately. I have of course caught him appearing at some other festivals over the years and keep meaning to call him out on his frankly shocking Wigtown record. But, again, terrible journalist.
Limited as it was, this year’s visit was not short of delights. We watched a wonderful, intimate production of August Strindberg’s 1888 play, Miss Julie. Performed in The Swallow Theatre, the smallest professional theatre in Scotland. Despite some dubious sexual politics and that weirdly prevalent reliance on suicide as an honourable way out of trouble plays sometimes have, the production was excellent. The three-person cast did a great job and the limited stage space and single set served to create a voyeuristic closeness that held the forty or so audience members in thrall from start to finish.
Robyn Young is writing a series about Robert the Bruce. So, being Scottish, obviously I loved her. Those historical fiction authors do a hell of a lot of research, it turns out. Who knew?
William McIlvanney & Neal Ascherson were in town to promote the re-launch of The Bus Party. Originally devised in 1997 as a way to encourage non-partisan debate about Scottish Devolution, the concept has re-emerged ahead of next year’s independence referendum. The hope is that a revolving group of artists, writers, musicians and thinkers will travel around Scotland, to all the wee places, and start a chat about the subject. The idea is to engage, not dictate. Some of the bus party are pro-independence, some against. All of them are open to discussion and debate. It’s a fine idea. If it passes your way, pay them a visit. They might even buy you a pint.
And then there was the goddess that is Joanna Lumley. And it turns out she really is a bit of a goddess. She manages that rare trick only a select few can pull off of being as posh as hell without being irritating as fuck. Stephen Fry and Peter Ustinov might be the only other two I’ve come across who could manage that one. She was appearing as a patron of the Peter Pan Moat Brea Trust, a worthy campaign to turn the childhood home of Pan creator J.M. Barrie into a haven for the promotion of literary education for children. She’s had a hell of an interesting life, that Lumley woman, and is a raconteur of epic proportions. I was left with the impression that it would be a magnificent thing if she was my auntie or something. But by marriage not blood, just to leave things tantalising. Plus she’s a bit Scottish, which always helps.
So, another tick in the box of Wigtown successes. I really would encourage all of you to try to get there if you can. It’s a beautiful thing in a beautiful place, surrounded by other beautiful places.
Also, if you don’t live in Scotland go next year at the latest. They might be shutting the borders after that.