Tales of eccentricity from author evoke laughter at book festival

The headline act at this year’s Wordplay did not disappoint. Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, read two short stories from his latest book to a packed function room in Islesburgh on Saturday, bittersweet tales that had the audience laughing and (almost) crying.

The tales, from a collection of short stories called Notwithstanding to be published next month, are set in the south of England (in a village which had not itself “withstood” being saddled with the “Best Kept Village” title in 1953).

After setting many of his previous works abroad, de Bernières reverted to writing about his home turf after a conversation with a French artist, who declared he loved England because it was “so exotic”.

This prompted de Bernières to chronicle characters drawn from his childhood – the retired general who forgot to get dressed or the last peasant in a gentrified commuter village – and to conclude that his native land is “an immense lunatic asylum”.

The senile general of the story read to Saturday’s audience spent his last few months in a happy state. He carried on regardless after the death of his wife, washing all her jumpers on maximum temp­erature and folding the shrunken remains in readiness for her return.

He ventured to the shops in his beloved car, happily noticing in the mirror before he left that he was not wearing a tie (and put that right), adding the shoes when he realised the accelerator felt funny. On arrival at the wrong village the police picked him up for having forgotten the trousers and underwear – and in his new care centre home he was delighted to be in the biggest house he had ever had, and with more servants. Best of all his wife had returned in the form of a young carer …

If the general had a good end to his life, the opposite was true for the last truly indigenous resident of a village which had the mis­fortune to be both beautiful and within striking distance of Lon­don.

The new broom of Thatcher’s Brit­ain was sweeping away the shabbiness and clutter of traditional working villages through the influx of yuppies, dinkies (double income no kids) and lombards (a de Bernières invention meaning lots of money but a right dick).

The young man from Slipsters Estate Agents who persuaded Jack’s daughter to get her father to part with the slummy cottage that had been in the family for eight gen­erations would probably come into that category. The consequences were tragic, although probably un­ap­preciated by the incomers, more intent on banning horses or fencing off the duck pond.

The stories were straightforward but hard-hitting, and the author’s delivery faultless – a great choice for Wordplay.

Rosalind Griffiths

He was only here for a weekend, but it would be interesting to hear if Mark McCrum has come away from Shetland in inspired mood. After all, this is a man who has written best-sellers, explored racial divides in Australia and pre-apartheid South Africa, gone to the pub with mem­bers of the IRA and toured with Robbie Williams during the singer’s heyday.

It was these moments and the people he’s met in his career that were the subject of his talk on Saturday at Wordplay. A witty, anecdote-filled hour fuelled by self-deprecation and a healthy dose of cynicism of the industry he works for while also providing inspiration to budding writers or anyone who’s a little sick of the job they’re in.

As a writer and journalist, Cambridge-born McCrum has come a long way since his first attempts at literary success. As he began with a slideshow presentation, he showed a picture of a manuscript in a wastepaper bin. “My first novel,” he said with a smile before explaining how it had taken him three years of his life to write, only to be rejected by all publishing houses he had sent it to.

He moved on though and it was through these rejections and a chance meeting with a publishing editor that he decided to concentrate on other forms of writing. In the last 20 years he has carved a pretty decent career for himself with sub­jects ranging from Southern Africa, Ireland, reality television and forbidden marriages, often ghost-writing or freelancing for papers in between.

As a writer he has the uncanny ability to find the interesting in triv­ial situations or quirky tales in grim ones, giving strong opinions on the Irish “troubles” one-minute and the state of Britain’s media the next. The one thing he enjoys most about all these issues though are the people he gets to meet on the way. Whether it is on his time working at a mixed-race school in Mozambique, upset­ting half the cast of the television show Castaway, or wit­nessing a young girl marry a goat, his passion seems to stem from the characters he has met rather than the countless situations or places he has found himself in.

As he discussed the highs and lows of his career, it became clear that publishing may not be the most wholesome of industries, filled with mass-media take-overs, cut-throat sackings, broken pro­mises and a lot of rejection. McCrum seemed to see the lighter side in it all though, speaking philosophically on losing publicity for a book because of the death of Princess Diana or having to drink Evian water and play cards with Robbie Williams for months on tour before he would get to interview him. He even seemed a little embarrassed at some of his more successful moments, putting a lot of it down to luck.

While the talk may not have given any obvious pointers on the intricacies or techniques of writing, it shows that with res­ilience, determination and a little bit of good fortune, a lot can be achieved in a tough industry. Whether or not Shetlanders provide the inspiration for his next work remains to be seen but hopefully he’s spurred a few locals on himself.

Lewie Peterson

One victim in the bath, one found stabbed in Fair Isle and another buried in peat for over 10 years. Maybe these weren’t real, but who would have thought an afternoon of grisly murders, complicated cases and a plethora of decomposing cor­pses would have locals laughing so much last Saturday?That was the case when crime-writer Ann Cleeves and crime scene investigator Helen Pepper combined perspectives on murder investigations at Wordplay. The result was an entertaining if not dark look at the reality of murder, detection and the rigours of writing murder mysteries.

The pair have been working together for 10 years now after Pepper, formerly of Durham Con­stabulary and now teaching at Teeside University, started advising Cleeves on details for her books. This has led to some strange questions and requests over the years from Cleeves, including what a body would look like if left in a reservoir for a certain length of time or how long a body takes to rot in a peat bog.

Cleeves, who is best known locally for her “Shetland Quartet” of crime novels set in the islands, started by thanking Shetland for her recent success. While she believes she used to be at the mid-bottom end of her trade, she can now boast commercial success and critical acclaim with a Crime Writer’s As­sociation Gold Dagger Award in 2006, her books being translated in 14 languages and a television series. “It would never have happened if I hadn’t written Raven Black so I have a lot to thank this place for.”

In the reading, she talked about a crime scene as “the jumping off point” in a novel where she can grab the reader’s interest, develop charac­ters and begin the plot. “I need to know everything about the victim, from their likes and dislikes to their personal history,” she said when describing the writing pro­cess.

The talk involved Cleeves reading passages from her work, describing the scene in her books when a body is found. Yet in a unique move, this was followed up by Pepper giving her own take on the situation if it were to happen in real life. Much to the audience’s amusement, this often involved some frustrating and sometimes comical methods of detection and not the type of thing you’ll see on CSI or Diagnosis Murder.

For example, when discussing the fictional case of a young man found dead in a bath, Pepper would say dryly of her colleague: “She’s not given me much to work with here, and as for that water, I’m going to have to spend hours emptying that out in case there’s something there.”

As well as her work, Cleeves also spoke of her first trip to Shetland 30 years ago when she found herself working as a chef in the Fair Isle bird observatory “despite not know­ing anything about birds or how to cook”.

Despite being from Hertfordshire and residing in the north east of England, her attachment to the isle is still very present as she has also used her the location for her next novel, Blue Lightning, which will be released in February next year, and gave locals a small flavour of what’s to come with an excerpt from the book about the main characters’ journey to the island.

Although being a CSI and writer are extremely different career paths, Cleeves and Pepper shared an unbounded enthusiasm for the subject and admittedly believe that what connects them the most is their nosiness. “The great thing about being a CSI is people let you look through their stuff, you wouldn’t believe some of the things I find,” said Pepper. “You can’t take it too seriously and you need a bit of dark humour to get through it I suppose.” Luckily there was a plentiful supply of that in Islesburgh last Saturday.

Lewie Peterson

How do you know Katie Morag?” my eldest niece asks me with suspicion when I tell her I am taking her and her little sister to a reading of the new book. Well, Katie Morag is no stranger to me and, as my niece tells me pointedly, I am old.

Katie Morag’s creator Mairi Hedderwick says, with a hint of a cringe, that the wee mischievous red head is 29 years old this year, but the fact that the books have delighted children for all that time is nothing to get embarrassed about.

The children – and the more mature Katie Morag admirers – at Wordplay in Islesburgh on Saturday were eager to hear all about their heroine and how she was created.

For those readers who have not yet had the pleasure of meeting her Katie Morag McColl is about five years old and lives on the Isle of Struay (a thinly disguised Isle of Coll where Hedderwick lived). Struay is a small island where the headstrong Katie Morag lives with her parents, little brother and sister and there is a fair share of local characters – not too far removed from some areas in Shetland!

Mairi explained the story writing process to the audience, some of whom were almost bursting with questions for the author. She told us that every story starts in the brain and all the budding young writers in the room should make sure they write down all those wonderful ideas. Often, she continued, stories come from real happenings, people and places – lots of Katie Morag’s characters were based on real people. Katie Morag is very like her author when she was a little girl, right down to her love of wellie boots.

Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted is also one such true story that happened to Mairi Hedderwick: one day she was in such a bad mood that she took her much beloved teddy bear and threw him away, for no other reason than she was in a foul mood. In the story Katie Morag is in a bad mood because her new baby brother is getting lots of attention. She goes for a walk with her favourite teddy and when he can’t lift her out of her mood she hurls him into the sea! Later that night she realises what she’s done when there is no ted to cuddle in bed.

Finally there was a reading of the newest book, Katie Morag and the Dance Class, with Mairi’s inimitable illustrations shown on a big screen. In the story everyone in Struay is excited about the local ballet and tap classes – Granny Mainland makes the outfits, Katie Morag’s friends and the big boy cousins are all taking part – but someone is definitely not impressed with the idea of looking pink and girly and having to swap her wellies for ballet shoes … who do you think it is?

The event was finished off with a special appearance, old Tiresome Ted! He had washed up on the shore and, although he’d been in the wars Katie Morag had dried him off and patched him up a bit, he was missing an eye, but that didn’t put any of the children off getting a hug from the Ted as they left.

While Hedderwick confesses to being a wee bit “fed up” of writing her I’m not sure she’ll ever stop writing for her be-wellied heroine. There is a reason why Katie Morag has got to be so old and why her 16 stories capture so many hearts. Mairi Hedderwick has created an ink and paper twin for so many children – young and old – to find a kindred spirit in.

Louise Scollay

There was a great deal of chatter outside room 12 at Islesburgh prior to the Dargie/MacNeil poetry read­ing. Doubtless the queue were keen to get in and hear the main men, but the strains of guitar playing coming from within added an air of intrigue  … “Hit’s no yun jazz kinda poetry is it?” a man exclaimed, thumbing through his programme. “Der’s naethin’ in here aboot it.”Whether put off or bolstered by this idea I did not hear, but he took his seat nonetheless, as we were ushered in.

Gordon Dargie was first to read from Tunnel of Love, his first col­lection of poetry, published earlier this year.

Dargie’s sonnets are, he con­fesses, autobiographical and his unswerving honesty commands res­pect; poems such as More or Less, O and Passing Places impart on the reader – or listener as it may be (should be!) – a particular voice which speaks volumes of the everyday human condition; volumes in humour, passion, anger and often brutality.

The sonnets chart his life growing up in Lanarkshire and take him to his “Shetland midsummer”. Ex­amples such as Boys should wear short trousers and Nothing Hap­pened have shades of Morgan and Leonard about them and there was an especial wee glint in Gordon’s eye when he read these poems.

The last two poems he read were written about Bannaminn Beach. The imagery is very powerful here and when he read the lines “I watch where they would play, have played, still play” it happened that a group of children’s laughter and play from across at Gilbertson Park was heard echoing in the window … a coincidental atmospheric touch that gave his words an added heartbeat.

Dargie seemed to get a real pleasure from reciting his work; perhaps it is that he waited so long before ever having his work pub­lished. He commented after­wards that if the inspiration finds him now, he wakes up with a rhyme that must be tuned.

Even if you think you don’t like poetry I’d urge you to have a look at Tunnel of Love. It takes an uncom­promising look memory and identity and that symbiotic re­lationship; it’s beautiful, sharp and it has balls.

Kevin MacNeil decided that he wasn’t going to read us any of his poems from Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides. Why read some old poems when he could give us something completely new?

The completely new was not poetry, but a world exclusive preview of book MacNeil is working on (the next one after the next one) called A Method Actors Guide to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde about an Edinburgh actor who becomes so obsessed with his part in a production of Stevenson’s book that he begins to take on Hydean characteristics.

The passage MacNeil read was an inner monologue of the actor, cycling to the theatre. His mind wanders as he traverses through the city and he is taken with describing how the most beautiful and gruesome parts of the Edinburgh happily co-exist together, so cap­tured by this and himself at the centre of it, he meets with an accident, crashing his bike.

The characters’ stream of consciousness – or rather in and out of consciousness – is at the same time hilarious and completely real, dizzying and discombobulating as if we too have fallen off the bike. So cautionary was the tale that afterwards on my bike ride home I was careful not to let my mind meander on the colours of the rainy Bressay scenery, and watch the road!

Stream of consciousness writing works inordinately well in the Scottish voice and MacNeil is no stranger to the style. Idiosyncratic protagonist R Stornoway takes us on a Whiskey-fuelled, entropic, Joycean journey to “the very heart of beyond” that is his Western Isles community in Kevin MacNeil’s debut The Stornoway Way.

Following his reading MacNeil was keen to urge budding writers to hone that hunger to write, read voraciously and get your work published in papers and mag­azine.

And the guitar? Well, not quite of the jazz-poetry genre, but there was a musical finale when Donald Anderson accompanied on a song MacNeil had co-written with William Campbell, The Local Man Ruins Everything, a bittersweet toast to a community not so far away from our own.