By LAURA FRIEDLANDER & ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
THIS YEAR’S book and film festivals, Worldplay and Screenplay, attracted a record 1,200 people for a series of author events, workshops and film screenings last weekend.
The highlight of the weekend was the appearance by novelist and columnist Will Self, whose talk and reading attracted a large crowd. He spoke of his love of Orkney and Shetland (he has a small replica of Mousa broch in the garden of his home).
Shetland Arts literature development officer Donald Anderson said: “I think one of the things that have made this year’s book festival special has been the way that the writers and their audiences have responded to each other. The audiences have clearly enjoyed and been moved by the performances of the writers who in turn have all said how much they appreciated the way the festival audiences have responded to them.”
Screenplay co-curator Mark Kermode paid tribute to the staff, technicians and volunteers for the high quality of the festival, which offered a broad range of films featuring “heroes and villains” plus talks and discussions.
Kathy Hubbard, Shetland Arts development manager, said the calibre of the visiting curators had added something very special to the experience of cinema-going.
“It was a treat to listen to them discussing and introducing the films – and they had time to inspire young film makers too, spending the best part of Saturday morning giving them feedback on the work they had submitted.”
What follows are some of the highlights from Wordplay.
Alan Bissett – Alan Bissett is definitely of the school of thought that everyone has at least one novel in them. If you only have the beginnings of one in you, his Starting a Novel workshop on Saturday was greatly encouraging for those who want to progress with a piece of ongoing writing or perhaps have a great idea but are not too sure where to start.
Alan showed the 18 participants of the workshop how to draw ideas and reference from published works and he quoted from some great examples including Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
He went on to show how opening lines need to be simple and effective. House of Leaves begins with “This is not for you.” The author packed a lot of useful information into a very quick hour, but the workshop was well thought out and well structured so that everyone benefited.
Alison Flett – Once the budding author has got the idea for his novel then he needs to think about narrative voice and dialogue, so Alison Flett’s workshop covering the topic of developing narrative voice seemed an appropriate follow on from Alan Bissett’s workshop.
Alison is currently writing a novel that contains 17 narrative voices so she is well placed to discuss the idea. Having given out prepared pieces from authors who have shown a strong narrative voice in their work, eg. Lewis Grassic Gibbon in Sunset Song, Alison explained how developing strong characters with strong narrative is essential to carrying the story.
Participants were then given quick writing exercises to do, describing an argument from the viewpoint of both parties involved – a clever idea that soon caught on with the audience.
On Sunday both Bissett and Flett read from their work. Despite having had a very late night enjoying Shetland hospitality on Saturday , Bisset gave a hilarious reading from his first novel Boy Racers followed by a reading from his later novel Adam Spark.
Boy Racers was written seven years ago, but still seems very fresh and original. The writing is clever and many of the sharp observations are based on Alan’s own teenage years growing up in Falkirk.
Alison Flett also raised plenty of laughs reading from a work in progress, which has a party at the centre of the plot. The story is told by characters who attend the party or know some one who has attended the party. Both of these authors have an approachable natural style that warms the reader and this was shown to great effect in the readings.
Jim Moncrieff – It has often been said that a picture paints a thousand words. Jim Moncrieff’s short but exact poems all paint wonderful pictures. Slipped in between the more heavyweight workshops and lectures of the weekend his little gem of a book entitled Beaten Gold really was like finding a rare nugget.
The poems are so evocative of past times and places as well as more up to date themes, that you could just be in the middle of the poem.
Time to Dream, “The dutch chair / And my print of the sunflowers / Will sit together”, immediately transports the reader to an almost recognisable place.
This tiny slim volume has been produced by New Dead Language which aims to promote up and coming poets as well as those more established. The book is ably illustrated by Andrew Morrison’s knife-sharp pen and ink drawings which seem the ideal choice to highlight the stark effectiveness of Moncrieff’s poetry.
Adrian Mitchell – Now frequently referred to as the shadow Poet Laureate, Adrian Mitchell gave an interesting and dynamic performance of his poetry covering several decades in this upbeat “one man show”.
Adrian talked at length about his work in bringing poetry to school children and adults all over the world from places as far apart as Bulgaria and Columbia. He explained how the people in Bulgaria, especially, continually asked him “What is poetry?” and so he wrote a poem to try to explain: “Poetry is naked words / Dancing on a page / Here come the poetry police / Keep on dancing.”
The poem was instantly recognisable as Mitchell’s style, having that almost rap beat to it in some places. Mitchell acknowledged this himself and frequently played up to it, repeating lines for emphasis and reading in a staccato style that got the listener remembering his work.
Mitchell’s work is at once funny and sad; his ode to the middle classes, “I play golf so I exist”, as well as sharp digs at governments past and present, all led to very poignant tales of his parents struggling through the war years and his own childhood traumas at schools he hated.
But he lightened the mood by talking of the worst poetry reading he ever did at a school in Wales at a place called Llanarth – “and if I’ve pronounced that wrong then I’m glad”. The reading did indeed sound quite frightening when he described some of the pupils who attended the school where he was asked to read.
Adrian finished his reading with a poem taken from works by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht describing the trial of a 16 year old girl who murders her illegitimate son as he is born because she does not know what to do. The court lawyer says to the bench: “You too, do not be angry or upset, we all need all the help that we can get.”
Robert Alan Jamieson – When a local author recognises his roots and returns to talk of them with such affection as Robert Alan Jamieson, his reading on Saturday () afternoon was always going to be eagerly anticipated by so many “kent faces”.
Robert, who comes from Sandness, began his talk by explaining that he knew how to write things down but he was overwhelmed with subject matter to write about, inspired as he was by the Shetland landscape and its people. It often seemed to him as though there was too much to write about.
Robert read poems old and new, some going back many years and others written very recently. One poem, Atlantis, was inspired by his teacher Mrs Thomson who “named the hills and lochs and named the land and brochs”.
His poem The Boat Bigger’s Nephew was evocative of Gonfirth, an area where other members of his wider family grew up, and reflected on how small boys would see the boat bigger and think of lands far away, but for the boat bigger “my atlas is outside my window”. Great lines well received from a well loved writer.
Ruth Padel – Ruth Padel is currently working on a collection of poetry centred round one of her ancestors, Charles Darwin. On Saturday afternoon she talked about her love of travel and how her trips to countries such as Russia and India had helped her to understand Darwin’s need rather than want to learn more and more about the order of species.
Her poetry is lengthy and very wordy. It requires a good deal of concentration to sit through and take in the long flowing stanzas, and so her workshop on Sunday morning was welcomed by those lovers of poetry who really want to get deeply into a poem and who, as Padel says, “want to travel with the poem”.
She spoke of approaching a poem and trying to find a way through it. She described it as a movement, walking, a journey. “A journey of thought and memory.”
Participants at the workshop were given a selection of poetry to read from.
Ruth Padel wanted to demonstrate how form and sound often enter your head before the meaning of a poem comes through. She demonstrated by explaining the work of poets including Emily Dickinson and Douglas Dunn, and read one of her own poems, “Tiger Drinking at Forest Pool” to show how an accomplished poet can manipulate language to increase its impact in terms of emotional “pull” for the reader.
Ruth Padel’s method of breaking down a poem and simplifying the content made the poetry seem much more accessible.
There was a lot of information in this workshop and I am sure that many members of the audience left feeling keen to tackle poetic works that they may have felt were rather daunting before they learned how to travel.
Will Self – Surely Will Self has to be regarded as one of the finest novelists living in the UK today. On Sunday afternoon he was keen to talk about his love of Scottish islands, the replica of Mousa Broch in his back garden and his passion for walking as well as his writing.
Will Self feels such a strong attraction to Shetland that he insisted that his honeymoon be spent here. That honeymoon included “abandoning” his wife in a car while he walked to Hermaness very early one morning. When he got back to the car his elation at having walked to the very northernmost tip of the UK was deflated when his wife said: “Why didn’t you leave the keys in the ignition? I’m freezing.”
He went on to say that if someone goes to live in a place it is often because the place has chosen them rather than the other way round.
Will was keen to promote his new book Liver and he was soon bantering with audience members who queried the title. One lady said it sounded revolting and this was a chance for Will to tell tales of how a seal could swim up to a salmon net and bite only the liver out of a salmon as it swam past. Proof, Will felt, that liver must be delicious. Some members of the audience recoiled at this and Will said “I’m very sorry, I didn’t want to upset all the salmon lovers among you – all you ‘salmonists’”. Had he invented a new word? That would not be surprising as he talked at length about The Book of Dave, his novel from 2006 in which he invented a complete new language.
Mockney is a corrupted form of cockney and in true Will Self style mockney is a sly dig at the way he feels the English language is being increasingly abused through slang, texting and acronyms for everything.
Will went on talk about his love of travel and how the most frightening thing for him was being in a foreign place and running out of something to read and being unable to find an English speaking bookshop. This lead to a story of finding a bookshop in a small town in a remote country that thankfully had three shelves of books in English. However the choice was very limited and his travelling companions were keen to move on and so he had to choose quickly. He ended up with a copy of William Shearer’s The History of the Third Reich which earned him the nick name of “Hitler” for the rest of the trip.
Trevor Norton – There can hardly be a more difficult time to write a book, if Wordplay guest and writer, diver and marine biologist Trevor Norton is to be believed.
The former professor, himself the author of three non-fiction works, gave a lucid, entertaining and well-received talk on the mystery of getting a book into print. Agents and publishers are reducing their lists of authors and fewer than 20 per cent of those that are published make a living from their efforts, he told around 40 people attending his workshop.
If you still want to persist here are the rules. Seek out an agent and write to him/her (usually her), exhibiting your best writing skills with economy of expression and a neat turn of phrase.
The agent’s job is to schmooze with publishers, and it is to a publisher that you will now send a synposis of your book. This will comprise a preface and summary of the chapters and indicate the potential readership.
Publishers are looking for an “original voice” and it helps, of course, if you possess “exceptional talent”. Your work must have a “strong narrative” with “unforgettable characters” and you must ruthlessly cut out the boring bits – the professor has been known to dump “whole chapters”.
As well as that you must do meticulous research – he spends three years and reads up to 100 books for every book he writes. Above all, he told his audience, writing must be about “simple words, well arranged”.
John Hegley – Comedian John Hegley was a hit with young and old alike at Wordplay, a man described by the Scotsman as “more Elvis Costello than Alan Bennett”, and by the Sunday Times as “scandalously talented”.
He gave a shortened version of his show Beyond our Kennel on Saturday, to the delight of many parents who came back with their children on Sunday to his workshop on writing and drawing about animals.
Here he excelled himself, strumming a tune as he gave instructions and uttered witticisms.
The task he set for the workshop started with folding a sheet of paper to make a book with enough sides to illustrate the letters A to G. The first page of which was to bear the drawing of an alligator egg with leg, then what might B be? Yes, bird with word, superb beak-work there and let’s hear it for the felt-tips. Then coathanger and cat … and what is the difference between a coathanger and a cat? The youngsters loved it. Hands shot up in answer: “A coathanger can hold.
Hegley: “I like it.” The next letter was dog and deckchair, which gleaned the observation that they can both be sat upon. Hegley: “I thought you’d be wearing glasses with an answer like that.” The letter E was for elephant, but this time a bit of poetry was required, F was a fire engine (drawn as a dragon) and G was, as someone suggested, “Goodbye suckers”. As Hegley said: “Rules are made to be broken.”
The hour flew and everyone came out with a little book of bruck and a big grin.