Author Event: Fiona MacCarthy

30 08 2011

Fiona MacCarthyFiona MacCarthy’s reputation as a historical biographer is second to none. Following critically acclaimed reviews for her work on Byron and Eric Gill, MacCarthy has written a book charting the life of Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer, titled The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination.

“As with all my chosen subjects,” began MacCarthy, “he chose me. It’s very much a case that we were meant to be. I love his work and I love the violence of his responses. How can you not love a man who stuck a red hit poker through a book that he disapproved of?”

Regarding the era she would be working in, MacCarthy said: “The Pre-Raphaelite Victorian era is one I really connect to.”

MacCarthy visited almost 50 churches between 1989 and 1992 curing her research, in order to view the extensive stained glass windows that Burne-Jones designed. “His glass work was amazing and I fell in love with it for its energy and range.”

“Part of the excitement of writing this book,” continued MacCarthy, “was discovering the points at which Burne-Jones and his close friend William Morris diverged. It was a slow and patient process of making your own connections into a past period, which I then had to draw my readers into with me.”

Research is clearly where MacCarthy gets her buzz. “There’s no replacement for tracking the actual steps your subject took,” she said. “You can’t simply do it all on the Internet, and by following his steps I could see and feel how his journeys influenced his art.”

When Burne-Jones split with Morris through his allegiance with the Socialist League, writing those chapters brought her close to tears at the end if each day. “Biographers are in the business of teasing out relations and suggesting tensions, and of unravelling hidden mysteries. The twists and turns Burne-Jones’s characters, I found endlessly intriguing.”

The writing of the book changed its writer in other ways too, when just after MacCarthy had finished the research, her husband died. She recalled how he had been “laid out like King Arthur in one of Burne-Jones’s paintings. I couldn’t write the book for another year after that.”

MacCarthy revealed more sadness when she stated, “Burne-Jones waited far too long for understanding and success to come his way, and as his biographer you develop a relationship with your subject so that by the end, I found myself feeling very happy for him indeed.”

Author Event: Alexander Shannon and David Leslie

25 08 2011

Alexander Shannon and David LeslieAlexander Shannon has led a remarkable life. To quote the man sitting next to him on the Peppers Theatre stage this evening, journalist David Leslie: “For Shannon to have emerged from a life of poverty and crime like this, is a remarkable achievement.”

So what is Shannon’s story?

Hailing from the east end of Glasgow, he spent years in care homes struggling to survive. He married his childhood sweetheart on his 19th birthday and soon after signed up for the British Army, finding himself on tour in several locations notably the Falklands, Northern Ireland and Bosnia, where he became an expert at covert operations. “I felt safer in South Armagh in 1988 than I do in Glasgow today,” he said with some seriousness. “At least we knew who the enemy was back then not like the young teens you get walking around with blades that’ll do anything for their next bag of heroin.”

On his return to Glasgow as a civilian, he wound up becoming heavily involved in the criminal underworld, using the skills he’d amassed in the British Forces to work for drugs barons and assassins. It wasn’t until his wife gave him an ultimatum that either things change by him rejoining the army or he would lose her.

Shannon chose the army, where despite being questioned over brutal killings and accused of a triple murder attempt, his dedication to succeed and break out from his mould as a criminal brought him high accolades and a series of promotions.

In his book, The Underworld Captain, Shannon pieces together his story, claimed by David Leslie the journalist who helped him publish it as: “The best piece of pro-army PR you will ever read.”

Shannon’s book was censored in its entirety by the Ministry of Defence when they first saw it and it’s little wonder with the content it contained, but over time Leslie managed to convince them that Shannon had a story worth telling, seeing it as an inspirational piece of work that “if it could persuade just one youngster from a similar background that there is hope, that if you want to succeed and break away, you can—because I’ve proved it—then it will be worth it.”

Leslie, who has spent a career writing about Glasgow’s gangster culture, said: “The Glasgow underworld is a very active place—very dangerous too.” And he explained that criminal minds tended to flow through families: “In Glasgow in the 80s, if your father was a criminal then you became a criminal. It’s like a family career path.”

Now training to be a psychologist, Shannon hopes to be able to apply his new skills in aiding soldiers and footballers. “They’re one in the same,” he said. “None of them have ever grown up mentally.”

But if there’s one thing that Alexander Shannon is certain about it’s this: “The army saved my life.”

Author Event: Pauline Black

22 08 2011

Pauline BlackPauline Black
Born to an Anglo-Jewish mother and Nigerian father, she was adopted by a white middle-aged couple and thus began a journey that is in some way answered in the writing of her first book, Black by Design , which follows Black’s rise to fame and recollections of the 2-tone phenomenon allied to the search for her real parents.

She always felt she needed to define her identity, which wasn’t something she had properly considered until one music fan accosted her on a train and clumsily said: “You’re Pauline Black!” It made her stop and think. She’d already changed her name twice, once from Belinda Magnus and then from Pauline Vickers, so who was she now? “The question that underpinned my life journey was: who made me?”

While recalling these early days with her adopted family, Black remarked that, “adoption is legalised identity theft.” When challenged later as to what precisely she meant by this, she further explained that she wasn’t saying adoption is a bad thing, but that, “the identity of the children should not be forgotten and it should be addressed, not forgotten. If a person doesn’t know where they come from then it’s impossible for them to know who they are.”

The conversation inevitably led to her days leading the popular 2-Tone bad The Selecter, and the political landscape that formed the British ska movement. “Things have moved on now since our day, though; recession is global now not national. I don’t have a great deal of truck with any of the political parties these days.”

Referring to the band’s position in the British psyche these days, she joked: “Apparently The Selecter are now classed as a ‘Heritage Band’ as though we’re one step away from a museum.”

The conversation was wide and varied crossing Black’s desire to uncover who she was, black culture, and the forms of racism she encountered while growing up. Her career has also been varied, and when asked about her experience in the acting industry remarked: “The one thing that acting taught me is that there are no ladders for ethnic minorities in this country to climb.”

The subject of the England riots has never been far away from any of the discussions here at the book festival this week, and Black was also keen to impart her views also: “Riots happen, and they happen with people feel dis-empowered. We need to analyse what happened not bang them up. If 13 year olds are going around setting fire to things it is ALL our problem, not just the parents.”

Before leaving the tent for an animated signing session for her music and book fans, she left us with this thought: “I can only try and change people’s opinions and I do it through music and now this book.”

Author Event: Carol Ann Lee

19 08 2011

Biographical author, Carol Ann Lee, read from her book, One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley, in an event which always promised to contain a certain amount of heightened feelings.

With the backing of the families involved, Lee embarked on presenting purely the facts and figures of the story “with the intention that the reader make up his or her own mind about how they feel of Hindley and whether hate was too soft or strong a word to use.” She was determined to remove her own personal feelings from the book and “to tell the story of the untold voices; those that went unheard during the years after Hindley and Brady went down for their unspeakable acts.

Lee said she could not believe Hindley wasn’t a willing participant in the crimes, but also went on to say that she “felt that she did have it in her to be empathetic, eventually; being Godmother to her sister’s child the perfect example.”

Whatever we may feel about the Hindley/Brady story one can be sure that in Carol Ann Lee’s objective approach we now have the definitive account of what happened as best it can be told. I certainly felt that given the families support and involvement in the writing of the book, one must use this as a measure of the accuracy and objectiveness.

Ann Lee is a talented author who has now tackled one of the UK’s most notorious serial killing stories, one that cuts to the very heart of the human soul, and it is perhaps her gentle and intelligent approach to such a topic that makes her the perfect writer to do it.

Author Event: Candia McWilliam

18 08 2011

Candia McWilliam

Candia McWilliam proved yet again to this reviewer that she is a woman made of very special qualities. Not only does she possess the talent to turn the description of every day objects into the most beautiful prose—written or spoken—but she has the power and magnetism to inspire beauty and hope even in the saddest human soul.

A Scottish treasure, Candia is partially blind after falling victim to a condition that causes functional blindness through the sufferer being unable to open her eyes. A few years ago she underwent an operation to try to overcome Blepharospasm, which involved cutting away the eyelids and introducing tendons sourced from the back of the knee in order to allow some sight to be possible.

Through this enforced period of blindness, Candia McWilliam wrote her memoir, What To Look For In Winter. “I never wanted to write a memoir,” she said. “It was thrust on me by the specificity of going blind.”

But through this blindness she has seen the world in a new way. “Any deprivation of the senses leads to a new way of seeing things,” she explains, before going on to describe every day things such as police car lights and the sound of a cat, in the most beautiful spoken prose. As for the word to describe the sound of car tyres on a wet cobbled street, “I have yet to find a book festival audience that can give me one.”

As humorous as she is inspiring, it was too quick an hour in her presence as she guided us through her experience with the disease that cruelly cost her her sight. Yet she still has the ability to feel compassion for others, in describing the young Australian girl whose operation to cure the same condition went wrong and was left worse off.

Candia is looking forward to her next novel, due to be delivered to the publishers towards the end of this year, as do all fans of her writing.

Author Event: Simon Hoggart

18 08 2011

Simon Hoggart

I’d selected Hoggart as an event based purely on his Guardian column. He often makes me laugh and nod at his astute observations, but occasionally annoys me with some of the opinions he holds. So I wanted to hear him speak to see if I was maybe picking him up wrong on things—I wanted to see if I liked him or not.

He’s older than I realised, certainly he’s older than the photoshoppers at the Guardian have made him look in his column avatar, but he does have a killer sense of humour. It’s in the good old-fashioned British/Radio 4 vein, in fact, he reminded me of a more political Terry Wogan in some of his tales.

And that’s pretty much what he came to do. He’s written a book that contains anecdotes and stories about his time as a journalist, and he spent the whole hour hand picking stories about politicians we would rarely get to hear about. He’s met every Prime Minister since Harold MacMillan, so he had plenty to tell us from his book, A Long Lunch.

For example, before David Cameron became Prime Minister, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell always drew him with a condom over his head. When asked by the then candidate to take over from Gordon Brown, Bell said it was because of “your smooth skin, your texture—it just didn’t work with cling film somehow.”

The Guardian told Bell to stop drawing the condom, but many months later when the two met again after the re-appearance of the condom on the now PM’s head, Cameron was more forced with his demand as to why it had returned. “Because there were so many complaints from readers that it had been removed,” said Bell. Cameron turned away muttering: “You can push the condom too far, you know.”

If you’re into the idiosyncratic humour of Westminster, this book by Hoggart will very much be for you.

Author Event: John Hartson

15 08 2011

John Hartson

This was an event that caught me right off guard. I knew John Hartson had been through a cancer scare, quite how that had occurred and what he’d been through I was unaware of. Hartson, an ex-Celtic player (as well as various other clubs) who played for them during a particularly fruitful time in their history, is also a proud Welshman having played for his country over 50 times.

But when cancer hit him, it him hard. After living for seven years unaware what the lumps on his testicles signified, it wasn’t until the blinding debilitating headaches did he check himself into a hospital.

Within minutes he had been referred and diagnosed with cancer. As the cancer spread, a brain operation effectively meant that as supportive as his family and friends could be, he thought himself he was as good as dead.

Hartson told a silent audience beforehand how hard he was going to find the hour, and indeed, when it came to reading from a passage of the book written by his wife, he was unable to go through with it. Instead, Pat Nevin read the passage from Please Don’t Go, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time he finished.

Possibly one of the bravest men I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting, John Hartson has risen above the banalities of life in the Old Firm and admitted himself how much he “appreciates the little things in life, like being able to get out of bed in the morning and make a cup of tea.”

As moving an hour that this was at the Edinburgh Book Festival, due to Hartson’s positive and uplifting nature, the audience left with a buzz of inspiration and hope.

Author Event: Alexei Sayle

13 08 2011

Alexei Sayle

If ever we needed a way to describe a whirlwind of Scouse humour with a violent delivery and Communist influenced left-wing tongue, we have it in Alexei Sayle. The guy’s a one off!

From his early days in the classic British sitcom, The Young Ones, to prancing around on Top of the Pops asking some bloke called John if he had a new motor vehicle, one always sensed he would end up becoming a highly successful writer and find himself treading the famous wooden boards of the Edinburgh Book Festival.

His latest literary work is his long-awaited memoir, Stalin Ate my Homework, in which he recalls the very different upbringing he was provided by his parents, Molly (a Jewish woman who has perhaps had more influence on British comedy than any of us ever realised) and Joe (a railway guard with Communist leanings).

Sayle hilariously recalled the deftness in which his father was able “to hop on and off trains like it was his favourite hobby” and how his mother could crush him with a perfectly timed line, the likes of which takes most stand-up comedians a lifetime to perfect.

“Family holidays,” Sayles recalled, “were the most bizarre trips ever” due to his father’s job on the railway and the perk of free tickets. They would end up in all kinds of places like Poland or Czechoslovakia “while other kids were down at the beach.”

One of the oddest things about Sayle’s upbringing was the Communist influence that led to the family being experts at talking in code down the telephone, but perhaps the saddest thing was his admission that he had never seen Bambi, not because he didn’t want to, but because he wasn’t allowed.

Author Event: Simon Stephenson

13 08 2011

Let Not the Waves of the Sea by Simon Stephenson

Architect Dominic Stephenson was the first Scot known to have died in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

In Let Not the Waves of the Sea his brother Simon embarked on a heartbreaking journey back to the scene of his brother’s death and recorded the journey in this book.

With no guarantees there would not be tears, Stephenson read an emotional passage from the book, recalling when it first hit him how strangers to him from his brother’s circle felt about their loss. “He was their brother too,” he said, “and it took a long time to sink in.”

The audience was silent for this one, as Stephenson’s reading and portrayal of the day the news came through, to when the task came to retrieve Dominic’s body back to the UK, provoked many lumpy throats and damp eyes.

There were light hearted moments also, providing relief to an audience so on the verge of emotional display, that I’ve not seen since the year Candia McWilliam told her audience she had undergone an operation and parts of her eyesight had returned.

Stephenson was keen to impart the positive and unseen impact that then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had on his family. They were invited to a reception at Downing Street, but it was on the anniversary of Dominic’s death when a 4-page, hand written letter arrived from Downing Street did it hit home just how kind the PM was. Stephenson felt it important people knew about this side of the man.

Clearly a difficult book to write and no doubt a difficult one to read, Let Not the Waves of the Sea is now firmly on my reading list.

Author Event: Alasdair Gray

13 08 2011

Alasdair Gray

Once describing himself as “a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian,” Alasdair Gray is the master of the understatement, and of stating the obvious but in a beautifully artistic way. He is also a Scottish genius.

Most famous for his classic novel, Lanark, described by The Guardian as “one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction,” he is also an accomplished artist.

In his latest book, A Life in Pictures, many of Gray’s greatest works are captured to tell the story of his life through the portraits, paintings, posters and murals that meant most to him. And it was through the pages of this book that Gray took the audience inside the RBS Main Tent on the opening day of the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Wearing squint braces and flicking back his gray tousled hair, he entertained us with stories of his eccentric upbringing, often deviating at tangents as he was reminded where an aunt might have kept her tea pot, or when his mother said something particularly funny.

Often self-deprecating but never for long, it was almost like sitting through a slide show at your favourite uncle’s house, allowing him to live the memories that were displayed on the wall in front of us, of golden days long since past. Only this time, the images displayed were created by the man in the room!

Such beauty and such clarity, this book is a must for anyone with Scottish blood or even the merest curiosity as to how great Scotland is when we allow our creative minds to flourish unhindered.