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Colonsay Book Festival (26-28 April 2013)

This tiny festival on an island in the Hebrides measuring eight miles long is fairly new. My father is head of the Catering Committee for the festival (he baked the bread for lunch and my mother made the soup. My sister-in-law made sandwiches. I ate all three.) On the afternoon of the second day there were three speakers on the stage of the Community Village Hall, the talks are summarized below in the order in which they appeared.

Candia McWilliam has spent a sizeable part of her life on Colonsay, and it was here that she wrote some of What To Look For In Winter: A Memoir In Blindness. I have written out below the extract she read aloud, as it is the ideal introduction to our Why Write series we hope to launch soon, and because it is both brilliant and true.

“I write because the work is real. It involves concentration and a study of life, which is all we have. I write because I want to help my parents out of their graves, she wherever she is, and he in the wall of Scottish heroes. I write because I cannot often express things face to face, being at once (or I was; we’ll see about that) performative and shy. I write because I don’t think most of my children are interested at the moment at what may interest them after I am dead, the half of themselves that will have been buried with their mother, but that lives in them. I write because I want to write more well. And better. And better. I write because I read, and they are my patriotisms and loyalties, reading and writing. I write because it is the act of glorification and gratitude to which I am most suited to take up my apprenticeship. I write in order to keep abreast of the swim of words and to hold the world – whose glory is, with its sadness, that it will not be held.

I write because I wake up, I fall short, I sleep, I wake.

I write because the world and all I love in it is forcing itself upon my attention and to pay attention is everything.

I write because words change one another when they lie together. Because words change things. They make people see.

Words can mend what is broken, or render it more interesting than mended. They can make people attend to one another.” (pp.479-480, Vintage Paperback)

Candia read aloud in an English sounding voice – she explained to the audience that though she is Scottish she does not sound it – and with such dancing humour that a story of serious weight is placed lightly in your hand, to savour, rather than clamped heavily down upon your brow.  In a game that circumvented game-playing, but simply celebrated the observation of semiotics and indeed Scotland, Candia read a short story with a message: the first letter of each paragraph spelled out a message for the keen listener. This would have tickled Nabokov and was enjoyable for us, though it left me feeling a little blunt of ear.

Maggie Fergusson then proceeded to introduce the subject of her biography, George Mackay Brown: A Life with images of the Orkney islands and readings from his poetry and prose.  Mackay Brown was a beautiful poet and a painfully shy man. Maggie’s self-deprecating account of how the book wrote itself after she was handed some love letters in Edinburgh Library does not give her meticulous research and lucid style enough credit. The account of her travelling to meet him at a time of year when Orkney is bathed in perpetual light, and a walk on the beach with Mackay Brown when his telling a story from his childhood was his way of signalling his approval for her to be his biographer was delivered in a quiet and moving way.

Here is a work for poets –
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence.

(from Following a Lark)

Finally, Ian Rankin gave a world premiere reading from his latest Rebus novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible which promises the usual dose of irony-laden exchanges in damp Edinburgh corners and Rebus providing his wheezy brand of revenge on behalf of abducted and mutilated women everywhere. Fans may be rubbing their paws together over around the world – my father is a quiet but dedicated fan – and Rankin created many more in the Village Hall that afternoon with his even delivery and jaunty responses to the audience. One example:

“Mr Rankin, I’ve not read your novels, but now that I’ve heard you speak I might start.” To which he responded “Well, that’s not really a question, but thanks.”

It is for exchanges like these we were lead to understand how unsettling authors must find literary events. Rankin pointed out that for the majority of the year, writers lead isolated lives with conversations held with their characters, before being yanked out of solitude and plunged into a forum where any question – however personal – can be lobbed at you without warning. The ability to take these and turn them into something that the entire audience can take home and turn over in their minds – to glean from and chip at should they wish to, that add to these books that were already of value to us, but now come with hidden extra parts, treasures exhumed for us kindly by the architect – is a gift these three showed the assembled company in Colonsay. I hope we all try to use it, and to remember at the next lecture or event, that this is how it can be.

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The Editors

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