Book Festival Round-Up

Alan Johnson: Memories of 1970’s Britain Fortunately I had already read the first two parts of Alan Johnson’s autobiography – This Boy and Please Mr Postman as there wasn’t a huge amount of time spent on the actual books at this event. Chair Ruth Wishart and the audience Q and A were more interested in seeking his views on the current state of the Labour Party than in the period of politics in the book we were supposed to be discussing. It is inevitable, I suppose, given Johnson’s pundit role on the Daily Politics Show and also the fact that he has “big beast” Labour Party status. He served as a Government Minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - in Education, Trade and Industry, Health, Work and Pensions and as Home Secretary. Before that, he had a long career in the Post Office and the Trade Union movement, serving as a National Officer in the Union of Communications Workers then as General Secretary, and also sat on the TUC General Council as well as the NEC. He has impeccable socialist credentials and, with his experience and engaging personality, it is little surprise that many in the Labour Party would have welcomed his candidacy in the current leadership elections. For the record, he has no intentions of ever putting his hat in the ring nor does he ever want to be appointed to the House of Lords. He is supporting Yvette Cooper although he admits that Jeremy Corbyn will probably win it.

Johnson was a big fan of Jimmy Reid (his three heroes are Reid, Rodney Marsh and Paul McCartney!) and would have followed him into the Communist Party of Great Britain but fortunately Reid left and joined the Labour Party. He cites Reid and Tom Jackson as examples of the best breed of union leaders – selfless men who worked tirelessly for their members and could lead and inspire them but crucially knew when a battle was lost and withdraw with dignity. Arthur Scargill, on the other hand, was not of that breed. Despite the problems of dwindling union membership and savage attacks by the Tories on union rights, Johnson thinks they are needed more than ever. It is the 100th anniversary of the death of Keir Hardie next year and Johnson frequently references him as he passionately articulates the core Labour Party values and principles of equality and fairness. With huge pay gaps between CEOs and their employees, poverty and lack of social housing, he sees plenty of issues for a new generation of politicians to tackle.

This was a fascinating hour of politics and I eagerly await the third instalment of his memoirs. In the meantime I highly recommend the first two books.

Christopher Brookmyre

This is Brookmyre’s 20th consecutive appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival , quite a record, but then he is one of Scotland’s most prolific and popular writers and he always has something new on the go to tell us about. This time it is not only his most recently published book Dead Girl Walking, but also his work in progress, Black Widow, his plans for a new sci-fi novel and, last but not least, his foray into the video games market and his soon to be published game called Bedlam.

Brian Taylor introduces Brookmyre as a writer of stories set in a parallel universe where nothing is as it seems and chaos is characteristic, in fact, as Brookmyre himself admits, one could argue that all his work is science fiction. Taylor also highlights the unusual feature of the hero of many of the novels being a journalist and, at the mention of Jack Parlabane’s name, there is a loud cheer from the audience which is testament to that characters popularity. Brookmyre responds that JP is a work of fiction and in real life journalists are not at all popular, particularly after Leveson and the phone hacking scandal. His “daft ideas” of having his fictional journalist hacking and burgling has turned out to actually be “standard industry practice”.

Parlabane features in Black Widow, from which Brookmyre reads us a preview of a couple of chapters. The main protagonist in the book is Diana Jaeger, a woman surgeon who is on trial for the murder of her husband. It is a book which deals with sexism in our society and the double standards which women have to face on a daily basis. Brookmyre prefaces the reading with a firm statement that he is a feminist and gives us some hilarious stories which debunk the warped thinking of the anti-feminist brigade. In Black Widow, Jaeger bemoans the sexist attitudes she and her female colleagues encounter every day in their careers. Among other questions she poses on her Scalpel Girl blog, she asks “What is the optimal breast size for a career in surgery?”

Taylor starts the Q and A with half an hour to go which looks like being a bad call at first as questions are sparse. However Brookmyre appears to have a few friends in the audience who save the day and after that the questions flow steadily. He is asked about the prospects of a film of any of his novels. We learn that film options have been taken up on most of his books but none have actually got to production stage yet, but he is still hopeful.

He finishes with a reading from one of his older books – A Tale Etched in Black Ink and Pencil, and the scene where two neds are discussing the disposal of a couple of bodies. I had forgotten how hilarious Brookmyre’s writing is – I used to read his books avidly each year but haven’t done so for a few years. It’s definitely time to renew acquaintance with his more recent work and there is plenty of it so that’s the winter’s reading material sorted already.

Joanna Blythman

I thought I knew a lot about healthy eating but this book festival event has taught me a heck of a lot more. Joanna Blythman is an award winning food writer and researcher as well as restaurant reviewer. Her latest book, Swallow That, is an investigation into the secretive world of the food processing industry and its impact on our eating habits and health. She was prompted to research and write this book after studying the label of the pre packed shop bought salad she had brought for lunch on a train journey. She had expected it to contain fresh salad ingredients and nothing else but the label listed an array of additives she had never heard of.

Posing as a purchasing executive of a food company she gained access to a Food Industry Fair and was able to glean information that would never be willingly revealed to a journalist. She bemoans the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for whistleblowers and investigative journalists to lift the lid on some of the dodgier practices of the food industry and that the legislation requiring labelling on food isn’t particularly helpful to us. Manufacturers have started to relabel additives and E numbers with more attractive names like “rosemary extract” – it sounds nice and healthy but it is so processed that it actually bears no relation to the original herb. Processed foods contain scarily high levels of sugar and salt as well as additives, some of which have been proven to be carcinogenic to humans. “Healthy” low fat products and even vegetarian processed meals are just as bad.

She is obviously passionate and knowledgeable about her subject and, in the Q and A session, gave us her views on a wide range of food related issues. She is in favour of the ban on GM foods, thinks most gluten free products are a con, isn’t a fan of clingfilm, plastics and packaging. She has given up campaigning to improve school dinners and teaching kids to cook as she says it is like Groundhog Day – despite trying for years nothing changes. The answer lies in the home – we all need to get more involved in what we eat and gradually change our habits. Joanna advocates two simple rules – avoid processed food wherever possible and cook from scratch using good, fresh, organic ingredients. At an event like this, she is preaching to the converted but hopefully her message will get through to a wider audience. It won’t be an easy one to solve I suspect.

Kingsnorth, Rylance and Shaw: Lost Gods

This is what I love about the Edinburgh Book Festival – the sheer variety. This was definitely not a dry reading and Q and A, it was more of a “happening” fusing history lesson, reading, dramatic story telling and music in a wonderfully entertaining way. It helps of course that one of my favourite ever actors, Mark Rylance, is doing the reading and I suspect he is the draw for quite a few in the packed house. Paul Kingsnorth’s novel, The Wake, is set in the Lincolnshire Fens in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and tells the story of peasant farmer Buccmaster who, when his lands and crops are destroyed, goes on to lead a guerrilla band to continue the fight. It deals with a fascinating piece of history most of which, if it is taught in schools at all, deals only with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the Magna Carta. Kingsnorth fleshes the story out for us, going right back to the chaos caused by the departure of the Romans and the warring tribes battling amongst themselves for power as well as defending themselves against attacks from the Picts and the Vikings. King Vortigern brought the Angles, Jutes and Saxons of Germany to bolster his power and from this base came England or Angleland.

His book is written in a contemporary version of Anglo Saxon to give it a much more authentic feel and it is interspersed with the magic and myths so prevalent at the time. The language sounds strange at first but Mark Rylance’s reading draws us in until the cadences and language sound and feel natural. Martin Shaw weaves in mythical tales of golden apples, strange creatures from beneath the marshes, kings and outlaws which complement the story beautifully. The three have a lovely warm rapport and seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience.

The novel was originally published through crowdfunding but has since gone on to win critical acclaim and was nominated for the Man Booker prize. Rylance thinks so highly of it that he has bought the film rights. Kingsnorth describes it as a “post- apocalyptic novel set 1000 years in the past”. There is definitely a market for this mix of historical fiction and fantasy as we can see from the popularity of Game of Thrones, Outlander and so on. Kingsnorth argues that we all need myths and monsters and that they are an integral part of us. A thought provoking and highly entertaining show.


The crowd is a lot younger and noisier than the usual Book Festival audience, most of them have a supply of drinks with them and there is a buzz of eager anticipation. Limmy is greeted to a rockstar welcome – we are all fans and we are here to see live the guy who up till now we have only ever seen on TV or interacted with online. Limmy started off on the internet, posting his idiosyncratic musings on life, the universe and everything and gradually built up a cult following. His TV show, Limmy’s Show, appearances on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe and his vines have introduced him to an even wider audience hence the sell-out crowd tonight.

As an opener he treats us to quickfire renditions of some of our favourite characters “Just tae get it oot the way” so he can get on with reading from his new book. So a quick hello and goodbye from the likes of Dee Dee the loveable layabout, the redoubtable Jacqueline McCafferty ex “heroine” addict, and Falconhoof the game show host.

On to the short stories. I had already read a couple of them in one of the Sundays and had found them quirky and funny. When I read them in future I will imagine Limmy’s voice and delivery because, when read by the man himself, they are absolutely sidesplittingly hilarious. I won’t give away any of the punchlines but they begin with seemingly mundane subjects and take us on a wild and wonderful journey. In The Hazy Days of Summer, a hot day and a quest to get a Solero before his parcel is delivered leads to a gigantic misunderstanding and a crazy conclusion. A tale of a visit to a pub toilet leads to philosophical fancies which made me laugh so much I just about burst a gut. Talking about toilet visits, why is it that guys either can’t go before the show or can’t hold it in for an hour? From five minutes of the start there was a constant stream of guys having to disrupt proceedings as they had to go to the toilet.

At the Q and A we learned that BBC Scotland turned down a proposal for a Falconhoof spin off. The show was being transmitted live on BBC Arts so the whole audience joined Limmy in making a plea live on air to get them to rethink that. We definitely need more Limmy on our screens – until then, his Daft Wee Stories will keep us going.

Irene Brownlee

Mark Lewisohn: How the Fab Four Made History

Mark Lewisohn is undoubtedly one of the world’s leading authorities on The Beatles, with him now embarking on his most ambitious project to date: a massive three-volume history of the “Fab Four” starting from their earliest beginnings. And it was his first completed volume in this mind-blowing 25-year project (all 900 odd pages!) that he was attending this year’s Book Festival to discuss in front of a packed audience.

There is very little argument in the assessment that The Beatles were more than just a pop group, but a worldwide cultural phenomenon that changed the course of modern music history and defined a decade, through their image and songs. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that only Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley have had a similar impact on popular music culture. And it’s difficult to foresee anything like them emerge in today’s music scene – but one never knows?

Lewisohn scrupulously examines the Beatles background in the context of the time period that they came together. He further describes how moribund the British pop/rock scene was during the late fifties and into the dawn of the sixties, as the first flush of unshackled rock and roll was being carefully neutered and gradually smoothed over. A vibrant new sound was required, and little did many know at the time, that sound would originate from the unlikely setting of industrial Liverpool.

He then paints a vivid picture of a group of young men (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr – not forgetting former drummer Pete Best and the tragic Stuart Sutcliffe) who were determined to shape and form their own musical destiny, unhindered by normal convention. Individually and collectively, The Beatles (even at such a young age) displayed a degree of confidence, level headedness, calm determination and strong work ethic, blended with a light touch of arrogance that was unusual for the time. They knew what they wanted, and more importantly, how they were going to achieve it. No short measures, no compromises, they simply had their own musical vision that would take them all over the world, and still after all these years, be the yardstick for all pop bands to follow.

However, Mr Lewisohn also stressed that their ultimate success would be assisted by the wise council and guidance of two men in particular – George Martin & Brian Epstein. Martin was sceptical at first about their worth, but once they gained each other’s confidence in the recording studio, history was about to be made. Epstein, on the other hand, was no greedy, unethical money grabbing manager, but a man who gained the group’s trust and helped guide them with assurance during their early tentative steps towards global dominance.

Even if you knew a lot about the four Liverpool lads, Mr Lewisohn’s talk shed some new light upon certain aspects of their early careers that may well have been overlooked by fans. Altogether a fascinating talk and one that made you eagerly want to dig out that worn-down copy of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and place it back on the turntable!

Lawrence Lettice

Richard Coles: From Pop to the Pulpit

We are getting two Richards for the price of one at this event. Richard Holloway – author, broadcaster and former Bishop of Edinburgh is interviewing Richard Coles, one half of 80’s pop duo The Communards, and now a Church of England vicar and Radio 4 presenter. Richard H displays his lack of knowledge immediately of the pop scene – he names the famous Communards hit single as “Don’t Leave Me Now” instead of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. He is more comfortable with the “Pulpit” part of Coles’ life story than the “Pop” part and, disappointingly for me at least, we don’t spend enough time on that part of his story.

It’s a fascinating story too. Born into a comfortably well off family and educated at a minor public school, he realised he was gay as a teenager and went off to London where he met Jimmy Somerville in a squat. Somerville was his polar opposite in background and in temperament – he describes him as having “two settings – nuclear and nuclear” but they went on to have a successful pop career together and have remained on friendly terms. He describes their youthful excesses and their involvement in the political scene – one day flying on Concorde, the next on the picket line with the miners “trying to bring down Margaret Thatcher with pop music”. He was living the high life but then came the AIDS epidemic and he describes the bizarre story of how he falsely claimed to be HIV positive. The humiliation of that episode and the inevitable crash and burn from drugs and excess invoked the first religious stirrings within him.

He credits Holloway in part with his eventual conversion. He had gone into St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh to listen to some choral music and as he says “I went in as a spectator and came out a participant”. He initially became a Roman Catholic but “missed the hymns” and felt more at home in the CofE and trained as a vicar. His first calling was to a rural parish in Lincolnshire which actually turned out to have many problems with drugs and deprivation. Ironically, his next calling was the opposite – the “inner city London” parish was in Knightsbridge, home to the super rich. The challenge of trying to persuade these parishioners of the need for charity to the less well-off was a hard one.

The Q and A session took a while to get going and mainly covered questions about his religious beliefs and the state of the church today. A Church of Scotland elder asked for his view on gay ministers in light of the row in the church here and there were others about the ordination of women and even about his favourite hymn. He is optimistic that the Church is coming to terms with change and that it must continue to challenge us rather than reflect our views.

Coles has a likeable, humorous and self-deprecating style which has won him many fans in his Saturday Live show for Radio 4 and he has even gained fame being lampooned on Dead Ringers. I suspect that tickled him rather than upset him, he seems a man comfortable now in his own skin.

Irene Brownlee