Speaking in tongues at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

This article is from 2008

Alan Bissett's festival blog

Thurs 14th Aug

This morning I was on at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Des Dillon and Anne Donovan, two of Scotland’s ace-est writers and who, like me, have a name mainly for writing in Scots urban dialect. We met in the Author’s Yurt beforehand and laughed about some of the hostilities we’ve sometimes faced about our work (mainly in our own country, I should add) and onstage I even told an anecdote about my first appearance at the EIBF in 2002, when a sweet old lady in the front row asked myself, Louise Welsh and Laura Hird why we were so crap. Everyone laughed when I told this story. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha!

It was somewhat surprising, when, right at the end of the event another sweet old lady raised her hand to tell us that she found it difficult to take writing like ours seriously and that we were basically writing ‘an adult version of the Beano or the Dandy.’ Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha!

Anne, being a decent sort, engaged with her question in a fairly non-confrontational way. I tried to, but couldn’t help a note of exasperation creeping in, while Des – clearly furious – told her to go away and read Mark Twain. ‘Why is it,’ he asked, ‘That in this country, 10% of the population hate the language and culture of the other 90?’

It’s a shame that this question came at the very end and that we did not have the time to interrogate the extraordinary class prejudice behind this woman’s question. It is difficult to believe that – after James Kelman’s Booker Prize win, the phenomenal success of Irvine Welsh, Ken Loach’s Scottish-set films being garlanded at Cannes, and the poetry of Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead established on English syllabuses across the UK – we are STILL facing questions about whether or not Scots dialect writing can be taken seriously as literature. The idea that the language of the Scots working-class is appropriate only for comedy is so patronising that it beggars belief, and I can only imagine what the reaction would have been had she told Toni Morrison that she found African-American patois to be little more than comic. Class prejudice, it seems, remains the only acceptable form of discrimination left.

That afternoon was spent, appropriately enough, drinking with Irvine Welsh and Kevin Williamson. They could only smile wryly and shrug when I told them about all of this, as if to say, ‘Mate, we’ve heard it ALL before.’ It makes me realise the scale of Williamson and Welsh’s achievement in the 90s, when the magazine Rebel Inc stormed the literary establishment with the language of the streets. Now here they were basking in the sun with pints of Hoegaarden at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Not a bad journey, but on that morning’s evidence, not one that was complete either.

Despite the temptation to stick bar-wise with Messrs Welsh and Williamson, I had another EIBF event in the evening, and wanted to stay sober for it (insert sound of teeth gnashing here). Bookslam is a successful peformance literature night based in Notting Hill and this was the first time it had been run in Scotland. I was hosting, and appearing on the bill were novelist Dan Rhodes, poets Patience Agbabi and Luke Wright, with music from Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble. It was a storming night, each performer offering something different in tone: Dan acerbic and pointed; Patience soulfully bringing the audience in; Luke a roaring flame of energy; Roddy lyrical and lovely. Yours truly had gone to Fopp for a Batman t-shirt binge that afternoon, and wore Heath Ledger’s giant, scary face on his chest. I like to think, though, Heath asks an appropriate question of most poetry readings: Why so serious? It’s a charge Bookslam convincingly body-swerves.

Speaking of serious…

The night ended with a London Review of Books party, as literary London magically appearing in a corner of Charlotte Square Gardens, with free champagne and canapes liquidating the Scots/English differences – until! It was announced, in the horsiest tones you can imagine, that the LRB would be hosting a discussion on the future of Scotland. In the British Musuem. In London. Dissent prickled and grumbled among the Scots, with one author deciding that, in response, a discussion on the future of England could perhaps be held in Pittenweem Town Hall? But let’s not forget that the future of Scotland affects England, and the English have every right to debate (though not decide) this outcome. Perhaps on the back of my experience that morning – and having listened well-bred voices braying through the streets of the capital for a fortnight – I had to fight for this objectivity. After all, you don’t want to descend into class prejudice yourself now, do you? I don’t think Beano readers would like that.