Telling stories while we can at The Edinburgh Book Festival

This article is from 2008

Alan Bissett's festival blog

Today's theme is stories! The ones we tell about ourselves, our past, our bodies. What prompted this was The Fooligan at the Pleasance, a one-man show from the Arches' artist in residence, Al Seed. Al waddles onto the stage, an obese, grotesque medieval storyteller, and then takes the audience through a series of macabre, absurd and gothic tales interspersed by elaborate mime routines. It's a blinding performance – Seed stretches himself to physical limits, acting with every sinew of his being – and certainly prompts passionate discussion on the way out. 'That didnae make sense,' said one, 'Whit did aw them mimes havetae dae wi it?' 'He's a STORYTELLER,' replied his friend, 'He was tellin' stories wi his BOADY!' The best shows, I find, polarise instead of unite their audience, and Seed's physical, impressionistic routines make the audience create stories about themselves, and their relationship to the performer, too.

Next up was a one-woman show at the Underbelly, There's Something in the Fridge That Wants to Kill Me! This concerns women's relationship with their bodies and food, and exposes the relentless neuroses of Isabelle Gregson, as written by Comedy Award-winner Chips Hardy. It's an important subject, and Gregson throws everything into it, but soon her character begins to feel slightly narcissistic and needy. After deciding to become a famous actress, and desperately networking the room, Gregson is at her most vulnerable and sympathetic. In a fit of pique, however, she threatens to use her sex as a weapon to get what she wants. It is these contradictions which give the character – and by extension modern women – a story necessary to tell, but ultimately too many cheap songs and a silly, attention-grabbing title detract from the real, dark and complex narrative of female self-image and eating disorder. It's not that men shouldn't try and write strong characters for women, but, when it comes to their own bodies, perhaps women are better telling these stories for themselves.

I then skipped Alex Salmond's speech at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (what's another politician in Edinburgh?) in favour of the launch of the new novel by Sophie Cooke, Under The Mountain, at Blackwell's. Sophie's first book, The Glass House, was a revelation, about a young girl's disturbing, dysfunctional relationship with her mother, and while I haven't yet read her second, I'm sure it'll be worth the wait. Sophie has a quiet, powerful voice, articulating the lives of the Scottish upper-class. Though I blogged several days ago on the necessity of working-class voices in literature, for a while there, the landed gentry were so unfashionable as to be non-existent in Scottish literature. Essentially though, like all good writers, Cooke is dealing with human beings, who also have stories worth telling and with whom we can empathise regardless of background. Cooke's publishers have enough faith in her to nominate her for the Booker Prize, and it is time this most polished and poetic of young Scottish writers was recognised.

So, three stories and three storytellers – spinning yarns about history, body and class – and using up every inch of themselves to do so. Step out onto the streets of Edinburgh and feel them seething with narratives. It'll soon be over, and we'll be story-less again. Be an audience while you can.