A quick visit to StAnza

Firstly, a message of thanks to the folk at StAnza for continuing to grant me media accreditation; and secondly, an apology for the tardiness of this article. Instead of writing individual reviews, on this occasion I’m going to post a kind of general summary, mentioning the events and readings I went to.

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It has been two years since I last came to StAnza, and in between times I have parted company with the review site for which I used to write, migrating my reviews here. Even my visit this year, cut short by my having to spend three days away at a conference for International Women’s Day, felt nothing like the immersion that StAnza offers, nor the response that this offer deserves.

Up to now, my experience/attendance at the festival has been governed by the amount of reviews I thought I could complete quickly enough to get them onto the web site while the festival was still running. This year I have a base in the School of English at the University of St Andrews, so you’d think I had less of an excuse for sticking to a meagre platter. Oh well…

As I lounged on my guest house bed, just over the River Taff from the Principality Stadium, I was able to keep up with the StAnza Twitterstorm – something was always going on, poets and events were being tagged, tweets were being retweeted. I thought back to the two or three times I had stood in queues outside the Byre Studio or Parliament Hall and heard people saying “We’ve just been to see such-and-such, and after this reading we’re off to see so-and-so…” It’s a marathon, a marathon at a gentle pace, as most of the festival-goers are retired. There’s nothing surprising in that, as the first four days of StAnza are weekdays, and anyone younger is probably working.

I do see some younger folk around – I spot a student or two from the university in an audience – and I feel young myself, as a student, although that’s a wee bit of a conceit.

Coastlines poets
The ‘Coastlines’ poets.

I have a question: why is it that I saw so many tweets saying that StAnza “opened” on Thursday 5th? There were two events on Tuesday 3rd, and six on Wednesday 4th, and they were right there in the festival brochure. Certainly when I attended ‘Coastlines’ I was not in any doubt that this was a festival event, not a pre-festival event. The brochure advertised poetry from Anna Crowe, nature writer Jim Crumley, and Valerie Gilles, but there was much more to the event. In addition to the advertised poets, there was a presentation by PAMIS (Promoting A More Inclusive Society), giving an opportunity to wheelchair users Rachel Frame and Arianne Holmes to provide multi-media additions to the words of Maureen Phillip; after that we were treated to readings of poems about Tentsmuir – the coastline between the Tay and the Eden in Fife – from the competitors, runners up, and winner of the Scottish National Heritage / National Nature Reserves competition.

Coastlines poet
Valerie Gilles

If I had to pick one of the headline poets from this event, with all due respect to Anna Crowe and Jim Crumley, it would have to be Valerie Gillies, whose poems took us on a journey from the source of the River Tay in a corrie on Ben Lui, to “Sheughie Dykes” as Tentsmuir was once known. “Sheugh… sheugh… sheughie dykes…” we joined in, and then “seugh… seugh.. seugh…” followed by a soft intake of breath to represent the sound of waves on the sand.

Perhaps the idea that StAnza “opened” on the 5th had something to do with the fact that there was a “sneak peek of some of the highlights” of the festival on the evening of the 4th, under the title ‘Festival Launch Extravaganza’, my emphasis. But then the very next item on the 4th refers to “Opening Night.” Make your minds up! If you wanted to see younger faces and hear younger voices, by the way, then the place to be was the Inklight open mic, once again in the no-man’s-land of Wednesday evening. I was in that myself, having recently started to write poems (like I said, I feel young!). I can tell you this: it was a thrill.

Let’s grant, anyway, that by the time I went to the first ‘Border Crossings’ event on Thursday, the festival had started. I’m a fan of the ‘Border Crossings’ event, and I hope they continue to be an integral part of StAnza. The eight events under this banner during the festival juxtapose two poets per event, each of whom has poetry that either crosses borders, or springs from the poet’s experience of having crossed borders. Sometimes they find things in common – for Yorkshireman Tim Turnbull and Bangladeshi Shehzar Doja it was cricket, and even I joined in the ensuing twanter (banter on Twitter). Let me do a thumbnail summary of each of the four poets I managed to catch…

Shehzar Doja, Tim Turnbull, Johan Sandberg McGuinne, Gerry Cambridge.

Shehzar Doja: rich, rich, rich language coupled with a deliberate delivery. Often he seemed to be musing, capturing words out of the air, rather than reciting already-composed pieces.

Tim Turnbull: dry, laconic humour, coupled with the ability to use rhythm and rhyme when necessary. The simplicity of those devices never fell into doggerel, and when he cocked one side of his mouth up to mimic the louche lingo of Heckle and Jeckle, he almost sounded like – dare I say this? – a contemporary of mine, a poet from the other side of the Pennines (*ducks).

Johan Sandberg McGuinne: a large and colourful presence. Multilingual, Gaelic, Southern Sami, English, resonances between the Sami joik and puirt à beul. Each language struck its own rhythmic pattern.

Gerry Cambridge: probably enough to say that he founded Dark Horse! The fact that his latest collection was taken up by HappenStance Press says more.

I missed such a lot – not only poetry events but all the peripheral performances, exhibitions, and displays. Next year, with my feet even more comfortably under the table at the School of English, I may miss less and may be able to do more justice to the featured poets.

The Book Festival: Photo-mix 2019

Today is the last day of the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival, and as usual (though not usually on this blog until now) I have put together a collection of some of the snapshots I have taken during the fortnight-plus. I say “snapshots” deliberately. I use a second-hand Nikon D50, which is hardly cutting-edge. The pro photographers at the Festival rather look down on me, I guess. But I have simply been trying to capture some of the Festival atmosphere, starting with the inevitable picture of Prince Albert, who this year has a slightly unusual background while work is in progress on the dome of West Register House.

#CandidShots
You’ll see that tag as a caption to several of my pictures. The Festival Press Office has told me not to take pictures of the writers and performers other than at book-signings or at an organised photo-call. I try, I really do! But as I wander round, I take the equivalent of ‘street scenes’ in Charlotte Square Gardens, which I maintain are fair game, and they provide some welcome variety. Sometimes that means I snap interesting people by chance, sometimes it’s Jason Reynolds being interviewed on camera or Jackie Kay at an informal moment, and these are hard shots to resist. Other people are happily snapping away with their smartphones all the while! As it happens, I’ve included neither of those shots in the following mix, but some others are below simply because they represent the ambience of the Festival, and I make no apology for them.

It has been another wonderful Festival. I am very grateful for the Press Office for giving me a media pass once again, and I look forward to 2020. There is so much going on behind all the events and activities – for one thing there is a tireless contingent of staff assisting the festival-goers, selling books, conducting speakers, handling security, dealing with us pestiferous media folk, handling the technology, and so on. You all do a brilliant job. Congratulations!

Joanne Harris signing books in the Edinburgh Gin Company Tent.
#CandidShots. The main theatre has a new name this year.
Neil Oliver is always a very good subject on a photo-call. He takes the trouble to look straight at each camera lens in turn.
‘Blast Off’ was a session for children of all ages on the jobs that a person can be involved with in the field of space exploration. Astronomer Sheila Kanani was the draw for this event in the Spiegeltent.
#CandidShots. The space inside the main bookshop has widened since it was merged with the children’s bookshop in one single area. There’s still space to sit and enjoy traybakes and coffees.
The staff in sky blue work very hard, preparing venues, staffing information points, hosting customers and checking their tickets, so it’s nice to be able to take a break now and then. What better way to spend it than reading a book!
It doesn’t take the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency to track down Alexander McCall Smith.
One of the political figures visiting the Festival was leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson.
Scottish sporting hero Chris Hoy – the Golden Postbox Man himself – was a great draw…
… as were his books!
#CandidShots. This is Festival Director Nick Barley, who stopped for a couple of words with someone queueing for the Spiegeltent.
Veteran Labour politician Roy Hattersley…
… keeping the camera squad busy! #CandidShots
One of the reasons I was at the Festival this year was the James Tait Black Prize. I had been one of the postgraduate readers, and it was good to see the shortlisted books on the shelf in the main bookshop.
And the winners were, as previously reported, Lindsey Hilsum (biography) and Olivia Laing (fiction). This photo is reproduced courtesy of the University of Edinburgh and is ©Lesley Martin.
Sometimes it rained, but there was always a silver lining.
The resident photographer at the Festival is Chris Close. His work is hung around the walkways, and is one reason to keep coming back to the Festival during the whole of its run, to check on new hangings. Some of his work from this year is below, in montages I’ve put together.
Melanie Reid, Justin Davies, and Arundhati Roy, ©Chris Close.
Martin Rowson, Kei Miller, ©Chris Close.
Ian Rankin channeling Oor Wullie, complete with bucket, Jack Monroe, and a sinister shot of Dougie Irvine and Osvar Silva. ©Chris Close.
Journalist Peter Hitchens.
#CandidShots. The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades!
Juxtaposing two bits of signage stresses that it’s important to be able to read and write!
Exclamation marks signal what you mustn’t do and what you must do!
Val McDermid, Geetha Marcus, and Danny Dorling.
Jamie Susskind, who delved into the possible future of AI.
#CandidShots. A walkway scene.
Stefi Orazi, who was at the Festival promoting her fascinating book on 20c architectural design and contemporary living, ‘Modernist Estates – Europe: The Buildings and the People who Live in Them Today’.
#CandidShots. Seizing the opportunity to grab a selfie! (The Festival ‘blueshirt’ with the phone camera is off-shot.)
Nikesh Shukla stands firm in the face of lenses!
#CandidShots. Chilling out!
Sue Perkins is ready to rock!
Reflections in the window of the Spiegeltent – ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’?
#CandidShots. I’ll tell you this much – I was out of there before the start of the evening ritual!

The copyright of the photos in this post rests with myself, except where indicated otherwise. Please do not use them elsewhere without first getting permission from me.

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Fiammetta Rocco; chaired by Heather Parry
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm. 25thAugust

Yet another fairly short report coming up, mainly because this was such an engrossing event so how could I possibly sit there taking notes or tweeting odd sound bites? To have a former Booker Prize judge who is now the Chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Administrator of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on the same platform to discuss what drives literary prizes – their scope, their criteria for selection, their judging, their very raison d’être – is something for which one sits up and takes notice and doesn’t waste time with jottings.

One idea that was floated by a member of the audience and taken up by the panel, was that what we read colours what we expect literature to be – “We are all made by the books that are inside us.” Therefore judges of literary competitions, being human, can’t help but be shaped by the culture, in particular the culture of reading, that they were brought up with and live with. Fiammetta Rocco celebrates the fact that judges can’t really be expected to be objective, because books impact on the heart as much as on the head. Judging is a very subjective business.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey made a distinction between offering a prize specifically to writers with an African heritage, and creating an imprint specifically for them. The former is a way of encouraging people to write, the latter is a way of segregating them – I am paraphrasing here and doing so in a very lean way. I have written in a previous post about the way that genre prizes, such as the Hugo or Nebula for Science Fiction, and the Eisner for graphic novels stimulate and encourage the particular brilliance of each. Genre-specialisation in publishing is accepted, as is gender-specialisation – one only has to think of Virago – so this is not an easy question to deal with. I think Ellah made a convincing argument; however, publishing houses are there to make money, and that will always be their prime motivation. If pressure from the likes of the Chair of the Caine Prize could persuade them that it is in their (vested) interest to offer a broader list, whether that is in terms of genre or authors’ heritage or any other consideration, then that might be for the better!

What of the future? The e-book has not yet obliterated hard copy, driving Waterstones from the High Street and WHSmith from the station concourse, but what impact will the affordances of the future have on literary prize-giving? Who has enough clairvoyance to say! If you have, then feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

EIBF 8
Photo of Fiammetta Rocco ©The Economist; photo of Ellah Wakatama Allfrey ©New African Woman.

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Many thanks to Ellah and Fiammetta for their insights, to Heather Parry for chairing the event, and to Festival Director Nick Barley for inviting members of the James Tait Black Prize postgraduate reading team to be in the audience. We were honoured to be included and fascinated by the discussion.

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A Traveller Named Sue

Sue Perkins: Blundering through Asia
New York Times Main Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
1.30pm. 22ndAugust, 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

After this event, I exchanged a few words with Jackie McGlone, who had chaired it. We confessed we’d both fallen a bit in love with Sue Perkins; this wasn’t going to be of any use to the three of us, because Jackie’s straight, Sue’s gay, and I’m male. Last I checked. Jackie told me that this follow-up to her first event that Sue had agreed to do at short notice, about her book East of Croydon – I hope no one needs me to explain the references in that title – had turned out to be totally different from the first one. This was due, of course, to Sue’s instantaneous wit, her never being lost for words or for ideas to express in those words. In fact, she had us laughing today without saying a word, just on the basis of a few facial expressions.

Sue Perkins is, of course, a very familiar figure in comedy and broadcasting. The more I listened to her and watched her today, the more I began to see – or rather suspect – that her public face was not all there was to her. I could see an occasional hint that there was a side to her that would only be revealed at home, with her boots off, to a partner. Then she would take a vacation from the Sue Perkins we all see, and with whom Jackie and I had just fallen in love, from her public persona. There is probably a space where she can be flat, or irritable, or just ordinary. That is not to say that her public persona is a false one, it can’t be, it’s essential, it’s Sue Perkins and that’s that. No one can do what she does without it coming from something dominant in their character.

On that basis, she had the audience in a sell-out NYT Theatre in the palm of her hand. We laughed, we were moved, and sometimes, due to her description of her experiences in Southeast Asia – notably the one about pig’s offal flying everywhere – we were close to upchucking. As Sue says, “It’s impossible to downchuck!” The choice of food in Southeast Asia, she told us, was between the unfamiliar dishes that the locals eat, and their attempts at Western cuisine. Her advice was not to be tempted by the apparently familiar; for example, they don’t really do dairy, so a Cambodian milkshake may very well have “a heavy back-taste of haddock.”

Sue’s moments of seriousness moved us. “How pretty poverty looks,” she said, “when you don’t have to live it.” She described a journey to a glacier, a place of pilgrimage high on a mountain, and likened the experience of silence and barrenness to transcendental meditation, to a loss of self, so that the gradual descent involved recognising objects like trees, colours, and the sound of human activity with something like surprise. Speaking of street children, and wanting to avoid the whole “white saviour” thing, she spoke about the only things she could give them having been an afternoon of uproarious playtime, and a few pairs of Converse shoes in sizes far too big for their feet. The humour of her delivery only made it more poignant.

Hilarity came in her description of teaching a few words of English to the women of a remote Cambodian community, without any interpreter to help them out. Sue had succeeding in teaching them how to count from one to ten, when she noticed that they were enthusiastically pointing to their upper torsos. She realised they wanted to know the word for breasts in English, so she taught them “Boobs.”

“Booooooooobs!” they all repeated in wonder and delight.

Then they began to point at their crotches, and Sue realised that they wanted another anatomical term in her native language. That was the moment when she went to pieces and ended up teaching them a non-existent word that sounded a bit Welsh. Honestly, Sue, what are you like! So there’s that, there’s therapy, there’s her mother, there’s her father, there’s her attitude to death, and there’s clinging to the back of a donkey at the edge of a thousand-foot drop, there’s a baby crying in the audience – “Ah, the sound of Brexit!” – and ultimately there’s a queue yea deep and yea long wanting copies of her book signed. That’s what it’s like with a headliner at the EIBF.

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“Is ‘the Left’ now an overwhelmingly middle-class enterprise?”

David Kogan: Which way now for the Left?
Garden Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm, 20thAugust 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

That’s the question I wanted to ask David Kogan. I’m a fully-paid-up member of the bourgeoisie and ditto of the Industrial Workers of the World trades union (yes, I have an acute sense of irony), and I wanted to know whether David Kogan thought that the Left today was a middle-class thing. “No,” was his answer, “but the policy-makers around Jeremy Corbyn are!”

I didn’t actually get to put the question to him during the event. I had to interrupt his book-signing to do it, but his answer shows at least two important things. That plenty of hands went up during the Q&A part of his event, so that getting a chance to hold the roaming mic was like entering a lottery. And that David’s focus is on ‘the Left’ in terms of the UK’s Labour Party. That is only to be expected, as he has been observing and reporting on the Labour party for most of his career.

The thrust of this event was to showcase David’s book, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party, and what he did for the first twenty minutes of the session was give us positively the most cogent summary of an entire book that I have ever heard from anyone at the EIBF. He is precise, he is analytical, and if his book is as good as his presentation, then it’s on my Christmas list. He gave us facts we already knew, facts we didn’t know, and facts we might have forgotten – among the latter was that only on three occasions did a Labour leader become Prime Minister by overturning a Conservative government (the Labour leaders in question being Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair). Among the facts we might have forgotten was that the sudden rise to leadership of Jeremy Corbyn was partly due to rule changes brought in by the Blairites to curb trades union influence. Among the facts we didn’t know, but might well have guessed when we stopped and thought about it, was that when he asked Tony Blair about his fall from grace, the one word the former Prime Minister never uttered was “Iraq.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s relative success in the 2017 election, which he nevertheless failed to win*, was followed by two debacles within the party. Firstly (sorry, I’m doing a lot of “firstly – secondly” today) the issue of anti-semitism. David could reveal that this wasn’t just something whipped up by hostile media, but that a minority of members or former members do or did hold some rather unspeakable views, and that the issue has not been properly dealt with, or perhaps dealt with consistently would be a batter way to put it. This subject could have filled an event of its own, and still not come to any proper resolution; it is very, very hard indeed to unravel, say, legitimate criticism of Israeli politics from unwarranted bigotry, particularly when a common vocabulary may serve to obfuscate. Secondly, a lack of clarity and consistency on our future in or out of the EU. There is a distinct reluctance in the House of Commons to back Jeremy Corbyn as an alternative to Boris Johnson, who heads the furthest-right Conservative government for generations, maybe ever; nevertheless, parliamentary convention is that the Leader of the Opposition should get the first chance to form an alternative government, should the sitting Prime Minister fall to a vote of no confidence.

David Kogan signing copies of ‘Protest and Power’ in the Bookshop.

Here are some sound-bites from the session:

“If the Tory party resembles the Borgias, the Labour Party resembles Game Of Thrones.” That was actually from Ruth Wishart, who chaired the event. A Wishart-chaired event is always worth going to!

“Is Labour a party of power or a party of protest?” That’s not a new question. In order to gain power, Tony Blair had to ditch socialism and back neo-liberal economics, as a result of which the UK has had right-of-centre government for about forty years. The question is not really a choice between power and protest, but whether the Labour Party can persuade voters that neo-liberalism has ruined the country and a left-of-centre alternative is a necessary cure. Discuss.

“Influence is not enough – you have to control the organs of the party.” See above.

“All the New Labour princes and princesses were parachuted into seats.” The phrase “New Labour princes and princesses” will stay with me! Thank you, David.

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Footnote:
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I seem to be the only commentator who is prepared to mention the following two linked facts. Firstly that Theresa May was able to form a government not because she came to an accommodation with the DUP, but because Ruth Davidson ran a successful if disingenuous single-issue campaign in Scotland to persuade Scots who were against a second Independence referendum, that voting for the Conservatives in Scotland was the only guarantee of preventing it, and thus she magicked twelve seats out of what had been up until then a desert for the Tories. Without those twelve seats, May would have lost the general election by a Hielan mile. Secondly that the Labour Party’s virtual extinction in Scotland has been partly due to the SNP maintaining centre-left domestic policies. Had it not been for the first of these facts, we might well have spent the last two years governed by a Labour-SNP pact in Westminster. Discuss!

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#JTB100

The James Tait Black Memorial Prizes
The Spiegeltent
Edinburgh International Book Festival
6pm, 17thAugust 2019

reported by Paul Thompson

One of Daphne du Maurier’s characters in her 1944 play The Years Between, when asked who the great writers of the day were, said, “We shan’t know for fifty years” (62). Who can tell whether J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, George R.R. Martin, or E.L. James will be remembered in half a century’s time? The James Tait Black Prizes have, over the past century, been awarded to writers as diverse as D.H. Lawrence and Cormac McCarthy, to writers whose names are well-known and writers whose names are well-known to people who know the names of writers. It’s impossible to guess whether JTB fiction shortlisters Will Eaves, Jessie Greengrass, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and winner Olivia Laing will be literature’s Mozarts or Salieris in 2069.

I was one of the postgraduate readers for the fiction award in the prizes’ centenary year. To be precise, I was co-opted in to help deal with a backlog, and spent all my time over the midwinter holiday reading, and compiling a report to say which book(s) out of my allocated batch I felt deserved a place on the shortlist. One of the shortlisted books was in that batch. This article is not going to be so much about the event in the Spiegeltent itself – there is, after all, only so much one can usefully write about an award ceremony, when the main question being asked is “Who won?” – as my thoughts about the awarding of prizes, and this prize in particular. I’m not going to deal with the biography prize beyond saying that Lindsey Hilsum’s In Extremis, a biography of Marie Colvin, is a brilliant book which at times makes a third-hand account feel like a first-hand experience. Instead this article is more about the process by which, as far as I can tell, one book made it from my batch to the shortlist.

There is a problem with the awarding of literary prizes. We who are involved in picking the books that make it through the various stages are, in effect, the gatekeepers of what is considered to be literature. As a specialist in popular forms of literature, I made it my business to champion a book that used a conventional structure and style, but used it in a surprising way, and presented a fairly conventional story arc. My point was that the James Tait Black Prizes are literary prizes, not prizes exclusively for ‘literary fiction’. In order to have under serious consideration the broadest range of literature, it is perfectly acceptable to find a book outstanding, that is in some way conventional; it is not necessary to privilege experiment, risk taking, and innovation. Of course none of those three things should be discarded. They are, after all, necessary and vital if literature is to flourish and develop. But they are not the sine qua non. It is equally the case that a book’s being built on an established foundation should not be grounds for discarding either.

Was it the book I championed that made it through to the shortlist? I’m not going to say. What I will say is that when I was listening to Dr. Alex Lawrie talking about the book that had made it through, I realised that she had seen things in it that I had not. Nevertheless there had been conversations amongst some of us postgrad readers as to what precisely our role had been, if not to carry out a sift. Did our recommendations actually carry any weight? Would they consider a new system for 2020? If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.

Olivia Laing; photo by Nick Barley.

Perhaps I should get back to this year’s fiction winner, Crudo by Olivia Laing. It is just that, a winner! If I understand correctly, it was written without revision, each stage in the story being affected by what was going on in the world at the time – the doings of President Trump, for example, or the latest stage in the UK’s journey towards Brexit – and this gave it a kind of immediacy. It has one of these opening passages – we heard it read out today – that make a jump from the expected. Yes, this is the champion of the popular and the conventional praising an unusual opening, but to be frank there is something about the way it is crafted that makes a reader want to punch the air, rather in the way J.D. Sallinger’s first readers must have done when coming across his line about “all that David Copperfield crap.” Here it is:

Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York. It was 19:45 on 13 May 2017. She’d been upgraded to business, she was feeling fancy, she bought two bottles of duty-free champagne in orange boxes, that was the kind of person she was going to be from now on. Kathy was met at the airport by the man she was living with, soon to become the man she was going to marry, soon, presumably, to become the man she had married and so on till death. In the car, the man told her he had eaten dinner with the man she, Kathy, was sleeping with, along with a woman they both knew. They had also been drinking champagne, he told her. They laughed a lot. Kathy stopped speaking. This was the point at which her life took an abrupt turn, though in fact the man with whom she was sleeping would not break up with her for another five days, on headed writing paper. He didn’t think two writers should be together. Kathy had written several books – Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, I expect you’ve heard of them. The man with whom she was sleeping had not written any books. Kathy was angry. I mean I. I was angry. And then I got married.
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Clumsy? Yes, it gives that impression, as if maybe “Kathy, by which I mean I” is still tipsy from drinking champagne. There are moments of entanglement when it’s not clear who’s actually sleeping/eating with whom, because of the way clauses appear to be in apposition. Are “orange boxes” boxes that contained oranges or boxes coloured orange? And there is the David Copperfield crap of Great Expectations. What on earth can she mean? But it’s an opening that pulls the reader right into the book to find out about the “abrupt turn” and its consequences.

When Olivia Laing’s name was read out, and she took the microphone, her first words were “I’m blown away… bloody hell!” Amongst her subsequent words was the offer to share the prize money equally with the other three shortlisters. That’s Olivia Laing. That’s a winner.

Despite what I’ve said about the process, I do feel privileged to have been part of the JTB team. It gave me an opportunity, having read some marvelous books, to make a statement about the ethos of literary awards; and of course I got to attend the event, to stand for applause when Sally Magnusson asked us postgrad readers to make ourselves known. In 2020 I shall no longer have a formal connection with the University of Edinburgh, but I am determined to keep following the JTB Prizes with interest.

Winners Lindsey Hilsum and Olivia Laing, with Sally Magnusson (centre) who chaired the event. Image courtesy of the University of Edinburgh / Lesley Martin.

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du Maurier, Daphne. The Years Between. Samuel French Ltd., 1947.

Laing, Olivia.Crudo. Picador, 2019.

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Obesity is a Nazi issue!

Sofie Hagen signing copies of ‘Happy Fat’.

Sofie Hagen: Tackling Figures of Fun
The New York Times Main Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
3.15pm, 17thAugust 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

A few years ago I went to see my GP about some problem I can’t remember now. He did a blood test, and when we discussed the results he told me he was concerned about how my liver was functioning. He asked me to lose two-and-a-half stone within the next two years. I looked down and patted my stomach.

“I thought this was just ‘middle-age spread’,” I said. It hadn’t been something I was too worried about – I didn’t like my waistline, but I didn’t hate it either, I just thought it was something that happened to most people my age.

Then he used a word to shock me. “No, it’s obesity,” he said. I lost that two-and-a-half stone in six months. My liver function is now back to normal*.

If Sofie Hagen had been in the consulting room with me, she would have been livid to hear him use that word. To her it goes beyond a matter of shape-shaming. This insistence on “health”, she declared vehemently, “It’s Nazi – it’s scary!” reminding us that Adolf Hitler insisted that everyone should be healthy, and eliminating those who were not. To her, using the word “obese” is as bad as any instance of racism, homophobia, transphobia**, sexism, or any other position of bigotry. When she states simply that BMI is “not a thing,” she is accusing the medical profession of false science, it’s as simple as that.

In her talk today she spoke about how her publisher had insisted in her leaving out all references to the Nazis in her manuscript, before they would publish the book. Even the title – Happy Fat – is a bit of a compromise. Sofie has a heck of a lot of anger for the way the world reacts to someone’s size and shape, and she told us that the anger comes out in the book. What also came across, as we listened to her, is that she is stitchmakingly funny. From her rapid delivery and her rolling, seamless raconte we could see what makes her such a damn good stand-up act. Her throwaway lines, such as “I can say what I want about thin people because some of my closest friends are thin,” are acute observations, turned on their head, of the kind of things people say. That stand-up delivery meant that whoever was operating the on-screen captions for the benefit of people with hearing difficulties had to put in some fancy footwork to keep up; there was even an occasional dialogue going on between the op and Sofie. At one point, having said she wouldn’t name a former lover, with whom she had had a very romantic sexual interlude but whom she later heard on TV making a derogatory remark about needing to be drunk to have sex with someone fat, she went ahead and named him; however, the op couldn’t spell his name, so…

Sofie’s views are, arguably, extreme. They are certainly uncompromising. I wouldn’t say that they are beyond challenge, because I think some of her statements will be open to challenge. But that’s an inevitable consequence of bringing an issue to the fore. To be able to use humour as a debating weapon, and indeed sometimes turning it on herself, is a very valuable talent. Humour allows, encourages us to explore an extreme position, and it is often that blip on the head from a fools bladder that makes us pay attention, where polemic would make us dig our heels in and refuse to listen. This event was entertaining – if you get the opportunity to see Sofie’s stand-up act, take it – but, more importantly, worthwhile.

And I haven’t even mentioned the irony that the event was promoted by The Skinny. Oh… wait…

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*Yes, I know, equating ‘normality’ with health is a cultural conceit that is probably less than two hundred years old and not necessarily the definitive factor we suppose it to be; but that’s another, bigger issue, and I’ll not go into it here.

**It occurs to me to ask, seeing that the thrust of Sofie’s argument is that we should love our bodies, where someone who wants to transition fits in. Again, a larger debate – another time, maybe.

If only from my GP!

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My post about the James Tait Black Prize award event will be delayed for reasons beyond my control. Apologies for that.