Edinburgh Book Festival
Scottish chair Brian Meecham was clear and commanding in his delivery, just like the two authors of ‘Burning Country’, Leila Al Shami, the co-founder of a network that connects grassroots organisations across the Middle East, and Robin Yassin-Kassab, a media commentator on Syria. Both Syrian-British, they were here to discuss their book, ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’; written to publicise the work being done on the ground by civilian organisations in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011.
Leila had worked in the domain of human rights in Syria even before the the war began, particularly with women. Robin took his turn first to summarise their work, and was incensed that the Western media reports were so highly inaccurate about the very complex and particular situation that has developed in Syria. He’s weary of the commentary that emphasises geo-politics, speculation about US-driven regime change and the continuation of old rival factions. Where their work fills the void is in two main ways: firstly, in understanding the many factors contributing to civil war and subsequent displacement of millions, and secondly, focusing on the incredible work that regular Syrian people are doing in staggeringly difficult situations. For example, much of the mainstream media suggest that it’s a battle between secular and Jihadi forces, but the fact that many Jihadists are fighting on the side of the old regime itself contradicts this entirely. They have tried hard to add in critical details of context to these discussions in order to make any analysis of the Syrian situation itself much more accurate, as outsiders attempt to make ill-informed commentary based on their knowledge of other countries like Palestine or Iraq.
They discussed why the revolution occurred in the first place. The repression that ensued after the first failed ‘Damascus Spring’ an entire decade earlier, which simply asked for small reforms and an end to torture, created a lingering atmosphere of disappointment. Bashar al-Assad, after he unexpectedly took over the presidency from his late father, continued with crony capitalism and neo-liberalism, creating even more poverty in the country.The unwarranted violence the regime used to respond to the protests created an even more urgent call for reform and morphed into a revolution for social justice and freedom, including, importantly, a call for national unity. Support came from a huge variety of backgrounds, classes and factions, particularly amongst the working class.
Self-organised coordinating committees sprung up in secret, and worked in communities all over Syria, organising protests and linking with one another. Extreme repression resulted again, with torture, rape and disappearances. So extreme in fact, that many soldiers defected in disgust. This situation spiralled into war; convenient for Assad who wouldn’t have been able to justify killing peaceful activists. Al-Quaeda also wanted war; who became relevant again because of their needed military prowess. The regime and foreign states have contributed to sectarianism which was always part and parcel of the regime’s classic divide and rule policy. They outlined the major events leading to war; such as when the regime released the Jihadists who had been fighting in Iraq, imprisoned and then released as needed. Assad organising a massacre of Sunnis by the Alahouns who are a minority Shia sect. At this stage, the West, frightened of the alternative, decided to stick with Assad. Isis was being defeated, but Al Nusra, a home grown version of the Al Queda group, became stronger. Assad and his forces still have been by far the biggest killer of people.
Leila talked about the popular struggle for justice on the ground. The movement for democracy progressed to being a rejection of all forms of authoritarianism. In Idlib province, people protested daily for 160 days to get al Nusra out. It’s an Al Quaeda affiliate in Syria and people don’t want it. Civilians are self-organising in communities for self-rule, and it’s estimated that Assad was only in control of 20% of the country at one point. People were forced to take control at a local level, just to keep basic services like food, sanitation, health and education functioning. Protests were not enough, so people had to find a way to organise themselves using horizontal, autonomous organisational structures to provide food and medical services, many of which run by women. Local councils sprung up in the hundreds, and she estimates that there are now around 800. These administrative structures, many of which have been highly influenced by radical thinkers like anarchist theorists, Sufi clerics and an Italian interfaith priest, have the majority of their leaders democratically elected.
It felt like the discussion between passionate and knowledgeable speakers and a highly engaged audience could have easily gone on for hours, if given the opportunity. The questions were excellent and the answers were immediate and thorough. One of the questions was about the role of journalists, and whether they had given up on this war even though it has massive repercussions for the rest of the world; triggering the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war, and its own domino effect on Brexit and Putin’s military actions. Well-known commentators were named and shamed for being embedded or irrelevant, and even the political analyses of Noam Chomsky, the sacred cow of the left, were slaughtered for its old-fashioned binaries.
Laughter rippled across the tent as the last question was posed to Yassin-Kassab with just a couple of minutes remaining; what’s it going to take to stop the fighting? He sat back and smiled; the first and only smile of the session, given the subject matter. He wasn’t at all optimistic that the end was in sight any time soon. However, he suggested that pressure from outside would help; namely pressure from Western powers on Russia to withdraw its support of the government, and to investigate why the Americans vetoed support of arming the Free Syrian Army.
The audience was obviously a well-educated and politically aware crowd, with great concern and interest in the Syrian civil war and its effects within and without the country. People were keen to know how best we can continue to inform ourselves with accurate information, and what we as outsiders can do to help the situation. The authors indicated a list of news sources in their book, and suggested following blogs such as Syrian Untold and Syria Direct. The consensus was one of huge gratitude to the authors, as most of the vast amount of detailed information they gave us was new, and in a strange way, refreshing in its emphasis on people power and a radical departure from the standard media fare on Syria today.
Reviewed by Lisa Williams
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Theatre
25th August 2016
As I sat in the Baillie Gifford Theatre for this event, I filled more pages of my notebook and tweeted more tweets than during any of the events I have attended so far – and we’re almost at the end of the festival. The reason for this is simple. Louis de Bernières seems to produce more quotable quotes per minute than anyone else, and I’m talking about conversationally, never mind when reading his poems.
Poetry is de Bernières’s favourite and chosen medium. During the afternoon passing reference was made to the fact that in 1993 he was known as a promising young novelist, and again passing mention was made of a novel set on a Greek island in World War 2, but the prime purpose of his visit was to talk about Of Love and Desire, his new collection of poetry. Of Love and Desire is his second collection of poetry, and contains poems about, well, love and desire that he has written from the age of seventeen to the present. Viv Groskop, chairing the event, asked if the book was ‘a biography of [his] loves’; “Yes,” admitted de Bernières, “with lies and transformations,” and went on to say that generally when a poet celebrates a large number of loves it begins to sound like boasting.
We didn’t get to hear much of his poetry, it has to be said, as the majority of the time was spent in conversation. What we did hear perhaps couldn’t be called great poetry, but it was fluid, full of imagery, and tended, ‘like Middle-Eastern poetry’, to jump from subject to subject within the space of a line. De Bernières is an incredibly prolific writer of poetry, inspiration coming to him in bed, or whilst driving his car (in which case he has to memorise it), in an almost constant stream which he can’t imagine drying up. “It would be horrendous,” he said, “knowing I was on my deathbed and another poem was coming,” but he could see that happening! “I don’t have self-discipline, I have obsession,” he went on, recalling his younger days when his writing was fired by cigarettes and coffee. “Now that I’m fuelled on red wine I’ve started to slow down a bit [..] I have a demon that drives me on – I’m very grateful to it.”
His editor had told him that there was too much about wine in the first draft of Of Love and Desire, but de Bernières subscribes to the Middle-Eastern tradition of using intoxication by wine as a metaphor for both profane and divine love – again that marked M-E influence.
He treated us to a reading of his newest poem, composed the night before as he strolled along Princes Street and happened to see a street-beggar. This ‘Dreamer on Princes Street’ had ‘slipped through the bars of life.’
“Poetry ought to be speech made musical,” he said. When asked for his poetical influences he admitted to being “terribly influenced by anything I read”, citing Sappho, and Constantine Cavafy. He used to love Pablo Neruda – as do so many young people – but he is no longer young and said “I stopped believing what he was saying.” In pursuit of this musicality, he loves assonance and iambic meter – “T S Eliot has written some wonderful iambic lines, even though we think of him as a modernist poet.”
His greatest achievement? In his opinion, his novel Birds Without Wings, which is actually used in modern Turkey to teach Ottoman history. On a visit to that country he was surprised to see large pictures of himself on advertisements. His guilty pleasures? His collection of guitars. That prompted a member of the audience to ask if he would sing one of the many songs he has written, but that he declined to do unaccompanied. What is the greatest love in the world between two people? Between parent and child. “I have never been loved by anyone as much as I have by my daughter.” Having children is like having research material to hand all the time. His driving demon? He speaks of seeming to hear voices, and wonders if his talent is a constructive form of paranoid schizophrenia.
From all this you’ll realise how fruitful and how easy on the ear the event was. I think it was more relaxed than any event I’ve been to during this long-fortnight. Good listening, good value, enough said.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson
Previous Michelin starred restaurateur , Prue Leith is publisher of a large volume of cookbooks, some published under her own Leith School of Food and Wine. Here to promote her second book in a pre-mapped trilogy which is her seventh novel to date. The Prodigal Daughter, will be out on the 15th September. It’s a story about, ‘an eighteen year old girl, Angelica, at a cookery school in Paris in the sixties who falls in love with her unsuitable Italian cousin, and her rocky journey from naive enthusiast to top caterer and telly chef.’
Leith has invested in and become an old friend of, ‘cobbler’s wax, the glue that sticks you to your chair ’ after a short course in novel writing. It certainly seems to be paying off : she has aspirations to become a film writer in her seventies, this trilogy has been optioned for a TV series by Stephen Fry’s company Sprout in partnership with Parallel Films. They are combining forces in the hope of making a big fat multi-series. Let’s hope it all happens for the focused, driven and funny lady who has had such an interesting career path that it doesn’t sound too ridiculous to go from chef to cookbook author to novelist and now possible film writer. Go Prue go!
Keen to ditch the chicklet/romantic fiction and be more aligned with her male counterparts whom she tells us are described as giving , ‘deep psychological insights into dysfunctional relationships.’ Leith cites Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) and Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) as the best love stories and reveals Birdsong as having the best sex scene ever. I’m guessing that her love scenes won’t disappoint her readers then! Being treated to an excerpt from the book we realise sharpish that Angelica is in Paris to learn but won’t be bullied by her forceful teacher, a sentiment close to Prue’s own teaching experience, ‘people who are frightened can’t absorb. You really have to be nice to them if you want them to learn.’
Always one for moderation when it comes to cooking and not for spelt biscuits she also discussed her belief in the saturation of cuisine books and food inspired television series. Slightly schizophrenic looks define her in her television career with her looking more , ‘homepride and voice of reason’ in Great British Menu on BBC2 and , ‘a bit freaky’ looking in My Kitchen Rules Channel 4. Did you know that publishers have algorithm analysis that let them know good names for heroines and what colour of eyes are the most popular ? Well, now you do. Apparently Celtic names are on trend as is Iceland for location. Hair should be red not mousy. A fascinating insight into the world of Prue which should be a good read from what the audience heard today.
Reviewer : Clare Crines
Liam McCormick, 4 Stories High, Spoken Word
23rd August 2016
Under the shadow of Edinburgh castle, down a cobbled staircase there is a club named Silk, where Liam McCormick paces the stage maniacally in hole-ridden high tops and a number two buzz cut, ranting lyrical about a host of characters devised from the twisted innards of his mind. It feels in that strange velvety room that a number of worlds have collided, that perhaps the fusty plush bubble built no doubt for the minted tourists and students who keep the Edinburgh economy afloat has burst for a moment to let less fortunate creatures in. Indeed for a half hour or so, the space was home to Tam, xxxx, and xxx – the characters at the center of Liam’s poems – each of whom is subjected to the destroying forces of the societal pressure, specifically bullying.
The stories are well told, and at moments beautifully crafted. McCormick brings an intensity and a commitment to his performance which is as uncomfortable and electric as his subject matter. He should be commended not just for his ability as wordsmith, but also as performer. When I listen to him I am jealous that I am not Scottish. His rhymes are gutteral, and his rhythms twist and turn into the sing song lilt of a bygone storyteller. How I wish that I could utter words with the thick rasp of his.
His is an energetic, albeit slightly unhinged show. It is not easy to sit in a room and listen attentively to one voice swell and fall for half an hour. But everyone should try it. Isn’t Storytelling one of the age old ways of experiencing the unknown? Where heard in the firelight in a forgotten age or the neon glow of a fusty night club, it is beautiful form, and one which when used to great effect can convey emotions more deeply and directly than perhaps any other form. Liam’s work certainly does, and he is a star on the rise in the world of Scottish spoken word. Isn’t the Edinburgh Fringe about trying something new? Exceeding what you know? Taking a chance on hidden gems, and fresh talent? People these days seem to say all the time that they mean to do extraordinary things, that they want to support creativity, and encourage the bravery of young artistic talent. Well, get your arse to Liam’s show then! Support him, listen to him, open yourself up to something different. It’s free, and it’s interesting, and you’ll end the show with a great big chuckle, emerging from the dark stairwell of Silk into the hazy shadow of the castle, the sun starting to soften, and the bustle of the Fringe waiting for you around the corner.
Support young artists. Support spoken world.
Get yourself out to something interesting for a change.
Reviewer : Charlotte Morgan
Leading journalist Ruth Wishart steered events along with her guest writer and comedian Jon Holmes’ (the short one on The Now Show Radio 4) book launch and signing. Jon, has always been , ‘drawn to the inappropriate ’ which stems from late nights up watching Monty Python when he was but a child and his mum was out doing a nightshift in the local hospital. Being pissed at the Ashcroft party and deciding to sit in the empty chair and harass John Major about peas and Edwina Currie may not have been his best move to date but for this emboldened prankster little is out of bounds.
Jon co-wrote Horrible Histories for television. Taking a week off from his hectic schedule to write his stream of consciousness which is A Portrait Of A Young Man As An Idiot saw him struggling to decline afternoon drinks from couple Tina and Jeremy (whose shed he was working in) under their micro lights…
Coming from a church-going family who named their daughter Kelda (Swedish rivers and fountains) is not your average upbringing. Jonathan and Vicki his other sister seem the lucky ones on the name front. He was picked by his adoptive parents for having, ‘ the biggest brownest eyes and the sorest bottom.’ `it seems he is not alone in being drawn to absurdities- must be a family trait.
Getting back to the book, is it nature or nurture? Jon says it is about family love and is well aware that he has spilled the beans on many an insight into the short attention span of your average male. If you are female this book will answer a few inexplicable behaviors your man may have presented and if you are a guy then the whistle has been blown and you won’t get away with your nonsense any longer!
Hearing Jon talk about one of his pubes nestled in his tax return while it was being checked by his accountant and his futile attempts to dislodge it with a selection of words like , ‘print it’ was comedy gold. And so it seems is this offering . But a word of warning guys , don’t buy the contractions app if you’re other half is expecting and ladies be sure you get a male midwife if you want any attention at all while in the throws of childbirth.
Reviewer Clare Crines
Aug 21-28 (21:50)
This August, I witnessed the lyrical literacy of the national laureates in the great theater in Charlotte Square – a splendid setting for poetry. Last night, I was on the other end of the spectrum, in the back room of the many-roomed, multi-tunneled, Banshee Labyrinth – the hub-hubbing bubble of punters filling the place with backnoise as our two poets wrestled with the sonics in order to deliver their show. This, by the way, was a very clever, very charming, very in-your-face affair — not aggressive in-your-face, but sniper rifling thoughts from your brain through an incessant shower of wit & wordplay.
Andrew Blair & Ross Mcleary share recital duties, reading from their poetic scripts like a couple of bright-eyed auditioning actors trying to win good roles in a Broadway play. Their theme is death, although they are also both dressed as pandas, while Robert Pattinson from the Twilight series pops up a tad too much. Creating their semi-lectural pastiche of perpendicular thoughts I found their muse to be modernity, their angle is analytical observation, & their delivery most energetic to boot. These guys are above the norm for most performance poets, & are a cool watch – but be warned, the venue is not the most conducive for the spoken word – sit near the front or the speakers. Yes, McCleary & Blair’s style can only be described as guerrilla poets dressed up as panda bears stitching society up like a kipper – a veritable safari of quite satisfying free versification.
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen