Using the secret histories locked within words, Damian Beeson Bullen identifies the boyhood home of Saint Patrick
I have been often startled by the latent powers of words, when even the smallest & most innocuous of place-names can be an eternal storehouses of so much history. I urge anyone this day to take a walk in the countryside, note the names of the cloughs & the hills, & let us weave a secret history, drawn from the phonetical landscape. SW Partington, in his ‘Danes in Lancashire,’ writes of this most pleasurable of literary past-times;
An eloquent modern writer has declared, with a good reason, that even if all other records had perished, “anyone with skill to analyse the language, might re-create for himself the history of the people speaking that language, and might come to appreciate the divers elements out of which that people was composed, in what proportion they were mingled, and in what succession they followed one upon the other.” From a careful analysis of the names of the more prominent features of the land; of its divisions, its towns and villages, and even its streets, as well as the nomenclature of its legal, civil, and political institutions, its implements of agriculture, its weapons of war, and its articles of food and clothing, — all these will yield a vast fund of history.
In recent days, while looking at the places & names of places around my home town of Burnley in Lancashire, to which I added a rather copious amount of reading, I believe I have made a discovery of some significance – the location of Saint Patrick’s boyhood home. Before he spread the name of Jesus throughout pagan Ireland, the young Saint Patrick was just doing the things that young lads do in a place called by him Bannavem Taburniae. He tells us as much in a precious, self–penn’d ‘Confessio’ in which we may read;
I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, … had for my father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villula nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen year of age… I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people.
Here we learn how Patrick was taken to Ireland by some kind of slave raid – so his home must have been within striking distance of the coast. We also discover that his father, Calpurnius, was both a Christian official called a ‘deacon,’ & also a decurion, ie an imperial tax collector, connected to the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae. Finally, we learn that near Bannavem lay was the family villula, which translates as the country house of a farmstead, that its serviced by manservants & maidservants.
On first examination, the name Bannavem Taburniae seems corrupt, & indeed c.700 AD, the situation was clarified by Patrick’s hagiographer, Milúch, who tells us, ‘this place, as I am informed beyond hesitation or doubt, is Ventre.’ This lets us create a new name-combination for the boyhood home of Patrick, being; Banna Venta Burniae. There is another Bannaventa in Britain, near the village of Norton in Northamptonshire, & is named thus in the mid-second century ‘Itinerary’ of Antonius Pius. What we may logically conclude is that the second Bannaventa came later, with an addition of ‘Burniae’ applied for the purpose of differentation.
I would now like to point our investigation in the direction of 10th century in England, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle spells the same person’s name differently in succeeding entries;
A.D. 931. This year died Frithstan… and Brynstan was blessed in his place.
A.D. 932. This year Burnstan was invested Bishop of Winchester
What we can infer here is that during the 930s Burn & Bryn (Brun) were interchangeable, & the alteration may have been brought about by Athelstan himself for he was recorded by Layamon’s Brut (c.1200) as instigating etymological changes during his reign;
How Athelstan here arrived out of Saxland
& how he set all England in his own hand…
& the names of the towns in saxish speech…
& in Saxish he gan speak the names of the men.
Numismatic support for an earlier ‘burn’ comes upon coins minted by Athelstan’s father & grandfather – Alfred the Great – which give the moneyer’s name as Bernvald.
Such knowledge allows us now to create with confidence a slightly different name for Patrick’s boyhood home; Banna Venta Bruniae. Later in the 930s, in 937, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Battle of Brunanburh. This epic conflagration saw King Athelstan of England defeat a confederacy of Vikings, Scots & Northern Britons. Variant names for the battle are given by Symeon of Durham – Wendune/Weondune – & the anonymous Scandinavian text, Egil’s Saga – Vinheath. These alternative names have proven problematic to academic inquiry, but may now be reconciled with the Brunanburh name through Patrick’s Banna Venta Burniae, locking these two historical jigsaw pieces fast together. Furthermore, both the ‘dune’ & ‘heath’ elements of Wendune & Vinheath mean the same as banna: pinnacle, peak, mountain, bare hill, etc. A little extra glue comes from the fact that just as Milúch describes Banna Venta as being ‘a place not far from our sea’ – i.e. The Irish Sea – so after the battle of Brunanburh, the defeated Vikings fled to their ships & entered the Irish Sea on the same day as the battle.
The West-Saxons pushed onward
all day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
The dejected survivors of the battle,
On Dingesmere, sought Dublin over the deep water,
to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
Another name for the battle was given in the Pictish Chronicle, Duinbrunde,’ which fits really well into the spelling of Patrick’s boyhood home given by Milúch – Bannavem Thaburinde. I don’t have the space here to offer a complete survey of the Brunanburh case, but there can be no doubt that wherever the battle was fought, on account of covering both Dark Age bases, the boyhood home of Patrick must be now be the leading location. As to where this was situated, there is a great deal of evidence both subtle & blatant that points to Burnley as being the area in which the Saxon fortified ‘burh’ of Brunanburh once stood. Quite tangibly, its trenches can still be made out to this day at a place called Castle Hill near Townley Hall.
An Anglo-Saxon burh formed the central administrative point of the administrative ‘Tun,’ from which we get the name Tunlay, & thus, Townley. In the 12th century, Towneley formed part of an ancient township called ‘Tunlay-with Brunshaw,’ with the latter name meaning ‘Brun’s Wood.’ The clearing, or ‘lea,’ in this wood would eventually become Brunlea, & if my calculations are correct, the name-flip from Burn to Brun instigated by Athelstan in the 10th century would last more than three centuries before reverting to its original form in the late 13th century as Burnley.
Further back in the first millennium AD, evidence for Roman settlement in the Burnley area leading up to the birth of Patrick comes in the name of the town of Colne, which appears as Calna in a charter of Henry I. This leads to the the Ravenna Cosmography Calunio, placed in the right area of Lancashire between Ribchester & Ilkley. When analyzing its history, we should notice that in the lists of Northern Roman camps, Calunio was not in existence in the time of Ptolemy (2nd century AD), but exists in the 6th century, when it appears in the Ravenna Cosmography.
To the north, at Barnoldswick, ran a major arterial Roman road, from which minor roads branched into the Burnley area, such as the one that goes past Portfield on Pendle – the ‘Ad Alpes Peninos’ given in Richard of Cirencester Itineray – passing the villages of Sabden & Newchurch on the slopes of the same hill, down into Barrowford, along Wheatley Lane, up again to Castercliffe hill fort – which may have been Calunio itself – & then on into Yorkshire where it concludes at Ilkley, given as Alicana in the Roman geographies. There are also traces of another road that goes through Burnley itself, up to Cliviger, then over the moors to Slack, near Huddersfield, where the ‘Cambodnum’ Roman fort is sited.
Numerous Roman coins have been found in the Pendle-Burnley area; in the sunken lane at the foot of Castercliffe, at Wheatley lane, in Burnley & finally at Emmot, near Colne, where according to TT Whitaker, writing in the year 1800, ‘a large silver cup filled with them was turned up by the plough in the latter end of the 17th century.’ Speculating further, Roman forts were generally attended on by the local population, who lived next to or near the fort in a settlement described as a vici – the semantics of which can be observed in the name, Wycoller, a time-capsule village just to the east of Colne.
Returning to the investigation of Patrick’s boyhood home, there is more information given in his ‘Confessio’ which proves relevant. To carry the investigation further, let us analyze the names Venta, Ventry, & by association, Wen. All these names suggest that by Patrick’s time a group of Roman foedarati from a tribe known as the Wends had settled in the Burnley area. According to Wulfstan, they heralded from a place called Weonodland,’ as in; ‘Weonodland was on his starboard side and to portside, he had Langeland, Lolland, Falster and Scania. These countries all belong to Denmark.’ Clearly, when Symoen of Durham named ‘Weondune,’ he was referring to the ‘dune’ of the ‘Weonds.’ Other names for the tribe include;
Old English: Winedas
Old Norse: Vindr
German: Wenden, Winden
These variants connect neatly with the Vinheath of Egil’s Saga, which in Burnley terms links to the hamlet of Winewall near Colne. I am also quite sure the Battle of Winwead, ie ford of the River Win – was fought at Barrowford, a few miles down the Colne Water from Winewall, on account of there being an unexcavated Anglo-Saxonesque barrow by the old ford there & that Winewall’s earliest record (1324) calls it Wynwell – ‘spring of the river Wyn.’
The arrival of the Wends seems connected to their defeat in Europe by the Romans in 277 AD, after which they were given lands in Britain. Zosimus writing of a Roman general called Probus, states, ‘his second battle was with the Franks, whom he completely conquered with the help of his generals. Then he fought the Burgundians & Vends… When the armies engaged each other, some of the barbarians were slain, others were taken prisoner by the Romans, & the rest sued for peace, accepting the condition that they surrender their booty & prisoners, but since, although their request was granted, they did not hand over everything, the emperor angrily punished them by attacking them on their retreat. Many were killed & their leader, Igillus, taken prisoner, & all the captives were sent across to Britain where they proved very useful to the emperor in subsequent revolts.’
The last sentence is key, for it places the Wends in Britain at a place well-sited for handling a rebellion, suggesting a northern location. If this was in Lancashire, we can understand the proper origins of a number of Probus coins found in the county; such as at Worden, on the outskirts of Leyland, whose name also seems a variation of ‘weodune’ Similar coins were also discovered at Burnley itself, where WT Watkin describes 126 copper coins known as ‘radiates’ of the late third century AD, while the coins found at Castercliffe were minted at the same period.
Wendish tribal sub-groups included the Sorbs & the Ruggi, both of whose names are present at Pendle Hill, the great whale-back peak which dominates the Burnley skyline. The village of Sabden (Sapedene 1296) means ‘long, narrow valley of the Sabs,’ the ‘Sab’ phonetic of this name being quite rare in Britain, & of unknown origin. Yet it is easy to introduce the idea that Sabden was once ‘Sorbden.’ ‘The present-day Sorbs,’ writes Gerald Stone, ‘may be regarded as descendants of the Slavs who moved into Lusatia in the 6th & 7th centuries… it seems likely that the ethnic name srbi was then in use among them & was later retained both by the Sorbs & by those other Slavs (the Serbs) who moved southwards to the Danube.’
Another Wendish subgroup were known as the Rugii, whose name seems to have inspired the Pendleside village of Roughlea, known formely as Rugelea. In the 8th century, the venerable Bede stated that the Rugii formed part of the composite Anglo-Saxon layer to the English gene-pool;
The Angles or Saxons, who now inhabit Britain… are still corruptly called ‘Garmans’ by the neighbouring nation of the Britons. Such are the Frisians, the Rugini, the Danes, the Huns, the Old Saxons, and the Boructuari
We may also detect the Rugi element in an alternate slave-name given to saint Patrick; Fiacc’s hymn tells us; ‘He was six years in slavery; Human food he ate it not. Cothraige he was called.’ At the other side of the valley in which Burnley lies, we come to the hamlet of Roggerham. This is where things get interesting, because hard by the modern village there are the remains of a building, dated to the mid 4th century, given the name Ring Stones Camp. The Wends are known for building circular camps such as the this one, a visit to which was recorded over centuries ago, by TT Wilksonson;
Passing through Thursden Valley, to a corresponding crest on the opposite ridge called Bonfire Hill, at the distance of about a mile, we find another circular intrenchment, 130 feet in diameter… This encampment is surrounded by an earthwork rampart, which is still comparatively perfect on three of its sides, and easily traceable on the fourth. The rampart measures 700 feet in length by 450 in average breadth
At once we gain a semi-hit to the final variant name given for Patrick’s boyhood home by the ancient sources. The Hymn of Fiacc, traditionally ascribed it to a fifth century bard, tells us Patrick was born at ‘Nemthur.’ Now this does not necessarily mean it was the same place as Banna Venta, but the ‘thur’ element does appear in the ‘Thursden,’ which may have once been called ‘Nemthur’s den.’ The name seems to derive from nemeton, which means ‘sacred space’ in Brythonic, & which easily becomes Eamoton, a place where Athelstan received fealty from the petty kings of Britain – & then Emmot. This place lies near Colne, where a sacred well called ‘Hallown’ has been sited since deep antiquity supporting the Nemeton link. There is also the intriguingly tantalizing possibility that ‘Bonfire Hill’ derives from Bannaventa, as in;
Another early antiquarian visit to Ring Stones was made by James Stonehouse’s in the mid-19th century;
As we pursue our ramble along the road towards Roggerham, we arrive at a farm house on the right hand called “Rotten”; and a short way beyond it find a gate on the same side. Opening this gate we discover a narrow road, having in the centre a pavement of large boulder stones, the footway on one side being skirted by a stone wall which enclose portions of the moor; on the other a thick hedge. An unobservant person even would notice something unusual in the appearance of this bye-road. The mystery of it-if there be such a thing as a mystery-is soon made manifest. The road is found to lead upon the open moor land, and where the enclosure walls end it gradually becomes lost in the moorland and herbage, although its track can be really discovered rising over the hill before us. But before it becomes so hidden in the heather and the thick grass it passes an enclosure of some 200 feet by 160 feet, that the antiquary and the archaeologist would not fail to gaze upon with deep and absorbing interest. The road is Roman. As the Romans left it, there it is. The enclosure is Roman. As the Romans constructed it, there it is; at least what remains of their handywork. The enclosure is the remains of a fort erected by this great nation, when occupying this part of Britain. The fort is known by the people of the vicinity as “Ring Stones Camp.” The walls, at least as much as is left of them, are about a foot high from the interior surface. Outside the Vallum is a foss or ditch. It is deep in some portions, and filled up in others. It seems to be of the true V shape by the inclinator of the sides. The walls appear as strong as when the soldier mason laid stone upon stone and spread the strong concrete that has hardened till it rivals the stone in durability. At one of the sides, there is an opening where stood the Decuman gate. On the side facing it is another opening. This is the Proetorian gate, so called as being near where the Praetor fixed his quarters. In the centre of the enclosure are great inequalities of ground which, if carefully examined, will perhaps exhibit some of the arrangements of the encampment or fort.’
Ring Stones camp is located near a certain Swinden Resevoir, whose name clearly contains the ‘wendune’ semantics. It has been dated to the Fourth century on account of its great physical similarity – especially an identical gateway – with ‘Bomber Camp,’ sited by a Roman road near Gisburn, where a collection of early to mid Fourth Century pottery was unearthed. Just to the north of Swinden reservoir, at Twist Hill, there also stands another Roman-British farmstead, 44m by 40m. A bronze coin of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) was reportedly found here in 1888, which is much earlier than Patrick, but shows an even earlier settlement of the area.
It is at this point that I will add a wee drop of speculation into my theory, I always enjoy finishing thusly, for the close connection between the camps at Gisburn & Roggerham may be in fact down to an actual human familial relationship. Where the Hymn of Fiacc tell us Patrick was; ‘Grandson of Deochain Odissus,’ a few miles to the west of Gisburn, in the delightful Forest of Bowland, we may see a River Dunsop – possibly connected to the ‘Sorbs’ – flowing into the River Hodder, which might just have been named after Odissus. Then again, Twist Castle also has a ring of his name, through 1600 years of corruption the original phonetics could be seen as remaining yet.
To summarise, a large Romano-British farmstead building was erected at Roggerham in the 4th century which fits the country estate image given by Patrick’s ‘villula.’ Roggerham lies near Burnley, which matches the Burniae element of Patrick’s boyhood home. Burnley seems to have been the site of the Battle of Brunanburh, also named Wendune, which translates perfectly as Patrick’s ‘Banna Venta.’ The only speculative thought is Burnley’s identification as Brunanburh – but if the battle was fought near that bonnie Lancashire town, then its clearly a case of killing two birds of mystery with one scholarly stone – & a few archaic words.
Edinburgh’s Lighthouse Radical Bookshop
Bedtime Stories, as befits the title of the show, took place in the relaxed atmosphere of a cosy nook of one of the most delightfully well-stocked bookshops you can find in these parts. It was hard not to get distracted by the many exciting book spines jostling for your attention. But pay attention we must, because real-live stories were being read to us, possibly for the first time in years. All we needed do was to stare, politely or perhaps gormlessly, or even close our eyes as we allowed ourselves to drift along to Niall Moorjani’s quirky, modern fairytales. Niall, originally from Dundee, has been a tour guide in Scotland for many years, and it showed in his confident and friendly delivery. The structure of the show took the form of a father telling bedtime stories to his son, a form of a classic storytelling device that allowed him to weave all of the stories together into a coherent whole. The entire experience was enhanced by the gentle, soporific sounds of the harp and the guitar, played by Ruth Brown and Anna Marta Sversberga respectively. Niall’s presence was engaging and his flow was flawless, as he guided us through some original fairy tale landscapes. He paused for just one natural intermission while we enjoyed a song from Anna, who accompanied her soothing voice with her guitar.
The stories are not particularly aimed at children, and there weren’t any families in the audience that evening, but none of the stories really verge into territory that’s inappropriate for wee ones. Niall regaled us with stories of lovers, witches and giants; the kind of characters and situations that we all know and love from childhood, but certainly with a modern twist. The Girl and the Dragon centres around our young heroine Elspeth, the only girl in a family of five brothers, on her way to an unexpected victory. With the story’s repeated exhortation to ‘never to apologise for tears’ we can begin to consider a more rounded idea of courage. The theme of a kind, conscious warrior came through in The Tale of the Man Who No one Could Remember, remembering the kindnesses which are rarely marked or celebrated in our society. The story of Bessie the cow was very funny, a tale which grew organically from his journeys up north as a tour guide. He’d become intrigued by a painting on a wall of a building of a cow with only 3 legs, and was determined to find out what on earth it was all about. One day he tracked down the local farmer to get him to spill the beans and give him the back story. The farmer in his thick rural accent did indeed spill the beans, and led us to the predictable but uncomfortable punchline that had everyone laughing.
The stories themselves are not particularly sophisticated or nuanced, but the traditional structure and rhythm of stories helps to make the experience soothing and comforting, as it reminds you of early childhood and having the time to indulge your imagination. This old-fashioned, simple entertainment gave some calm relief from the razzamatazz and the hustle of the festival that was still going on right outside the bookshop. With girl warriors, vegetarian dragons, and queer love stories, Niall is trying to create modern stories that can fire the imaginations of a wide range of people and the bookshop is an obvious venue for the kind of thoughtful, gentle people who would appreciate these kinds of stories. The crowd did seem particularly sweet natured, which you would hope and expect for a show of this nature. The audience is likely a homogenous and insular tribe in its own way, like a typical Brighton crowd of a couple of decades ago. However, all shows have their niche, Bedtime Stories has been consistently packed out, and Brighton was always ahead of its time. Let us welcome another necessary strand of the progressive frontier, and look forward to more stories from Niall in the future.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Charlotte Sq. 23rd August 2018
After three events where the emphasis was on performance – I’ve seen four poets and two storytellers so far at the Book Festival – it almost felt strange to be in the Baillie Gifford for an hour’s chat. The main result of that strangeness, however, is that the event-goer is more aware that there is a book to promote. And what a book! I’m not a great fan of graphic novels. I own two, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta because I like its anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist stance, and Mark Russell’s The Flintstones because I appreciate its satire. I might soon own three. So let’s talk about the book first, and then the event itself.
If any of you are familiar with Dix’s artwork – it’s difficult to call it cartooning – you’ll be used to seeing the human condition portrayed in all its venality, every vice expressed by a distortion of the features, but that distortion conveyed in lessening of features rather than complexity. A mouth becomes a slit, eyes become sullen and narrow, noses extend like Pinocchio’s after a hard day’s mendacity. Yet somehow he manages to convey three-dimensional depth, so if he needs to be complex, if, say, he needs to have someone wrapped in the coils of a dragon, he can startle the viewer by suddenly toggling complexity. Google him and you’ll miss by a mile, you’ll come up with German expressionist Otto Dix… but hang on a mo, it’s not as though there aren’t actually some similarities there, there is indeed something profoundly expressionistic about his work. Google “GRIMREALITY” to get an idea of his… er… normal fare. The cover of the book being promoted today, Dull Margaret, pares down his style. The lank-haired, Gollum-like protagonist stares sullenly at you, her face grey, her hair darker grey, the background a different grey. A peek inside at the flat, wet landscape she inhabits, and suddenly we’re out of Otto-Dix-Land and into somewhere more akin to the set of Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba.
The filmic reference is appropriate. For frame after frame there is little in the way of dialogue, or even monologue, and no commentary or descriptive text. Everything is conveyed as atmosphere. The book was, after all, originally conceived by Jim Broadbent as a movie script. Listening to Jim reading out the opening paragraph of the script, describing the waterlogged landscape and the emergence of Dull Margaret herself, naked from under the ooze, dragging eels traps after her, it is easy to understand the word-barren, frame-after-frame presentation. A friend of Dix’s has created a forty-three second animated realisation of that opening sequence, and it is perfect. The whole thing must be realised; the clip got its own round of applause from the Baillie Gifford audience.
Jim Broadbent got the idea for the story whilst contemplating Bruegel’s painting Dulle Griet (‘Mad Meg’), and not having any “interesting acting” going on he set about writing a script. As the script progressed, the protagonist became less and less like the strange, strong woman striding sword-in-hand past the gates of Hell. She became a sorry wight, and her tale became a fairy story, it’s Grimm (in fact it’s bloody grimm!), it’s Andersenesque, or as Jim would have it “a cross between Victoria Wood and Hammer Horror.” It’s a moral tale, about the illusion of having one’s wishes granted, and about a diet of eels. It’s setting is a cross between a wasteland and Jim’s beloved Lincolnshire Marshes.
I’ve never heard Jim Broadbent referred to as a National Treasure, but he is one. He’s a deeply serious person, but as an actor has given us some achingly funny performances. Teamed with Miriam Margoles, she as a medieval Spanish Infanta and he as her interpreter in Blackadder, he managed to get laughs in total blackout; teamed with Miriam again in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol he was a hilarious Prince Albert to her Queen Victoria. He has been in the Harry Potter canon, he has been in Cloud Atlas, he has been half of the National Theatre of Brent, he has been in just about everything that required a character actor if his calibre. I first saw him on stage in Ken Campbell’s production of Neil Oram’s marathon play The Warp, at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 1981. Outside the Fringe he has never seriously played a female role, so it is hardly surprising (well, is it?) that he wrote the title role of Dull Margaret for himself. Persuading a production company to take it on, however, didn’t happen – “Partly because I wanted to play the leading lady, and partly because it fitted no known genre!” – and by some arcane process Jim eventually found himself in contact with Dix and turning it all into a graphic novel.
And that’s where this Book Festival event really comes in. Daniel Hahn was in the chair, though what chair was the subject of a moment or two of faux bickering between him, Jim, and Dix. Daniel, himself a writer and translator, is a frequent presence at the Book Festival, and knows how to conduct a three-hand interview/discussion; but even he was unprepared for the sudden kettledrumming of the monsoon that struck the roof of the BG tent. A quick recovery – everyone on stage got a hand-mic. Well, actually Dix and Jim shared one, but what the hey! The book, said Daniel, is “extraordinary and beautiful and strange.” As I said, Jim is a deeply serious person, so this wasn’t an event full of guffaws. It was, however, full of gentle laughter – both Jim and Dix know what is actually funny in life, and what has been incongruously funny in the production of this extraordinary and beautiful and strange book. “I love her,” says Jim of his gauche, gaunt, venal creation. “Jim loves Margaret,” says Dix, “but I like the old man who says nothing, and adores her, and gets beaten regularly, and adores her even more after the beatings!” They discussed the eels, the starving dog that turns up later as a bloated corpse, the Faustian bargain that Dull Margaret strikes to escape the tedium and poverty and drenching of her life, the leeching of colour that allows a sudden gold or blood-red to leap out at the reader’s eye.
Working from the full script, Dix said, was a matter of saying to himself, of the various scenes, “That’ll work over two pages… that’ll work over four pages…” and so on. Thus the finished work grew. He had several attempts at the protagonist. “This was really exciting,” said Jim, “because Dix works in the early hours of the morning, so I’d get up and open my computer, and these images would have arrived overnight.” The first realisation was too plump-bodied for someone who existed solely on a diet of eels; the second was too neurotic, just not dull enough; the next was too fragile, she needed to be stronger to survive Margaret’s harsh lifestyle, and so on. “We didn’t want her to look like me,” said Jim, “even though when I was pushing the film script I said that part of her tragedy was that she looks like me.”
I often say that an hour is not enough for one of these events. Strangely, for all the fascination on offer, it was about right for Jim and Dix. Neither is verbose. As a result, there was time for a leisurely, quarter-hour Q and A session before we all trundled next door for the book signing, by which time we knew all we needed to know about how the book was conceived and realised. Pitched spot on, I’d say. And I think I’ll ask for Dull Margaret in my Christmas box. Enough said.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre. 3.15, Tues. 21st August 2018
I have encountered a major problem with the Book Festival – I have run out of superlatives. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been to a bum event yet. This year I’ve seen the Poet Laureate AND the Makar, and poetry-wise it doesn’t get much better than that. So I’m at a loss as to how to make this review different. I could try to write it in Scots of course – I ken wir ain leid weel eneuch – or at least code-switch between Scots and review-ese the way Jackie does between Scots and a more standard English.*
This event took place in the main theatre and it was packed, as you would expect for such a consistently popular figure at the Festival. The format was simple: after a few opening remarks from journalist and broadcaster Ruth Wishart, Jackie read poems from her new book Bantam, after which Ruth conducted a brief interview, moderated some questions from the body o’ the kirk, and the event finished with a couple more poems. All standard fare. “There’s a public health warning involved here,” quipped Ruth, “listening to Jackie read her own poetry can seriously damage your tear ducts.” Aye, well, maybe, but mainly from tears of laughter, and gentle ones at that, but nothing more. Jackie may have “one of the most infectious giggles in the business” (another of Ruth’s quips), but what really marks her poetry is its accessibility. That, let’s face it, is what the job of Makar is all about. The poetry is never facile, it can rhyme and it can rhythm with the best of them, but it never becomes a jingle of doggerel or a cut-up grocery list of prose. And it can make us chuckle, chuckle with recognition as a childhood memory or the pen-portrait of a parent or grandparent chimes or parallels one of our own, and does so without losing the signature of Jackie herself. I mean – who else could make us smile by re-telling the story of an eleven-year-old experiencing her first period whilst on a family holiday in Avielochan?
Jackie’s poetry is so direct, so clear, so personal, that she has to remind us that it’s dangerous to assume that every poem is autobiographical. As most poets do, Jackie constructs a ‘voice’ for each poem; many may be a version of her own, but some are not. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, I know we’re savvy to this truth of poetry-making, but if Jackie feels it worth reinforcing, then I’m with her. Her speaking voice, her delivery, is another matter; a major part of her directness, her ability to connect with an audience, has to do with its liquid, modulated treble, its inflections, its rise and fall. Sometimes she teases, almost like a stand-up comic, but without a comic’s abrasiveness, and it’s not us but herself she’s teasing: “… a packed tent… on a weekday afternoon… did you not have anywhere better to go?” And sometimes it is us: “… there’s a lot of old Scots words in this poem that some people might not understand… but that’s life.” The Scots words, the holiday locations of Ardtornish, Avielochan, and Rannoch Moor – no, we had no trouble with any of that.
Some of Jackie’s material today was on politically safe ground. A poem with an anti-Brexit flavour to it, poking fun at Nigel Farage, works well in overwhelmingly pro-Remain Écosse – yes, this dichotomy with Brexitshire is still hanging around up here – after all, she does not have to pander to anyone else in Britain, her manor is north of the Tweed-Solway line, even though she now actually lives south of it. Part of the discussion between Ruth and Jackie touched on a statement by Ali Smith (who was in the audience) to the effect that all art is political. “I think if you say something’s not political,” said Jackie, “it then becomes political… the act of doing something non-political is political,” freely admitting that this was a conundrum. There is a difference between ‘political’ and ‘polemical’, and it’s safe to say that Jackie’s material is not the latter. This is, of course, despite the lifelong communist radicalism of her Glaswegian adoptive mother and father – Ruth queried whether, to a child, the role of a ‘Party Organiser’ must have sounded like a grand job, a matter of blowing up balloons and putting sausages on little sticks. Jackie’s parents are now quite elderly, and she treated us to an impersonation of her father asking how long her term in office was and, when being told it was five years, saying briskly, “Oh well, we’ll just have tae see oot yer term in office, then!”
There was only one awkward moment in during the event, which came when a questioner referred to the audience, and to poetry’s usual comsumer-base, as ‘middle-class’. Several people reacted to that, and Jackie herself reminded the questioner that it was her task as Makar to contact and connect with all kinds of people within Scotland, irrespective of class. The questioner was made to feel a wee bittie abashed, and that left me sitting there contemplating the fact that I too had often (but silently) made the same observation about my fellow Book-Festival-goers. I think we are, by and large, of that particular social bracket, but for some reason we don’t like to be reminded of the word ‘class’.
Anyway, as regards hearing from Jackie, chuckling with her, and listening to some of those familiarly friendly poems from Bantam, the hour passed by in a blink, and I could have done with another hour. Like I said, I’ve put in an order for a fresh supply of superlatives.
*Don’t get me started on the status of Scots, or we’ll be here for the next month.
Afua Hirsch opened her talk by reading her new essay in the Freedom Papers, a series of 50 essays commissioned by the Book Festival on the theme of freedom and published as a supplement to the 18th issue of Gutter Magazine. Reading it to a background beat gave it a taste of spoken word dub poetry. Her personal story outlined in her Freedom Paper essay is a distillation of the ideas in her book Brit(ish), which gave us a useful overview of the issues to be debated. Journalist and author Chita Ramaswamy was a calm, measured and insightful chair and the conversation naturally flowed. Hirsch’s talk, quoting from author Toni Morrison that the ‘personal is the political’ invited us to see the connection in the struggle to understand and construct a clear identity as a mixed-race British woman with the need to debate and understand the ramifications of Britain’s history as an imperial power.
She began by deconstructing a common but well-meaning phrase from white friends and associates, the supposedly reassuring “We don’t see you as Black.” Attempting to pinpoint the source of discomfort embedded within such a comment highlights that Blackness itself is associated in our mainstream narrative with poverty, criminality and backwardness. As issues of identity are key to political movements such as Brexit, she underscored the link between the current rise in fascism and a sense of threat to constructed white identities that are based on falsehoods. The infamous Enoch Powell, famous for his incendiary ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, could speak Urdu and longed for lost imperial grandeur, and she used this as a prime example of how imperial nostalgia can feed directly into racism. Powell’s musings that someone of West Indian or Asian heritage will always be viewed as ‘Other’ in a majority-white country is something that is sadly all too common today.
Both Ramaswamy and Hirsch agreed that the freedom to choose British identity is a fragile one; subject to the political whims of the ruling elite and the groundswell of feeling in the country as a whole. Although the extreme violence and hostility that previous generations of Black and Asian immigrants had to suffer has eased, institutional racism hasn’t gone away. Hirsch postulated that the new battleground is in the freedom to self-identify, particularly for those who can’t easily fit into a rigid category. Ramaswamy said that she greatly appreciated Brit(ish) for clearly articulating such common experiences for people of racialised and complex identities in Britain. Hirsch is pleased to see that space is finally opening up for discourse on these matters in Britain, but it’s certainly not an easy ride. She shared anecdotes of being invited to speak on The Pledge on Sky News, and attempting to avoid debating race when pitted against hostile white and right-wing commentators determined to invalidate her experiences of racism in Britain. She spoke of the exhaustion in continually fighting for one’s experience of racism to even be recognised as a legitimate reality. She shared the great effort involved in channelling the emotion that’s continually provoked by recalling disturbing experiences into the resources necessary to make points in a more cerebral way. Chita agreed that as a fellow journalist and middle-class British woman of colour, one is often accused of playing the victim and expected to remain silent when meeting a lack of empathy over the impact of continual racist slights.
Hirsch has been very courageous in exposing her personal story to potential attack by narrow minded members of the old white elite clinging to an outdated narrative. Some feathers are bound to be ruffled by exposing the hypocrisy of situations where British citizens, even those born here, are often made to feel like they don’t belong in a place they consider home. Although surprised but comforted by the overwhelmingly positive reception by readers, she’s observed two types of negative trends in the reactions to the book by pundits. Firstly, contempt, exemplified in a scathing review of her book by a Times journalist, strongly implying that she was attacking the country of her birth and upbringing. She wryly commented that at least a review of this nature removed the last shred of doubt that these archaic viewpoints are still very much in our midst. The other was gratitude, or more specifically, annoyance at the supposed lack of gratitude by British-born and bred second-generation immigrants to the county where they have been ‘allowed’ to live by a tolerant, benevolent majority. The outraged reaction to the Windrush scandal across the spectrum was bolstered by stories of “good immigrants”; because post-war Caribbean immigrants and their families had earned their right to stay with hard work and positive contributions, rather than the simple fact that people arriving in Britain at that time were not only invited here by the British government, but already legally classified as British citizens.
She spoke of her personal family history, which is outlined in depth in the book, and how grateful, in fact, her Ghanaian grandfather was to have the opportunity to go to Cambridge and raise the bar for the perception of African people at that time. There was no luxury of failure! She spoke of a strange coincidence when investigating local history; discovering that the windmill close to her childhood home in Wimbledon was where Baden-Powell wrote his Scouting Bible. The irony of this lies in the fact that he aided in the destruction of Kumasi in Ghana that turned some of her own family members into refugees. Even those handy survival tips he’s famous for he had learned directly from Ghanaian forest guides. A prime example that demonstrates that history framed as simply local in a country with such a huge imperial footprint will have often have complicated global connections.
This should be of interest to all, and be fully part of our education system. Yet Afua has been in the centre of the complex controversies developing around the issue of statues and what they represent. National heroes such as Nelson and Churchill are generally remembered in a one-dimensional way, as she developed in depth in her recent documentary ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes’. The mention of their more unsavoury attitudes and acts creates severe cognitive dissonance in those who cling to false binaries. She quoted a figure of 70% of British GDP coming from sugar grown on slave plantations in the Caribbean, but without the time to delve into the complexities of the effects of colonialism on our relative national economies, that statistic had nothing to ground it. At least that tidbit may have at least given some audience members some necessary food for thought. As Hirsch had mentioned, some conservative forces wish for History at school to be a celebratory subject. However, if we decided as a nation not to gloss over or omit the more difficult issues, we would do well to also celebrate those who fought for freedom from all forms of oppression.
This discussion, chaired by journalist and author Afua Hirsch, was between two writers of speculative fiction focusing on exploring the kinds of societies that can be envisaged by the genre. Prayaag Akbar was born in Calcutta in 1982, and has degrees in Economics from Dartmouth College and Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. Known for his commentary on marginalisation in India, he discussed his debut novel, Leila. Karen Lord, a speculative fiction writer with a multifaceted background as a physicist, diplomat and soldier, was born in Barbados in 1968. With a Science degree from Toronto, a Masters in Science and Technology Policy from Strathclyde, and PhD in Sociology of Religion from Bangor, Lord is the author of several books, including the award-winning Redemption in Indigo. She discussed her second novel, Best of All Possible Worlds, published in 2014.
Akbar read an excerpt from Leila in the voice of mother Shalini, reflecting on the moment when a sinister mob kidnapped their three year old daughter, and imagining what she might be like now, sixteen years later. As we shared in the poignant memory of her little girl, we could easily imagine her innocent face as ‘he pinched her cheek between his hairy knuckles’. His book is set in a fictional Indian city based on both Bombay and Delhi, exploring the many societal divisions within cities that result from caste, class and religion. Leila is set in a so-called dystopian ‘near future’, but many of the horrors foretold within it, as the author stressed, are already coming to pass. Best of all Possible Worlds takes place in the distant future on planet Cygnus Beta, filled with refugees from various disasters, and explores issues of what makes a successful multicultural society. The Sadiri people have been running from genocide and are now desperate to preserve their culture. We were treated to tantalising glimpses of dialogue and metaphors from the book, such as “All Sadiri may be considered family”, and “all my knowledge of him was newly minted.”
Lord explained some of her complex process of invention, including the influences from experiences in the many places she’s visited and would still like to visit, such as the forests of Guyana, Australia’s Sydney, and the island of Malta. As the reader is taken on a ‘road-trip’ of the planet, New Zealand’s magical landscapes, known to her and many other outsiders from the Lord of the Rings movies, also make an appearance. She draws much from her own socio-economic research, so much so that one reviewer sniped that it was a story of ‘bureaucrats in love’. Many a sideways swipe at Barbadians from other Caribbean people are based on this ‘Little England’ stereotype, but seeing government through romantic eyes is a refreshing one, however you look at it. Hirsch wryly made the point that even the idea of government as competent and positive is unusual.
Hirsch heralded Best as an optimistic and positive book, with its celebration of successful multiculturalism and peace contrasting with the inverted message of Leila, which faces up squarely to the terrifying challenges currently presenting themselves on the Indian sub-continent. Akbar, as an Indian Muslim, has personally experienced an increasing level of discomfort when making everyday choices like choosing where to live. Protagonist Shalini is a Hindu married to a Muslim, a situation that reflects modern tensions and often fatal interventions in interfaith-unions. Lord laughed as she hoped that she wasn’t being overly optimistic, but explained that the present reality of the multi-cultural Caribbean is very much reflected in Cygnus Beta. Despite some difficulties, distinct groups of people can be absorbed as part of a larger community while simultaneously holding on to aspects from where they originated, with the idea that group identity is both natural and positive.
Hirsch was the perfect chair, as a journalist, author and TV personality who is currently at the heart of British debate around questions of identity and politics. The opportunity to draw in voices on this topic from outside the UK underscored the global and highly pressing nature of these issues. In his novel, Akbar takes square aim at the historical inequalities of India as expressed through the caste system, but also notes the class divisions, social exclusion and invisibility rampant within the U.K. The reality came as a shock to him when living in a poor area just outside Oxford, and only after his lack of middle-class, academic visitors, realised it was an area that no don would fear to tread. The walls in the city of his book are there to divide those from different castes from each other, which is a potent symbol for the hardening of social divisions worldwide.
The contrast between the pairing was useful, but also the parallels. Both authors agreed that embracing a multifaceted identity obfuscates those who, often including UK publishers, demand that people and things should fit into just one convenient category. Lord explained that the categorisation of genres for marketing purposes has thrown up a conundrum for Caribbean speculative fiction, and in a region where folklore is embedded into the culture, rigid categorisation can be both unrealistic and a limitation. Her own work has proved accessible to the mainstream, yet careful reading would uncover the multi-layered narrative that make it, as she said with a despairing sigh, “more than just a love story”.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Spiegeltent, Charlotte Sq.
This was an event that Festival Director Nick Barley cared about enough to introduce and chair himself, which is, let’s face it, quite some recommendation. Nick told us about having seen these storytellers in Nigeria, and having been amazed by the reactions of the audience to one of Mara’s stories. He challenged us to outdo that audience in clapping, jumping out of our seats, shouting, and generally making an all-out whoop-de-doo. I’ll admit I cringed, I wanted to say “Nick, we’re Scots, we show our appreciation by rapt attention at best, and not throwing chairs at worst. That is unless we’ve aready had a wee swallae, ken.” This was the middle of the day, we were mainly middle-aged, mainly middle-class, and mainly sober. But, I have to admit, we did unlace our stays a wee bit. Hard not to, under the circumstances.
The Spiegeltent is not an easy venue. It is right next to the busiest of the roads that surround Charlotte Square Gardens, it is subject to the roar of traffic and, this afternoon, to the intermittent blare of emergency service sirens. Someone taking to the stage here has to be able to dazzle under pretty difficult circumstances. Neither Maimouna Jallow nor Mara Menzies had any difficulty dominating the stage, by appearing in personae. This was where a difficulty arose for me, with the question: can the ‘larger-than-life African woman’ now be taken as a stereotype? I suppose there is a danger of that. I felt that a way to plane the rough edges off that would have been if Maimouna and Mara could have operated from among us – as though we were a company around a fireside, or at a ceilidh in the traditional sense of the word, where people visit each other’s homes for the craic – rather than from the stage. Can this be done at the Book Festival? It’s certainly something to bear in mind. I would have felt a much greater connection with them, much less as though my bum was cemented to my chair and I was obliged to be a well-behaved audience member, no matter what Nick Barley said.
This whole entertainer/audience binary made me very much aware of cultural issues too. Neither Maimouna nor Mara was untouched by them either. The Festival blurb lists them as both being Kenyan; the ‘Biography’ section of Mara’s own web site lists her only as “one of Scotland’s best loved performance storytellers,” and Maimouna, though based in Nairobi, has Wolof and Spanish heritage, and both are aware that there is an extent to which they are showcasing traditional material from a step away from themselves. In an sense, they are collectors rather in the vein of Cecil Sharp, you could say. I was also aware of ‘liberal triggers’ in the material – why shouldn’t a woman inherit a house? if sex is unavoidable, why shouldn’t a woman use it as a kind of weapon? – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in the audience.
But hey! What I really wanted to do was take my Postcolonial Studies hat off, give my cultural awareness a jubilee, forget about stereotypes, gender politics and such, and just kick back and enjoy being told stories. Was that a starter today? Well, yes. In skip-loads, actually. That should tell you how good these two women are. Both left me wanting more. If you should get the opportunity to see Maimouna’s stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s novel The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi’s Wives, then do so. Keep your eyes peeled for Mara too – as she is based in Edinburgh that shouldn’t be too difficult. I’ll not say anything more about the content of their material, but rather I’ll leave it as a very pleasant surprise for you when you get to experience it for yourselves.
I would like to thank both storytellers sincerely, and to add a special, extra thank you. They had missed their photo call back in the media area, so after the event I asked Nick Barley if I could have a mini photo-call of my own. He said yes, and both Maimouna and Mara graciously agreed too. As a result, I managed to get the exclusive shots that accompany this review. Off-the-scale privilege.