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.