Edinburgh International Book Festival
Scottish Power Foundation Studio
“Spoken Word performance can be a tool of dissent, it can give a voice to the dispossessed – and it’s not all ranting these days. Join Phill Jupitus as Porky the Poet, Elvis McGonagall, Hollie McNish and Hannah Silva as their deft rhetoric confronts, parodies and overturns issues of political, domestic and social injustice. Fun performance, clever words, serious intent.” (blurb on the Festival web site). Sometimes it’s a pity to have to review a one-off event and to publish that review in retrospect. How better it would be to be able to tell your friends “Go and see this!” I’m in that position as I write. I wish ‘Protest!’ was mid-run and you could all queue for returned tickets at the Box Office. As it was, the theatre was full for this one-off ‘shard’ (as Master of Ceremonies Luke Wright called it) of the Festival’s ‘Babble On’ series, and you couldn’t have got a return for love nor money.
We were launched into the stream of comic dissent by Phil Jupitus who, in the 1980s, quit a civil service job to become a poet, and who got gigs supporting bands “because I was cheaper than a support band”. Instantly there was a post-punk feel to the proceedings. To me this was a little odd, as though poetic dissent had started when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, as though John Cooper Clarke, Gil Scott-Heron, and Allen Ginsberg had been forgotten; or further back – the polemic verse of left-wing poets of the 1930s, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s political diatribes, Chaucer’s and Juvenal’s satire. Irony was never far away from Phil’s performance; praising the subversive nature of comics like The Beano and The Dandy, he led us in applause for D C Thomson, a newspaper publisher who (correct me if I am wrong) stubbornly maintained an anti-trades-union policy. Phil’s paean to The Beano had the kind of robust rhyme-and-metre scheme that lends a hobnail boot to humorous poetry. The audience couldn’t help laughing, in fact they couldn’t stop. Especially funny was his series of ten-line poems built up from the titles of Fringe shows (although I sincerely hope he decides to give ‘Sex with animals’ a miss this year!)
Phil provided what he and Luke referred to as the ‘glue’ between the other poets. Next up was Elvis McGonagall, and although this will irritate him no end, the comparison with John Cooper Clarke is inevitable. Substitute a Dundee accent for a Salford one, and you have the same facility for using rhyme, rhythm, and refrains. It’s tight, precise, and rapid-fire, with the likes of Margaret Thatcher (yes, she can provoke even from the other side of the veil) and Nigel Farage in his sights. There was a wonderful recitation of clichéd phrases in David Cameron’s voice, and, evoking Sir Harry Lauder, an address to Scottish voters who had not yet made up their mid about independence – ‘Stop your Swithering, Jock’!
There was an instantly obvious dichotomy between the male performers’ work and the females’. The latter’s humour was gentler, the seriousness ramped up. Hannah Silva instantly grabbed our attention by speaking a series of broken semi-syllables into her microphone. Operating a recording loop by foot-switch and varying the same vocal sounds in pitch and stress, she built up multi-tracked layers what can only be described as music, and suddenly over the top of that filled in all the missing semi-syllables to repeat and repeat Ed Milliband’s response to public sector strikes. Intricate, well thought-out, and damnably clever. I can say the same about her other pieces, one of which almost worked like a cumulative folk or children’s song where extra elements are added on at the end of each verse. Except there was nothing folksy, nothing juvenile in her gender politics, her direct expression about prostitution and the female underclass. What is difficult for me to describe is how this use of technology coupled with fragmentary speech built up atmosphere, evoked such a strong emotional response in me. Her repetition of the fact that forty percent of all soldiers fitted with a prosthesis return to war was particularly evocative in the hundredth year since the start of the Great War. Hollie McNish got her points across by words alone. She sustained her technical power right through each long poem without flagging. Again it was sexual politics that were foregrounded. She was able to address serious issues in a vernacular setting – the facility with which she and her elderly grandmother can converse about earthy subjects which are an embarrassment to the mother/daughter generation between them. Hollie presented us with a wonderful poem about what turns her on, starting with bricks, going through a whole lot of other things including the laughter when a fart interrupts foreplay, before returning to bricks. Probably her best poem of the session was the one she wrote when breast-feeding her baby in a toilet, whilst being confronted by a poster of a young woman in a bikini tacked to the back of the door.
I spoke to Hollie after the performance, and put it to her that although it was possible to be more outspoken, more vitriolic, more insulting in an overtly comic work of art – a poem or a cartoon, say – the very fact that it is comic tends to draw its venom, to make an audience take it less seriously. By contrast, someone who enthralls an audience the way that she and Hannah Silva do and puts across a serious point, albeit with distinct threads of humour, has a greater effect and is not so easily dismissed. Hollie was happy and relieved to hear my opinion, as she had feared that the laughter her male colleagues got was a sign of greater impact. Not so, I kid you not.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Scottish Power Foundation Studio
“In this age of globalisation, the English language has become increasingly dominant online and on the page. As an author writing in a different national or minority language how does this dominance affect your ability to tell your story and find an audience? Gaelic writer Martin MacIntyre and Arno Camenisch, who writes in Rhaeto-Romanic and German, join acclaimed translator Daniel Hahn to discuss.” (blurb on the Festival web site) It’s difficult to know how to review a discussion. One angle from which to look at it might be the structure and the way it was chaired. Considering that it was to last forty-five minutes with fifteen minutes for questions and answers at the end, and to include readings by two authors, on that account it was spot on, tight, and well presented. Much credit goes to the chairman, David Codling. Of course a lot also depends on the qualities of the members of the panel, so let me introduce them.
Arno Camenisch looks like a diminutive version of Simon Baker, right down to the disarming smile. He has stage presence, whether reading in his native Rhaeto-Romanic – a ‘minority language’ from southern Switzerland – or talking about his work. Despite, or maybe because of, his occasionally having to appeal to fellow panel-members for help with a word or phrase in English, he displayed a dry wit and an unconventional way of looking at things. “My choice of language depends on the weather,” he says. “If it is raining I write in Rhaeto-Romanic. If it is windy or sunny, German… I grew up in a polyphonous village. There were many languages… But television was king. We believed more in TV than god.” To Arno ‘the sound is the soul of the text’. Martin MacIntyre agreed, speaking of ‘music’ as being the key, and praising the sound of Arno’s reading. Martin was born in Glasgow to parents originally from South Uist, and learned Gaelic from them. His spoken Gaelic is precise and clear, and when he read from a recent novel we could hear that he was not simply bilingual but effectively trilingual, and the Gaelic was interrupted by both English and Glaswegian. Frankly, that was the first time I had ever heard a passage of Gaelic with the word ‘woggle’ in the middle of it! “What excites me about Gaelic is that everyone who reads it can also read English,” he said. “There’s a tension between the two.”
Both writers translate from their ‘minority’ language into a neighbouring ‘majority’ language – from Rhaeto-Romanic to German, and from Gaelic to English. Daniel Hahn, national programme director of the British Center for Literary Translation, said “Translation is never about the language, it is about languages. The relationship between languages… We use the big languages as a bridge for translation of minority languages. This is not an unproblematic relationship.” He highlighted this problematic characteristic by the example of a translation from Welsh to English of the words of an old man who spoke only Welsh and knew no English at all. During the question-and-answer session I had the opportunity to ask him to clarify this. I made the point that if I was reading, say, I Claudius, I suspended disbelief and simply accepted that I was reading the words of a native speaker of Latin who was writing to me in Greek; so how was a translation from Welsh to English any more problematical?
Daniel agreed, up to a point. “There’s a kind of sleight of hand going on when you read a translation,” he said. “We collude in that. We pretend we are reading it in the original language.” But then he made the very valid point that the relationship between Welsh and English, particularly in the context of the novel in question, is highly political, involving the identity of people where ‘to speak one is not to speak the other’. He further reinforced this when he mentioned a New Zealand writer who said that the problem was not that speakers of a majority language couldn’t ‘see’ the speakers of the minority language, but rather that they ‘couldn’t see themselves’. There is so much creativity in translation, not simply in how best to render a text literally, but how to find equivalent, analogous, or even vaguely similar concepts in two different cultures. “With modern Gaelic vocabulary, you are restricted in usage. It forces you to hone your prose in a different way,” said Martin MacIntyre. Such expressions sent us away from the event with much to think about.
Back when I was a Young New Romantic, ‘The Teardrop Explodes’ were one of my favourite bands. ‘Reward’ is still on my play list when I Dj, its such a funky feel good classic. As you will already know our hero of the evening has had a very successful career as a solo artist too, that has lasted nearly forty years. However, aside from his illustrious career as a recording and touring artist.Julian Cope is a Wizard and celebrated Shaman..
His first publication,The Modern Antiquarian it is a Wizard Classic, that details every stone circle and sacred site in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Mr Cope visited them all and photographed them personally. For novice wizards just beginning on the path of consciousness. The Modern Antiquarian is an essential tool. Because there is nothing else like it. When I found that I had the opportunity to attend Julian’s ‘appearance at “The Edinburgh Book Festival,” where he was to be giving a reading from his new book 131, I jumped at the chance. Julian is a Visionary on a mission to change the consciousness of the Planet. To show people a different way and to help them to heal. This is the centre of his work as an author. Fiction that has meaning and that has the potential to change the consciousness of the people that read it.
Mr Cope was a very enigmatic figure as he took the stage tonight, with the presence and the stage-craft of a true Master. Enchanting the capacity audience with the ease of an old Pro, which he undoubtedly is. It was Julian’s presence that was as transformational as it was Rock N Roll. The Book 131, is a time-travelling odyssey with characters and plot derived from his own experience both as a mystic and a Rock Legend. Bringing to life and immortalizing his own experiences in the captivating way that only a true Bard and Visionary can. We discovered that it all began with a bedtime story that he would create for his daughter… so its foundations are built on humour and unconditional love. With only an hour to address his audience. Julian Cope introduced us to his world as a professional Wizard and caring Dad. With more than enough source material For 132 and 134. Amazing stuff, reminiscent of the four noble truths.Could Mr Cope’s new book be an Antiquarian guide book for life?
Although a fan of his recorded work myself. It was the Shaman and the Author that gripped me tonight. He explained his new book as a tool of transformation.I am salivating at the prospect of reading it. What a Lovely Rock N Roll Legend He Is and what a lovely way to spend an evening. “Ladies and.Gentlemen. Mr Julian Cope!”.
Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
2-4, 6-11, 13-18 20-24 Aug
A Hundred years ago this summer, the Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, & his beautiful wife Sophie, were shot by a Serbian nationalist on an obscure street corner in Sarejevo. Within a matter of weeks the whole world collapsed into a conflict which would eventually touch every nation on the planet. But who was the man whose death set off the whole thing, the target of the ‘shot which rang around the world.’ Sue Woolmans has had an interest such matter for the best part of three decades & with the help of Greg King has co-written a book that reveals the real Arch-Duke, a man very much for peace & for the development of a feudal Europe very much like the one we have today.
Woolmans cast a spell over the Charlotte Square audience with a wonderful half-hour talk, showing us the struggle that the Arch-Duke had in gaining acceptance for the love of his life, his wife Sophie. The Austrian court considered her a lesser-born – she was only a countess – & her journey into acceptance was, as chair Roy Cross said, something of a soap opera. The Q&As were vigorous, & Woolmans answered as if it was her specialist subject on master-mind. If the book is anything to go by her talk, then it should make a fascinating, & gripping read, with the shadows of the assassination ever approaching.
At home the day had started dreich, but by the time I arrived at the Edinburgh Book Festival the sun was out and I was in my shirt-sleeves, lugging my leather blouson around as another piece of impedimenta, along with my rucksack, iPad, camera, kitchen sink… What follows is little more than my impression of the day. I had no event to go to, so what I did instead was simply soak up the atmosphere. It’s what I do every year, but on this occasion I was here as a journalist, and had to set my senses a notch or two higher.
First stop is the Festival press centre. Tucked away in a corner, in what seems to be a kind of triple-yolker yurt, is where I find it. The folk there, once I’ve announced myself, quickly get a name-badge for me, tell me what I can and cannot do, and launch me. It’s a bustling wee place, and they are kept busy with phone calls, emails, and callers-in-person. Luckily I’m there early enough to help myself to a coffee and a croissant, and am able to find a quiet corner to sit down and start tweeting. One simply has to tweet. I’m here! I’m here! Tweeting is de rigeur. But here’s the thing: yes, I can see people with laptops and tablets in the press centre, and around and about the lawn, the outdoor tables, and the bookshop café there’s the occasional person tapping at an iPad or an iPhone; but most of the visitors are quite clearly people of ‘the book generation’. This is no reflection on the Festival, because after all it is about books, and there are books by the skip-load here, all in ‘hard copy’, all begging for an author’s autograph at one of the book-signing events. But if I look at the long queue for an event, stretching all the way round the covered, cloistered, tent-canvas-and-decking quadrangle, I am struck by that singular demographic. I may feel young and vigorous, I may immerse myself in my literary agency work and in being on The Mumble team, but – heck! – I’m past retirement age, and most of the folk queuing, well, I’m talkin’ about my generation, man, and somewhere along the years we quite clearly dropped the ‘Hope I die before I get old’ line from our song. We keep on coming, and we’ll keep on coming for a good while yet. Hurrah!
There’s a quiet but definite buzz in the queue. No matter what way Scotland’s referendum on independence goes, the queue here is always essentially British. Polite, patient, eager, but never jostling, it surrounds a much calmer area where people relax with a book, a magazine, a picnic, a conversation. As I scan the central area, I see heads down, attention held. Very few folk – if anyone at all – is actually doing what I’m doing, taking in the scene. One or two pass purposefully through, a book or a periodical under one arm. So I take photographs.
It’s perfectly acceptable to take ‘candid’ shots of scenes with people in them, without asking permission, but if I want to take a shot of a particular person, couple, or small group, it’s expected of me to ask them first, and I do. Most of my photos, however, are of large sweeps of the place, but might well be cropped for the sake of composition. Thus they might look as though I had been snapping a small group when in fact I hadn’t. The finished product always confirms this head-down, attention-held behavioural phenomenon. It’s fascinating.
It’s the same in the bookshop. All I seem to see is people’s backs. They’re engrossed in what’s on the shelves. Everyone, everywhere seems so single-minded. I walk round. The books themselves radiate newness, they are crisp, they are clean. Good grief – there’s even a ‘new’ collection by Charles Bukowski! If there any copies left on my next visit I’ll buy one. Memo to self: pack less clutter in the rucksack.
“Hey, man!” comes a call from several yards away. It’s Damo Bullen, who else! It wouldn’t be Edinburgh Festival season if I didn’t manage to meet up with this bloke. Readers of The Mumble don’t need me to introduce him. We grab some more free coffee at the press yurt, and for half an hour or so we have a loud and animated chinwag at a convenient table in a quiet corner. At least it was quiet until we got there. We lay plans for The Mumble excitedly, discussing future events – The Dundee Blues Bonanza, Perth’s Southern Fried Festival, Fringe comedy shows, gigs – before he has to dash off and meet folk at Waverley station, leaving me to spend some more time watching the absorbed folk and the insouciant seagull perched on the head of Prince Albert in the centre of the square.
This is a good day. Thank you Edinburgh Book Festival. The clouds even have the politeness to wait until I have left for the day before they intrude too far into the sky and introduce some spots of rain. Yes, a good day.
Sweet Venues – Grassmarket
This a most unusual piece indeed. For a start, Tim Honnef was not the guy sat at the desk when the audience walked into the room. Instead, a young, excitable blonde-haired German named Jonny Muller was sat ready to launch into the autobiographical narrative that Tim Honnef had left for him on a table. Apparently, a week previously Tim had approached Jonny in the street & asked him (& other erstwhile narrators) to read the script for him.
Tim’s effort at the fringe in 2012
So we are plunged into the romantically-neurotic world of Tim Honnef, a Dutch with an excellent command of the nuances of the English language, whose poetry is of a fine level & whose dramatic bent is of a top notch. I like the way the script is divided between personal musings, bits of poetry, & certain speeches given to the audience to read out. I’m not so sure about the randomess of his narrotor selection, however. Jonny Muller was likeable, but too fast, whose avalanche of words buried any chance my thought processes had of truly engaging with Hoffner’s script. THREE STARS.
Reviewer : Damo Bullen