Alan Cumming the hottest ticket at final Book Festival weekend

Alan Cumming and his dog Lala take to the Charlotte Square stage. Picture: Getty
Alan Cumming and his dog Lala take to the Charlotte Square stage. Picture: Getty
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‘It’s Saturday night on Broadway,” sings the packed audience in the Main Tent, knowing full well that it’s not but ­happily pretending to because a) Alan ­Cumming asked them to; b) he’s already got them eating out of his hand; c) he’s filming them on his smartphone; and d) how many literate, sassy, sparky, charming, honest and mildly debauched, internationally famous Scottish actors are there anyway?

It was the hottest ticket of the ­weekend, the book festival’s fastest-selling event, and from the moment Cumming came on stage carrying his dog Lala, it wasn’t hard to see why. If anyone else appeared beneath a screen showing what was largely a succession of selfies, it might strike us as, well, a tad solipsistic.

But Cumming gets away with it. Why? Because even if we wanted to be camp, charismatic, Caledonian ­chameleons, we’d all fail the ­audition. He’s wouldn’t and hasn’t. And in ­fairness, he was here to talk about his book of photos, You Gotta Have ­Bigger Dreams.

He got the title from (who else?) Oprah. It’s what she said when his friend told her that if he got a picture with her, it would be a dream come true. “You’ve got to hand it to her. It’s a really wise thing to say. Even when she’s caught off-guard and pissed off, she’s still a guru.”

He likes taking photos and always has, ever since he won a black ­plastic Kodak in a church tombola near Carnoustie when he was ten. He was outside cutting the grass when a man came to deliver it. “Do you know an Alan Cumming?” the man said. “I was so nervous, I replied: ‘I am he!’”, Bless.

The eyes twinkle, the grin spreads. He talks about the early days: the night not a single person came to his show on the Fringe at the Harry Younger Hall, when he walked back to his crummy digs and saw his face on a sodden flyer on the street with someone’s footprint over it. He’s served his apprenticeship far from even the foothills of fame, so when he namedrops Liza and Gore, we cut him a whole length of slack.

He’s a bright guy. Just when you’re thinking he’s predictable about Trump (he voted Bernie, obviously), he admits that the reason Trump connects with people is because he seems authentic. And Cumming has noticed that, when he himself talks honestly about his feelings to people – even rednecks in red states, “if you say what you feel , people respect you.” He used to think that acting was all about successfully covering up, putting on masks; now he realises it’s the ­opposite, and everything is about connecting. Hence his tattoo (‘only connect’. Hence his memoir, Not My Father’s Son, about his ­violent upbringing at the hands of his father. “The reaction to that has been incredible ... It’s made me think maybe I’m on the right path.” He’s not tiring either. Or maybe he is, a small bit. “I’m 51. I might go home at 3am instead of 4.30.”

Melvyn Bragg, noble lord and Schoolmaster to the Nation, is 76 but could easily pass for 51 (trust me, even close up) and was in the Main Tent in the morning to talk about the ­Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the subject of his historical novel Now Is The Time. The rebellion was, he said, “an orphan of history”, written up, as history always is, by the victors and therefore completely downplayed. Yet, instead of being a little local difficulty, it was the biggest insurrection in English history, in which apparently impregnable castles like Rochester and the White Tower (“after Constantinople the most fortified in Europe”) fell to the rebels who came within a whisker of success.

Asked if it held any lessons for today, Bragg was cautiously apocalyptic. Cautiously, because he had spent a full ten minutes outlining the extent to which the medieval mind was ­circumscribed by religion and how the rebellion took place in the wake of the Black Death (47 per cent of ­London’s population wiped out in a single year: imagine). But apocalyptically, because its main lesson was how quickly insurrection spreads when conditions are ripe, when a ­simple request for foraging and fishing rights turns into a nothing less than demands for a complete social revolution. Could that ­happen now? Well, he mused, imagine a world where people were replaced by machines and started wondering how their own poor lives could be ­better… 

No one, as Sibelius once said, has ever erected a statue to a critic, and perhaps there’s never been an event about literary criticism in Charlotte Square for the same reason. But ­anyone who feared The Death of the Critic event would be an hour-long self-regarding whinge about the paucity of serious literary criticism in newspapers would have been ­pleasantly surprised.

True enough, said Jim Naughtie, arts journalists in both London and Scotland despair at the way in which critical coverage of the arts is regarded as an “add-on” rather than an ­integral part of newspapers while TV and social media offers little more than either regurgitated press releases and “a street brawl in words”. But intelligent questions from the ­audience took the discussion into genuinely interesting territory.

Wasn’t the real problem, asked one, the collapse of trust? Perhaps it was, agreed novelist and literary editor Rosemary Goring, seeing a possible parallel in the suspicion of experts which Michael Gove had voiced in the Brexit debate. Or, asked Naughtie, did it reflect a suspicion of the idea of quality itself?

That in turn, added novelist and academic Dan Gunn, mirrored the “terror of evaluation” now entering academia, especially in America –where undergraduates have been known to successfully oppose the teaching of Plato on the grounds that “those guys had slaves” while ­academics lecturing in – say – slasher movies see their career prospects ­blossom. There were at least two reasons this wasn’t entirely the pessimistic event one may have feared. First, there was the fact that it was happening at all and that book festivals are a demonstrably important way in which literary culture is flourishing. Second, the event itself saw the announcement of the Emerging ­Critics training programme run by Creative Scotland and the Scottish Review of Books to provide professional mentoring for would-be literary critics.

Against that, faced with such iniquities as Radio ­Scotland’s failure to engage with the country’s burgeoning literary culture (why, one wonders, when Naughtie’s own Book Club programme on Radio 4 can attract more than a million listeners), and the blatant untrustworthiness of so many reviews on Amazon, one could hardly be Polyanna-ish about things either.

Gunn made the case for “slow criticism” – patient, informed, attentive to the ­writer’s intentions – and how it could often be found in the work of translators and editors. The example he picked was Catharine Carver, often hailed as the best editor there has ever been for her work with writers such as Richard ­Ellman, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor and Leonard Cohen – even though few people will ever have heard of her because she never took any credit. As Gunn pointed out: “It’s a special skill to be able to take a fledgling text and improve it without adding ­anything of herself.”

Gunn, who has spent the last 25 years editing Samuel Beckett’s letters (the fourth and final volume has just been published)  is too modest to sing his own praises, so it was good that in a superb event on Friday night Irish writer Kevin Barry did it for him. Asked his favourite book, Barry picked Beckett’s ­letters: “No matter how bad you’re feeling, you can always count on Sam for feeling worse.”

Barry isn’t just the best reader of his own work I’ve heard this festival, but one of the best talkers about it too – engaging and unassuming when he’s clearly got plenty he could be assuming about. Getting inside the head of such an ­iconic, ­mercurial, intense figure as John ­Lennon – as he attempted in his latest novel, Beatlebone – clearly was no easy task, even for someone who’s spent three years in “the great Irish city of Liverpool”. What seemed a great idea at the start – imagining Lennon visiting the island he had bought off Co Mayo – only started to work when he introduced a mildly-demonic Irish chauffeur and the banter flowed.

Barry said he hoped his novel would “make readers feel as though I’d put their brains in a deep fat fryer”.  He added: “I want them to go into a dark place with Lennon and chuckle and afterwards say ‘What on earth was I laughing about, all that stuff about Kate Bush and black ­pudding? That can’t mean anything at all!’ ” On the basis of his reading, he ­succeeded spectacularly.

Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, delivering the Siobhan Dowd Trust Memorial Lecture, didn’t disappoint either. After a self-deprecating talk about his career as a ­cartoonist and illustrator, he concluded with a defence of libraries, citing Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s despair at visiting many schools which don’t have one.

“A book,” he said, “isn’t a learning resource. It’s the knife that picks the lock of your isolation.”