Aye Write! Finding new ways to tell stories

Ben Okri's latest book tells the story of eight travellers on a journey in search of Arcadia. Picture: Rob McDougall

Ben Okri's latest book tells the story of eight travellers on a journey in search of Arcadia. Picture: Rob McDougall

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THERE are many ways to tell a story, and this Saturday, Glasgow book festival Aye Write was a day full of stories of all shapes and forms, from ribald anecdotes to world-shaping mythology.

Realisation: The Origins of Art, by Julian Spalding, is a small book which attempts to tell a big story: the story of 35,000 years of human civilisation and how it came to express itself in visual form. The event marked the return of Spalding to Glasgow, more than 15 years after resigning as director of Glasgow Museums. Since leaving the city, he has travelled the world looking at some of the earliest and most important examples of art.

He argues that these, whether the cave paintings at Lascaux or the Pyramids of Giza, are born out of “world pictures”, the deep, usually unspoken view each culture has of its world. His fascinating, rambling discourse took us through some of these pictures and how they have evolved, from prehistoric times through Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (done shortly after Columbus discovered America, proving conclusively that the world was round), and up to the present day, pointing out that Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Bilbao looks like a bubble bursting.

Ben Okri is another writer with an interest in different ways of looking at the world. His new novel, The Age of Magic, tells the story of eight people who travel from Paris to Switzerland in search of Arcadia, encountering their own demons on the way. He spoke of the importance of the role of the poet – as he increasingly sees himself – in getting under the surface of the age, exploring other ways of looking at reality.

For him, “reality” is far more than realism. In fact, he goes as far as to say that: “As writers we have done reality a great disservice by making it appear so simple.” Since his Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road, he has been investigating ways of capturing the other, stranger dimensions of life which linger on in myths, fairytales and dreams. While he does have an irritating habit of telling readers how his books should be read – this one must be read slowly – his thoughts on the business of writing are rarely less than fascinating.

How to tell your own story can be an equally tricky business. This is what confronted Glasgow stand-up comic Kevin Bridges when he was invited to write an autobiography (We Need To Talk About Kevin Bridges), prompting a degree of reflection and soul-bearing honesty.

How a lad from Clydebank, whose skills at mischief brought about his early departure from high school, walked on stage at an open mic night at The Stand and became an overnight success, is a story worth reading. Discovering stand-up was, for Bridges, a realisation that the thing that had got him into trouble was also the road to a bright future. He hasn’t given up mischief, he grins. Now he does it professionally.

Speaking about “The Books That Made Me”, Bridges discussed key moments in his own reading, from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (“It made reading cool”) and Nick Hornby’s football memoir Fever Pitch, to J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. All are books with strong voices, echoing his own facility with voices as a comic.

The laughter continued with comic and actor Omid Djalili, who has also recently written an autobiography, Hopeful. Djalili proved himself a master at a different kind of storytelling: how to take an anecdote and shape it into a side-splittingly funny story, whether a childhood fall into a cesspit, or being the butt of a joke involving Oliver Reed on the set of Gladiator.

He, too, reflected on what made him a comic, and the influence of growing up in the guest house run by his parents in the 1970s for Iranians visiting the UK for medical treatment. Even when his ambition to become a serious actor gave way to a career in “ethnic bit-parts”, his good humour and ability to laugh at himself fuelled his other career as a stand-up.

The day ended with two untold stories about “the oldest profession”. Helen Mathers’s book The Patron Saint of Prostitutes tells the story of Josephine Butler, a middle-class Victorian woman and early feminist who set out to help the prostitutes of her day, and ended up heading national campaigns to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act, and raise awareness of child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

Kirstin Innes’s first novel, Fishnet, is based on extensive research into the world of sex workers in Scotland today. Comparing her research to “Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole”, she admits that all her presumptions about the sex industry were overturned as she met those involved and heard their stories. She decided to write a novel, rather than a non-fiction book, in order to bring the reader closer to the material through the use of the first-person voice: another way of telling a story.

Seen on 24-25.04.15

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