Aye Write’s still a cut above your average book festival

Dame Joan Bakewell. Picture: TSPL
Dame Joan Bakewell. Picture: TSPL
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EVER wondered why more prisoners don’t write books? They have, at least some of them, all the time in the world. There should be no excuse.

“It was a bit easier for me,” Noel ‘Razor’ Smith admitted on Saturday. “I was Category A so I had the cell to myself.” Most of the rest, the kind of prisoners who haven’t been done at the Old Bailey for armed robbery at 15, assaulting a warden the next year, who haven’t spent 33 years in prison, and who don’t presumably answer to the name ‘Razor’, have to share a cell.

What’s that like? “Well, you’re living in a bathroom-sized room with two other people, and the odds are that one of them is mentally ill and the other is coming off drugs and there’s a television blaring in the corner. You get some inedible food. And everything about the place is meant to demoralise you so you have to exercise when they tell you and use the toilet in full view of everyone else. The wonder is that anything gets written at all.”

True enough, you could hardly imagine the muse striking anyone else on the Aye Write’s Saturday roster in those conditions. Not Dame Joan Bakewell, elegantly memorialising those distant days in 1940s Britain when the closest teenage grammar school girls got to sex was wrestling with a centuries-dead metaphysical poet or being told by the BBC’s head of news as late as 1969 that there would “never” be a female newsreader. Not Tam Dalyell, remembering his stern masters at Eton, back from the war and drilling into their charges the importance of service. Today, he says, the school has a different ethos, resulting in alumni like that “irresponsible buffoon” Boris Johnson.

Even with a cell to himself, writing began late for Razor. At 16, he couldn’t read. The screws threw him a book every day in solitary, but all he used it for was to kick around his cell. A priest started him on Janet and John. Before long he was reading three grown-up books a day.

He wasn’t a poster boy for the redemptive power of literacy – in the 1990s, he committed more armed robberies and was sentenced to life (he was released in 2010) – but when his teenage son died and he couldn’t cover the cost of the funeral, he wanted to honour him by telling the truth. And the truth wasn’t that he was a diamond geezer in the true crime tradition, a hard man who never lost a fight, but someone with less swagger but (I think) far more nous. A big bloke with tattoos in all the right places, he certainly looks the part. Even more intimidatingly, he’s got Will Self as his agent.

There were only 20 or so in the audience, and I’d only wandered in myself on a whim, but the smaller events are often the gems of any decent book festival. That was certainly the case too with Andy Beckett, whose take on the early 80s in Promised You A Miracle debunked a few Thatcherite myths while reminding us that in those early years the Tories were not as unpopular in Scotland (21 MPs in 1983) as we tend to remember.

There were, of course, hundreds more for the more predictably big ticket events – Chris Brookmyre, Ruth Davidson, Joan Bakewell, Tam Dalyell - and they didn’t disappoint. I’ve never yet heard Dalyell admit that he’d changed his mind on anything but he seems to have done on Trident (he’s now against it). Whether or not that is more convincing than his bet with a bemused chair Ruth Wishart that in 60 years’ time there’d still be a Union and that in four Jeremy Corbyn will be PM I’ll leave for you to judge.

Or will, by then, Ruth Davidson be leading a party that has beaten his own into third place in Scotland? After hearing her talk eloquently about her favourite books, I wouldn’t be too surprised. Viscount Slim’s Defeat into Victory has all the talk about service (look after your country first, then your men, and yourself only last) that would have impressed even Dalyell’s teachers at Eton, and Damian MacBride’s Machiavellian Power Trip is well worth a read, as she said, if only as a guide what NOT to do.

Chris Brookmyre has performed at more Aye Write! festivals than anyone else and it’s easy to see why they keep asking him back (and it’s not just to tell his “boning the chicken” story one more time). He was in superb form, and this time he was back with possibly his best book yet, the impossibly twisty Black Widow. At this stage, he reckoned, his audience knows exactly what to expect, and he guessed that many of them wouldn’t have come in straight after listening to Ruth Davidson.

Well he’s wrong about that, because that was exactly who I’d been listening to before him. And before hearing the leader of the party of law and order, I’d been listening to an armed robber talking about the changing face of crime. Isn’t that kind of range precisely what a good book festival is all about?