Review: The Ullapool Book Festival

AL Kennedy
AL Kennedy
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In the opening event of the Ullapool book festival on Friday morning, James Robertson explained why his latest novel was influenced, among other things, by the 1945 Powell and Pressburger film I Know Where I’m Going. He wanted, he said, to write about a journey to the Highlands in which the periphery turned out to be central and those making the journey returned changed by it.

Much of that could have also applied to anyone travelling from afar to the Ullapool book festival itself. On a superficial level, they would have returned with a tan, for this was one of those weekends when Loch Broom was playing at being the Mediterranean, without a cloud in the sky or a whisper of wind to ruffle the outrageous cherry and plum blossom on Market Street. But if you went to the festival in the Village Hall there, you could indeed have come out changed at a deeper level too.

You could, if you were really lucky, have found yourself listening to AL Kennedy read from her novel Serious Sweet. If you did, you really would have wondered how she does what she does: how her writing is so attentive that it catches the precise moment when love strikes a self-hating reluctant man, or – equally - when the yearning to disappear in drink overcomes a reluctant middle-aged female alcoholic. Those two characters are hardly obvious lovers, yet Kennedy made us care that they at least could be. After a superb reading – damn her talents, she’s funny too - she gave a bravura defence of the importance of writing, especially at a time of mean-spirited politics. “It is,” she said, “just about the best thing that humans do.”

Or should that be music? Because I’ve never heard a more persuasive case for its ability to transform lives than that made by Paul McAlindin about a job he read in 2008 about in a newspaper he found lying around in Edinburgh’s Barony Bar. Five years later, in 2013, there he was in Aix-en-Provence, conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in a competition, and four years further on, there we were in the Village Hall, listening to what they sounded like as they played their way through an Arab medley, some Saint-Saens, and Beethoven’s Eighth to - ultimately - a standing ovation.

This was a story of massive risks, ropey instruments, non-stop fights against corruption and bureaucracy, of horrendous logistics, and Iraqi hostility towards anyone playing “infidel music”, or any male being taught by a woman. Then there were the internal rivalries between Kurds and Arab musicians, their despair on hearing the staggering technical perfection of their well-resourced western national orchestra rivals, and finally MacAlindin’s own devastation when the Isis invasion of Iraq finally put an end to the project in 2014. MacAlindin not only writes well about music and what it feels like to conduct an orchestra at full gallop, but he is some kind of hero too. The Iraqi project has come to an end, but he is in the middle of setting up a similar project in Govan.

The Ullapool book festival has long been a place where you can expect to find some of the finest Canadian writers as well as Scottish ones, and this year was no exception. Michael Winter, an award-winning novelist – and raconteur of genius – talked about his latest book, Into The Blizzard, which followed, a century on, the soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment to their destruction on the Somme.

That was, however, only one of the highlights of a festival that also had the raw honesty of Holly McNish’s performance poems about pregnancy and motherhood, a typically ebullient and assured event with Val McDermid, Gavin Francis on the life lessons of medicine, a debut appearance from Graeme Macrae Burnet, and Don Paterson giving what was effectively a masterclass in the use of form in poetry, along with firing off a fusillade of freshly-minted aphorisms.

I’ll end, though, with an event featuring a historian – and a history – who and which are far less well known. Before going in to David Alston’s talk about the involvement of Scots in the slave trade, I had thought that it was all so long ago that the question of reparations no longer arises. Quietly, dispassionately, and concentrating on Highlanders’ involvement in the slave plantations in Guyana, Alston picked apart that certainty. Tracing the reparations paid compensate slave owners in 1834 – proportionately a bigger sum even than the 2008 banks’ bail out – he showed how Scots at all levels benefited from slavery, but how we still collectively ignore this, perhaps even more so than in England, “because it doesn’t fit with the narrative of our own victimhood”.

A book festival needs to be able to change minds as well as inform and entertain. In front of consistently packed houses in the Village Hall – more than half sellout events - the 12th Ullapool Book Festival triumphantly did all of that and more. At the end, handing over to Chris Dolan, the festival’s honorary president Louise Welsh said that Ullapool was “right up there with the very best international festivals”. Even on an almost hot Highland weekend, these weren’t just warm words.