Kirsty Gunn: From the Walkyre to Mike’s labradors, art has the power to transform

The RSNO delivered an electrifying Walkyre under the directorship of Andrew Davies
The RSNO delivered an electrifying Walkyre under the directorship of Andrew Davies
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Still shaking from the electrifying Walkyre performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra last weekend at the Usher Hall, I went along to meet Canongate’s Francis Bickmore first thing on Monday morning for a coffee. He’d been too busy getting ready for the opening of the Book Festival to go to the concert so I told him all about how I’d never heard the RSNO on such immaculately riveting form, playing under the cracking directorship of Andrew Davies along with their mighty line-up of powerful singers; as if each note of Wagner’s mighty score had been articulated by every musician there, instrument by instrument, note by note, to form one piece of mighty musical...writing. Is how I described it, because of course then we went on to talk about books and the Book Festival and why we love reading so much.

Canongate publishes books that we love reading, of course. Ever since they set up shop in Jeffrey Street back in the eighties, launching Alasdair Gray and the fabulous Canongate Classics series, and then moving around the corner to the High Street to bring out the phenomena that was Life of Pi, along with a whole host of international and Scottish titles that seemed to challenge the very way we thought about publishing in Scotland, Canongate seems to have been at the centre of our literary life. No wonder Francis had been busy getting ready for Charlotte Square.

“It’s been a joyous summer” he told me, “and we’ve got a terrific line-up of authors and some amazing events happening at the Book Festival this year.”

They’ve had Matt Haig on the bestseller list for the last four weeks, Mike McCormack’s extraordinary Solar Bones has just been longlisted for the Booker, there’s a new collection of short stories out by James Kelman, in conjunction with paperback publication of his quietly passionate and masterful novel of last year, Dirt Road, and “We’ve got this,” said Francis, producing yet another hardback from his capacious rucksack, which was Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy – particularly timely, it seems, after a two week media-storm around the Google employee who was sacked for daring to say that men and women are different and like to do different things and what’s wrong with that?

“You’ll have a lot to talk about with that book” I said, “gender divide, all the talk about trans sexuality, the falling sperm rate, low birth count...It’s all there, isn’t it, in a title that’s about how boys can be like girls and girls can be like boys?” Heterosexuality seems to be on the wane alright; no wonder the sperm count, as has been reported in the papers recently, has fallen.

“Whose chairing that event?” I asked. Only the incomparable Richard Holloway, himself hard at work on a book about death and dying that is set to come out next year, and I can’t wait. Richard Holloway delivered the most concentrated and beautifully put together address on the mysteries and terrors of death at an event about dying that I convened at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, with my colleague at Dundee, Eddie Small, who himself is a bit of a death expert, currently completing a PhD and book on the subject of Funerals and Dying in Scotland. We called the event “In Memoriam” and the past Bishop of Edinburgh spoke then as though with light crackling around him. That was a couple of years ago and for sure, having just finished Robert McCrum’s superb Every Third Thought on the same subject, death seems to be a hot topic these days... Maybe that falling birth rate is linked to such meditations upon mortality? That, as the post-anthroposcene lot say, we’re on the way out? That Western civilisation has started singing its swansong?

Twilight of the Gods is the last part in Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle, all about that kind of thing, and it would be nice to think Andrew Davies might plot a follow-up to what we heard last Sunday night. “Have you picked yourself up off the floor yet?” Glasgow University’s shining spokesman for modernist literature, the inspirational John Coyle, said to me when I bumped into him after the Walkyre. “My God!” we shouted to each other in the night air, “What a performance!” John is no stranger to the concentrated magic of art and its transformatory effect. It’s in his blood. For years I’ve wanted to join in on his “Wakey, Wakey” Friday reading group that meets at 7am to talk about James Joyce and densely constructed and richly figured novel, Finnegan’s Wake, but I can never seem to arrange to be in Glasgow that early on a Friday morning. The entire English Department of Glasgow University has got to be lit up by that kind of extra-curricular activity, though. John reminds us what literature, reading and universities are all about so how lucky that university of his is to have him.

I see, writing this in Sutherland, having just come in from a day on the hills, that my theme this week has been the transformative power of the arts and the way condensed attention to the things around us changes the way we see the world, exposes us to its loveliness.

Francis told me that, as Publishing Director at Canongate, his own take on discovering the next must-read novel or work of non-fiction or reportage is based on American publisher Gary Fisketjohn’s words: “I’m looking for the thing I don’t know I am looking for.” Well, out there today in the late afternoon sunshine I saw my husband’s cousin Mike Rolland put his dogs through their paces in preparation for the beginning of the Grouse season that’s just started. Watching his labradors stream over the ground, seamlessly into a loch and up on to a hill, stopping at a single whistle, to turn and sit and wait up there, before he brought them back down again in that same ribbon-like unspooling of a way... I thought of beauty and music and literature then. I didn’t know I was looking for what I saw out there on the hill, but there it was, alright. Beauty.