Aberdeen Word Festival: A northern light

The best of local and international talent with Margaret Attwood centre stage… welcome to Aberdeen's very distinctive book festival

BOOK festival directors, it seems, have fantasy line-ups, in the same way that football managers have ideal teams. Alan Spence, artistic director of Aberdeen's Word Festival, has had Margaret Atwood on his list for years. Now, for his 11th festival, he succeeded in bringing her to Aberdeen.

She was in fine form, relaxed and sardonic, in Word's opening event, with the 600-seater Arts Lecture Theatre packed to near-capacity. Her two appearances were highlights of an eclectic weekend of book-focused events, which included politicians Robin Harper and Denis Canavan, TV journalists John Suchet and David Shukman, acclaimed poets Sean O'Brien and August Kleinzhaler, and prize-winning Booker novelist Anne Enwright.

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Based at the University of Aberdeen, Word maintains a distinctive flavour among Scotland's book festivals, capitalising on local academic talent to create lively discussion events alongside the main programme. Alan Spence blends the local and international, making room for home-grown talents such as Stephen Robertson, of the feted local comedic trio Scotland the What? and North-east fisherman Jimmy Buchan, the unlikely star of BBC's reality TV show Trawlermen.

But times are tough in academia, with universities bracing themselves for punitive cuts. Spence praised his team for doing more with less this year, while seeking an ever larger number of sponsors and supporters in the local business community. So far, they have succeeded, and it has to be hoped that they continue to do so.

We began, however, with Margaret Atwood, reading from three of her novels: Alias Grace, based on real events surrounding the murder of a Scottish settler in Canada in the 1840s, and her two latest novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, which run on parallel lines through the same future world.

Her next book, due out in the Autumn, is In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination, which explores her own relationship with speculative fiction, beginning in childhood when she read Orwell's Animal Farm. "I was traumatised," she admits. "I didn't know it was a satire. I thought it really was about those pigs - and that poor horse." A snapshot was enough to reveal her wide-ranging knowledge of the genre, from 19th century North-east writer George MacDonald to Conan the Conqueror.

The poet Kenneth White was to be another of Word's special guests, but was forced to cancel at the last minute due to illness. So he was not present to offer his response to a lecture by Aberdeen University's Professor of Irish and Scottish studies, Cairns Craig, daringly reframing his literary journey.

Prof Craig argued that White, who has been based in Paris since the 1960s where he is Director of the Institute for Geopoetics, is more deeply connected to Scotland than a surperficial reading of his story allows. He contended that, as a literary and intellectual migrant, White has followed a familiar path from many Scottish writers, from Stevenson to Muriel Spark, and that geopoetics itself has a lineage in Scottish intellectual life, from David Hume to Patrick Geddes.Thus a bridge is built between the local and the international, something which happened again and again during the weekend at Word. Meaghan Delahunt, an Australian living in Scotland, read from her newly published novel, To The Island, about an Australian woman's search for her lost father in Greece; and Lesley Glaister read from her novel Chosen, about a British woman's journey to rescue her brother from a New York-based cult.

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Dermot Healy's prose and poetry evokes the textures and voices of rural Ireland, an intensely local world, but he finds his models in Borges and Kafka. He shared a platform with Kevin MacNeil, whose work is shaped by his native Isle of Lewis, but references much more widely, from Basho to Stevenson. MacNeil's blistering poem about contemporary Scotland in the style of Allan Ginsberg's Howl is proof, if any were needed, that writers enjoy pushing at the boundaries between local and international - and, if necessary, blasting them to pieces.