Aye Write reviews: Justin Webb | Jenni Fagan | David Hendy

The best book festival events appeal to the heart as well as the head, writes David Robinson

Jenni Fagan PIC:  Mihaela Bodlovic
Jenni Fagan PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Do we come away from book festivals cleverer or just feeling cleverer?” Wigtown Book Festival director Adrian Turpin asked in an online event at Aye Write on Saturday morning. Good question, and as Scots attend book festivals more than anyone else – 780,000 of us in 2019 – many of us must have had the same thought.

Radio 4 Today programme presenter Justin Webb’s event didn’t leave me any cleverer, though he did hint that New York mayor Eric Adams might be worth a bet as America’s next president. Yet his memoir wasn’t about politics or journalism but his emotionally claustrophobic childhood, brought up by an eccentric, snobbish mother and a stepfather who was, their GP told her, “stark, staring mad”.

It was, he said, a funny book, but the anecdotes he told were steeped in regret: for not being more sympathetic to his stepfather’s mental illness, for the casual Seventies homophobia and bullying at his boarding school, and the absence of a father-figure. If this pushed the empathy dial rather than the cleverness one, so did the event with Jenni Fagan, whose novel Hex is a reimagining of the story of Geillis Duncan, a North Berwick girl put to death as a witch in 1591.

David Hendy’s history of the BBC, however, was a true brain-booster. The Beeb began a century ago, he said, in part as a reaction against the lies and human misery of the First World War, using technology to bring cultural riches to everyone, not merely the wealthy. A good history gets behind the surface of an institution and shows how individuals can change its direction. Hendy’s talk did just that, eloquently joining dots in a way that left his audience feeling at least mildly – if temporarily – wiser.