A best-seller in its own Write

DAVID ROBINSON reports from the Aye Write! festival, where Hanif Kureishi kicked off a programme groaning with literary luminaries and selling fast at the box office

IN THE main hall of Glasgow's Mitchell Library, on the opening day of the Aye Write! festival, Hanif Kureishi is reading from the first chapter of his new novel, in which a psychiatrist describes his work. He deals, he says, in what lies beneath the surface, "the world beneath the world, the true words beneath the false".

A book festival has the potential to do something similar. A good one will also examine the ideas coursing through society and challenge their weakest links. It will provide entertainment and provoke thoughts in equal measure. And, if its opening weekend was anything to go by, Aye Write! – which ends a week today – is doing just that.

Hide Ad

That's not just a qualitative assessment. Even before the festival opened its doors on Friday, it had met its ticket sales targets for the whole of its nine-day run. In the two previous festivals, Aye Write! had never had a single event that had sold out days before it took place: by Friday, it had 18 of them.

But back to Kureishi. His vision of madly chaotic multicultural London – particularly the patch between Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush ("a roundabout surrounded by misery") – might at first seem too specific for any meaningful links with the weekend's other speakers. Yet listen to him talk about his writing, and those links start to grow, like invisible tendrils reaching into other festival events.

Visiting his middle-class relatives in Pakistan in the early 1980s, he noticed how even then they seemed uncomfortably caught between Islamic fundamentalist values and Western ones, on the cusp of a changing world "like characters from Chekhov". Talking to them, he realised for the first time that his Britishness mattered. The fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie reminded him how fragile liberal values were, and how the clash between them and Islamic fundamentalism that he explored as far back as the mid-1990s in his short story and film My Son the Fanatic was central not just to Muslim society but to Britain itself.

Kureishi's London is too grim, eccentric and self-obsessed to be a standard model for multiculturalism, but its diversity fuels his imagination. "I grew up in the suburbs. When I was a teenager I used to f***ing hate them, and when I was with my mates going up to town, we used to cheer when we crossed the river by train. It was so exciting to see a city like London, where immigrants wouldn't stand out, where there were people who didn't fit in, or were just plain weird.

"I still feel that. I'm curious about the street, about my neighbours. I love details about the city, about the way it changes so that my bit of it is now a Middle Eastern city that's somehow also in Poland at the same time. Every day I go out in it, I always see something I want to write about. I'm still curious, still want to put the world in a book."

So too does sne Seierstad, the best-selling Norwegian writer whose new book, The Angel of Grozny, examines the enduringly bitter and bloody aftermath of the Russian invasion of Chechnya, which has been all but ignored by the world's media. The title refers to a woman who runs a home there for war orphans and, in telling their stories as a "non-fiction novel", Seierstad found herself up against the biggest question war leaves behind: can there ever be any true healing after so much death?

Hide Ad

In a session excellently chaired by David Pratt, Seierstad was hardly optimistic. She cited the example of a disturbed boy at the orphanage who repeatedly killed animals just for "fun". "An evil fire inside me made me do it," he told her. "I'll only be able to get rid of it if I kill anyone who harms me." Over the course of the year she found out how his brutality only reflected back the brutality of his own near-feral life.

One wonders how death-row defence lawyer Clive Stafford Smith would represent such a client. As he told a packed audience for an event on the law and human rights with leading barrister Dame Helena Kennedy and philosopher AC Grayling, the more traumatic the murder case, the more obvious the explanation. "In 300 cases I've never had a client where you could never not work out why it had happened."

Hide Ad

With such a liberal panel, a degree of consensus was predictable. Asked if the recent spate of sex murders in England made the case for a universal DNA database, Stafford Smith argued it was unnecessary as such cases could usually be traced without the need to widen it any further. In the related issue of compulsory ID cards, Grayling made the point that the card introduced in 1940 meant to be accessed by just two ministries was, by 1945, routinely used by practically every single department of government.

Cuts in legal aid, the plans to extend the limit on the time terrorist suspects can be detained without charge and a general climate of fear were all identified as further threats to civil liberties. Against that, Kennedy pointed out that there was at least one advance on 30 years ago: "You wouldn't have been able to fill a place like this to talk about civil liberties; now you can."

Thirty years ago, you probably wouldn't have had the forest of hands of identifying themselves as atheists when asked by John Cornwell in the "God Debate". Cornwell had the unenviable task of squaring up to AC Grayling, who's so much of an atheist that he hates the word itself ("you might as well call me an agoblinist or an afairiest").

Another sign of the times is how narrow the ground had to be for there to be any debate at all: instead of tackling the bigger metaphysical questions, Cornwell's attack was on Richard Dawkins's description of religion itself as "a virus" for which secularists such as himself were "doctors". In this limited case, he might have a point: beyond it, however, Grayling had the stronger arguments.

Elsewhere, you could have heard Katharine Whitehorn, witty and incisive as ever in her 80th year; a sell-out tribute to Edwin Morgan; Janice Galloway, Anne Donovan and Louise Welsh, and more.

But for an assessment that best sums up Aye Write! I'd pass on something I overheard as Marista Leishman had just finished talking about her biography of her father, Lord Reith, the first chairman of the BBC. "Such an elegant woman, such an amazing book," one woman said. "There'll be copies downstairs if you want to take it out."

Hide Ad

She was right on all three counts. Because, while there's a festival bookshop on the Mitchell's ground floor, there's also a festival library featuring most of its authors. Joined-up thinking like that is one of the reasons Glasgow is bucking the national trend of lower library lending figures. The rest of the country could learn a lot from it.

• Aye Write! continues until 15 March. For a full programme, visit www.ayewrite.com