Edinburgh Book Festival reviews: Alison Watt | Craig Brown | Sathnam Sanghera

A relaxed, thought-provoking exchange between artist Alison Watt and author Andrew O’Hagan was one of the highlights of this year’s Book Festival, writes David Robinson

Artist Alison Watt stands in front of two of her new paintings and a painting by Allan Ramsay which inspired them - part of Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh PIC: Neil Hanna

If you go to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery right now, you’ll see one of the most enjoyable exhibitions it has staged in a long time. If you log onto www.edbookfest.co.uk, and click on yesterday morning’s event with Alison Watt and Andrew O’Hagan, you’ll find yourself eavesdropping on a conversation based on it that is every bit as lucid and thought-provoking.

It helps enormously that they’re friends. The interviewer has no massive file of questions to consult, so the conversation flows rather than stumbling round the staggeringly obvious themes. The interviewee is relaxed, keen to explain. “When friends meet,” says Watt, “they don’t just talk about one subject, they talk around a whole load.” Exactly.

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So in the case of the paintings she made in response to Allan Ramsay’s, that meant a conversation that was in itself a kind of portrait. Somehow, without the tyranny of chronological exposition, we gained some idea of what painting means to her, the artists who influenced her, and why she turned her back on representational portraiture.

We learnt why she always locks her studio door when she paints, how she does so with touch as well as sight, why she feared the intrusive gaze of tourists on the top deck of a double-decker passing by her studio (only to realise they were all looking at their mobiles), and what drew her to Ramsay. In two decades of reporting on the Book Festival, I’ve never heard an artist explain her work so articulately.

Whereas that event had all the old-fashioned joys of a conversation in front of a live audience, Claire Armitstead’s interview with Craig Brown took us deep into hybrid festival territory – a fuzzy, distanced Zoom interrogation in front of bookcases somewhere in England.

Shame really, because Brown’s take on the Beatles in his Baillie Gifford Prize-winning One Two Three Four is just as honest and thought-out a portrait as the pictures in Watt’s A Portrait Without Likeness. Because which likeness does the biographer go on when there are so many to choose from? Take the fight John Lennon got into on McCartney’s 21st birthday. We know it happened – but we have 15 radically different eyewitness accounts.

And if objective truth about one insignificant fight is hard to work out, don’t expect any attempt to summarise the impact of 500 years of the British Empire to be easy. In fact, as Sathnam Sanghera pointed out [online but in front of a live audience], today’s culture wars rage so fiercely that anyone with a brown skin can’t expect to write an objective account – as he’s tried to do in Empireland – without being subject to either racist trolling or fake history or (in his case) both. Considering which, his conclusion was remarkably fair: “Get rid of your pride. Get rid of your shame. Just look at the facts. That will get you a better understanding and make us a better country.”

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