Edinburgh International Book festival: Val McDermid, Nayrouz Qarmout, Karine Polwart and Ali Smith

Invisible lives need the shock of recognition

Ali Smith is involved in the Refugee Tales project
Ali Smith is involved in the Refugee Tales project

How do we begin to care about injustice? What triggers action? How does an event like the one that started the week, in which Val McDermid corralled Palestinian writer Nayrouz Qarmout, folk singer Karine Polwart and Ali Smith for the first of the three sessions she is curating on the theme of “Home/Less” add up to anything more than an ineffective gathering of bien-pensants?

That was essentially the question, albeit phrased both more passionately and politely, posed by the first questioner at the end of a genuinely fascinating event. The questioner was from Shelter and was wondering how people could be made to care about the 300 asylum seekers facing eviction in Serco’s lock-changing programme in Glasgow right now.

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The answer, Polwart said, begins with recognition. Earlier in the session, Smith had talked about meeting a Ghanaian refugee (“a small, bruised, gentle, intelligent man”) who had spent three years working without knowing where he was before he found out he was in… Luton. The collective gasp of disbelief the audience gave was exactly what Polwart had meant: a shock of recognition that some people’s truly desperate lives can be so invisible to us that trafficking and exploitation can even happen on streets that don’t seem mean and where we might live too. And if you doubted the truth of that, you hadn’t been listening when Polwart got the event under way, accompanied on guitar by her brother Stephen, as she sang “Maybe There’s A Road” which she wrote back in 2006 when police uncovered a sex-trafficking operation in a suburban house in… Bonnybridge. Again, that collective gasp. Again, that small moment of recognition.

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International book festival: the first day

I’d heard Polwart sing before; lots of us have, and now that her latest album is No 6 in the UK charts maybe more of us will. But I’d never heard her talk about songwriting. Turns out she’s got that bell-clear sincerity and articulacy that an event like this demanded. Then again, so did everyone else on the panel.

Ali Smith – “Scotland’s greatest living novelist according to Nicola Sturgeon” as she was mischievously introduced by McDermid – has always been one of the most generous-spirited of writers, keenest to spread new stories, most resistant to any narrowing of minds. Her whole involvement in the Refugee Tales project is the proof of that; but so too was the way she urged everyone in the audience to buy The Sea Cloak, the debut collection of short stories by Qarmout, whose journey from Gaza to Charlotte Square last year after two visa refusals was an epic in itself. Reading it on the train to Edinburgh, Smith said, had induced so many small intakes of breath in her – those shocks of recognition again – that her fellow-passengers must have worried about her.

Something Qarmout said made me want to read it too. Born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, moving to Gaza aged 11, she had already mentioned the constant mental adjustments refugees have to make to their own idea of home, and how she already had lived through two intifadas and a relentless occupation. But she wanted, even while helping to build up a nation with a strong sense of its own identity, to also write “not just about heroes but about flaws too”. And perhaps if we talked about our own flaws too, that man from Shelter needn’t have had to ask his question.

It was, though, a good question, and it stuck with me for the rest of the day, beyond Alison Weir’s ultra-detailed speculation about the virginity (or otherwise) of Anne of Cleves, the subject of her latest novel, and even beyond the sparkling wit and contrarian panache (“in these days when we’re all so oppressed by having to watch what we say”) of Howard Jacobson, who deserves a round-up all to himself too.

As it is, all I can mention is something else that will stick with me – his description of Boris Johnson (with whom he’s shared a couple of stages) as having the “chilling aura of emptiness” of the Circumlocution Officer in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, who has “the poison of total cynicism beneath the charm”. DAVID ROBINSON