There aren’t many book festival events where you’re still wiping tears of laughter from your eyes as you stumble out into Charlotte Square at the same time as feeling that you’ve just had a masterclass in modern Irish history, as well as a whole heap of added insights into the middle-aged Irish male psyche.
But yesterday’s event with Roddy Doyle had all of that and more.
Masked Irish podcaster Blindboy cancelled as interviewer, but Chris Brookmyre was a more than adequate replacement, not least because of the way he highlighted Doyle’s influence on Scottish writing, as well as reflecting social changes in Ireland itself.
In Doyle’s latest book, Charlie Savage, Brookmyre pointed out, the big difference between Ireland and Britain seemed to be that middle-aged Ireland was looking forwards, not back. Why was that, when if anything Ireland had changed even faster in the last 20 years than we had?
Doyle’s answers touched on appreciative Irish attitudes to Europe, the ending of the colonial chip on the shoulder in the 1990s when Irish GDP overhauled Britain’s, the bravery of the victims of abuse in tackling the Church (“when those stones were lifted, it was the people under the stones who were doing the lifting”), and at the way in which middle-aged Irish people, moved by the passion of the younger generation in the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, collectively thought “No, it’s their turn now” and voted alongside them.
Charlie Savage, the fictionalised central character in Doyle’s book of collected newspaper columns, is very much part of this new Ireland: one of his friends, for example, even tells him that though he’s 62, he now identifies as a woman. This year’s book festival mantra is “We need new stories” and if they’re as good as Roddy Doyle’s, they’ll not only be new but good for a laugh too.
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Then again, as former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger pointed out, maybe we need new news stories too. If the public no longer trusts journalism, perhaps journalists should write them with even more transparency and click-through sources. (Though as he also pointed out, two-thirds of readers don’t differentiate between a news story that is well sourced and one that isn’t.).
The key problem is, he said, that people still haven’t got used to the fact that ‘bad facts are free and good ones expensive.’ Only the other week, he’d been talking to young journalists in Manchester and Liverpool, huge cities whose newspapers no longer cover courts and council and where the police don’t return journalists’ calls. The possibilities of corruption were, he said, enormous. “Society can’t function without knowing what’s going on. If we can’t provide that, we’re in trouble.”
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Ian Rankin was quite candid. He didn’t have any new stories this year, he told chair Phill Jupitus, and we’d have to wait over a year for the next Rebus novel. New songs, though ... that was a different matter. Only this week, he’d played a gig in a Glasgow pub with his band Best Picture for the first time since October. “But it was a great gig. There were people in the audience from the Pastels, BMX Bandits, Teenage Fanclub ... easily more musical people offstage than onstage.” The fanboy gleam lit up his face.
When it comes, though, the next new Rebus story will be another story of old age. Rebus is a pensioner now, he reminded us. “ I gave him COPD and emphysema because he smoked and he can’t climb the two flights of steps to his flat without his inhaler, and he’s thinking ‘Am I really ready for Blackhall?” Certainly, he added, both he and his nemesis, Ger Cafferty both feel as though their world is passing. “Maybe they’re going to end up in the same retirement home fighting each other to death over the last soft-boiled egg.”