Review: Ullapool Book Festival

I never knew Scott Hutchison, never even heard his music. Yet on Saturday night at Ullapool Book Festival there were plenty who did, who loved it, loved him, were looking forward to seeing him and Michael Pedersen in the prime 9:30pm slot and who now have to rely on their memories and imagination instead.
Denise MinaDenise Mina
Denise Mina

Ullapool Book Festival, Ullapool ****

His death cast a shadow over this festival: he was, said the festival’s honorary president Chris Dolan, when Hutchison’s fate was still unknown, “one of our own”. And as book festivals are really all about empathy, he would indeed have been among friends, even if strangers.

So: memory and imagination. Sometimes the two came together, as when Angus Roxburgh opened the festival by reading about how, as a 14-year-old, he taught himself Russian with the help of Radio Moscow. There are, even now, few better guides to Putin’s Russia. One key turning point, he said, were the 2011 street protests (for which Putin blamed Hillary Clinton) he saw being replicated in the Arab Spring. Incidentally, Roxburgh also raised a point I hadn’t thought of. It’s all gone quiet on the Skripal front, hasn’t it?

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Both memory and imagination figure powerfully in the novels and plays of Ann-Marie MacDonald, this year’s stellar Canadian guest. Memories of her family’s Cape Breton background fuelled her Commonwealth Prize-winning debut novel Fall on Your Knees, just as ones of her own childhood growing up on Canadian air force bases fill its successor, The Way the Crow Flies. She read from both superbly, as well as from her latest book, Adult Onset, with its obvious autobiographical roots – its subject is, like her, a successful writer in a same-sex marriage bringing up two toddlers – and delighted her audience with a sneak preview of a novel largely set in Scotland.

Like MacDonald, Jane Harris trained as an actor, and gave such an enjoyable reading from her three novels (including this year’s Walter Scott shortlisted novel Blood Sugar) that I’m starting to think a spell at drama school should be mandatory for all writers at book festivals. This wouldn’t apply to Bernard MacLaverty, who held the final session spellbound with a wonderful reading from his novel Midwinter Break. Perhaps, as a former teacher, he has already released his inner thesp.

It wouldn’t apply either to Denise Mina, who always seems to pack five events into one. Here, a dazzling chat about the Peter Manuel case she wrote about in The Long Drop took in the development of serial killer stereotype, late 1950s Glasgow, why women love crime fiction, why we should all watch Mindhunter (and Midnight Run) how badly criminals defend themselves, and just what the hanging judge in the Manuel case drew in the margins of his notes.

Already, I’ve missed out so much: the inaugural Highland Book Prize (won by Kapka Kassabova even if she only appeared on a video message from New Zealand), the world’s first simultaneously translated Gaelic-Catalan event, or the understated brilliance of Douglas Dunn’s poetry. His elegiac “The Glove Compartment” seems apposite. “There’s love in the world,” it concludes. “But never enough”.