Unexpected inspiration: Looking beyond the big names at book festivals is well worth it

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Big names are the obvious draw for book festivals, but surprise of the unknown is what really matters

IN these days of butchered libraries, Glasgow stands out like a beacon. Not a minute off any opening hours, not a branch shut, not a penny off the book fund. And then, there's Aye Write!

When the Bank of Scotland withdrew its sponsorship two years ago, many feared that future festivals would suffer accordingly, with diminishing audiences and a pawkier programme.

It hasn't happened. By the opening weekend, ticket sales for the whole festival were already 50 per cent higher than they were last year. Never mind the statistics, it felt like that too.

What is it, the magic ingredient that turns an collection of talking heads into a successful festival? It isn't, I think, merely the presence of the big beasts in the bestselling jungle - McCall Smith, Jo Nesbo, Claire Tomalin, Jackie Kay, Sarah Waters all featured on the opening weekend - although that is also essential.

A good books festival, though, has to offer something more: unpredictability, freshness, discovery. For me, Alison Gangel's event had all three. Not knowing anything about her memoir, The Sun Hasn't Fallen from the Sky, I wandered in for no reason other than I had some time to kill. I'd missed its serialisation on Radio 4, but now can fully understand why so many people listening to it on their car radios stayed in their vehicles to listen to it until each episode ended.

She was brought up in a poor and dysfunctional family and in care homes where there was physical and sexual abuse, yet Gangel's story is the opposite of the misery memoir. Essentially, it is about a music teacher, Mr Shaughnessy, who turned her life around - and inspired her to be a teacher herself.

"It really annoys me if someone is written off," she said, when asked how her own experience influenced her teaching. "I don't believe in mollycoddling children or giving them an easy ride - but you've got to give them something they can use in life. Just show them they're not written off, just encourage them. Be someone who bothered, who tried. And even if it all goes pear-shaped, at least they can remember that."

She'd been put into care because her father was an alcoholic and her mother had tried to kill herself. This didn't stop her loving them both desperately. Sometimes her mother came to visit them in the care home.

"It must have been hard for mum seeing us there, all quite obviously getting three square meals a day, all with shining hair and fresh clothes and healthy as anything. But we wouldn't say anything to her.

And she would have thought, 'Look, there's 500 children here, and they're all well looked after and I can't take them out of that because our own home has a lot less than this.' So she didn't say anything either - though if she had, I'd have gone back in a heartbeat."

Sometimes you can see a whole life in a few sentences, and if Gangel's lack of self-pity was a revelation, so too was Barry Cryer's apparent absence of ego. Well, perhaps he was keeping it under wraps, but I certainly expected far less humility from someone who has written and worked with some of the greatest names in comedy.

Kenny Everett was, he said, the only non-comedian he'd ever written for. A shy man, apparently, not that you'd ever guessed it, seeing him dressed up "in the best possible taste" as Cupid Stunt. And as Cryer talked of those early days working at Thames TV, when their creative anarchy was, for an all too brief a time, unregulated by the suits upstairs, one could hear the regret in his voice.

A good book festival should have a small bit of Everett and a large helping of Gangel's inspirational Mr Shaughnessy.

Alistair Moffat's talk about how pre-history lives on within us in our DNA was a perfect example of the latter, eloquently mixing cutting-edge science with the epic sweep of history.

For all the engaging repartee of Jo Nesbo and Mark Bellinghham, and the easy charm of Alexander McCall Smith, Moffat's talk was a model of what we go to book festivals for - to have our imaginations opened up.

He told his audience about Doggerland, the land now sunk beneath the North Sea across which the first Scots wandered on the long walk North. Next time you take the Harwich-Ostend ferry, imagine our ancestors hunting in its long-drowned forests on the seabed beneath.

• Aye Write! continues until 12 March. Full programme at www.ayewrite.com