SOMETIMES, said Denise Mina, in the long dark nights of a writer’s soul, they might wonder what they’re doing schlepping around book festivals. “There are times,” she said, “when you just feel that you’re trying to sell jam to people who don’t want to buy jam.”
You don’t feel like that at Glasgow’s Aye Write! book festival, she said, because it’s a library. If people can’t afford to buy the jam, they can borrow it instead.
The event at which she appeared was in full back-slapping mode, and rightly so: at a time when libraries are under threat, Aye Write! is now entering its tenth year of existence, and in each of the previous ones its audience increased. In no other library in this country is there anything on remotely the same scale.
By the time Mina took to the stage, along with Louise Welsh, Alan Bissett, Chris Brookmyre and this year’s festival director Bob McDevitt, the festival had been going for a mere three hours. Yet already Irvine Welsh had made his festival debut, Karen Dunbar had revealed an unsuspected taste for Dostoevsky and Beckett; Graham Lironi and Lisa Ballantine had read scenes from their novels set in the Mitchell Library itself; Ann Cleeves and Chris Dolan had kicked around that old chestnut about why so few TV dramas are set in Scotland, and there had been talks on both what letters meant to Edwin Morgan and what Edinburgh to Robert Burns.
That’s all impressively wide-ranging, but it’s not perfect – the cancellation of Saturday’s event with Reif Larsen and Tom McCarthy due to lack of numbers shows a disappointing lack of appetite for even vaguely challenging literary fiction. Against that, former festival director Andrew Kelly, who chaired the 10th anniversary event, could point out how it has helped to resurrect Willam McIlvanney’s career and developed phenomenal audiences for books about local history and places.
Maybe, as Mina suggested, that’s the upside of living in a narcissistic city – that Glaswegians care about the place they live in. Certainly the writers care about Aye Write!: to Bissett, it provided the launching pad for his own career as a playwright (the basis of an entertaining “greatest hits” show on Saturday), including a memorable event two years ago which concluded with him stripping down to his underpants, making his way out of the main hall and greeting a bemused Jim Naughtie on his way in.
To Brookmyre – such a fan of the festival that he spent three pages of his novel Flesh Wounds rhapsodising about the Mitchell Library before his editor told him he was getting carried away with himself – making so many return visits to Aye Write! has been an incentive to try out different formats (as, incidentally, Ian Rankin was doing with yesterday afternoon’s Rebus in Gaelic event). Unfortunately, Brookmyre admitted, this wasn’t always appreciated, and he retold a true story that once so upset one woman member of the Mitchell audience that she needed first aid for hyperventilating after she walked out. Connoisseurs of the scabrous know it as the “boning the chicken” story, and no, you’re not getting it in a family newspaper.
Which somehow brings me to Irvine Welsh. At 56, he is no longer anyone’s idea of an enfant terrible, but his launch event for A Decent Ride showed no sign of him sauntering into gravitas in middle age. The decent ride of the title is offered by Terry “Juice” Lawson, the self-centred waster from Welsh’s 2001 novel Glue now resurrected as a “top shagger, drug dealer, gonzo porn star and taxi driver” who tries to sweet-talk a suicidal playwright into sex before she jumps off the Forth Road Bridge. The audience, I have to say, loved it: literary critics will probably differ.
I’d expect greater unanimity about Mark Ellen. He was in my year at college, but I never really knew him: his hair back then was halfway down his back and I never identified him as the music magazine editor and broadcaster (co-presenting Live Aid, for heaven’s sake) he subsequently became.
Earlier on Saturday, Dylan Jones had given a competent enough explanation of how Jim Morrison transformed himself from “the Harry Styles of his day” to countercultural hero to overfeted, pretentious egomaniac to dead rock god, still idolised more than four decades after his death. Ellen raised the bar, still further, talking about what music meant to him with wit, charm, intelligence and a jeweller’s shop window of sparkling anecdotes, from the true horrors of Seventies rock festivals to the manic excess of Rhianna’s 2012 world tour. If you didn’t make it to the Mitchell, read his memoir (Rock Stars Stole My Life) and you’ll get a hint of what you missed, but it will never be quite the same as watching his on-stage impression of his college band’s lead singer leaping out from behind a hedge at the 1974 Corpus Christi Alternative College Ball in full-on Mick Jagger mode, a man you probably know better as Tony Blair.
• Aye Write! continues at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, until 25 April