Festival review: Aye Write!

Liz Lochhead PIC: Toby Williams
Liz Lochhead PIC: Toby Williams
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Before Saturday, I knew nothing about Woody Woodmansey. But ever since his Aye Write! event at the Royal Concert Hall, I’ve been thinking what a great film his life would make. The first scene would be in the glass factory near Hull. He’s 18 and he’s just been offered the under-foreman’s job, which is as good as anyone in his family could hope. But that weekend, he gets another offer, from a guy who wants to put a band together near Beckenham and needs a drummer. Trouble is, he’s a former folkie, not a hard rock man. Might be a one-hit wonder too.

So Woody goes down south, and David Bowie opens the door in a rainbow T-shirt, a necklace, bangles, tight red cord trousers and blue shoes with painted stars on them. And that’s only the beginning, because Woody from Hull is going, for £7 a week, to be a Spider from Mars. He will wear pink costumes and learn to love make-up.

He only works with Bowie for the first four albums, but that’s all the film I want to see. That, and the scene where they made up at the end, when Bowie was off drugs, apologised for letting him down, and they looked back together. “I’m never going to get that again,” Bowie told him, “that rocket ride to fame.” And neither will Woody, who turns out to be, in his gruff, Yorkshire way, a born storyteller.

The day opened with death and grief – or what sounded at first like a gentle reconnaissance of both subjects with psychotherapist Julia Samuel and consultant gastroenterologist Seamus O’Mahony. We all know that we “do” death appallingly, that we are almost as reluctant to talk about it as the Victorians were about sex. But this discussion went a long way beyond the obvious.

“It’s interesting how doctors behave themselves when we become ill,” said O’Mahony. “There’s quite a literature on it. By and large, we don’t go for big-time interventions, dialysis or chemo. With us, it’s usually about quality of life. The uncomfortable conclusion is that doctors routinely subject their patients to treatments they wouldn’t dream of having themselves.” In his own specialism, PEG feeding tubes are often used to feed those with incurable disease through the stomach wall. “When I’ve asked how many doctors would have such an operation, I’ve never come across one.”

Overmedicalised deaths, overtreatment, over-promising; our treatment of cancer is often, he said, a culture of excess. Samuel – who added that she could easily have written a book about the false hope generated in the process – stressed that what matters more than trying the new anti-cancer diet or long-shot treatment was openness and taking time to talk to one’s family.

I thought of that when, in a wonderful session with Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead, Glasgow’s Poet Laureate Jim Carruth read a poem about his terminally ill mother’s return from hospital to the family farm, and the questions he’d ask “to feed/the hunger in my remaining winters./These rushed short days with you/bringing in the bales before the rain.”

Chairing the event, Robyn Marsack noted that, despite all the other fine events at Aye Write!, none quite produce the “poetry Ah” – the audience’s collective sigh of recognition or appreciation. That’s true enough. When Lesley Riddoch, Alex Massie and Gerry Hassan were getting revved up about the prospect of Indyref2, I didn’t hear any such sighs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Ditto with Minoo Dishaw and Andrew Hankinson talking about Sir Stephen Runciman and killer Raoul Moat (a weird pairing of subjects but they’re both Geordies). Engaging talk, but no sighs.

But stick three Makars on the same stage, and the Ahhhs had it. Lochhead’s epithalamion, or wedding poem, for the late Michael Marra’s daughter Alice (“Who walks with you, Alice?/ Love walks with you”) whose husband-to-be had also lost his father (“Who walks with you, Colin? Love walks with you”) even had a few “Ahs” skittering out into the open in mid-verse. The Choosing, about two schoolfriends who had drifted apart, with one remembering the early teen years “when choices got made/we don’t remember making” got its own quotient of Ahs for the precision of the preceding childhood memories.

Jackie Kay’s similarly moving reading ended with April Sunshine, a wonderful celebration of her parents’ lives. She also told the story of the motorbike accident “by the cemetery on the Kirkintilloch Road” after which she couldn’t walk for a year and a half. She crashed into three cars, the first of which was, by a weird coincidence, driven by her English teacher. Years later the teacher got in touch to say how glad she was Kay hadn’t been killed “because then there wouldn’t have been any books”. As her dad drily noted: “It wouldn’t have been your first concern.”

All the same… the accident that made Jackie Kay write… the early years of such a fine and much-loved poet…Maybe there’s a film there too?