The sounds of Americana rippled across the Book Festival’s Main Theatre as we took our seats for James Kelman’s event, at which he presented new novel, Dirt Road.
It’s the story of Murdo, 17, and his father, Tom, who travel from the West of Scotland to Alabama to visit family, but a bungle with buses takes them instead to Mississippi, where Murdo – a fine accordion player – encounters Cajun music, American folk and, of course, the blues. It is, Kelman says, “a portrait of the artist story” which draws somewhat on his own impressions from the time when his family briefly emigrated to the US when he was 17. It is also informed by his considerable knowledge of American music.
He described the first time he heard the sound of guitar legend Doc Watson, after winning an album in a game of cards in 1967. Over the years, he has spent time tracing the threads of Scottish tradition in American music, the ancestors who emigrated. Immigration, he says, is the subtext of the book.
He was followed in the Main Theatre by the ever-popular broadcaster Joan Bakewell, in fine fettle at 83, and a busy Labour peer. “I hate the phrase ‘declining years’ – why should they be declining? I’m a proselytiser for fruitful old age,” she said.
Bakewell’s new book, Stop the Clocks, charts some of the changes she has witnessed in her lifetime – one of the most significant being the changing status of women. “I take great satisfaction in seeing more women in leading roles in politics, banks, and the like,” she said, “although I’m outraged that they still earn less than men on average. It’s happened very slowly, but change is relentless.”
And she spoke of politics (“The centre ground has got very constipated”); the yawning gap between rich and poor; the proper way to make a bed; her most recent Radio 4 series, the popular Inside the Ethics Committee, and how she and her classmates at a strict girls’ grammar school learned about life from John Donne’s more explicit love poems. She has, in fact, no wish to turn the clocks back, only to “make the most of life”.