Book festival: When Alex Salmond met Ian McEwan

IT WAS the hottest ticket of the Book Festival so far, but still the question on everyone’s lips was: why is Alex Salmond interviewing Ian McEwan?

For the answer to that, we must go back to a brief meeting between the two when Salmond gave the Hugo Young Lecture in January in London. The writing was on the wall when McEwan posited the idea that there are no British poets or novelists, only Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh.

So the laconic English novelist found himself being interviewed on stage by the ebullient First Minister, who worked hard to suppress his rumbustious energy and keep the focus of the event on McEwan 
and his new novel, Sweet Tooth. More than once, McEwan had to apply the brakes to prevent Salmond giving away the ending 
of the book.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

If it felt at times like a slightly mismatched encounter; there was a surfeit of wit and good humour on both sides in a conversation which ranged from Biggles novels to mathematical conundrums. Salmond quipped that, as the author of many political pamphlets and manifestos over the years, he knew a thing or two about writing fiction.

McEwan said that he had once been interviewed on stage by the deputy prime minister of Italy, only to hear that the government had fallen by the end of the day, “so watch out!”

He described Sweet Tooth, a spy novel set in the 1970s, as “a heavily mutated autobiography”.

The protagonist, a young academic 
whose early career is loosely based on 
his own, is sought out by a beautiful 
female MI5 agent who wants to sponsor 
his work. “There is always an element of wish fulfilment in fiction,” he sighed.

In time, conversation turned again to McEwan’s idea that culture, particularly literary culture, has somehow resisted the Act of Union.

Great writing, even modern writing, tends to be highly specific about its landscape and its origins.

Salmond barely needed to state his agreement. But he did have the audacity to argue that, under Fifa rules, McEwan, whose father was a Scottish sergeant major, could “be fielded by our team”. Ah, wish fulfilment indeed.

Iain Banks followed McEwan in the main tent, providing an hour of non-stop entertainment in a double-act with his old friend and fellow sci-fi writer Ken MacLeod. In fine fettle, too, was Liz Lochhead, appointed 18 months ago by Salmond as Scotland’s makar.

She has taken to her new duties with enthusiasm, and intends to use the role “to fly the flag for poetry” – other people’s as well as her own.