I wrote the other day about thinking out loud. It stemmed from a quote from the comedian Susan Calman, which was ‘When you say things you are thinking out loud – again and again – it can get better.’ This was taken from a Tweet from the Edinburgh International Book Festival so it is amazing what you can do with 140 characters and not a hashtag in sight. I was thinking about it earlier this morning, watching back the Makar Jackie Kay’s appearance at the Book Festival, chaired by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Try to catch it, if you can – it’s on the BBC iPlayer at the moment. I admire both of them in different ways so it was nice to see them in the same place and the mutual respect and admiration they have for each other. The last question from the audience was about the value of reading poetry aloud in schools, which Jackie Kay and the First Minister both agreed on.
A lot of poetry is best read aloud, just as a lot of speeches make little sense on paper but with the cadences and rhythms of speech can flow and flourish. A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Jackie Kay’s predecessor as Makar, Liz Lochhead, at the Book Festival purely because of her verve and timing as a performer of her work and indeed that of others, most notably the incredible rendition of Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘Open The Doors’ when the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood was hanselled in 2004. After the event, which left me buzzing for hours, I went to buy her latest volume of poetry, which is called Fugitive Colours, at the Festival bookshop and the person selling me it was also a Liz Lochhead fan. She got a lot of drivel for her troubles as I gushed about how wonderful it was. I headed out to Musselburgh afterwards – the story told in another post here – and as I sat on the 44 bus, I read but I think reading the words in print was a poor substitute to hearing them spoken by Liz Lochhead herself just a few minutes before. I felt the same the last time I heard the Proclaimers live. I love the Proclaimers so, so very much but after hearing them live, a CD or digital download just wouldn’t do, particularly when it came to ‘Sunshine on Leith’. Some days need to pass before you can recover from being so thoroughly spoiled. And I picked up the book just now and read aloud, in my own voice, the opening poem, which is ‘Favourite Places’, a telling of treasured memories of trips to Lochaber with her late husband. I savoured every word as I spoke it, particularly those words that bring out the broad ‘r’, like ‘turn’, ‘unfurling’ or ‘gorse’. Her poems should be appreciated and savoured, swirling the sounds of the syllables about your mouth like a good malt, all about the experience in the moment.
Jackie Kay talked about the different languages and accents she brought into her poem to hansel the current Scottish Parliament, ‘Threshold‘, and particularly the various accents of Scotland, from Doric to Glaswegian. That’s quite a spectrum in of itself. When I went to see the crime writer Quintin Jardine the other day, there was quite a spread. Jardine is from Motherwell originally though now lives in Gullane while the event was chaired by Brian Taylor, the BBC’s political editor, who is from Dundee. A lot of the folk in the audience asking questions were broad Edinburgh or East Lothian. There is a definite difference between the capital and East Lothian, even between parts of each. An accent from Dunbar is a bit broader and wilder than one from Musselburgh, for example, just as there are significant differences between, to pick one example, one end of the 5 bus route in the east of Edinburgh in Niddrie, Restalrig and Leith to the other in Bruntsfield and Morningside. Both are Scottish, both are of Edinburgh, but deeply different in terms of syntax, emphasis and much else. Interestingly, during the event, the conversation turned to football and Brian Taylor was talking about his team, Dundee United, who are coming back, or so he says. (It will need to be next year, Hibs need to be promoted first.) Anyway, he imitated two United fans who sat behind him in the George Fox Stand at Tannadice and his voice went much coarser and into very broad Dundonian. Thinking on it now, it reminds me of how accents are often polished and finessed in our broadcasting. Even now, you don’t hear anything like in Tom Leonard’s ‘Six O’Clock News’, which you really should read.
As ever, I digress. Before I go off the topic, though, I was in the bookshop at the Book Festival on Tuesday, killing time, when I walked past the stand where the various publications of Teckle Books, an independent publisher from Dundee, were stacked, including the excellent Taxi For Farrell by former Hibs defender David Farrell and Teckle’s first publication, the utterly brilliant and surreal Tartan Special One by Barry Phillips. For those who haven’t read it, Tartan Special One is very sweary and very Dundonian, much of it written in the dialect unique to that city. To my amazement, a very Edinburgh looking woman, possibly posh, nicely dressed, had the Tartan Special One in her hand, possibly intending to purchase it. I didn’t want to linger just to see how long it was before she put it back on the shelf, with the air of someone pushing away a kid’s full nappy or indeed otherwise. Just as there are books you want to read aloud to get their full effect, Tartan Special One is a book you can’t read in public. I did once, in Central Station here in Glasgow, and I had to put it away as I couldn’t stifle my laughter any longer.
I want to close with a thought back where I started, about the event with Jackie Kay and Nicola Sturgeon. This week, Nicola Sturgeon launched the First Minister’s Reading Challenge for primary school children. Anything that encourages reading is fine by me, I have to say, and whatever you say about the First Minister, she seems sincerely driven to make this programme work. It is personal, I think, and during the event with Jackie Kay, she talked a lot about being a big reader as a child. Since she became First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has been involved with the Edinburgh International Book Festival both years and with Aye Write at the Mitchell too. She chaired Val McDermid last year and Jackie Kay this year. I like my politicians to be smart, to see they might pick up a book now and then. It isn’t always obvious in many cases. I don’t like Boris Johnson at all but at the very least, you can tell that he’s read a fair bit in his time. He might not have understood it very well but never mind. To their credit, Aye Write this year featured each of the Scottish political party leaders (it was just before the election) and talked to each of them about their favourite books. To understand people, it’s worth considering where they have come from, not necessarily geographically but intellectually, what they’ve read and what’s made an impact on them. What they underlined in their tattered copies or clutched to their chest as proof that someone else really does get it. Yesterday, I was asked by a mum to tell her boy why reading is good for you. It makes you big and strong, in more ways than one, if you read it aloud or you have to read it later for fear of exploding on a station platform.