After being at Edinburgh Book Festival earlier in August, it was an absolute pleasure to be invited to the Wigtown Book Festival this year, having never been to Scotland’s National Book Town. As far as the pace and formalities, it was vastly different to the Edinburgh Book Festival, with what seems like a fantastic book community pitching in to ensure a festival runs smoothly but with a flavour of local spirit.
Wigtown is very interesting in itself, as the former county town of Wigtownshire had been at its lowest ebb with many empty and run-down properties, and the almost derelict County Buildings on the town square were threatened with demolition. Wigtown then had one of the highest levels of unemployment in Scotland, but the town boasted a beautiful setting and a rich history. However, with the suggestion in the mid-1990s that a community in Scotland could be regenerated into a “book town” based on the Hay-on Wye model, Wigtown submitted a bid and won. Presently there are fifteen bookshops in the town, which include new and second-hand, including The Bookshop, Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. With all sorts of nuances, including mugs that shout Death to the Kindle, as well as reminders about Amazon’s inability to pay taxes and postcards, mostly anonymous, that have been sent to the shop expressing a passion for reading in all senses, there is a grounded awareness of keeping books and book traders at their best in this vast shop. This obviously comes from the store itself, but also the community formed by Wigtown and its customers. As I say, a fascinating town.
The Fountain took themselves to Wigtown Book Festival for the concluding weekend, meeting Beth and Ben from The Bookshop Band, Man Booker Prize nominee Graeme Macrae Burnet, played rounders (and I think our team won), got roped into a YA book quiz whilst also being inspired by events with Sarah Bakewell, Amy Liptrot and Max Porter, authors of At the Existentialist Café, The Outrun and Grief Is the Thing With Feathers.
Friday 30th September
After being introduced to the festival director, The Bookshop owner and various other members of the community of Wigtown, Sarah Bakewell’s event on her most recent book was the first on my list. Talking Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir with her new title, At the Existentialist Café, this certainly got the neurons ticking, with this second book of hers being an account of existentialism and the revolutionary thinkers that came to shape it. Featuring not only philosophers, but also playwrights, anthropologists, convicts and revolutionaries, the book follows the existentialists’ story from the first rebellious spark through the Second World War, to its role in postwar liberation movements such as anticolonialism, feminism and gay rights.
Sarah gave us insight that at sixteen years of age she bought Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, a novel of alienation and mystery of being; she has clearly spent a lifetime pondering philosophies. She highlighted that sitting in cafes is a major part of any existentialist story, hence her title, and she also gives a rundown of phenomenology, which is the idea that casts aside the notion that we really know anything, where direct experience becomes significant. The inclusion of the apricot cocktail is highlighted by Bakewell, as she referenced Simone de Beauvoir, “you can start with what’s in front of you with this nearest cocktail” and included it in this book. Along with her informative accounts of the lives of these philosophers, Sartre’s experimentation with mescaline and his rivalry with Albert Camus, she makes her book sound compelling and one that no student of philosophy should miss.
Next on the agenda was Amy Liptrot talking about her Wainwright Prize-winning memoir, The Outrun, a fantastic, mesmerising read, which has no shortage of distress, which should be considered awaiting her appearance on stage. Eccentric and nervously frenetic in her approach with this talk, she read from the title sections on Orkney, where she moves, when the money in London dries up and she has no other option but to head “home.”
The book, which started off, she informed us, as columns in Caught By The River, depicts this transition, and the somewhat healing processing which commences with this move. Sold out, this Wigtown event highlights the emotional and geographical nature of the work. Liptrot herself assessed her book as a “piece of art that is crafting me” whilst the chair and critic, Stuart Kelly, claimed that “moments of thrill and glow” encapsulates The Outrun. She stressed throughout the event that she by no means moved to heal, she healed with her move.
The rest of the afternoon was a little more energetic on my part as I joined the authors’ team in a game of rounders, which not only secreted the serotonin but had its thrills and disappointments as any competitive game does. However, we did win with more runs and there were no disappointments as far as I was concerned.
That same lack of disappointment continued with meeting the Man Booker Prize 2016 nominee, Graeme Macrae Burnet, after his event. Prior to the YA book quiz, Burnet spoke to The Fountain about his good news story, the invites this nomination has opened up to him and a new title: “we don’t have the marketing departments and what not that other publishers do. But I think the Man Booker Prize does seem to be relatively egalitarian in the way it is judged. The judges are given the books and you hoped that they are not swayed by big names and big publishers and such like. On the Scottish literary scene, everyone seems to be happy about it – it’s a good news story”.
His Bloody Project is a story told chronologically, with a voice of severity and a dark element to the book. He mentioned on stage that being shortlisted for the Man Booker has been a, “transformative experience as it widens his readership.” When asked about the opportunities it has opened up such as being at the great festival of Wigtown, he opined, “A wise friend of mine said to me that it’s the same book as it was the week before (after the long-listing). But the perception and the status of the book, well that rubs off on me, having written the book and I am here at Wigtown, which is fantastic and lovely.”
He also mentioned on stage that he is presently working on a new novel, and when we inquired about what we can expect from his new work, he informed us, “I think in terms of story and characters. What is interesting to me is what comes out of the book. For some reason, without me analysing it, they (this and His Bloody Project) might resonate with each other. We will just have to wait and see.”
I was then pulled in by The Wigtown Festival organisers to aid them with their YA book quiz, which had been hosted by two librarians up from Cambridge, manning the well-known Open Book residence where they were staying whilst at Wigtown but also running the bookshop. I am not sure the word aid is appropriate, however, as the team I joined did not score first. I might have to stick to rounders.
Saturday 1st October
The first stop after a mean breakfast and coffee was to speak to Beth Porter and Ben Please, known to most as The Bookshop Band. The team spoke to The Fountain about how they ended up Wigtown Book Festival and also the community essence to the festival. For those of you not in the know they write songs inspired by books, and play them in bookshops around the country and sometimes at book festivals. The band has recorded a whopping 120 book-inspired tunes, coupling them with musical cameos and readings from top authors such as Yann Martell, Ben Okri and Joanne Harris. When we asked how they first came to Wigtown, Ben outlined the wonderful story, “three and a half years ago we came across Wigtown when looking at bookshops whilst on tour in Scotland and the north of England. I got in touch with The Bookshop, but somehow that email got sent onto Adrian at the festival and he suggested we come, so we did, stayed a couple of days and had a really lovely time. Off the back of that Adrian invited us to play at the actual book festival which was happening in October. We unfortunately could not be there as we were getting married on the same day pretty much. And so we suggested the following year which was last year, and it means we get to have our anniversary at Wigtown, which is great.”
Well there you have it, Wigtown is the anniversary destination of choice for some, and when probed further, Beth mentioned that it was the people that made them want to come back, “there is a sense of community, which is lovely. We actually ran the Open Book for two weeks, which was a really good way to get to know lots of people. Again there is a feeling that everyone here wants the festival to do really well. It’s small enough that it seems like a real community. We love it.”
After that I caught the tail end of Max Porter’s event on his new book, which has been causing sensations, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Mentioning that it has now been written in twenty-four different languages he highlighted some of the bizarre sounds that a Catalonian crow might make, things you would not even consider from the art of translation. Digressing and pondering on the book in a more improvised style throughout this talk, Porter really got the audience talking about grief, the conventions and that sometimes we should be permitted to move outside of those. An insightful talk that got people ruminating further about this much-acclaimed title.
Max’s event was followed by a trek to The Open Book to witness Beth and Ben do their thing, performing some tracks from their new spooky stories album. A standout was their rendition of the track which incorporates nothing but first lines from books—an achievement I dare say, but sadly I personally only recognised the one. Leaving the masses milling about to suggest books for the band to write about, and purchase their albums, the final thing to do before heading back to the capital was to take a wander down to the harbour, inhale the breeze, look out for birds and reflect on this wonderful festival.
As the festival prospers under the hands of Anne Barclay and Adrian Turpin, as well as more importantly the local volunteers, I must say I am already looking forward for more to come, as this experience, as Sarah Bakewell might suggest, has been an existential one. It is a festival with resonance, where authenticity is obviously present. It allows for that moment of being aware that we can touch, feel, inhale and breathe it. I too, like Beth from The Bookshop Band, love it.
For more on the festival do visit their website.