So I went to the festival and watched this fly with unusually long legs that was more like a spider (but it was flying) drift around above the writers heads at the International Writers Conference. I was pretty sure it was the spirit of Burroughs just checking into see what was happening fifty years after the major conference he attended in 1962. There was a slightly manic energy around, writers who became more dishevelled as the weeks went on. I got a shot on the same typewriter used by Sylvia Plath and had some odd conversations in the yurt. There was a man who claimed to be able to heal all pain. A lecturer stealing sandwiches who told me that Jeremy Benthem is stuffed and on display in University College of London. This pleased me. He said the lecturers used to wheel him into meetings sometimes. Then his head fell off. So they made a new one.
Ali Smith read a story about a woman whose heart becomes wooden branches that grow out her chest and begin to bud. I have chatted with Ali before but when she reads, she really is a cut above, a cut apart, she is a writer who knows how to cut, to cauterise. I was reminded of Patti Smith talking about flying shamans in society, about writers, or musicians who are flying shamans, and what that means. That drew me back to an interview I had with the artist Michael Parkes where he talked about his painting of Venus, with Mercury flying down to show the gods that this avatar’s arrival is an earth shattering, life-changing event. He said that when he tried to paint Venus he was trying to paint behind the veil, to capture the essence of something that is truly beautiful. I thought it was a political stance to take against a world that favours nihilistic art at times. It’s not that nihilism is not valid at times, it’s just that he was saying that for all this worlds trouble at the very centre, at the absolute pulse, is this light. This absolute, unbelievable light. It’s what he is searching for as an artist. He sends out a pulse, or a radar that other artists respond to because they recognise this pulse too. So I was chatting to Ali about this and it felt like a very 1962 conversation but a very important one and I was totally inspired by meeting her. Kelman was astounding as ever. I saw him twice. He had the launch for his new novel Mo Said She Was Quirky (I got mine signed) at Word Power bookshop. Word Power is one of the coolest independent book shops in the world and when I’m there I always happen upon some new interesting person, or political discovery, or novel, or poem. Elaine who runs the place is a fount of all things useful to literati and readers alike, if you are ever in town then please do pop along there. Anyway. Kelman read from an essay he’d written about the original 1962 Writers Conference, and the reasons why he was choosing not to actively chair a day at the event. I will post his essay below. Occasionally I am aware that I am in the presence of someone who is so thoroughly grounded in a sharp, political, humane, fundamentally generous truth as an artist, that I feel both humbled and like a total idiot — Kelman is one of those few people. Writers today are expected to provide many elements of a ‘package’ that is becoming standard within the industry. I have been fortunate to not be too touched by that myself right now but I see it all the time. Kelman reminds me that it is absolutely, irrevocably, okay to just be who you are as an artist. I use the word artist quite deliberately with Kelman because to me he is a master painter (with words) he is the kind of person you should study (like the young painters did back in the day) and you should not be sidelined by the controversy that seems to follow him because it is far less interesting than he is. I think people focus on his political elements because he is so powerfully honest. So I saw him twice, and he signed my book and I got to chat with him a wee bit and was probably still in the kind of awkward space I might be if I happened upon Kafka at a reading but nevertheless it reminded me that all I ever need to do is to write from a true place. By that I mean — if I write from a place that is true then it will produce something of worth. Everytime. It’s not up to me too much to worry too much about plot or what is readable, or entertaining, or marketable or any of those other concerns — that really is the business of people who sell windows — not people who are trying to express something fundamental about being. Is this overly hippified shit? I don’t know but writers like that, or like Welsh at the writers conference, they do something that is about a definitive freedom, and confidence, to develop work without limitations — other than your own. People who are caught up in the academics, in the technicality, in the mechanics — they are missing something vital. So these wee fleeting moments in the festival were great for me, like a wee shot of peyote in the desert, just enough to get a writer through winter. I have come home since the festival and finished my thesis (on writers from the periphery and the importance of peripheral works to the future of literature) which helped me clarify why my approach to words is important, and why I will stick by it.
So I have almost finished by short story collection and I am back into writing my new novel. As Kelman said when he was interviewed by Liz Lochhead — the only thing that is ever important is to return to the words. Things will change. The world will change. We may or may not be able to pay our electricity bill and that is nothing new. What still matters putting down what you choose/how you choose to do so. That might mean writing without thinking. That might mean planning every element. It might mean really learning how to listen so a voice can come through that is not just a puppetry of lit-shittery. What I think about is how totally fleeting this existence is and how I understand less about it each year and when I go, I want to know that I wrote what I had to — pure and true. To have that single minded desire to make one word follow another, or to follow one word through another as time passes.
That’s what happens, then the sun rises, and the beach light is grey, and the telly license people are still total idiots, and milk needs bought and the baby has just reminded you that this exact instant is the only one that really counts.
It is what it is.
During the festival I also read at Summerhall, in a room with a hook in the ceiling where they used to hang horses to dissect them. The place had a great atmospheric stripped back vibe about it. The event was Bucket of Tongues organised by Kevin Williamson (stole the show) Irvine Welsh (a genius and a gent) and a team of writers from Chicago vs Edinburgh brought into entertain the good and the ugly. It was sweaty, it was real, it was my favourite event of the festival. It was nice to meet Alan Bissett properly and see part of his surreal spider show. John Hemingway’s stories about his father and Norman Mailer were profoundly humane, surreal and hilarious. I met the owner of the new venue afterwards and had a great chat about Patti Smith, masturbation, and the process of creating an arts venue to rival any other in Europe. It’s an exciting venture, Neu Reekie are going to make their home there and I will be reading at their opening night this month (Belle & Sebastian are on the bill) as well as some amazing readers and animation. It’s nice to move home from London and find something like Neu Reekie going on, it has an energy, a now-ness about it you know. You should go — or be square and shit-bored daddy O.
This month I’m really pleased to be mentioned in Polari by Michael Langan recommending The Panopticon on their weeks reading list x
Here is Kelman’s article on The British Council and the Edinburgh Writers Conference
And now here are The Dirty Three to play you out …