Hazel McHaffie

Scotland’s National Book Town

Virtual Wigtown Book Festival

What a  week! What a treat! I’ve returned to Wigtown, over in the south west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, this time for their annual Book Festival – for the very first time a virtual event.

Before each session the camera has taken me through the town with its plethora of independent bookshops, and I’ve been reminded of the unique atmosphere and warm welcome Scotland’s National Book Town extends.

I was spoilt for choice. A few sessions were actually filmed in Wigtown in the familiar arrangement of author and interviewer actually speaking to one another, appropriately socially distanced; most were from homes or offices around the UK and abroad. And what a rich variety of topics were covered, light-hearted and deadly serious, entertaining as well as challenging. A taster will suffice for my purposes.

Wigtown’s own curmudgeonly bookshop owner, Shaun Bythell, now author of two bestsellers, ‘nibbling away at the hands of those who feed him’ in his confessions of a bookseller, appeared on his home turf. Except that he’s now undergone something of a transformation since I last saw him: neatly trimmed hair, smartly dressed, positively benign about his fellow man! Hello? Fatherhood seems to have smoothed some of his jagged edges!

Award-winning freelance Scottish journalist Peter Ross was new to me. He gave a fascinating insight into his work and writing about graveyards, weaving stories about the living as well as the dead, in a gentle almost reverential tone. And yes, the story of Wigtown’s martyrs featured. He came across as rather shy, but his writing style is assured and beautiful – a joy to hear some of his choice phrases and astute observations.

Writer, photographer, crofter, sheep-breeder, Tamsin Calidas, gave a mesmerising account of her life on a remote Hebridean island, battling the savage weather, local animosity, betrayal, and fearful loneliness. Her session ended with a film from within the waves around her island home, made by her, and overlaid with her voice paying tribute to the healing power of cold water swimming. Altogether moving and uplifting. And her own inner peace, achieved through a catalogue of vicissitudes, pervaded her responses.

More well-known personalities included Alastair Campbell, appearing, not to talk about the years as political aide and strategist to Tony Blair, but to share his levelling experience of depression and alcoholism, and to appeal for more understanding of mental illness. It seemed somehow appropriate that his image was poorly-focused and quite dark, capturing a much softer and more likeable person than in the political glory days.

It was against a backdrop of books and folders that Baroness Helena Kennedy shared something of her multitudinous and high profile activities as a barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties, as she was questioned by a reporter from Beirut. She’s been involved in a number of infamous international cases, and shared fascinating details of specific incidents, as well as her opinions on world leaders and regimes. Rivetting stuff.

One of my favourite event speakers, forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, gave her inimitable insights into her work and knowledge of bones, combining facts and stories to bring a potentially dry subject to life. What constitutes a ‘good hanging’? How you can determine so much about a person from fragments of their skeleton. How the bones of a newborn baby can survive from Roman times. How much she enjoys working with crime writers. And even though she frequents haunts like murder scenes or disaster sites, her joy of life, her sense of the ridiculous, bear out her philosophy: ‘You have to work by the light rather than let yourself be consumed by the darkness.’

These and others kept me enthralled – and all from the comfort of my own home. Hats off to organisations everywhere who have risen to the challenges of life under a pandemic with such energy and professionalism. The opportunity to escape to a book festival has to be a brilliant tonic for isolated writers everywhere.

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The front line: then and now

Health Minister and Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, was the first member of parliament to be diagnosed with Covid-19. This was back in early March … at a time when there were only 382 reported cases in UK, only 6 people had died. Halcyon days, huh? Less than two months later, we’ve already exceeded 26,000 deaths!

The news about Ms Dorries triggered a memory: I’d read somewhere that she was a trained nurse, and intrigued, I’d bought two of her ‘nursey’ novels in a coffee shop on my way to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town a couple of years ago, stuck them on my shelves, and promptly forgotten about them – The Angels of Lovely Lane and Christmas Angels. Time, methinks, to dig them out and read them … a kind of tribute to the nurses today working so hard to care for people with the virus in a very different world.

I must confess neither the genre, nor the style of writing, are ones I’d normally go for, but there were aspects of these books that gave me pause for thought and sober reflection. These nurses were practising not long before I trained; their experiences resonated with me. Rather like BBC1’s drama, Call the Midwife.

Reading about and recalling those days made me so grateful for all that modern medicine and social care can offer today. How far we have come from those days when
– the NHS was in its infancy
– antibiotics were wonder-drugs
– women had limited career options
– smoking was the norm
– lecture notes were written on typewriters using carbon paper
– rubber tubing was boiled before being inserted into various orifices
– patients were lifted manually
– doctors were revered and all powerful
– women died or were imprisoned following illegal abortions
– ten days bedrest was de rigeur after a simple D&C; three weeks after childbirth
– nurses wore starched collars and frilly caps, always kept their hair off their face tucked inside their caps, lived in hostels with rigid rules, and were all known by their surnames
– silver buckles on petersham belts denoted qualifications
– the Irish were openly discriminated against …

Compare all that with communication, technology, medical expertise, opportunities, science, in 2020. What would have happened if the dreaded coronavirus has struck then?

In her fiction centring on Liverpool in the 1950s, Nadine Dorries has captured a world I knew, and for a few days took me away from the uncertainties and restrictions and anxieties of our present situation, to a bygone era. Memories both happy and sad. But overwhelmingly reasons to be devoutly grateful for what’s available to us today, and the amazing work our front-line staff are doing – and are able to do – to beat Covid-19.

 

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The Other Hand

How about this for the blurb on the back cover of a book?
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there …

Brave publisher, huh? Trusting author.

Well, I did buy The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, on the strength of this intriguing sales pitch. I was hoovering up books in Scotland’s National Book town, after all! And wow! it is indeed a special story. It was shortlisted for the 2008 COSTA Novel Award and has attracted terrific reviews: ‘a feat of literary engineering’,  ‘a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency’, ‘profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop’. All richly deserved.

I can’t reveal the plot to you because the instruction from the publisher is specific:
Once you’ve read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

And ‘unfolds’ is the right world. The past and present are seamlessly woven together, each action having an influence which ripples out to create a reaction, which in turn has new consequences. Masterly plotting. And the writing is wonderful, the voices and dialogues pitch-perfect. Somehow the author manages to juxtapose gut-wrenching horror and laugh-out-loud humour without compromising either. I’ve no idea how he does it. From the first line: Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl‘ to the closing Nigerian proverb: If your face is swollen from the severe beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man, this book will hold you in a vice-like grip at once shocking and deeply affecting but also entertaining.

Star of the show is the character who pens the above first sentence: Little Bee, a 16-year-old orphaned Nigerian refugee with impeccable Queen’s English. Indeed she often likens herself to ‘Queen Elizabeth the Second of England’. She and her story will haunt you for days after you’ve read her final words. And we all need to wake up to stories like hers.

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Inside Scotland’s National Book Town

Fourteen independent bookshops in one tiny town? Surely … surely they can’t all survive buried in a remote location deep in a large rural county, way off the beaten track … can they?

You haven’t been to Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, then!

From their names to their ambience, their range of genres to their quirky extras, they’re all distinctive, all appealing.

Pop in to the rustic cafe: ReadingLasses, and you get a sense of how special and distinctive this place is. Tables are scattered throughout the rooms; you bag a seat, and while you wait for your soup to arrive, you browse the books, take in the extensive ceiling-height display of old family photos and artefacts belonging to owner, Dr Jackie, (she was a scientist amongst other things in a former life), slip in to the Women’s Room devoted to lesbian literature and women writers … By the time I’d finished lunch I had five books ready to purchase. It’s irresistible.

Excellent signposting, alphabetic sorting, isn’t confined to the Old Bank Bookshop where co-proprietor, Joyce Cochrane, is a qualified librarian; it seems to be a specialty of the town – so much easier to browse effectively compared with the more haphazard displays I’m used to in the city.

Most of the bookshops are divided into several rooms, inviting you to roam in peace, lingering to flick through possible purchases on the ubiquitous sofas and chairs. Bliss. One shop (The Bookshop) even has a large bed filling a little mezzanine area!!

Not surprising maybe as the owner, Shaun Bythell, is a rather eccentric chap with a whacky sense of humour which you see at every turn.

He is himself a published author as well as owning this the largest secondhand bookshop anywhere in the country, a Grade II-listed Georgian building, holding upwards of 10,000 books and a mile of shelving!

Talk about ramshackle! … and no, I hadn’t caught him on moving-in day!! The place is littered with hazards and piles and boxes and assorted paraphernalia, (I think Shaun would probably give Health and Safety a pretty good run for their money!) but it’s well worth the danger, if you escape without being vilified in his pithy diaries of a bookseller!

But Wigtown is way, way more than a list of assets. As you’ll have gathered, the owners of the said bookshops have fabulous pedigrees – including in their number not just the aforementioned scientist and librarian, but a sheriff/criminal QC, a social worker, teachers – lovely lovely people only too ready to share their stories as well as their welcoming premises. Maybe it’s true that it’s a universal dream …?

It’s on that theory at least that they’ve based another project at The Open Book – billed as a ‘unique holiday experience’. Members of the general public can come to run the bookshop for a couple of weeks, and they do indeed come, from around the world – it’s fully booked until 2021!

I have no idea how everyone copes with the competition behind the scenes, but there was a warm spirit of camaraderie in what they divulged to me, backed up by the enthusiastic team in the Wigtown Book Festival Office. And there’s nothing ‘part-time retirement project’ about their ventures: these people know what’s on their shelves, they converse knowledgeably about authors, they’ve carefully retained a personal touch alongside the rustic country charm and history of their premises.

Sadly the Byre Books shop wasn’t open on weekdays in November, but it’s like a secret surprise hidden down a back alley at the end of a tunnel of trees; such a perfect location for books on folklore and mythology. I crept down there twice just to savour the thrilling approach.

Friday morning was my leaving date, but I simply had to visit the newest bookshop: Well-Read Books, just opened (Friday to Monday only at the moment) by former criminal QC/sheriff, Ruth Anderson, so I popped down to the Wetlands to see the geese until she opened at 10. And boy, was it worth the delay. From the beautiful logo drawn by a local artist to the muted decor, it’s tastefully decorated (still smelling of paint it’s that new) and so beautifully organised, books in such good condition, it’s like a showcase.

But this charming lady knows her subjects – many! It’s her ambition to source specific titles for customers and she totally made my day week year by producing not one but two Mary Elizabeth Braddons for me without advance warning.

Rare treasures, so, of course, I had to snap up both.

Time and space don’t allow me to detail more and retain your goodwill, but every bookshop was an experience, and I supported their ventures by purchasing no fewer than 35 books – only two of which were on my list! Thank you, Wigtown, for a fabulous experience.

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A bookworm’s paradise

Head in the general direction of Dumfries, then point your nose towards the Atlantic Ocean, and with luck you’ll stumble upon a tiny little place called Wigtown, population less than 900.

Small in mathematical dimensions it may be, but Wigtown punches way above its weight in other senses. In 1998, it went from a decaying backwater to become ‘Scotland’s National Book Town’ (after winning a competition against more flourishing towns such as Dunblane and Moffat), a development which acted as a catalyst for major community regeneration.

The rejuvenated and very splendid County Buildings are a monument to the drive to put this sleepy little place on the map. Supportive funding from many sources, and the sterling work of some hugely dedicated enthusiasts, have helped it go from strength to strength.

And boy, does it merit the title of National Book Town twenty years on! Why?
Big breath in …
Because …
it has a thriving annual Book Festival each September – selling in the region of 29,000 tickets this year for 290 events;
plus it masterminds several smaller, more specialist book and festive events in January, March and May and July (that I heard about – there could well be more);
plus it organises outreach literary activities for schools and prisons and care homes and budding writers;
plus it offers opportunities for members of the general public from around the world to realise their dream of running a book shop for a couple of weeks in The Open Book;
plus it currently boasts 14 independent bookshops, and a further 6 book-related businesses;
plus the largest secondhand bookshop anywhere in the country  – a Grade II-listed Georgian building, holding upwards of 10,000 books and a mile of shelving!
And breathe out …

Quaint, pretty, picturesque, atmospheric ‘ the blurb has it, cultural gems nestling cheek by jowl with delightful little tea rooms (also full of books!), a heady mixture of old Scots common sense and farming traditions leavening the literary landscape.

Its own martyrs,

its own stone circle,
its own famous names and connections.

It’s even got a toe in nature conservation, bordered as it is by a nature reserve (which stretches all the way to Newton Stewart in the North and Creetown in the West), home to exotic species of migrant geese down in the saltmarshes; offering easily accessed bird/squirrel hides;

ospreys in the skies; wonderful forest trails a few minutes drive away.

What’s not to like?

I’ve just spent a couple of days there lapping up all the literary references and browsing and exploring. What a treat. Even in November. This tiny town nestling at the remote edge of a vast pastoral county is thriving to such an extent that most of the shops and cafes stay open all year round.

During the September Festival this year – its 20th anniversary – the town was spectacularly decorated with special outdoor wallpaper designed by artist Astrid Jaekel under the theme: If these walls could talk. Each set of drawings illustrated a unique part of that particular building’s history. Some of it is still in situ, so I could see why unsuspecting drivers almost collided with each other when they encountered it initially; ‘striking’ doesn’t do it justice.

You might have noticed that, at the beginning of this month, The Royal Society for Public Health produced a report: Health on the High Street: Running on Empty. It found that ‘unhealthy’ high streets could be taking up to two and a half years off people’s lives. Unhealthy = full of bookmakers and off-licences (points also deducted for payday lenders, fast food outlets, tanning salons, empty shops); healthy = libraries and pharmacies (bonus points also for dentists, opticians, coffee shops, museums and galleries). Yep, I think we can see an inherent weighting here! Anyway … overall our beautiful city, Edinburgh, came top of the health stakes. But, you know what? I reckon Wigtown would be up there in the big league if it were scored. It’s a tonic of a town.

I loved it. And I plan to take you inside some of these fascinating bookshops next week to share my experience of browsing and buying there.

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