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Ian Rankin

By David Black

Fresh in to Tramopolis – the city formerly known as Edinburgh – and what’s all this? Some sort of a literary stooshie, it would appear. For the most part, these whipped up altercations are very much the business of scribes in the non-fiction field, where properly researched evidence has to be weighed and conclusions reached. This is meat and drink for, say, the more combative economists, who frequently can’t agree with themselves, never mind each other.

As a spectator sport, however, it’s the historians who excel at the grudge-matches. Professor Tom Devine on the subject of the man he refers to as ‘the unspeakable Michael Fry’ is a phenomenon which could never be mistaken for a ray of sunshine, and it doesn’t stop there. This is how historians are meant to behave, of course. Why else do we bother to buy their books? Or at least the ones left unincinerated by their rivals.McCall Smith

Fiction is another world, one might have thought. It’s all about stories made up in the authors’ heads, so there isn’t any evidence to argue over. In Tramopolis, let’s face it, for those who hit the mark, life is an absolute bed of roses. The ruling Merchiston Writer’s Block triumverate of Rankin, McCall Smith, and Rowling could pay for the hated tram project in its entirety and still have enough left over for a great night out. JK is said to be richer than the Queen, and the earnings from her Pottering have even enabled her once dog-eared publishers to move into a palatial Georgian mansion in London’s Bedford Square. So what’s going on?

It couldn’t be called a spat, exactly – Edinburgh’s much too genteel for such things – but a very minor contretemps would seem to have arisen over the image of the city, and indeed the country, as portrayed in the currently popular genre of Scottish crime fiction. Are we over-emphasising the negative, asks Alexander McCall Smith, author of various essentially up-beat texts such as The Number One Ladies Detective Agency? Is all the gritty realism of the gloom and grime school really real, when it really comes down to it?

Mr McCall Smith would appear to be defending his right to produce books which some have discerned as unduly optimistic, rather than attacking purveyors of the blood and gore seamy underbelly of modern Scotland. He’s an old friend of Ian Rankin’s, after all, and has no wish to rattle the teacups. Yet he touches a raw nerve here.

From the recent vantage point of America, it seems to me that Scotland, right now, is a country largely understood through its literary output. In Nashua, New Hampshire, I was sitting on a bus minding my own business when a gaggle of elderly ladies climbed aboard, each with a copy of Mr McCall Smith’s latest offering. This was the local book club, and it was on its way to meet up with another book club in Boston, where they would be dissecting every dot and comma of the McCall Smith masterwork – something the author, with his expertise in forensics, would probably have approved of.

Then, only a couple of weeks ago, I was trying to navigate my way around a mountain of Mr Rankin’s latest paperbacks in Austin airport. Apparently Texans love him. So do New Yorkers, evidently, for there were just as many of them taking up space in JFK – and DC’s Union Station bookshop, and in fact anywhere that sells books, as far as I could make out. His accountant probably loves him too.

This isn’t a literary argument in the Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal sense of the word, with fisticuffs being deployed, so there’s no point in taking sides, though, like Alexander McCall Smith, I sometimes wonder if we damage our national reputation with our penchant for emphasising the dark, tormented side of Caledonia’s soul. Maybe so, but I hope it won’t discourage Texans from reading all about Inspector Rebus.

It’s all a bit Edinburgh 19th century, if you ask me, with those of a lofty Walter Scott mindset attending to their quaint social niceties, while the renegade Stevensonians write about hanging out with bad girls in the disreputable hostelries of Lower Calton. Old Town-New Town Edinburgh thrives on all this dualism – it’s the city’s unique selling feature, indeed. We should have more of it, not less. If we lost our seamy underside, we’d simply damage our Brand, and be reduced to a dull place of lawyers, accountants, and unhelpful shop assistants.

That said, sometimes the negative can be over-emphasised. Years ago I had some truck with a clubbish place known as the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, then based on Giles Street, in Leith – Edinburgh’s Docklands area. One day I noticed half a dozen people with spray cans defacing a section of the street with grafitti. They didn’t look like a tearaway gang of feral teenagers out off their heads on crack – more a bunch of respectable casual-smart middle class creatives undertaking an assigned task – they were even being supervised by a man with a clip board. Meanwhile, right next door, in the Society’s plush rooms, respectable Edinburgh lawyers, accountants, and professorial types were esconced in comfortable armchairs with their single malts and discussing affairs of state and high culture. One street, two worlds, on the face of it.

The car repair workshop proprietor across the way was looking on with a certain pensive resignation. I asked what on earth was going on – shouldn’t he be telephoning the police? Apparently not. Everything was above board. The spray-painters were set designers, and a cast and crew would be along in a day or so. The real Leith just hadn’t been gritty enough for the film they were about to shoot – Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting. It seems that the local ne’er-do-well benefit claimants were just too damned lazy to get out of bed in the morning to trash their surroundings with cryptic gang slogans and Papal insults, so the film’s producers had decided to make the necessary corrective and give the place the appearance of an abandoned railway sidings in the Bronx. They’d promised to tidy up nicely after the film crew had moved on. The local residents, one imagines, can only have felt vaguely denigrated by this fake portrayal of their locality.

Here we enter the world of Tony Kushner’s ‘poet’s truth’ – an assertion which, if it emanated from the mouth of a non-poet, would very quickly be recognised as a lie. It seems to have been Kushner’s technique for explaining away a mistake he’d made in his ‘Lincoln’ screenplay – that’s by the by. There was nothing of the poet’s truth in the trashing of Giles Street. Leith has its pockets of deprivation and its drug abusers, but it simply does not spawn the levels of grafitti you’d find in a Bronx railway yard.

But that didn’t suit the film-maker’s agenda, or catch the spirit of Trainspotting. Leith had to be made into something other than itself to achieve the required dramatic effect – a drug infested dystopian sink hole of crime, depravity, and urban decay. The film was a runaway international success, and in terms of its production values and the quality of its acting it undoubtedly deserved to be. Moreover it never claimed to be a documentary, so its director, Danny Boyle, can happily take refuge in the ‘poet’s truth defence – this was a Leith of Mr Boyle’s and Mr Welsh’s imagination, nothing more, nothing less. My granny – the personification of respectability – came from Leith, so I’m kind of angry, but I’m working on getting over it with the help of a few friends in the Port o’ Leith pub. We can take these knocks, believe me.

It wasn’t quite the same when another film crew visited a leafy quarter of Edinburgh’s New Town to make an episode of Ian Rankin’s ‘Rebus’ TV series. Prior to becoming a member of the peripatetic classes I lived in such an enchanted place, and was startled one afternoon to come across a gruesome scene in the Water of Leith, the picturesque river at the end of our salubrious street. Two policemen in high visibility jackets and black waders were pulling a corpse out of the water and dragging it on to the opposite bank. For a moment I was horrified, then someone shouted ‘cut’. The corpse stood up and started drying itself with a towel.

This as you can imagine was a great relief – God knows what a murder would have done for the Ann Street property values. I then caught sight of Ken Stott, who is to Rebus what Sean Connery is to Bond, and our paths in life having crossed now and again, I stopped to have a chat. Despite the chilling conviction he once brought to the role of a ruthless and corrupt Israeli arms dealer in ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ Ken Stott is a perfectly nice man who would obviously wish no harm upon his native city, or choose to besmirch its international reputation. Moreover, in the days when I used to watch TV I was an avid follower of Rebus, so if there is some problem with the city’s reputation being besmirched, then I’m obviously complicit in the process.

On the other hand, if hundreds of thousands of Americans are buying Mr Rankin’s books what sort of picture are they getting of Scotland? Since they’re literate, it can probably be assumed they have the intelligence to work out that not all Scots are going around murdering each other, much as I long ago worked out for myself that not all Americans are replicating the plots of Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ or Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Indeed, given that you can hardly get into the Oxford Bar some days because of the crowds of Rankin fans being conducted around the ‘Rebus Trail’ it would seem that the city is picking up a substantial revenue net benefit. This is great business, like Morse’s Oxford, and Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. Crime certainly pays when it’s a matter of generating an income in the tourism sector.

The point which Alexander McCall Smith is apparently raising is not about the desirability, or otherwise, of gritty Scottish crime fiction. It’s simply that the grittiness is not the only thing in Scotland worth writing about. Dostoyevsky’s description of Raskolnikov murdering his pawnbroker is undoubtedly great literature, but because of that simple fact it hardly follows that Proust’s nostalgic meditation on his madeleine cake is, ipso facto, not great literature. If a national literature is about anything, surely it is about the diversity of the nation, rather than its perceived one sidedness.

Gritty realist novels dealing with gruesome crime and demotic dysfunctionalism are a valid and legitimate literary genre, but they are not the entire modern Scottish canon, as those who are critically dissatisfied with, say, Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels, seem to imagine. Whimsy and the quaint observation of everyday events within a bourgeois-bohemian milieu – even with the occasional murder – can hardly be excluded from the category of serious literature simply because the author is skimping on hard violence, deprivation and social breakdown, and not saying enough about the impoverished working class.

As the standard bearers of a recognisably Scottish literary ‘brand’, authors of the calibre of Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin, amongst many others, should be both cherished and promoted – all of them. No literary form should be regarded as better than worse than any other – that way lies the commissariat of some Soviet-style Academy of Literature dividing the approved from the non-approved.

And the faked-up grafitti of Giles Street? – that’s something else altogether. The great lie masquerading as the poet’s truth, perhaps. Granny would not be pleased.

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Twitter – @Black_Scape


Janet Archer who takes over as Head of Creative Scotland in July

It’s taken a full six months but the wait to have a new head of Creative Scotland, the country’s national arts funding body, is finally over. Janet Archer, currently director of dance at Arts Council England, will move into her post in next month. A former dancer and choreographer, she was a founder and artistic director of the Nexus Dance Company.

Creative Scotland logoThe organisation has been without a leader since Andrew Dixon resigned in December last year, following a protest by artists. 100 people, including novelist Ian Rankin and poet Liz Lochhead, signed an open letter attacking both the management and the running of the organisation. They claimed the whole operation was in an “ongoing crisis” and condemned the decision-making process. The protests began after a range of arts bodies, including the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Edinburgh Mela, were told by letter that they would no longer receive a regular grant from the Spring. Ms Archer now faces the challenge of rebuilding confidence in Creative Scotland, but said she was “thrilled and excited” by her new role.

Her appointment came as a surprise. She hadn’t even been amongst those rumoured for the job. But she said she was “thrilled at the chance to take on this important role for the arts, screen and creative industries in Scotland. The passion and intelligence emerging out of recent debate has reinforced the vital role Creative Scotland has to play as a partner and facilitator. I’m simply delighted to have the opportunity to contribute towards Scotland’s creative future and look forward to working with people everywhere to unlock talent, drive opportunity and grow artistic and cultural capital for this amazingly ambitious nation.”

Sir Sandy Crombie, Chair of Creative Scotland added that she would take over “at a time of huge opportunities to highlight Scotland’s artistic excellence and achievements in the run up to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and beyond.”

Janet Archer is no stranger to Scotland having worked frequently here in the past, most recently at the artist-led organisation The Work Room, which is based at the Tramway in Glasgow.

by Tom Morton

And so we are more or less atop the whisky-buying, whisky-receiving, whisky-consuming peaks of the year, namely Christmas and Hogmanay. Convenient liquid presents have been purchased or received, some of them perhaps on the expensive side. The very, very expensive side, when it comes to certain limited edition bottlings.

And lo, so it was that a very expensive bottling of whisky arrived on my doorstep, and the decision had to be taken: Keep as an investment, or cut through that hand-sealed wax topping and unleash the spirits within.

How expensive? Well, a quick check online with the sole internet seller of Aberfeldy Single Cask 21-year-old, Royal Mile Whiskies, revealed that it’s a fairly stern £199.95 a bottle. Mind you, there are only 172 of them in existence, empty or full or inbetween, and they are very special, contents aside. The bottling, done on 10 October 2012, was specially for the Ian Rankin-curated Aberfeldy Festival, and the exquisite labels were designed and hand-printed by Aberfeldy-based artist Ryan Hannigan. The honey bee theme is intended to reflect the character of the dram.

Ryan first came to my notice due to hearing his excellent band The Starwheel Press, named after an item of printing equipment in his studio and responsible for the wonderful album Life Cycle of a Falling Bird. That album also features a beautiful hand-printed cover and provides an appropriate soundtrack to consumption of the whisky we’re talking about here.

And it should be consumed. I am a militant opponent of the unopened bottle. Indeed, I am a militant opponent of the unfinished bottle. Collecting rare whiskies, especially buying them online or at auction, is a dangerous business. The money is always in unopened bottles; but how do you know? Little skill is needed to decant the contents from a rare bottle, refill with one of the brownish supermarket’s-own-brand products, and then reseal. And who’s going to taste the stuff anyway? It is destined to sit in a glass case or on a shelf, the subject of longing gazes and an absolute unwillingness to contemplate the idea of that expensive brown liquid actually being the worst and cheapest Lidl to offer.

So don’t collect. Open and drink. with due ceremony, of course. On a special occasion. I do have one resolutely unopened bottle of whisky, which I helped blend, and which was bottled to celebrate a long motorcycle trip I participated in. That is earmarked for drinking when my own big journey is over, and I’m not around to taste it. Again. and that will be it for Journey’s Blend.

The Aberfeldy, though, I opened and tried. We shall partake of it, carefully, over Christmas and Hogmanay. And it is, I have to say , rather wonderful.

On the nose, despite it’s strength (55.3 per cent) it carries nothing of the acrid phenolic or acetone notes you can find even in very old and expensive drams. It is creamy, honeyed, all Caramac and golden syrup, yet fresh and leafy too. Only after a wee while does the forest floor, leaf mould and always exciting warehouse darkness come flooding in.

A touch of water added, and in the mouth it is light and zesty without being unpleasantly burny. For such an old whisky, it really zings with life. Honey and malt, caramel and carrot cake, ginger snap biscuits. None of the creaky gentleman’s club leather sofas-and-cigars tones you get from more heavily sherried whiskies.

And then to the finish. Breathe, and the cultivated smoothness, the civilized nature of this dram envelopes you. No stinging. Banana bread with a touch of cinnamon. Lovely. Another? Don’t mind if I do.

I’m going to take a week break over Christmas and New Year, for, ahem, research purposes. Much more dramming and imbibing news in 2013. Meanwhile, as a wee present, here’s a song from my Malt and Barley Revue live show, which will be happening in a fuller, funnier version in 2013. Have a great time.

by Tom Morton

Having finished and thoroughly enjoyed Ian Rankin’s latest novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I was surfing a wave of self-regarding pleasure at the mention of ‘Dolphinsludge’ – a word I invented years ago in my Scotsman column as a pseudonym for lovely Inverness – and the fact that (former) Detective Chief Inspector John Rebus apparently listens, or has listened, to my BBC Radio Scotland show.

Be that as it may, never in reading a Rankin book have I been so struck by Rebus’s affection for whisky. This is due in part to SIAMG’s geographical scope: Rebus makes several road trips in the novel, from his beloved Edinburgh to the far north of Scotland, along the A9, the infamous road which is crucial to the serial-killer plot. Incidentally, the hardback – available at half list price on Amazon – comes with lovely end-paper colour maps of the Highlands. A case for not Kindling. On the various journeys, he tends to ‘salute’ the distilleries he passes. And quite right.

There is, of course, plenty of beer, too, and a smattering of vodka. Good old Deuchar’s IPA for the most part, when it comes to ale. And a great deal of music, for Rebus (and Rankin) are both inveterate rock fans, especially in the form of traditional, analogue vinyl records. Though of course Rebus listens to CDs in his car, a venerable Saab he has a slightly worrying tendency to talk to and occasionally pat.

It struck me that a SIAMG drinking game could be a useful adjunct to, say, a book group taking on the novel or perhaps a solo re-reading. And providing a proper soundtrack of the actual records or artists mentioned in the book would accompany that rather effectively. Or, you could simply reflect on the book without re-reading it, just listening to the music and drinking. A Spotify playlist may be the easiest way of achieving this.

To save time, here’s a handy guide. It should be said from the start that the title of the book is what’s called a ‘Mondegreen’, a mishearing of a song lyric. The name comes from The Bonny Earl o’ Moray, and the verse which goes:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Or indeed ‘laid him on the green’. Rebus mishears the song ‘Standing in Another Man’s Rain’ by the late Jackie Leven (a Fifer, like both Rebus and Rankin) as ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’. This becomes one of the novel’s recurring motifs. Indeed, a Jackie Leven album – I still think the early The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery of Death is his best – should be on standby at all times, as Leven lyrics are used as subtitles for each section of the book.

We are quickly on to other musicians, though, indeed we are listening (with Rebus) to music before any whisky gets consumed. Bert Jansch (solo), Pentangle with John Renbourn, John Renbourn solo and collaboration of the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson with Renbourn as well. Then there’s Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison before we even get to the first unnamed whisky, possibly a blend.

Musically, we then begin a long run of Led Zeppelin references, as one of the cops involved is a James Page, as in Zep guitarist Jimmy. . He is referred to jokingly at various times as Physical Graffitti, Communication Breakdown, Custard Pie (a Page and Plant song, post Zeppelin) Trampled Underfoot and then, once again (an in-joke, this, as earlier long-term sidekick Siobhan Clarke has challenged Rebus not to run out of Zeppelin song titles) as Physical Graffitti .

Music that is actually played, though, continues with Kate Bush (the extremely strange song Misty, which involves, well, a girl and a snowman), Jackie Leven again, and a trip to Pilochry, where salutes are given to Edradour, and the Blair Atholl Distillery, which is referred to several times as Bell’s (Blair Athol is the signature malt in the Bell’s blend and Blair Athol has a Bell’s ‘Visitor Experience’).

Back in Edinburgh, some Glenlivet is drunk (and paid for) an unnamed dram is consumed at a posh hotel, then another, before we’re heading back up north again. Tips of the Rebus bunnet go to Tomatin, Dalwhinnie Glenmorangie, Glen Ord and Dalmore, but not, curiously, to the whisky made in the village of Edderton – a location crucial to the plot and visited several times. That would be Balblair, and very nice it is too.
More whisky is consumed without it being named – frustratingly, we do not hear about the Dornoch Castle Hotel’s ‘good range of malts’ other than that Rebus had ‘one too many’. Then there’s a mention of anCnoc, over to the east.

More music, please: The venerable Michael Chapman (Fully Qualified Survivor is the album to have) and Spooky Tooth, a late 60s psychedelic blues rock combo. Time for another mention of Tomatin, two more anonymous drams, and an imaginary mix tape for one more journey to the Highlands that might include ‘songs about roads’ from Canned Heat. the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann and the Doors. Rebus is showing his age here, perhaps longing for the security of nostalgia…

And there’s more golden oldies: Maggie Bell, formerly of the great Stone the Crows. Bert Jansch again, the Stones and Gerry Rafferty, at which point we discover that Rebus’s home dram of choice appears to be Highland Park. We’ll assume it’s the 12-year-old, one of the best made and best value mianstream whiskies you can buy. Quick, put on Nazareth, John Martyn and (oh no!) “some early Wishbone Ash”. Ah well. Nobody’s perfect.

And apart from mentions of Bell’s and Dewar’s World of Whisky, that’s about it. Rebus finishes the dregs of his Highland Park straight from the bottle, and then the books fades out on Jackie Leven.

As must we. All I can say is, make those drams very small ones if you wish to take on the entire SIAMG drinking/listening game in a single session. Not everyone has the capacities of John Rebus.

Scotland has provided a dramatic backdrop to many a murderous deed throughout history, a rich tapestry of intrigue, betrayal and death. Whether the beautiful Madeleine Smith did, indeed, poison her clingy Victorian lover Emile L’Angelier – despite a Not Proven verdict -continues to generate debate. The murder of Lord Darnley divides opinion and one can still opt to view Burke’s skeleton and death mask at Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh.

Hell, we love a good murder with a bit of mystery thrown in for good measure. It’s like the weather; we can talk about it endlessly. Perhaps it is this love that makes it the most popular genre read in Scotland’s libraries and bookshops, and that passion has spawned generations of quality Scots writers, able to bring crime fiction to life.

It is certainly true that the genre of crime writing is particularly well served in Scotland, with high-calibre authors such as Alex Gray, William McIlvanney, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre and Ian Rankin appearing regularly in the ‘Best Seller’ lists.

Thankfully, to service our appetite, the first dedicated crime writing festival north of the border is arriving cloak and dagger, infiltrating the centre of Stirling this weekend. Running from 14th – 16th September, Bloody Scotland will have 40 crime authors, 20 events and a diverse program to appeal to fans of historical, true, contemporary or teen crime fiction. Readings, discussions and debates should pique the interest of fans, while a Crime Writing Masterclass (in partnership with the University of Stirling) will help aspiring writers hone their technique.

Ian Rankin has been a great proponent of the festival, and at the launch last year offered his thoughts:
“Scottish crime writing continues to fire on all cylinders, and talented new voices keep appearing. Bloody Scotland is a long overdue celebration of Scotland’s favourite genre, one of its most successful cultural exports – and a chance to hear some of the most interesting international writers too.”

And there is plenty to celebrate, see and do, with a full program of events coming to fruition over the three days.

Author Alex Gray is joined by Professor Jim Fraser, director of Forensic Science at Strathclyde University, to discuss her personal forays into the gruesome world of post mortem examination, and to explain how she has used this to authenticate the female pathologist character in her novels. Elsewhere, Peter James and Professor Sheila McLean discuss the role of evil within the crime novel, the moral ground and whether it illuminates the darker side of our curiosity.

Being Stirling, the town has embraced the spirit of the festival. Crime and Punishment is based at the Old Town Jail and is the result of collaboration between Creative Stirling and the Bloody Scotland Festival. The plan is to host special events to celebrate the nation’s first Crime Writing Festival.

The first event will take place in the unique outdoor surroundings of Stirling Old Town Jail Yard to welcome visitors to the Festival. An evening of acoustic music and fine local beers from the Bridge Of Allan Brewery are lined up to keep guest oiled and mellow. There will be some blood-soaked ‘crime’ graffiti art being created live on site, as well as literature, locally produced artwork and fine prison stovies for sale to keep you hale and hearty, and to soak up all the beer.

Tickets for Bloody Scotland are available from the Albert Halls and Tolbooth, Stirling, theatre box offices. Call 01786 473544 or online from ticketSOUP.com

The EIBF in 2007 <em>Picture: Eileen Henderson</em>

The EIBF in 2007 Picture: Eileen Henderson

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Charlotte Square Gardens in Edinburgh is currently undergoing the annual transformation where it emerges as a home – or should that be tome? – of literary talent, the book equivalent of Glastonbury. Expect tents, celebrity, Chardonnay, a little mud – and to be thoroughly entertained.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) kicks off on Saturday 13 August, and will be teeming with authors, journalists, poets and other key figures giving talks, holding discussions and chatting generally about their experiences and their books.

Not some high-brow event for Edinburgh luvvies – although expect a few in attendance – the EIBF is open to all, and offers the public an interesting and diverse programme of events.

Interactive and thought-provoking, this year’s highlights include:

• Pamela Stephenson Connolly provides an enlightening account of how human sexual appetites continue to evolve through life

• Colombian presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt tells of six years in captivity in the jungle following her kidnapping by the guerrilla group FARC.

• Exposing the drug-taking in professional cycling are David Millar and Richard Moore, while Jonathan Agnew takes a gentler view of cricket and his working relationship with the legendary Brian Johnston.

• Bob Marshall-Andrews QC recalls life behind the scenes of New Labour, while Robin Harper – the UK’s first elected Green parliamentarian – discusses his private and professional life.

• Sarah Brown, wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown, gives a peek into life at No.10

• Irvine Welsh in conversation with James Robertson about the latter’s epic story of Scotland’s recent history, And the Land Lay Still.

• Get under the skin of British spies as Richard Aldrich explores the history of the listening station GCHQ while Keith Jeffery discusses the history of the first 40 years of MI6. Former director-general of MI5, Stella Rimington, also showcases her latest novel at the Festival.

The theme of the EIBF this year revolves around “Revolution in the 21st century – political and technical” – and promises 17 days of lively debate in the beer tent and beyond.

Crammed into those 17 days will be 800 authors from over 40 countries including exiled Chinese Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian, who will discuss his life and recent work.

The BBC journalist Allan Little, who has reported from nearly every international conflict in the past 20 years, will also explore the theme of revolution with some world-class authors – Hisham Matar, Kamila Shamsie and Chan Koonchung – to provide insights into our rapidly changing world.

Nick Barley, director of the EIBF, is excited about the planned programme: “In this, the year that the new Europe comes of age, popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East are challenging life-long regimes and the world is in a state of change, we will examine the theme of Revolution.

“ From Libya to China, India to Iran, the USA ten years after 9/11 and the recent controversies involving Twitter and WikiLeaks, audiences and authors in Charlotte Square Gardens will explore the power of the written word to provide a compelling commentary on the world around us.”

Some of the country’s leading scientific minds will be there, too, with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Keith Campbell having a look at the culture of enlightenment and innovation, and at how Scotland plays a vital role in global scientific development.

The EIBF has gone from strength to strength. It started in 1983, the first literary festival in Scotland and only one of three in the UK. Princes Street Gardens had been the first choice for the venue, but an ancient by-law (now repealed) prohibited the sale of books or printed materials there. Charlotte Square Gardens was a worthy second choice and the festival has become an established institution every August.

In 1983, 30,000 visitors came to see what it was all about, but the 2011 incarnation is expecting over 200,000 through the iron gates, hungry for literary chat. It is now the largest public book festival in the world.

Writers such as J K Rowling, Ian Rankin and Salman Rushdie were all in attendance at the EIBF before they became internationally recognised.

Running an independent bookselling operation – no Amazon in sight – the EIBF orders and sells books for the direct benefit of the event and without the constraints on choice or genre. Last year, 8,000 titles were available and 60,000 books were sold – the equivalent to the sales that a medium-sized bookshop might expect in a year. There will be over 800 authors in over 750 events, including a comprehensive and fun programme for kids.

Two links to last year’s EIBF: A L Kennedy in a Q&A session, and Anne Donovan reading Not Scotland.

The 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from Saturday 13 August to Monday 29 August in Charlotte Square Gardens. Tickets are available online, by phone 0845 373 5888 and in person from The Hub, Castlehill until 11 August, then at the box office in Charlotte Square Gardens from 13 August.

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Scottish Opera's Five:15 logoFor the non-buffs among us, a night at the opera can seem like an edifice to be scaled: up to five hours’ duration (in Wagner’s case), with the double challenge of deciphering the story – usually in translation, via supertitles – and appreciating the music. Scottish Opera’s Five:15 series, of which the third year’s programme tours this month to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, offers an alternative, relatively gentle perambulation, consisting – as the title suggests – of five newly-written short operas, most of them just 15 minutes long.

Sporting the subtitle Made in Scotland, Five:15 is the key developmental plank in a five-year commissioning programme leading up to Scottish Opera’s 50th anniversary in 2012, the ultimate goal being full productions of four brand-new, hour-long, home-grown operas – perhaps in indirect, or retrospective, response to detractors who claim (usually in arguments over funding) that the art-form has no indigenous roots here. It also seeks to build relationships with and between contemporary composers and, in particular, writers who have little or no opera experience, both to expand the pool of talent and ideas available to the company, and to reach beyond the established opera audience.

To that end, previous years’ shows have recruited such literary bestsellers as Ian Rankin, in collaboration with Moulin Rouge composer Craig Armstrong, and Alexander McCall Smith (with composer Stephen Deazley), plus other leading names including Bernard McLaverty, Louise Welsh and playwright Zinnie Harris, with Lyell Cresswell, Nigel Osborne and Stuart MacRae also among the featured composers.

“It’s a great way of dipping a toe in for people who haven’t worked in opera before, without the commitment of a full-length work if it doesn’t quite come off,” explains Scottish Opera’s music director, Derek Clark, the conductor of all three Five:15 programmes to date. “Sometimes a composer will already have a writer in mind they’d like to work with – Lyell Cresswell and the poet Ron Butlin, for instance, whose second opera we’re presenting this year, had collaborated before – but with others we match them up, according to who we think might best spark off each other.”

Beyond the productions’ practical and logistical specifications, Clark says, these creative pairings are free to come up with whatever they jointly choose. “They can use up to eight singers, but no chorus, and a small orchestral group of up to 19 players. They also all need to use the same set, which is on two levels, linked by steps, with the orchestra sitting in the middle, although it’s modified for the different pieces with backdrops and props and so on. But in terms of the actual composition, they’re entirely left to their own devices, and it’s been really interesting to see the range of approaches and subjects that have emerged, and the very different sound-worlds created by each piece.”

On the 2010 bill, these include 74º North, in which a young scientist visits the Arctic graves commemorating Franklin’s disastrous expedition of 1845-47, with Peter Davidson’s libretto set to a combined orchestral/electro-acoustic score by Paul Mealor and Peter Stollery; Cresswell and Butlin’s co-write The Money Man, a satirical morality tale set against the backdrop of collapsing financial markets, and The Letter, by Vitaly Khodosh and Bernard MacLaverty, in which a Russian Jewish mother writes to her son amidst the brutality of 1940s Russia.

As to whether the new works truly meet the definition of opera, or would more accurately be classed as music theatre, Clark considers both terms equally valid. “They’re pieces where the theatrical presentation is just as important as getting the music right, but neither that nor their shortness means they’re lightweight in content. The 15-minute format does mean they have to cut to the chase, but some of them deal with very dark subject matter – just as a short story can, but in a different way from a novel. If opera is going to move forward, I firmly believe the musical and theatrical aspects have to go hand-in-hand.”

As well as the aim of identifying writer/composer partnerships that might move on to those full-length commissions, the Five:15 project also has an explicit audience development remit, complemented by the choice of venues for the forthcoming tour: Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Hall, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and Òran Mór in Glasgow. “We definitely do want to appeal to people who may not be so sold on traditional opera, which is why we’ve chosen venues that have a reputation for experimental work of various kinds,” Clark explains. “Their existing audiences are used to being challenged, and to trying out different kinds of performance, so hopefully we can break down some boundaries that way, as well as bringing along some of our own opera audience, and get the cross-fertilisation happening in both directions.”

At the Elphinstone Hall, Aberdeen, May 15-16; Traverse Theatre,
Edinburgh, May 20-22; Òran Mór, Glasgow, May 25-27

King Cnut: Adopting a vigorous debating style

King Cnut: Adopting a vigorous debating style

There was controversy over the tootsies of King Cnut in the Scottish Parliament yesterday. But that wasn’t the oddest thing. The oddest thing was the consensus.

True, the subject under advisement was the need to tackle illiteracy. But, even so, the hardliners on the Labour and SNP benches usually couldn’t attend a church social without attempting to brain each other.

Labour had called the debate on a report it had commissioned about illiteracy. You can imagine how many times that report was run through the spell-checker.

Deliberately, I missed the opening remarks by Des McNulty (Lab), as I find his dullness too much first thing in the morning. But I caught some of Michael Russell, the education secretary, whose presence had a curiously absent aspect. His mind was maybe elsewhere, as that morning’s Herald had reported another serious development in his spat with a blogger.

Still, I heard waspish Elizabeth Smith (Con) praise “rigorous spelling tests” in Clackmannanshire. Frankly, if you can spell Clackmannanshire without looking up how many n’s (and where), that should guarantee top marks.

“Unbelievably,” said Elizabeth, “some people argue that we don’t need tests at all.” I know. Imagine if there were tests to be an MSP. Instead of 129, we’d only have about seven, She also criticised the trend to let pupils give bullet-point answers, rather than encouraging them to be more expansive. Trust a politician to call for more waffle.

Bitter Rhona Brankin (Lab) said one million adults in Scotland were now functionally illiterate. Yes, and most of them seem to be leaving comments on websites.

Thuggish Kenny Gibson (SNP) commended a scheme in which, upon the sound of a school bell, “everyone from the janitor to the head” had to drop what they were doing and start reading a book. You can imagine that going down well with the jannie. Picture him sitting there with a steaming mug of tea “reading” the latest edition of Humungous Hooters behind his coffee-table edition of Hamlet.

Karen Whitefield (Lab), who sounds like she’ll be four next birthday, made the usual parochial noises praising a school in her constituency – it’s either instinctive parochialism or calculated vote-grubbing – while Christina McKelvie (SNP) expressed delight at Labour’s unusually constructive approach to the debate. She even hoped the Tories might join “the collective effort”. I don’t think collectivism is really their thing, Christina.

Aileen Campbell (SNP) noted the modern, somewhat sick-making habit of substituting the word “challenges” for “problems”, adding: “There is no doubt that illiteracy is a problem.” Thankfully, no one problemed her on that.

The education secretary got back up on his hind legs to comment on a jokey comment someone had made earlier about crime writer Ian Rankin being self-interested in getting people to read. “As an author myself, I am also self-interested,” said Mike. Ooh, hark at him. “Aym ai writer, don’t you know, ken?”

A Lib Dem heckled him, and Mike noted: “I didn’t hear the sedentary intervention by Jamie Stone, but I always regard that as an advantage.” See? He’s like Oscar bleedin’ Wilde, our Michael.

Mr Spock look-alike Ken McIntosh (Lab) praised the consensus, before putting a Vulcan neck-pinch on the Tories for their “grammar school” image and obsession with testing.

Funnily enough, Labour leader Elmer Fudd opted to raise the same subject of illiteracy at First Minister’s Questions and, despite the usual undertow of impending mayhem, the consensus continued, making matters tepid for all who love a rammy.

Fudd asked First Minister Eck Salmond if he would support a “zero tolerance” approach. Controversially, Eck said “Yes”, then added: “I’m glad that Mr Fudd welcomes the constructive approach of the education secretary.”

Elmer came back with a curious suggestion that the Government should come out of the concordat with local authorities so that it could get things done. But the First Eck said gently that this idea was mince. And that was that.

As so often, it was up to the Tories to introduce a note of disagreement but, alas, Annabel Goldie – democratic duchess, spinster to the nation, doyen of the doilie set – cocked things up for the second week in a row. After trotting out the usual soundbite about “Labour’s recession”, the Tory leader asked Eck if he would cut the costs of parliament.

Before Eck could answer, the presiding orifice intervened, saying: “That’s not the responsibility of the First Minister.”

Annabel: “To clarify, First Minister, the Scottish Government, of course, allocates budget for the running of this parliament.”

Mr Orifice: “That is actually incorrect, Miss Goldie. The Scottish Government does not allocate the budget.”

Annabel (bowing): “I apologise for the confusion, presiding orifice.” Oh dear. And her a lawyer, tae, someone who should have total command of such boring cack.

She then went on to accuse Eck of being in denial about the need to make cuts, adding: “He is the King Cnut of Scottish politics, presumably hoping his wee tartan tootsies won’t get wet.”

Oh Lordie, now it was Eck’s turn to correct Annabel: “Actually, it was King Canute who was arguing the opposite case.”

As any fule kno, King C was trying to prove to his advisers that he couldn’t’ control the tides. Eck observed: “Obviously, my knowledge of English history is somewhat stronger than Annabel’s.”

Oh, the shame for Annabel: to be deemed historically illiterate about her beloved England – by a Scots Nat.

Further sketchings
In last week’s Sketchings, I alluded to that wee wumman who always sits behind Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott, her face aglow with besotted admiration. Well, this week, for the first time ever, she wasn’t there. She was replaced by two guys, including Jeremy “Skullsplitter” Purvis. What was more peculiar this week was that Jeremy and Tavish both wore matching pink ties. It all seemed so very Lib Dem somehow.