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Edinburgh Book Festival: David Peace

As the 1st day of the new Football season drew to a close there seemed no better way to end the day than by attending the David Peace event at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Peace is the author of one of the best, and certainly most controversial football novels of recent times, 'The Damned United'. He is also the author of 'Red or Dead' a novel charting the life story of one of footballs greatest ever managers Bill Shankly and 'GB84'  another novel based on factual events, this time centered on the Miners Strike which took place in Britain in the early 1980's. 

As 2014 sees the 40th anniversary of Shankly's retirement and the 30th anniversary of the miners strike it seemed appropriate for Peace to focus his talk on these two novels. He began by reading a passage from 'Red or Dead' when Shankly in his retirement was interviewed by local radio after a Liverpool game. Almost immediately Peace's succinct, sharp, repetitive prose became apparent as he mesmerised the audience almost from the first word. Some writers read their work rather less than well than they write; this is not the case for Peace. It was a joy to listen to him as he enveloped the audience with his wonderful prose. 

Following the reading David Robinson chair of the event and Books Editor of The Scotsman quoted Peace as saying he thought Shankly was a 'revolutionary and a Saint' before asking 'Did you know this before writing the book?'  Peace answered "As a Huddersfield Town fan I grew up with the stories of Shankly. There was always a feeling it could have been us!  I was always aware of the image of him as a legendary football manager and socialist. However I don't remember him resigning and I had a limited knowledge of his achievements. I had no idea about the collective journey Shankly took Liverpool on and how he (Shankly) was the catalyst."

Robinson then moved on to ask about the repetition that features in the book. For example every single league and FA Cup game from 1959-1964 is covered in the book. "Was there a risk this would alienate your readers?" Peace replied "partly I did it to demonstrate the sheer commitment, enthusiasm and sacrifice that Shankly itself is also repetitious.  It's like a religious calendar but often without the resurrection at the end. I did cut the league cup games!" he joked. 

The conversation then moved to Peace's writing process. The first people to read his book are always his Dad, Agent and Editor.  He likes to give a 'clean' manuscript and will spend many hours redrafting his work before final submission. The most challenging aspect of 'Red or Dead' was writing a story without reducing it too much to be focused solely on the individual. "Where did the idea of the book come from?" asked Robinson. Shankly wasn't planned and Peace would never normally break this pattern. However when phoned and asked if he would be interested in doing a book on Shankly he decided to do it instantly. "It was like Shankly was always there but I hadn't noticed him before."

The focus them shifted to Peace's novel 'GB84' published 10 years ago to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the miners strike. Robinson informed us that in today's terms breaking the strike cost the equivalent of £37 billion. Peace believed this was the 'final battle' of the Thatcher government. "Everything was in place for a strike. The stockpiling of coal, the training that the police had been undertaking...I wanted to use the novel to tell the history and truth of the strike, using as many voices as possible."  Peace then read an extract from 'GB84' describing the infamous 'Battle of Orgreave'. This was another mesmerising and at times moving reading from Peace as we were transported back to Sheffield and the height of the biggest industrial dispute in British history. 

Peace is without doubt one of the UK's most outstanding contemporary novelists. Two of his novels have dissected two of footballs greatest ever managers whilst he has also written with great passion and emotion on the miners strike and the impact it had on communities both then and how it still resonates in those communities today. If as asked by one audience member he would ever consider writing a book on Alex Ferguson, a man who combines both football management and working class ideals, the result could be fascinating.

To hear David Peace talking to Channel 4 news about Red or Dead see the video below:

For more information on David Peace click here

Edinburgh Book Festival: James Robertson

James Robertson was introduced by the Chair of the event and fellow author, Alan Massie as "a distinguished and versatile novelist having written about topics such as slavery, Calvinism and Scottish history...In addition in his latest novel 'The Professor of Truth' he examines the question of truth and what is justice." Over the next hour Robertson gave his views on many of these topics whilst also engaging in interesting debate with both the Chair and members of the audience. 

Robertson opened proceedings by reading a section from 'The Professor of Truth' which featured a discussion between two of the characters and their views on the justice system.  Following this Robertson shared with the audience his belief that the justice system is in many regards flawed.  He believes that in the past '...the truth is not always achieved. Justice has not always been done. This has implications for all of us as Law is fundamental to any society. If it's not working it is a problem for all of us'. Although both Alan Massie and Robertson were keen to point out that 'The Professor of Truth' is a work of fiction it is clearly based on the Lockerbie bombing and the subsequent legal case.

Chair Massie questioned Robertson about the pending appeal in the case of the Lockerbie bombers. "If it's rejected what does it say about Scottish Law?" Robertson believes "there will be a great deal of unfinished business if the outcome is not challenged. Currently it's a permanent stain on Scottish justice. The system has a shadow hanging over's crucial to lay to rest many of the severe doubts people have." 

As the conversation moved to talking about 'And The Land Lay Still', Robertson's huge panoramic about 50 years of Scottish life, Massie asked "Where did the idea to write this book come from?"  Robertson replied that he was an active supporter of the movement for first a Scottish Assembly and then a Scottish Parliament through the 1980s and 1990s and knew that this was an "interesting time to be living in." The seeds were sown however he felt the novel needed to go back further than this in order to give the reader some historical context. He commented, "I felt that after World War Two ended Scotland was as tied into Britishness as ever. It was a key moment with where Scotland sits within the UK...Yet by the 1980's people in Scotland were thinking differently of where Scotland's sits within the UK. Devolution has made the the political cultures (of Holyrood and Westminster) divergent to each other."

From this we can see the parameters that Robertson set himself for the novel and what transpired is one of the defining novels of post war Scotland such is it's encompassing social and political history of the nation. (Literature for Lads review of the book here)

Discussion of 'And the Land Lay Still' lead us neatly into a wider discussion on the impending Scottish Referendum, of which Robertson is openly a Yes supporter. Questions from the audience were varied with some proving interesting responses from Robertson. How important did he feel Scottish Literature would be on influencing the vote? "Not that great. The question of culture has barely figured. This is likely because we already have a strong sense of identity, of which culture underpins." For James this vote is not about "head vs heart, rather it's both. It's our cultural background that will help the nation reach a decision." 

From culture to the impact independence could have socially, Will independence be a catalyst for social togetherness? "It's what the referendum is boiling down to" replied Robertson. "This is our opportunity to renew a sense of social justice. It's time to look at how we value our social services and how we pay for them...a yes vote would make us face up to these questions."  And finally if there is a yes vote, will there still be a SNP? "For 4 or 5 years there would be but after that the SNP would split into new audiences and groupings. There is no need for it to remain once it has achieved what it set out to do."

Robertson is an outstanding novelist and respected cultural voice in the world of Scottish Politics. Today he shared his views with a interested and animated audience who were keen to engage him in debate and discussion both on his novels and on the impending Scottish referendum. There is no doubt that whatever the outcome of next months referendum he will continue to remain one of Scotland's leading novelists and cultural commentators.

You can listen to a Scottish Book Trust podcast about the novel 'And the Land Lay Still' below:
And the Land Lay Still - Scottish Book Trust

Edinburgh Book Festival: Mark Watson

Mark Watson is no stranger to Edinburgh in August. Indeed he thinks he may have spent a year of his life performing at the Fringe comedy festival and it is in the role of stand-up comedian that Mark will be familiar to many.  What some people may not realise is that he is also a successful author.  Previous novels have included 'Eleven' (Literature for Lads review here ) and 'The Knot', which became a No.1 bestseller on Amazon. However Mark was quick to point out to the audience that this was as a result of a special 99p offer on the book!  (I however can confirm the book is a good read and is worth more than a derisory 99p!)

Mark was at the book festival to launch his new book, 'Hotel Alpha' published just a couple of weeks ago.  Set in a 5 star London Hotel the book delves into the history of the hotel and the people who have stayed and worked there from the 1960's to the early 2000's whilst also charting the impact of modern technology on the hotel as it moves through the decades. 

In addition to the novel Mark has also written 100 short stories which accompany the novel and which are available online (a handful are published in the novel). One of the reasons Mark wanted to do this was because the novel itself is about the impact of the Internet on modern society. He also believes stories are no longer linear and the extra stories allow readers the opportunity to explore characters and stories further.  Mark explained that he had always planned to write the stories and novel together and made notes for the short stories as he went along.  By the end of the novel he had 50 stories - which still left 50 stories to write!

Chair Andrew Franklin (himself a Publisher) asked Mark "should the stories be available for free?"  It was an interesting and topical point to raise and Mark gave an interesting response. "The idea is that people will read the book first before delving into the online far 1,000 books have been sold but 3,000 people have visited the website. I want my work to reach the biggest audience it can so if the website helps in this regard that's great."  There is no doubt though that Mark felt that those who were visiting the website, but not buying the book were possibly taking advantage.  Equally however he may have gained new readers by offering 'tasters' of his novel for free.  It's a difficult balancing act for both publishers and authors.

Hotel Alpha was inspired by the Landmark Hotel, a gigantic Victorian railway hotel in London.  According to Mark "it's a hotel that courts Drama" and he spent a long time in the hotel people watching as "London has a sense of the sweep of human life".  He has always been fascinated by hotels and "anywhere that has huge amounts of invisible life is useful for an author."  Although Mark thinks that the anonymity we expect in a hotel doesn't really exist. "The hotel room is a private space which is part of a very big public space."

As we moved to questions from the floor Mark was asked whether he had always wanted to be a comedian and an author?  His response was interesting. "I never wanted to be a comedian!...however some things can be done easier on stage than in books...It's been a hard slog to be taken seriously as an author because of my comedy background. It's been a long road but I've always wanted to do it all." Next he was asked what's the difference between your writing now and 10 years ago? (which Mark had earlier admitted "wasn't very good.")  "The fact that I have lived more, suffered, endured grief, boundless joy...The more of life you have lived, the more you have to talk about."

Mark Watson disagreed when it was suggested he could be considered a Polymath.  He argued Polymath's had considerable talents across many fields.  Watson may be doing himself a injustice here. He is a funny comedian, an excellent author and an eloquent public speaker. Maybe not a Polymath but certainly a man of considerable talents.

For more information on Mark visit his website here

To see Mark performing some stand up see the video below...


Edinburgh Book Festival: David Runciman

"There are terrible things happening in the world currently and in many places politics has gone wrong...Yet despite this it is important to persuade people that politics still matters." This was how David Runciman introduced his new book 'Politics' and for the next 60 minutes we were treated to an insightful, informative and entertaining discussion on the state of Politics in the 21st Century.

Runciman opened up the discussion by suggesting that Politics has not changed since the seismic changes of 1989 -1991 which saw the collapse of Communism and the end of Apartheid. Technology on the other hand has seen a revolution take place which continues apace.  When compared with the new technological world Runciman feels politics is "an old fashioned activity in a technological world."

What will happen to Politics asked Runciman?  Will it become obsolete and left behind, squeezed into the margins? According to Runciman "Politics can't be left behind." Google can develop a driver less car however the roads that it drives on will be provided and managed by the Government. Government still underpins society"...and when Google clashes with Government, it's on the terms of the Government."

Runciman continued by expressing his belief that we are moving into a technocratic world, but with major differences between China and the West.  China's political elite are Engineers; the West Financiers. Will these two rival systems clash together? Unlikely believes Runciman. But can Technology and Politics come together?

Runciman has heard a lot about 'Liquid Democracy', allowing "technology to flow through politics."  He's not sure exactly what this means and remains sceptical. In his words, politics is "a bit sticky, technology is more likely to flow around politics." Or in the words of Malcolm Gladwell in the aftermath of the uprising in Iran in 2012, "The revolution will not be tweeted."

As the questions from the floor came thick and fast Runciman gave his opinion on a number of matters including how do you define politics, "It's about giving people responsibility for life and death" and why are people disenfranchised from politics in the UK, "because we are not scared enough of the other side." 

Throughout the talk Runciman spoke knowledgeably, maintaining the audiences  interest throughout and giving many points for debate to continue. As Chair of the event and publisher of the book Andrew Franklin asked, why isn't Runciman a politician himself...

David Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge University. He also writes for the Guardian and the London Review of books. 

To read his latest Guardian columns click here

Building a new School Library - Charity work in Kenya

As many of you will know I’m a school librarian working at Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh. I am fortunate to receive financial support from my school which allows me to provide a vibrant and exciting range of books for our pupils, in a safe and welcoming environment. On a daily basis I see the impact that access to a well-stocked library has for the pupils in my school. It is with this knowledge therefore that I have become involved in helping to set up a new school library in Kenya.

Working with the charity ‘Children’s Literature for Children’
I am part of a team helping to develop a school library in the town of King'ong'o in Central Kenya. We must raise £12,000 in order to build the library and we must then stock the library with appropriate books and library supplies.

Can you help? Would you be willing to make a donation of books to the library?  Do you have some unwanted library supplies?  The children who will attend the library will be aged 5-14 and English will be their second language. Therefore we are looking for books in English, with an age range from pre-school to early teens. The books must be in good condition, although this does not necessarily mean they should be new. (Please note you would not be expected to ship books to Kenya as the books will be shipped centrally from Edinburgh.)

If you were able to provide any assistance with this project I would be enormously grateful. Please get in touch if you wish to discuss further.