Of all the moments we have had this year at the brilliant Edinburgh International Book Festival – Carol Ann Duffy and the first flexing pages of her poetry released months before official date of publishing, Sarah Brown flanked by Gordon’s back and bodyguards, lines of gothy teenagers queuing for three hours to meet Neil Gaiman – between the pockets of sunshine and sudden Scottish downpours in that block of Charlotte Square, it is a quieter event that stays in my head.
A Scots writer and a Welsh poet met in one of the smaller venues to a reasonable sized audience. Outside, the queue for Audrey Niffeneger was right around the walkways of the Square, almost reaching back on itself but inside our tent there was about fifty of us with coffee and shuffling feet. It was Angus Peter Campbell who stood up first to talk and his voice began in Gaelic; his joke made a tittering noise from those in the audience who understood his words. Not for the first time I wished I could speak that language of the higher lands and islands. In English, his tone was the lilt of South Uist, each sentence punctuated with several elongated ehhs as he paused, thinks, rolls the words around his tongue. I think of Berneray and the boys up there – the sounds of their voices in the wind as we sit on the back of their motorbikes, and us girls on the tailgate of their trucks across the machair to the sheep. Campbell’s story, Archie and the North Wind is the retold tale of Archie, the everyman, who goes to fix the north wind which blows around his house, buffeting through the gaps in the gable roof and tugging the cap from his head to scamper it down the track.
So, Archie heads north and “in his heart and his head, around him and beside him and part of him are his stories” – the things that we carry with us, the narratives we make, the tales we share. It is when our stories are taken from us that leads us to raid JB Sports in Hackney, or rise up in Libya or take them to a stage in Edinburgh or a meeting hall in Benbecula. Campbell’s idea that a story is something precious, something to be protected and cupped in your hand, something to hold out to fly in the north wind made me draw big looping lines across the pages of my notebook. “And I was that boy, I was Archie” Angus Peter continues – building the walls around himself yet still tormented by the north wind and so he, like Archie, travelled across the Minch “to those lovely border towns of Howick and Gala and down the coast to Berwick and Northumberland” and for me, sitting at the back in the dark, I smiled to hear those pinpoints in geography.
When Gwyneth Lewis talked about her collection of poetry which retells ancient Medieval Welsh myth through cyber technology and computer games, the discussion moved onto using initially incongruent mediums and languages. She spoke of how working within the prism of one language or one theme imprisons the writer and that her combined use of Welsh, English, myth and modernity was her way of writing out of the idea that there need always to be a straining pressure between the binaries. Heaney spoke about the absolute glory of being in two places of once, celebrating the condition of being a bilingual writer, the duality of mother and second tongue, and tension of this as a real and valid part of the creative process. For Lewis, the fluid entities of Celtic myth (transgendering, incest, complete removal of boundaries) were reinterpreted through the idea of virtual reality and technology expressed through the dual languages of Welsh and English. For Campbell, he had found himself as part of the Gaelic writers with “too many beards and beer bellies”; he wanted to “shed off Culloden and victimhood” to find a sense of moving on and looking forward.
After the event, when Angus Peter Campbell and I spoke, we talked about Berneray and Northumberland. He signed my book and afterwards when I looked inside he had written “gu Clare, follow the journey” and an arrow pointing north. It may not have been the most publicised event featuring the ‘big stars’ of the festival, but Campbell and Lewis were provocative and inspiring in their voice, expression and thought.