Saturday, 22 August 2009

James Tait Black (out)

Friday brought poetry riches: Jen Hadfield, Aonghas MacNeacail and Liz Lochhead united their considerable forces to help celebrate the 25th year of the Scottish Poetry Library. Each read some of their own work, and some of the work of past presidents of the library: stars in the starry sky that is Scottish poetry. I may be biased, but the many people drifting out with beatific smiles upon their faces aren't. Also, a new favourite poem discovered! 'The Alban Goes Out: 1939' by Naomi Mitchison read wonderfully by Jen Hadfield.

Pitstop: mint choc chip ice cream with a flake. The sun was shining.

The evening brought the James Tait Black Awards ceremony. Though I wasn't able to be there in person, a friend played roving reporter, for which thanks... The normal format is, that after acknowledging the often tipsy postgraduate reading panel, the two judges, professors of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, give their summaries of the five nominees in fiction and biography – enlivened with some chat by the chair – and a winner in each category is announced. This year, although the formula was followed, the event was chaotic and rather special, thanks to the almost total failure of lighting and sound systems across the site.

The audience – and the judges – sat in the dark, as Ian Rankin fumbled with his notes, producing a small torch. ‘In Edinburgh, we do things the hard way’, he announced. Almost immediately, the audience found themselves liberated; a vocal fan of a biography of Humphrey Carpenter yelled ‘Go Sheila’ when the nomination was announced. Soon after, another, less pleased audience member complained of an inability to hear Rankin’s conversation with biography judge Laura Marcus. Explaining that everyone was doing the best they could, Rankin kindly invited those who couldn’t hear to move to the front or, indeed, to leave, at which spontaneous applause was heard from several quarters. From that point, the event only grew more anarchic. Michael Holroyd’s moving reading from his winning biography of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry became, in the dark, almost magical. The audience was enraptured to hear of Irving’s final performances, in 1905, as Tennyson’s Thomas Beckett. Holroyd paced the stage as he detailed the story of a man slowly dying on stage, and a number of readers with little previous interest in theatrical biography were unaccountably moved.

As the announcement of fiction nominees began, Rankin questioned whether Andrew Crumey pronounced his name ‘Croomey’ or ‘Crummy’, and was loudly corrected from the audience, presumably by the man himself. Injokes with the more esteemed members of the audience grew thick: Mohammed Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ was announced as ‘a wonderfully McCall Smithian title, as we must now call them’, while the increasing hoarseness of Rankin and fiction judge Colin Nicholson only added to the joy the audience was now feeling. Fiction winner Sebastian Barry invoked a hotline to previous winner Arnold Bennett, calling the James Tait Black ‘an award of magic, a sort of sympathetic magic’. Barry’s reading was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Sentences into a passage from ‘The Secret Scripture’, he suddenly yelled ‘Jeezus, give me the light’, and Rankin spent the next few minutes perched over Barry’s shoulder with his torch. Barry’s enthusiasm, coupled with Rankin’s lighting acrobatics, must have few parallels on the main theatre stage. As Rankin said at the end of the evening, everyone, once in his or her life, should get the chance to be in a two-hander by Beckett.

And if there is a magic – sympathetic or otherwise – to the book festival, this is it. What could have been a simple catalogue of names and titles became something much more, a chance to recapture those experiences of listening to a storyteller in the dark. The audience was – largely – delighted: the show went on, and as we tumbled out into the evening dull, we knew we had had something reawakened, the sheer primacy of the word.