Monthly Archives: August 2012

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Unbound: It Will Be All Write On The Night

Unbound: It Will Be All Write on the Night, 27 August 2012

There was an air late night celebration in the Guardian Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square. Host of the final Unbound event, comedienne and EIBF employee Sian Bevan bellowed: ‘Everything ends tonight… Can I get a whoop whoop?’ And the world’s largest book festival ended not just with a whoop but with a gleeful parlour game. Past Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardees George Anderson, Kirstin Innes and R.A. Martens entertained with what seemed to be a version of the show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ Over the previous six weeks, the trio wrote six stories inspired by narrative ‘prompts’ given by the public via Twitter or Facebook. These prompts ranged from quirky to sentimental. Readers were asked to contribute a six-line story: ‘Zookeeper missing. Distraught lion loses appetite’. Other narrative prompts consisted of questions such as ‘what would you save from a burning house?’ and ‘what is your favourite place to read’? If you are interested, the selected answers respectively were the diary of a woman’s great grandfather and in India, up a tree.  

What seemed, to an outsider, like a complicated process flowed quite straightforwardly on the night with the help of Bevan’s flipchart. The six stories may have meant to be connected, but read instead as a series of vignettes. George Anderson’s ‘What Is There To Love?’ and ‘Soon Enough’ were boisterous pieces with outrageous plotlines, one of which featured a nationalist who loves his country so much he copulates with rocks. Kirstin Innes’ ‘The Dead Language’ and ‘Waking Up’ were nuanced and gentle pieces which focused on a girl who tries to uncover the history of her town.  R.A. Martens penned two dystopian, sci-fi-esque stories about a county’s president who manufactures body ‘enhancements’ such as arms and tails.  

The last story, however, was written on the night (hence the event’s title). Bevan asked the audience to contribute an occupation, a word and two nouns. The result was predictably irreverent: drain-counters, scunnered, pitchforks and unicorns. Quite bravely on the night, the three writers composed a slapdash piece which incorporated these words and aspects of each of their stories.

Did we witness a post-modern mode of composition or just an exercise in literary comedy? Certainly, the three writers’ delivery was more impressive than the stories produced. Anderson was an animated reader whose booming voice often rose to a crescendo. His was an intriguing contrast to Innes’ whispery and more intimate delivery. And R.A. Martens’ haughty, jesting manner of speaking suited her uptight characters. A compelling, if occasionally silly, farewell to all things literary. –

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EIBF 2012: Lots of old white people, too many politicians and the Guardian’s boring stamp

 So that’s it. The tents are coming down, the gates will be locked and Charlotte Square Gardens should soon return to its customary sylvan tranquility untroubled by human intrusion.

Three questions remain. Why was everybody so old? Why was everybody so white? And why were there so many politicians at EIBF 2012?

The first two are probably not worth bothering about other than to recant an unkind thought I had in one session that Coop Funeral Home would be a more apt sponsor than Scottish Power. Old age and whiteness are issues for book festivals in countries with lower age demographics and more advanced multicultural scenes than Scotland. And there are lots more old white people on the way (hello) so things are unlikely to change any time soon.

The third though is a problem. I asked a friend who directed a major North American writers’ festival for twenty years how many politicians or former politicians she had invited to speak in that time. “None” was the answer.

A cursory glance though the index of the EIBF 2012 programme tells a different story: Brown, Darling, Ashdown, Watson….Nobody seems to know why this should be though one journalist suggested to me that it is something to do with the festival having “The Guardian’s boring stamp all over it”. 

The effect is easier to detect. Brown gets a free platform to paint independence black; ditto Ashdown to defend the Coalition and his ‘invention’ (James Naughtie’s term) Nick Clegg. Darling has an hour to explain how our bank machine cards wouldn’t work it if wasn’t for him.

These are problematic outcomes for a book festival especially one that cites the 1962 Edinburgh writers’ conference as its inspiration. Politicians were notable by their absence fifty years ago.

And if EIBF really needs politicians what’s wrong with the ones just down the road? There is no shortage of literate lads and lassies on or from the Holyrood benches. A few have even written books of their own.

As it stood, the locals were represented by former First Minister Henry McLeish and current FM Alex Salmond – the latter in an arranged marriage with Ian McEwan based (presumably) on identity stereotyping and the anticipation of a bar brawl.

Declined for a press ticket, I followed the event via the director’s tweets – “6.50 McEwan wants to talk about national identity. Here we go….” “7.09 McEwan and Salmond struggling a bit to keep energy in the debate”. Good for them!

In the unlikely event that EIBF decides to go more Holyrood next year, perhaps it could extrapolate that a little further. Challenge the Scotsman and the Herald (or any combination of Scottish newspapers) to come up with some innovative co-sponsorship. Cover the site with copies of the Scottish Review of Books instead of the London Review of Books (no partiality there!)

The usual suspects will cry ‘parochialism’ but some of them haven’t been far furth of Scotland lately and local support/international reach is the way book festivals work in a lot of other places. 

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Festival of Politics: Literary Legacies

Perhaps Scots really are a zigzag of contradictions. How else to explain the fact that this year’s EIBF was inundated with politicians while the most engaging literary event of the second week took place at the Festival of Politics in the Scottish Parliament?

The University of Dundee’s decision to archive the records of Canongate Books provided a handy excuse for a panel review of the history of that remarkable publishing company. Though assisted by the occasional jolly jape from chair Alan Taylor or Canongate author Richard Holloway, this was the Jamie Byng show.

Canongate’s Managing Director provided a broad sweep of the company’s story from its early days of receivership and revival, through the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, the Bible broken into its component parts and introduced by some unlikely authors, on to the Booker Prize, two million copies of Life of Pi and the unhappy decision to publish what turned out to be the unauthorized autobiography of Julian Assange.

Much of this is familiar in a general way but Byng’s anecdotes brought it all to life. Hard to imagine anyone today having a discussion with Nick Cave or Bono about their introductions to Biblical books – the latter’s initially unimpressive. Occasionally the stories intersected with the experiences of the other two panel members. Holloway was the token ‘man of the cloth’ to write an introduction and advised that Christianity is better used as good poetry than bad science. Taylor attended the original Lanark launch and recalled the author cramming his feet into a pair of too-small shoes recently acquired on his behalf from the ‘Easyfit’ shoe shop. He described his fellow attendees as ‘the Glasgow literati and drunkerati’.

No mention of Canongate author Barack Obama who went on to do well, but a couple of scoops to make up for that. The audience got a first look at a new edition of Life of Pi published to coincide with the upcoming movie. And the archive has sixty hours of Assange interviews recorded by Andrew O’Hagan and not included in the book. Byng thought he saw someone from the CIA furiously scribbling that down!

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BBC Edinburgh Fringe Poetry Slam Final

BBC Edinburgh Fringe Slam Final, 24 August 2012

Gesturing to his heart, polished host Young Dawkins told the crowd: ‘Listen, crack open, be generous’. It was unnecessary advice in the packed, light-studded tent where the slam finalists competed for a bottle of gin. Since Monday August 20th, twenty-four spoken word artists have been performing in afternoon heats. Liz Lochhead, the Scottish Makar herself, even had a go last Tuesday. And from the initial group of twelve men and twelve women, fittingly there were two men and two women left: Rachel McCrum, Graeme Hawley, Jenny Lindsay and Ross Sutherland.

It was some time before the slammers took stage. This was no quick ‘slam, bam, thank-you ma’am’! Dawkins drew out the time like a magician, offering jokes, quips and puns. Two of the judges read as well: Scottish Slam Champion Kevin Cadwallender enthralled with a throaty poem about a Dalek’s beauty regime and StAnza Director Eleanor Livingstone read from her collection Even The Sea. These offerings from ‘sacrificial poets’ made the forthcoming contest seem even more momentous.

What weighs more in slam poetry, the content or delivery? Both were a consideration in this case. Rachel McCrum impressed the audience with her enigmatic Northern Irish drawl and her poem about the mysterious Edinburgh paper sculptures. Graeme Hawley’s melancholic verse about the drug doxorubincin hushed the audience. Ross Sutherland’s ode to a randomly chosen woman in the audience named Sheila was fluidly performed. Sutherland’s comedic turns of phrase included ‘Sheila… you are cute as a duck pond. Teach children not to drown in you’. But it was Edinburgh’s own Jenny Lindsay who pocketed the grand prize for her rhythmic delivery and quirky urbanised lines: ‘I’m a twenty-first century twenty-something or other’. Now in its second year, this energetic contest will most likely become a tradition. 

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EIBF: Jeanette Winterson – ‘The Devil Led Us To The Wrong Crib’ 20/08/12

Jeanette Winterson, ‘The Devil Led Us to the Wrong Crib’

‘It’s good, isn’t it,’ Jeanette Winterson said cheekily about her own memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? After Kirsty Wark’s introductory comment that ‘Returns on these tickets cost more than the Olympics’, Winterson ran cheerfully on stage like an American game show host. For the entire hour Winterson stood or paced while blethering about being an adopted child.  She recited parts of her memoir with theatrical flair: ‘For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter’. Her vocal register was like a light switch, flipping from an authoritative reading voice to a relaxed tone. This duality seemed strange, as if Winterson wanted to divorce her writing from herself. She always referred to her mother as Mrs. Winterson, as if she was a recognised literary character. And perhaps she is – who in literary history, as Winterson describes, has a heart condition, a double set of dentures and hides bullets in a furniture polish tin?

It wasn’t long in the hour before Winterson got to the core of the memoir. One pivotal question presented in the book is ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’ On stage dressed in a grey blouse, dark jeans and sneakers, Winterson concluded this question was, in fact, not true. Love does not equate loss. ‘What I’ve learned is… love can be reliable,’ Winterson smiled, speaking of her partner Susie Orbach.  Such revealing epiphanies meant that the hour got personal at times. But as usual with Winterson, misery is edged with humour. Even when describing how her mother torched all of her laminated books one January night, Winterson shot back: ‘F**k it, I can write my own’. Rounds of applause and localised standing ovations concluded this energetic session.

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EIBF: David Torrance – Nationalism and The Power of Oratory

The session started with a humdrum lecture by David Torrance on the subject of nationalist rhetoric. It was delivered in the style of a first year survey complete with podium and notes. Scottish nationalism has always had articulate spokesmen, he said, with Compton Mackenzie and Robert Cunninghame Graham cited as examples. Alex Salmond is in this tradition though not an orator of the very highest order and prone to say things that can mean “anything you want them to”. There was the odd squib – John MacCormick’s ‘radical liberalism’ would have morphed into Thatcherism had he lived longer according to Torrance – but generally speaking this was a straightforward production. He said nothing about the role of exaggeration in oratory but the BBC’s Brian Taylor filled that void by declaring the presentation ‘absolutely superb’.

The lecture was over in fifteen minutes and may have had more method in it than previously apparent. The forty five minutes left for questions turned out to be the real point of the exercise. The Q and A got off to a surreal start when a female Home Counties voice declared its Scottishness before asking whether the First Minister used a quotations dictionary when he said all that stuff about student tuition fees and “rocks in the sea”. The same person also liked the thing the FM said after the last Scottish election about “taking it carefully” when he was “walking across Prestonfield Pans”.  Torrance added to the confusion by twice misquoting Burns (saying ‘the rocks melt in the sun’ and then repeating it) while claiming that Salmond tends to reuse quotes he likes while sometimes getting them wrong.

From here things improved rapidly as Torrance settled in to the more relaxed atmosphere and fielded a series of high-end questions from an articulate and informed audience. Many of Torrance’s answers will be music to the ears of nationalists who do not always consider him a friend: the Olympics will have no lasting pro-Union effect; ditto the Jubilee as the First Minister is an enthusiastic monarchist anyway; defeat in the referendum won’t stop the SNP from winning the Scottish election in 2016 and so on.

If the session had a problem, it was its obsession with Alex Salmond. Eventually one woman wanted to ‘bring it back to the oratory question that you started with’ and ask if we are going to hear more in the future from cultural commentators and less from political ones (Answer: ‘hope so’). Another audience member got the loudest applause of the evening when she wanted to know if we ‘Can expect oratory of note from the leaders of the other three parties in Holyrood?’ (Answer: ‘probably not’). Finally, asked if there were any gifted young political orators currently operating in Scotland, Torrance replied ‘Humza Yousaf’.

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EIBF: THE EDINBURGH WRITERS’ CONFERENCE 1962: THE LEGACY

John Calder who organised the writer’s conference in 1962 now bears a passing resemblance to Mr Grainger of the British sitcom ‘Are you being served’. At the start of the session Calder even appeared to be asleep in his chair.

Asked if he was free (or words to that effect), the transformation was startling. He opened with an impassioned plea for Home Office inundation on behalf of writer Aleksander Stefanovic who had attended the conference in 1962. Stefanovic was refused a visa to travel to EIBF 2012. Fifty years ago the same writer’s presence upset the official Yugoslav representative Petar Šegedin. Plus ça change!

The programme notes promised a disentanglement of myth from reality. Thankfully Calder and his erstwhile assistant Jim Haynes eschewed that particular snake pit for a fairly straightforward anecdotal review of the events of 1962. The audience loved it and demonstrated a modern tabloid obsession with the tiny details of what MacDiarmid really said to Trocchi or Rebecca West to Mary McCarthy. 

Still, there were a couple of bubbles burst along the way. Some fans of Hugh MacDiarmid will not want to hear that he was ‘conventional in many ways’ and ‘did not like all this frank discussion’.  Again, those who remember Malcolm Muggeridge in his ‘abstinence for all’ years will be diverted by the fact that he was to be the continuing chairman in 1962, but departed early ‘because Sonia Orwell said no’.

The stories came in irresistible sequence. Sonia Orwell hit Calder over the head with a wine bottle in an Edinburgh restaurant only for him to recover and carry on with the meal.  In Haynes bookshop, a woman from ‘moral rearmament’ used tongs to pick up a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover before taking it outside and setting it alight. If these were unexpected, the opposition of the Scottish press to the conference was predictable – Magnus Magnusson and couple of others excepted. Letters to the Scotsman urging ‘money for drains not for culture’ sound depressingly familiar even today.

The Q and A session raised more general themes. Calder believes that political rather than moral censorship is the issue of today. Asked about the relationship between ‘festival format and bun fighting’, Haynes said that ‘62 was about ideas in general rather than promoting a particular object for sale. Calder wants a single system of education so that we can be more like France and less like Northern Ireland.

Presumably some of these things will be revisited at this year’s fiftieth anniversary conference. The absence of Stefanovic and the withdrawal of James Kelman (citing British Council sponsorship) should also fuel debate.   

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With Gore and I – Alan Taylor

 

It is twenty-five years since we first met. With the recklessness of the ignorant and the naive I had invited him to Edinburgh where he agreed to appear in public at the Queen’s Hall. He was 61 years of age and had just published Empire, part of his celebrated ‘Narratives of Empire’ series in which he tells, in fictional form, the story of the United States. It was billed “the literary event of the year” and so it was. Fresh from an appearance with Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show, on which he had been at his Wildean wittiest, Vidal held the audience in thrall, firing one liners at them as if they were bullets. 

He’d also just published a selection of his essays, Armageddon, in which he railed against Ronald Reagan and his “lifelong habit of exaggerating not only his past but those stories that he read in the Reader’s Digest”, defended Richard Nixon (“He buried the hatchet with the Son of Heaven, Mao…”), and identified “born-again Christians” as dangerous lunatics. “Have a nice quarter century now,” he wrote in my copy, doubtless thinking that our paths would never cross again. 

But over the years they did, not frequently but regularly enough for him take my calls without going through gatekeepers and from to time we met, occasionally for fun, usually because there was work to be done. Once a television company suggested I play Boswell to Vidal’s Johnson in a recreation of their eighteenth-century highland jaunt. I thought about it for an hour or so then said no. It was one thing to be the butt of Vidal’s jokes in private quite another to be humiliated in front of the viewing millions. At the time Vidal and I didn’t discuss it but when I brought it up much further down the line he sounded almost regretful, as if an opportunity had been missed. Eventually our parts were taken by Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions. 

Re-reading interviews with him what one discerns in his voice is not ennui but world-weariness, exasperation. Vidal was easily bored and frustrated with small talk. He liked gossip, though, and was always eager to be brought up to date on what our few mutual acquaintances were up to. His preference was for anecdotes which ended badly for their subjects. But it was not one-way traffic. It was never difficult to wind Vidal up. Mention a name and away he’d go, like a car whose handbrake is off. As a young man he’d set out to meet writers he admired, including Andre Gide, EM Forster and Jean Cocteau. He once sent Thomas Mann a book. In return, he recalled, Mann sent him a letter with his name misspelled. Whatever Vidal was, he was no misty-eyed sentimentalist. Nor was he ever inclined to put people on pedestals. For him, it seemed, everyone had at least one foot made of clay. If he had a hero he was undoubtedly flawed. Status, power, wealth, breeding never impressed him. Nor was he ever likely to self-censor. If asked what he thought of a fellow writer or a politician or actor, his response was unexpurgated. Envy, he reckoned, was the “central fact” of American life, telling the Paris Review: “Then, of course, I am the Enemy to so many. I have attacked both Nixon and the Kennedys — as well as the American Empire. I’ve also made the case that American literature has been second-rate from the beginning. This caused distress in book-chat land.” 

At the turn of the millennium he invited me to visit him in Italy where he had lived for many years. He and Howard Austen, his partner, bought La Rondinaia — the swallow’s nest — in 1972. Perched on a cliff top on the outskirts of Ravello with a view across the Gulf of Salerno to Capri, it seemed to float in space. It was near here that Tiberius, emperor when Christ was crucified, had a palace. “We have a lot in common,” Vidal liked to quip. Tiberius, however, never had to put up with boats full of sightseers in the bay. As he swam in his pool Vidal could hear tour guides pointing out where he lived. I remarked that his powerlessness in the face of such provocation made comparisons with Tiberius — whose brutality was legendary — seem rather odious. “Mmmm,” Vidal said, as he shuffled around the furniture-stuffed room in search of a corkscrew. 

It was about a quarter of a mile from Ravello’s Piazza Duomo to La Rondinaia. Guided via intercom through a succession of security gates by Austen, I encountered at the final checkpoint a pair of preppy youths who had appeared out of nowhere from an avenue of cypress trees. Who were they? Undercover Mormons come to reclaim Gore for the Lord? Celebrity stalkers? Encyclopaedia Britannica salesmen? “We’re fans of Mr Vidal,” one said. “We’re from Ohio,” said the other, which I doubted would impress Vidal. “We’ve read all his books,” he added. But when I relayed this to Austen he was not impressed. “Tell them,” he said, “to go away.” 

Abandoned in the middle of a wood with no sign posts and a plethora of paths from which to choose, I got lost. After a while I came across a grand house that I thought must be Vidal’s. With no one in sight, I entered through the open French doors and was immediately greeted by a waiter carrying a drinks tray. Something did not feel right. I had stumbled into the Villa Cimbrone, which had once been home to Greta Garbo and her lover Leopold Stowkowski. Vidal and Garbo, needless to say, had history. “People think I’m pair -annoyed,” she once told him, after a former lover split the beans about an affair she insisted they’d never had. “Really,” said Vidal when I finally reached him and told him where I’d been, “you’ll be needing a whisky.” 

He’d put on weight and was wearing a loose shirt and monogrammed slippers. In this same room, he had entertained Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Lauren Bacall, Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret, Muriel Spark, Hillary Clinton, Tennessee Williams and many others. He needed such a big house, he explained, to accommodate his books. Had he fewer books, he said, he’d have lived in a one room apartment. This seemed unlikely. He was in a good, gloomy mood, preferring to talk about anything other than himself. In the age of the internet, he discerned the slow death of literature, not for a lack of authors, but for a lack of readers. 

Like his much-loved grandfather, TP Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma, in whose household much of his childhood was spent, he wanted to become a politician. “I just happened to be a writer,” he said. “And if you are that that is what you do even though what I write is simply no use at all. Or could ever be for a politician. Politicians must never give the game away and a writer must try and tell the truth. These are two conflicting impulses.” Having said which, he added that he would have had no difficulty being a politician. “It was just the urge to express myself, about what I thought about a subject. I find that when I do not write, I do not think. I suppose I like cerebration rather better than the exquisite sound of the celebration of a political career.” 

For someone so celebrated, Vidal was the recipient of few prizes. For United States, which brought together four decades’ worth of essays, he received a National Book Award. But he never won a Pulitzer still less a Nobel. Such was the fate, it seemed, of the congenital contrarian. “For those who haven’t read the books,” he said, “I am best known for my hair preparations.” As the blistering sun went down over the Bay of Salerno, he sipped his Glenfiddich. He was 75 and conceded that he was “not bad” for his age, though he suffered short term memory loss and walking was becoming problematic. But like an Old Testament prophet, isolation appeared to suit him. Showing me to the door, he pointed out an Aubusson tapestry and dining chairs which were designed for the set of Ben Hur, on whose script he once worked and for which, typically, he’d say, he never got any credit. 

Later that year he came again to the Edinburgh Book Festival where I tried and failed to get him to discuss his fiction. He was never comfortable talking about himself and his work. In any case, as he often said, people preferred to talk about his essays rather than his novels because they were shorter. Austen’s death in 2005 spelled the end of Vidal’s Italian sojourn and the beginning of “the hospital years”. Like the black sheep of a dysfunctional family, he returned reluctantly to the “United States of Amnesia” and the hills of Hollywood. Reliant on a wheelchair to get about and wearing what in photographs looked like tracksuit bottoms, he seemed diminished, worn out, his voice weak. Pat Robertson, the evangelist who said Scotland was a “dark land” overrun by homosexuals, had recently called him the Anti Christ. “I never use the full title,” said Vidal. “I just put AC after my name. It would be rather vulgar to use the full title.” 

Homophobia, he reckoned, was just as bad today, if not worse, than it was in the late 1940s when he wrote The City and the Pillar, his groundbreaking, courageous novel about what Anais Nin said were “same-sexualists”. Christianity, he felt, was the greatest disaster to befall the west. Why? “We did not need an oriental, absolutist, monotheistic religion which claimed total truth.” In hotel rooms, he said, he always replaced the Gideon bible with a copy of his novel Live from Golgotha, which is his scabrous interpretation of the gospel. Death was much on his mind. “Go to heaven; what do I care. On my tombstone, I wanted: ‘He wrote the perfect sentence’, and then not give it.” 

Thus spake the man who was always going to have the last laugh. 

 

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With Gore and I

First Published in the Sunday Herald

GORE Vidal never suffered from writer’s block and had little patience with anyone who said they did. His regimen — as befitted someone born at West Point — was military in its adherence to routine. “First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me,” he once said in the tone of a doctor dictating a prescription. He was a man who did not invite contradiction, expecting his statements to be accepted as if they were papal pulls. As the self-appointed laureate of the rise and fall of the American Empire, as Gibbon was of Rome’s, he was imperial in manner and Caesarean in demeanour. What Vidal said went. It wasn’t too hard to imagine him in a toga.  

It is twenty-five years since we first met. With the recklessness of the ignorant and the naive I had invited him to Edinburgh where he agreed to appear in public at the Queen’s Hall. He was 61 years of age and had just published Empire, part of his celebrated ‘Narratives of Empire’ series in which he tells, in fictional form, the story of the United States. It was billed “the literary event of the year” and so it was. Fresh from an appearance with Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show, on which he had been at his Wildean wittiest, Vidal held the audience in thrall, firing one liners at them as if they were bullets. 

He’d also just published a selection of his essays, Armageddon, in which he railed against Ronald Reagan and his “lifelong habit of exaggerating not only his past but those stories that he read in the Reader’s Digest”, defended Richard Nixon (“He buried the hatchet with the Son of Heaven, Mao…”), and identified “born-again Christians” as dangerous lunatics. “Have a nice quarter century now,” he wrote in my copy, doubtless thinking that our paths would never cross again. 

But over the years they did, not frequently but regularly enough for him take my calls without going through gatekeepers and from to time we met, occasionally for fun, usually because there was work to be done. Once a television company suggested I play Boswell to Vidal’s Johnson in a recreation of their eighteenth-century highland jaunt. I thought about it for an hour or so then said no. It was one thing to be the butt of Vidal’s jokes in private quite another to be humiliated in front of the viewing millions. At the time Vidal and I didn’t discuss it but when I brought it up much further down the line he sounded almost regretful, as if an opportunity had been missed. Eventually our parts were taken by Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions. 

Re-reading interviews with him what one discerns in his voice is not ennui but world-weariness, exasperation. Vidal was easily bored and frustrated with small talk. He liked gossip, though, and was always eager to be brought up to date on what our few mutual acquaintances were up to. His preference was for anecdotes which ended badly for their subjects. But it was not one-way traffic. It was never difficult to wind Vidal up. Mention a name and away he’d go, like a car whose handbrake is off. As a young man he’d set out to meet writers he admired, including Andre Gide, EM Forster and Jean Cocteau. He once sent Thomas Mann a book. In return, he recalled, Mann sent him a letter with his name misspelled. Whatever Vidal was, he was no misty-eyed sentimentalist. Nor was he ever inclined to put people on pedestals. For him, it seemed, everyone had at least one foot made of clay. If he had a hero he was undoubtedly flawed. Status, power, wealth, breeding never impressed him. Nor was he ever likely to self-censor. If asked what he thought of a fellow writer or a politician or actor, his response was unexpurgated. Envy, he reckoned, was the “central fact” of American life, telling the Paris Review: “Then, of course, I am the Enemy to so many. I have attacked both Nixon and the Kennedys — as well as the American Empire. I’ve also made the case that American literature has been second-rate from the beginning. This caused distress in book-chat land.” 

At the turn of the millennium he invited me to visit him in Italy where he had lived for many years. He and Howard Austen, his partner, bought La Rondinaia — the swallow’s nest — in 1972. Perched on a cliff top on the outskirts of Ravello with a view across the Gulf of Salerno to Capri, it seemed to float in space. It was near here that Tiberius, emperor when Christ was crucified, had a palace. “We have a lot in common,” Vidal liked to quip. Tiberius, however, never had to put up with boats full of sightseers in the bay. As he swam in his pool Vidal could hear tour guides pointing out where he lived. I remarked that his powerlessness in the face of such provocation made comparisons with Tiberius — whose brutality was legendary — seem rather odious. “Mmmm,” Vidal said, as he shuffled around the furniture-stuffed room in search of a corkscrew. 

It was about a quarter of a mile from Ravello’s Piazza Duomo to La Rondinaia. Guided via intercom through a succession of security gates by Austen, I encountered at the final checkpoint a pair of preppy youths who had appeared out of nowhere from an avenue of cypress trees. Who were they? Undercover Mormons come to reclaim Gore for the Lord? Celebrity stalkers? Encyclopaedia Britannica salesmen? “We’re fans of Mr Vidal,” one said. “We’re from Ohio,” said the other, which I doubted would impress Vidal. “We’ve read all his books,” he added. But when I relayed this to Austen he was not impressed. “Tell them,” he said, “to go away.” 

Abandoned in the middle of a wood with no sign posts and a plethora of paths from which to choose, I got lost. After a while I came across a grand house that I thought must be Vidal’s. With no one in sight, I entered through the open French doors and was immediately greeted by a waiter carrying a drinks tray. Something did not feel right. I had stumbled into the Villa Cimbrone, which had once been home to Greta Garbo and her lover Leopold Stowkowski. Vidal and Garbo, needless to say, had history. “People think I’m pair -annoyed,” she once told him, after a former lover split the beans about an affair she insisted they’d never had. “Really,” said Vidal when I finally reached him and told him where I’d been, “you’ll be needing a whisky.” 

He’d put on weight and was wearing a loose shirt and monogrammed slippers. In this same room, he had entertained Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Lauren Bacall, Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret, Muriel Spark, Hillary Clinton, Tennessee Williams and many others. He needed such a big house, he explained, to accommodate his books. Had he fewer books, he said, he’d have lived in a one room apartment. This seemed unlikely. He was in a good, gloomy mood, preferring to talk about anything other than himself. In the age of the internet, he discerned the slow death of literature, not for a lack of authors, but for a lack of readers. 

Like his much-loved grandfather, TP Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma, in whose household much of his childhood was spent, he wanted to become a politician. “I just happened to be a writer,” he said. “And if you are that that is what you do even though what I write is simply no use at all. Or could ever be for a politician. Politicians must never give the game away and a writer must try and tell the truth. These are two conflicting impulses.” Having said which, he added that he would have had no difficulty being a politician. “It was just the urge to express myself, about what I thought about a subject. I find that when I do not write, I do not think. I suppose I like cerebration rather better than the exquisite sound of the celebration of a political career.” 

For someone so celebrated, Vidal was the recipient of few prizes. For United States, which brought together four decades’ worth of essays, he received a National Book Award. But he never won a Pulitzer still less a Nobel. Such was the fate, it seemed, of the congenital contrarian. “For those who haven’t read the books,” he said, “I am best known for my hair preparations.” As the blistering sun went down over the Bay of Salerno, he sipped his Glenfiddich. He was 75 and conceded that he was “not bad” for his age, though he suffered short term memory loss and walking was becoming problematic. But like an Old Testament prophet, isolation appeared to suit him. Showing me to the door, he pointed out an Aubusson tapestry and dining chairs which were designed for the set of Ben Hur, on whose script he once worked and for which, typically, he’d say, he never got any credit. 

Later that year he came again to the Edinburgh Book Festival where I tried and failed to get him to discuss his fiction. He was never comfortable talking about himself and his work. In any case, as he often said, people preferred to talk about his essays rather than his novels because they were shorter. Austen’s death in 2005 spelled the end of Vidal’s Italian sojourn and the beginning of “the hospital years”. Like the black sheep of a dysfunctional family, he returned reluctantly to the “United States of Amnesia” and the hills of Hollywood. Reliant on a wheelchair to get about and wearing what in photographs looked like tracksuit bottoms, he seemed diminished, worn out, his voice weak. Pat Robertson, the evangelist who said Scotland was a “dark land” overrun by homosexuals, had recently called him the Anti Christ. “I never use the full title,” said Vidal. “I just put AC after my name. It would be rather vulgar to use the full title.” 

Homophobia, he reckoned, was just as bad today, if not worse, than it was in the late 1940s when he wrote The City and the Pillar, his groundbreaking, courageous novel about what Anais Nin said were “same-sexualists”. Christianity, he felt, was the greatest disaster to befall the west. Why? “We did not need an oriental, absolutist, monotheistic religion which claimed total truth.” In hotel rooms, he said, he always replaced the Gideon bible with a copy of his novel Live from Golgotha, which is his scabrous interpretation of the gospel. Death was much on his mind. “Go to heaven; what do I care. On my tombstone, I wanted: ‘He wrote the perfect sentence’, and then not give it.” 

Thus spake the man who was always going to have the last laugh. 

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EIBF: Paddy Ashdown ‘Why the World Will Never be the Same Again’

It started like a classic rock concert. There was even some wrinkly-armed overhead clapping when the hero ascended the platform. The air was thick with nostalgia for a time before power when big ideas could scatter like seeds and nobody had to worry about bringing them to fruition.

And Paddy Ashdown has some big ideas. He considers that the “gimbals” (a favourite word) which support established orders of power are shifting. We are at the beginning of the end of western hegemony. America is in decline, China ascending. There will be blood he says if we do not adapt to the new reality.

This adaption requires the rejection of vertical power structures and their replacement with lateral ones. Everything is connected to everything in the modern world so treaty based global governance is the way of the future. Countries will need to cooperate over shared interests even if they do not have shared values.

Asked by James Naughtie what is to be done if the political class is not up to it, Ashdown replied ‘no clue’. That seemed about right even after some subsequent waffling about the need to shed central power, create supranational structures, and re-engage with people.

The Q and A session emitted a strong whiff of “New Dawnism” – Hugh Kingsmill’s term for utopian thinking stalked by wickedness. A man insisted that the biggest problem facing the world is over-population and that women should somehow be coerced in to birth control.  Ashdown agreed with the first part but not the second.

It was left to Naughtie to bring us back to earth. What of the coalition? Nick Clegg has got it exactly right was the reply. It is good for the nation and the Lib Dems will benefit at the polls when people come to realize that. Nobody guffawed at the last part. Nor when Ashdown added that his party was wrong on student fees because of what was said before the election rather than what happened after it.

Incidentally, the lecture opened with a few lines from Housman and closed with a few from Donne. Timely (if token) reminders that EIBF was a writer’s festival before it became a festival of politics.

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