James Robertson and Rosemary Goring signing
photo credit: Dundee Literary Festival, image by Chris Scott
‘Compelling Stories’: Rosemary Goring and James Robertson
Dundee Literary Festival, 26/10/2013
Dundee is the new place to be. With its thriving contemporary arts centre and new V & A museum being built along the Tay, perhaps the city should be renamed Fundee.
Helmed by the formidable Peggy Hughes, the Dundee Literary festival is a kind and quirky celebration of books. Held in the University’s Bonar Hall, there is a makeshift cafe downstairs slinging tea in brightly coloured cups. Author names this year included Jenni Fagan, William McIlvanney, A L Kennedy, Lesley McDowell and several others. Many audience members looked well into retirement and that may account for the festival’s polite air. But that’s not too unusual these days.
A Saturday afternoon event featured Rosemary Goring, literary editor of The Herald and the Sunday Herald and Saltire prize novelist James Robertson. Though hampered by a few technology problems at the start, the event bloomed into a lively, even defiant discussion about an author’s responsibility to honour the historical background of a novel, but also to fulfil their own narrative agenda. Where, if any place, does the boundary lie?
Guardian journalist Antonia Senior said little by way of an introduction, which provided an abrupt segueway into Robertson’s presentation of The Professor of Truth. In a patient, grim voice he read from a rather tragic early part in the book. Alan Tealing, the main character, is an English professor who lost his American wife and daughter in the Pan Am 103 plane crash. The excerpt had some poignant notes: ‘the edge of the field where the nose of the aircraft lay like a fish head with men crawling over it like yellow flies…’
As Robertson read, it was difficult not think of Dr Jim Swire. Swire lost his daughter Flora in the Lockerbie tragedy and became a dedicated investigator of the incident. Parallels between the men surfaced, though Robertson pointedly stated that Alan Tealing is not based on Swire. In fact, Robertson did not conduct interviews with anyone related to the tragedy. He did, however, contact Swire after the novel’s completion and said: ‘Look I’ve written this novel. They’re going to assume it’s you’. It was ‘a matter of courtesy’, Robertson said, a fact which chimes with his ‘sensitive’ outlook on the novel. Yet the accomplished writer insisted that ‘people shouldn’t shy away from difficult subject matter’.
500 years after the battle of Flodden, Rosemary Goring read a similarly distressing episode from her debut novel. She has a crisp and eloquent style of reading. After Flodden opens, appropriately enough, in the battle’s aftermath, with the Scottish king gone and the English victorious. Her anti-hero Patrick Paniter grieves at home: ‘This man who, when he stood up to speak in council rose above his peers like a mainsail mast, whose voice on a calm day could reach across the Forth into Fife, began to splutter and girn as if he were a child…’ Fortunately, Paniter’s misery is interrupted by a plucky young interloper, Louise Brenier. Goring’s book is an imaginative hybrid of what she terms as ‘the real and the unreal’. Though Goring came across Paniter during her research, Brenier is her creation, conjured up one evening while Goring waited on Edinburgh’s Bridges for a bus.
Lockerbie is a fairly recent memory in many folks’ minds, but Flodden is not. Goring has been asked ‘What is a Flodden?’ and ‘Which Flodden?’ She is the first author to write about the ten years following the battle. Though an important position, her job is ‘not to give history lessons’, Goring said. Rather, she is revitalising an important period in Scotland’s past. Some historians ‘still feel really raw about Flodden’, she added.
In the final minute, the authors were handed a belter of a question: ‘Why should people keep the faith in literature?’ Robertson responded, ‘Literature may change its format, but it’s a human need to tell stories’. Goring said, ‘Why wouldn’t we ‘keep the faith’… when we enjoy it so much?’ Fitting responses, it seems, from two people who have given much to Scottish literature.