Friday, July 25, 2014

Being a writer in a writer's festival

I am involved in an event of a scale I can scarcely conceive of.

30 Scottish writers and 50 writers from Eastern Europe shuttling back and forth between four cities in three countries giving readings in a massive festival of literature called The Authors' Reading Month.

Finding myself taking part in it reminds me of the time when I began working as a playwright and was officially not considered a writer at all. I remember struggling with the Arts Council to get myself included on some writer's list or other.... But there's not time to dredge up many more melancholy memories because before I know it I am on the stage of the Husa theatre in Brno for the first reading.

It's a beautiful space, renowned as a centre of opposition to communism, and still a hub of cultural and intellectual activity on a scale none of our theatres could even dream of. And I do my reading, trying my hardest t deal with the weird sensation of having no-one look at me, but instead gaze at the screen where the translation is; and then all of a sudden I am answering questions on vegetarianism, Moravian independence, the importance of fairy stories, and whether or not I believe in angels. And what are my views on the way Moravian women dress?

Obviously I have nothing but good wishes for the Moravian peoples struggles for self determination, and Moravian women's dress sense is of unparalleled elegance; and I feel a little bemused because there is obviously a massive disconnect between the status of the writer and intellectual here and my status at home, but there is no time to be bemused because before I know it I am eating delicious things on toast in the theatre courtyard and fending off endless invitations to beer and we are leaving at 7.15 the next morning, Dora Kaprálová and me, to travel to Košice in Slovakia. We travel in pairs around this festival, Dora is a Czech writer and film-maker based in Berlin who is reading from her new collection "The Winter Book Of Love" which sounds totally beautiful and which I wish I understood.

Košice turns out to be a stunningly beautiful city at the far end of Slovakia, tantalisingly close to Krakow and the Ukraine and Budapest, and I love the sense of being at the very centre of European history.

How strongly I feel our position in Scotland at the very edge of things. Of how useful that is for us. And how damaging.

After the reading a man comes up to me with tears in his eyes. I have performed my "Dear Scotland" monologue and it has moved him profoundly because every time I said 'Scotland' I could as well have been saying Slovakia and that has left him feeling so very very grateful.

People constantly say this: how grateful they are. They seem to come every night for a month to sit through 2 to 3 hours of reading and discussion and drink in every word. It astonishes and moves me.

Someone offers to take us out to supper afterwards, Mr Dali his name seems to be. A melancholy looking man who takes us down a melancholy looking street t a melancholy looking bar called The Green Zebra where we seem to be the only customers.

I feel a strange affinity to Mr Dali, even though we don't speak a word of each other's languages, as if he was someohow another version of myself. Who lives in a parallel universe and has remained a man.

He tells us he never goes to the cinema. The only film he has ever seen was called 'Melancolia' and he used to suffer from depression. But after seeing the film not any more and the sky is pitch black with massive lightning occasionally flashing across it and the thunder ominously rumbling.

A few waifs and strays are taking shelter from the storm, but nobody says much and the place is silent, mostly, except for the rain pattering on the tin roof and a crackling sound sometimes from the flies being fried by the insect exterminator.


We eat Wiener Schnitzel type things with soggy chipped potatoes and then walk back to our hotel through the thunder and lightning, and the lightning so dazzling by now it hurts my eyes and the thunder so loud it deafens my ears and the rain so torrential it makes my skirt heavy with the wetness of it and we are both laughing uncontrollably for some reason and Mr Dali kindly and heavily walking ahead to guide us through the empty streets.

As we shake hands on parting I look him directly in the eyes and tell him he is a very good man, perhaps because I am a little drunk but also because I don't like the thought of him going to another even sadder bar and getting drunk there alone.

Because that seems like the most likely outcome.

But there's no time, no time to think about it because early next day we are off to the other end of the Czech Republic...

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