Nights in pubs, nights of music and dark beams, of golden light glinting off glasses and the golden warmth of fermented grape and hops. But it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the craic and laughter and people sharing. The tiny woman swaddled in her cosy green cardie is worried about singing here in the Scotia Bar in Glasgow - Julie Felix, legendary singing star of the 60s and 70s, thinks people will be too busy talking to listen to her. But for now she moves chairs out of the way and listens as fellow musician Frank O’Hagan adjusts the sound levels for her. She has been doing this for half a century and is painstaking in getting it right.
A Mexican woven rug is spread on the floor, the cardigan is off, her guitar seems as big as she is. Without any warning or introduction she crashes into song - Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, her guitar loud and insistent as she (with audience accompaniment) reaches the chorus: And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard, It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
In her youth Julie Felix’s voice was throaty, warm honey beside the pure iced water that flowed from the mouth of her contemporary,Joan Baez. Baez may have been the international star, but Julie Felix was the one people loved here - the first folksinger to fill the Albert Hall, the first to have her own television series; indeed Once More with Felix was the first colour series ever made by the BBC and was sold to virtually every country in the world.
Now the voice is darker, the honey turned granular, still warm but smattered with little roughnesses. Singing, though, is about more than the vocal instrument - it’s about emotion, energy, meaning. Julie Felix shares her passion with her audience, makes us feel what the words mean. Sometimes it’s about memory. Tonight she sings songs many of us know from our own youth - John Lennon’s Imagine; Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right; Leonard Cohen’s Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye; Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier. They swirl through the pub like songs from a foreign country, these anti-war songs, songs of people leaving each other and moving on in a time when love seemed free, Lennon’s song of hope for a world to come. ’Weren’t the Sixties the most magical time?’ she asks and we all shout back Yes, yes they were, but we all know that the world they promised never came.
As she introduces one of her own songs, she mentions that she was born in Santa Barbara. ‘We won’t hold that against you,’ says a man in the crowd. ‘Glasgow loves you to bits.’ Julie looks bemused, seeing nothing wrong with her place of origin and clearly unaware that Glaswegians have anointed themselves the chosen people, though later she satisfies Scottish pride by saying how much she loves Nicola Sturgeon. ‘I think she’s Mary,
Pictures by Mary Rafferty Queen of Scots reincarnated,’ she says. (Nicola’s love life appears to be rather less messy than that of the historic queen.) The song is touching, one of the few I have ever heard where a woman talks about her mother and says simply that she is proud to be her daughter.
The theme of female solidarity continues with her version of Just Like a Woman, whichis also unlike any I have heard before. Later she says she has never sung it that way before. Dylan’s song is often condemned as sexist, but she takes the words head on, makes them personal and true. In the final verse she changes the words to first person - I fake just like a woman, a line that causes many of the women in the pub to smile in complicity, then burst out laughing. The last line, But I break just like a little girl, is deeply poignant.She’s a woman in her seventies but she makes you understand that grief has no age limit, there are no limits to loss.
Her long silky hair is as dark and glossy as it ever was, her figure as neat. Her daughter says she’s a tomboy who doesn’t really care about clothes but her black shirt, adorned with a skull and embroidered roses, is quietly flamboyant. The voice, though, is vibrant and powerful and her big personality makes a mockery of her stature. There’s a moment almost of music hall joy when she gets her audience to sing along to one of her own compositions. Ooh, ooh, ooh, we all croon but the song has a serious message - it’s been written for a project called On Wings of Waste, which aims to fly an aeroplane from Australia to the UK on fuel made from recycled plastic. A brilliant idea - I have enough placcy bags in my house to fuel a round the world trip.
Nights in pubs, nights of music.
The songs Julie Felix sings are the songs that say who she is - Dylan, Cohen, Joni Mitchell, the anthems of a generation who wanted to change the world. She still does, is excited about Jeremy Corbyn, wants to see an end to Trident and war, loves Nicola. ‘Maybe we’ll see a change,’ she says. ‘I’ve been marching for 50 years, hoping to see it and now it looks like it could happen.’
More Dylan, the haunting Not Dark Yet and the crowd-pleaser, I Shall Be Released.
She ends her set as abruptly as she started, too tired to go on, too excited to stop. Instead of leaving she sits in the pub, talking to the people who’ve come to see her, one from as far away as Portsmouth. And the music goes on. She listens as people round the table pick up the pub guitar and sing. She sings too, accompanied by a young man with a mouth organ who tells her he’ll pick the tune up. He does, and the combination of the low, dark voice and the ethereal sound of the harmonica has the whole place cheering.
A special night in a special place. A special woman. Even when Julie Felix has slipped away, the music and the talk go on. People look back at all the special nights in the Scotia and remember being brought here by their fathers. I look at the people gathered round the dark oak table and think of a line from another Sixties song, I am he as you are he as you are me And we are all together.
Men in black suits control the doors, checking people’s mandatory name tags and wristbands. It isn’t a huge conference and the level of security feels irritating, but after all, we live in a post Charlie Hebdo Europe, where saying what you think can cost you your life. Perhaps the organisers are afraid that PEN International’s commitment to free speech makes us a target.
It turns out, though, that there’s a particular reason for the ramped up security: a very special guest, unpublicised and unannounced on the conference schedule - Zineb El Rhazoui, the 33 year old Charlie Hebdo columnist who was on holiday in her native Morocco when 12 people were killed and 11 injured at the satirical newspaper in an attack by Islamic militants, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi.
Zineb is accompanied by her personal men in black suits, two bodyguards who stay with her throughout her time at the conference. She has paid dearly for writing what she thinks - after the January shootings she had multiple death threats and now lives everywhere and nowhere, moving from friends’ houses to hotels, accompanied usually by her husband and always by the men in black suits.
One IS threat warned they would separate her head from her body. Later a Twitter campaign against her bore the hash tag #findherandkillher. ‘At Charlie Hebdo we knew we were targeted. All my colleagues knew they were risking their lives,’ she says. ‘Before the massacre I never took events seriously, but after what happened to my colleagues I do. I must be careful - all those who defend freedom of speech have to be careful now.’
What she has now is less a life than an existence. She is constantly on the move, never alone. Daily life is difficult, it’s hard to practise her profession, and she misses her dead colleagues, particularly her mentor, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, the cartoonist Stéphane (‘Charb’) Charbonnier. She can’t even pop out to the shops for a loaf of bread. ‘My whole life is in my bag,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I change my dress in the car, hidden by the policemen. When you go to the toilet they’re with you. They don’t enter but they’re next to the door so they know everything about you. They become your best friends.
‘I miss things like going for a coffee somewhere without deciding two hours before or letting your bodyguards choose the place and verify it before you go. I miss something I feel the terrorists have taken from me, a kind of unconsciousness.’
It’s a touchingly human admission from a woman whose life has been lived with a fierce kind of consciousness - opposing her religion, her government and the misogynistic views of her culture. Born in Casablanca to a French mother and a Moroccan father, she lived a typically middle class life, with compulsory classes in Arabic and Islam from kindergarten to high school before going on to university in Paris to study foreign languages.
’I’m an atheist but I was born Muslim and brainwashed a Muslim. No-one asked me for my opinion. When I started to have intellectual independence I started to ask questions, started to have doubts on what I was growing up in. You don’t become an atheist because you desire it, you become an atheist after years of deep questioning. It’s a deep process. You need to search the truth where you find yourself. I started to have some doubts, to feel that Islam is not for me, by the age of 15. By the age of 19, for the first time in my life I was convinced I will not need God again. I was intellectually and spiritually convinced that God did not exist - and I did not need him.’
Without wishing to contribute to the objectification of women, it has to be noted that she is exceptionally beautiful and charismatic and a mesmerising public speaker, not just for the passion and articulacy of her views but for a kind of guileless candour that is the opposite of speechifying by politicos. Camera phones start clicking all around as soon as her words start tumbling out.
That personal magnetism is no doubt one of the factors that led her to become a prominent spokeswoman during the time of the Moroccan Spring, explaining the country’s revolution to foreign journalists.
After university she taught Arabic for a couple of years at the French University of Egypt but in 2007 made the decision to return to her home country.
‘It was not an easy decision,’ she says. ‘As a woman you have to think before going to settle in a country where women are not free, where as a woman you don’t have the same legal rights, where society doesn’t look at you in the same way as men. But I thought to myself, maybe Morocco needs me now.’
She began working as a journalist on an independent weekly newspaper and co-founded a movement called MALI (Mouvement Alternative pour la Liberté Individuelle), a play on a common Moroccan phrase meaning, What’s wrong with me? MALI was an informal group dedicated to funny and provocative direct action involving the public. In September 2009, Zineb and her co-founder, psychotherapist Betty Lachgar, decided to stage a public picnic during the month of Ramadan, when Moroccans could be jailed for eating in public.
That led to Zineb’s first fatwa, issued by Moroccan state theologians, who said the event was offensive to Allah and the Prophet. She went into hiding, though the police announced in an Arabic newspaper that they’d arrested her. They had not, though they had arrested many of the people at the picnic.
After a week they released everyone.
’They were very stupid,’ says Zineb, unable to hide her amusement. ‘They couldn’t sue us - they arrested us before we ate.’
MALI’s next stunt was a street happening against sexual harassment. Girls wore T-shirts with moustaches and the slogan, Do you respect me now? Boys wore pink T-shirts. Their slogan was Big Pink Porks, which may say something forZineb’s sense of humour. She and Betty were arrested and not only interrogated but insulted by the police. Bitches, they called them before releasing them.
The authorities’ next move was more violent. The police came to her flat at 5.45 in the morning and arrested her and her then boyfriend, who was also an opponent of the regime. Because she was unmarried and alone with a man they intended to charge her with prostitution, an offence punishable by prison. She lights an impossibly long cheroot and blows out a stream of smoke.
‘Once in the police office I said, First of all, I never planned on being the Virgin Mary. I defend the right for modern citizens to sleep with why they choose - and am against these other laws, against homosexuals. A normal Moroccan girl would be afraid of the scandal but when they realised I wasn’t afraid at all they released me because they understood it would be a big scandal for them.’
The authorities continued to harass her and other activists, closing down many independent newspapers - Zineb’s among them, leaving her unemployed. There was no warning, no judicial process - they simply moved in and physically shut down the offices.
‘Many journalists who I met had apartments, cars, normal lives, but they ended up homeless, with nothing to eat.,‘ she recalls. ‘I lost my apartment in Casablanca and was living with a friend of mine in her father’s house. She gave me hospitality like a sister.’
When the Moroccan Spring started in 2009, Zineb, homeless and jobless, was in the perfect position to become one of the movement leaders. She was excited by the fantastic upswing of political energy among ordinary people and vocal in explaining the situation in Morocco, where the King and his cabinet rule everything. A new constitution was written, but if anything, was more repressive than the original. Journalists were regularly being beaten up in the street and Zineb never went out alone.
‘I always took someone with me, not for protection but to witness if anything happened to me,’ she says.
In the end the harassment got too much and she applied to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which offers support to writers exiled from their own countries because of political persecution. She was given a home for a year in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia - ‘a country where women can walk alone in the woods at night in short skirts and not be attacked. I thought, That’ll do for me,’ she says with a smile, though her own dress is modestly elegant and falls below the knee. Only the killer stilettos and ankle straps are a clue to her feisty nature - as a young girl she wore black nail polish and low-cut bras to school, refusing to be afraid of her conservative, long-bearded teacher.
While in exile in Europe she met the Charlie Hebdo team and went to work for the paper, one of the cartoonists reportedly taking a cut in salary to finance her place on the payroll. She wrote a book with Charb, the paper’s editor, and contributed to the most contentious issues, but she happened to have gone back to Casablanca for a holiday with her husband, a business lawyer, when the massacre at Charlie Hebdo took place. Immediately she returned to Paris.
‘I wanted to see my surviving colleagues,’ she says. ‘I felt, it’s the place I need to be. Charb was fantastically, extraordinarily courageous. He’d been living under protection since two years before he was killed. His bodyguard was killed with him. The other bodyguard escaped because he was parking the car. Charb felt something will happen. He was really thinking he will be targeted alone or somewhere in the street but never imagined that others will be with him. He said, I prefer to die standing than down on my knees, and he was standing when they killed him. He was a man fascinated with Arab culture and language and he’d say, Allahu Akbar, Let’s do it, as a kind of war cry. These two brothers came and they said Allahu Akbar. It was a real war cry for them. They asked, Who is chief? He stood and they killed him. Then they shot all the others around that table.’
She is fiercely loyal to both Charb and Charlie Hebdo, even though the magazine suspended her in March when she contributed to a letter signed by 15 staff members, urging the owners and management to stay true to its original ideals. So much money has poured in that the group were afraid the magazine’s stance would be softened. They wanted it to become a co-operative and the money - millions of euros - to be placed in a trust fund that would guarantee Charlie Hebdo’s survival for the next 30 years.
‘Charb was my friend, my protector, like an elder brother for me. He was always looking after me in the newspaper. We had a lot of projects to do together. Now I will do those projects, give them life for him,’ she says, recalling a recent event in Canada where she was asked to sign their book. It was the first time she’d done so alone and she burst into tears.
She relaxes in the late afternoon sunshine, a brief moment of respite before the practicalities of the evening ahead of her present themselves, before returning to her life of constantly being on the move, constantly having to reinvent herself. Normality has been taken from her, perhaps forever.
‘When you have such violent death threats and a contract on your head, you think, do I deserve to make children? Do I have the right to have children? I don’t see very clearly into my personal future. Only my future as a freedom fighter seems clear to me. I have no doubt that I have to continue struggling for the values I believe in.’
The price of freedom is high and some people, like Zineb El Rhazoui, pay more than most.
The work of Scottish PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee(WIPC) is often more frustrating than satisfying. We campaign on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers, many of whom have been jailed for talking about their governments in much the same way that many of us rage about David Cameron’s old Etonian Cabinet or the bedroom tax or Tony Blair’s promotion of war.
And although as writers we believe fervently in words, all too often we feel we’re casting them to the winds. Few of the governments we write to reply or pay any attention to our criticism. In fact some of them just weigh the letters they receive on behalf of dissidents - they don’t actually read them.
So sometimes you think it’s hardly worth the effort of writing a letter and certainly not worth the postage and sometimes you feel as if nothing you do will ever change a thing. But once in a while something happens to remind you that even if you can’t change the world, you can reach other people in it and they in their turn can reach others and eventually, if enough of you keep reaching out, then change can come.
Or as chaos theory has it, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can change the course of a hurricane.
This week, our event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers series, chaired by Regi Claire, led to one of those moments when suddenly progress seems possible.
One of the tools we use in WIPC is campaign cards, which we send to the country’s embassy in the UK. I was trying to order them off the internet but was having problems with the firm’s website so called them. The operator patiently negotiated his way through my ranting and sorted it all out. Then he startled me by thanking us for the work we do. He thought it was important. When I asked him about his interest, he turned out to be an activist himself, campaigning on behalf of Tunisia.
It seemed like serendipity that it was that particular operator I’d spoken to and natural then, in considering what country to focus on for our events at this year’s Festival, to choose Tunisia. Here was where the Arab Spring kicked off, in December 2010, leading to the ousting of PresidentZine El Abidine Ben Aliand a new constitution for Tunisia. Here was where the inspiration came for a wave of protest in countries throughout the Middle East, in Egypt and Syria and Jordan and Iraq, among others.
But the progress made in Tunisia after the fall of Ben Ali was illusory. Although some banned books started being freely circulated, publishers and broadcasters have been jailed for blasphemy, many civilians have been tried in military courts for ‘defaming’ the military, and journalists have been subject to violent attacks by the police. The country is an important reminder that there can be no complacency where freedom of expression is concerned. Although things have progressed there, Tunisia is still in the lowest third in the world for it, only 126 out of 180 countries on the 2015 Index for Press Freedom.
And, in June this summer, a 23 year old engineer called Seifeddine Rezgui strafed a beach in Sousse with shots from an AK47, killing 38 holidaymakers and wounding 39 more in the name of Islamic State.
Tunisia, where the government was already cracking down on free expression in the name of the fight against terrorism, looked like a good choice to highlight at the Edinburgh Festival.
Among the readings we chose for our event was one by a remarkable young woman called Lina Ben Mhenni, a teacher of linguistics at Tunis University, whose blog, A Tunisian Girl, was one of the few during Ben Ali’s regime to be published under the blogger’s real name rather than a pseudonym. Mhenni was one of the few bloggers to report when government forces massacred protesters in Kasserine and Regueb, two major cities in Tunisia’s heartlands. Her courage as a journalist is matched by her courage as a person - she has lupus and has had a kidney transplant, yet continues to battle for democracy in her country. She won the Deutsche Welle International Blog Award and El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize and was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
In another of those serendipitous turn of events, a former civil servant living in Edinburgh saw her on the BBC news and admired her commitment and her bravery. Iain Allan decided to email her. ’I like the idea that you can use the internet to speak to people on the other side of the world,’ he says. He and his partner had been on holiday to Tunisia and seen a number of Tunisian films at the film house, but had no particular personal connection to the country. He just wanted to tell her what he thought. Lina replied to him though they didn’t have an extensive correspondence.
Still, when he saw that Tunisia was to be featured in the Edinburgh Festival programme, he contacted her again to let her know. She in her turn sent a message to us at the Festival. From a problem in ordering cards off the internet to an international book festival… a fluttering of butterfly wings has started.
This is Lina Ben Mhenni’s message:
I am so happy to see that a panel in the Edinburgh Festival is dedicated to my country, Tunisia. My happiness was even greater when I knew that the panel was organised by Amnesty International. I grew up amongst the militants of Amnesty as my father is one of the founders of its Tunisian section. Amnesty activities were banned in Tunisia and some of the meetings were held in our house. It is thanks to Amnesty that I became aware of the injustices in the world.
Well, it is true that the situation in Tunisia is relatively good in comparison to what is happening in other countries of the so-called Arab Spring but let me say that when it comes to Human Rights things did not really change. Until today people are jailed for their opinions, some people die after being tortured in arrest stations or prisons…
Using the pretext of the fight against terrorism, security forces are back to their old repressive practices. This is very dangerous and would probably lead to the return of the police state.
Today we are talking about reconciliation without really paying attention to the establishment of a transitional justice process. Reconciliation in the way they want to do it is synonym (sic) to impunity. All the people who were involved with the regime of Ben Ali will benefit from it. It is true that we drafted a new constitution applauded by the entire world but what is the benefit behind having a good constitution which is just ink on paper? It should be put into practice.
Well, I won’t take much more of your time and end my message by inviting you to visit my country. Today we need your support more than ever. It is true that tourists lost their lives in my country but what happened in Tunisia happens everywhere. The majority of Tunisians are really sorry for the big human losses and we are trying our best to get rid of terrorism but we need your support. Again my condolences to the families of the victims and I hope to see you in Tunisia.
Lina Ben Mhenni
I am the daughter of Dido, Kahina, Aziza Othmana, Saida Manoubia and my mom who gave birth twice and I won’t kneel down.
It’s a lovely warm night, a night for rosé wine and sitting on the steps admiring the tulips. Spring is most definitely here because nine year old Joe has resumed his seasonal mountaineering practice and is climbing in and out of the front window. But the Divine Ms Anna, dressed all in black, has darker things in mind. No vernal frolics for us - the guest of honour at tonight’s literary salon is Helen Fitzgerald, whose affable exterior and laconic manner hide a seething mass of twisted preoccupations. No wonder the soup tonight is deep red borscht, curdling in the plate like blood.
Last time Helen came to talk to the salon it was about The Cry, a piece of domestic noir that became a bestseller. Her latest novel, The Exit, falls into the category of dementia noir, a sinister tale of Alzheimer’s, danger and unspeakable sexual proclivities promulgated on the internet. She decided to write it when she came back from Australia after the death of her own father two years ago. ‘Then I discovered everyone was writing about dementia,’ she says, laughing.
Her initial thought, she admits, was to write about elderly people being sexually abused. A shudder goes round Ms Anna’s living room at the very idea. ‘I know. No-one wants to read about that,’ says Helen, whose publishers did however agree to her writing about an equally esoteric form of sexual abuse, no less repellent, though I won’t reveal it for those who haven’t yet read the book. Suffice to say that the ways of the publishing world are mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. Religions have been founded on less gnomic principles than the book industry.
From dementia to sexual abuse may seem a strange leap of thought to those unfamiliar with the Fitzgerald oeuvre, which is dark, taut and deals with the very worst of human nature. This nihilism is clearly a family trait. Helen’s sister Ria, stylish in short dress and cowboy boots and as blonde and slender as Helen is dark and slender, confesses that she has frequent mental rehearsals for the day she has to get out of the back seat of a car sinking in the river. ’You don’t want those electric windows. They could just stop working altogether if water gets into them,’ she insists. Those of us without the Fitzgerald gene for imagining Gothic life events would clearly be at a distinct disadvantage in case of vehicular flooding.
Helen’s first encounter with dying was the death of her grandmother when she was 19. Visiting her in a Melbourne hospice left her shaken.
‘I was young and frightened of old people. I felt I was in there forever but it was only five minutes probably.’
Her grandmother confided that the staff were poisoning her, something Helen dismissed as the fantasies of a demented old lady at the time. It was only later that the thought began to emerge. What if it wasn’t?
Perhaps because of her own family history, her sympathetic portrait of Rose, an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s, is one of the triumphs of the book. Rather than showing the disease, she shows the person - who she was both as a child, when she suffered a traumatic experience that she is forced to re-live now, and as an adult, when she was a writer and illustrator of children‘s books.
Helen has herself published ten books, with another out next year, a level of industry that is in itself staggering - until you learn that she also works part-time as a social worker in the criminal justice system, helping offenders.
One of her great preoccupations in The Exit is the way the internet facilitates sexual offending, which leads the salonistas into a discussion of the problems of controlling how younger generations use computers.
We’re technologically outsmarted by our children,’ sighs Ms Anna, recalling an occasion when Joe, then only seven years old, wanted her to fix his i-Pad. She forgot to re-set the parental controls, and by the time she realised her mistake he’d already downloaded an app called 100 Best Sexual Positions. Although this now provides fertile material for blackmail - If you don’t eat your Weetabix/ stop climbing through the front window/go to bed this minute, I’ll tell so and so what you were watching - it does fill her with anxiety. ‘Young people’s brains are developing neural pathways differently,’ she sighs.
Joe is clearly more interested in obtaining a second piece of Ms Anna’s delicious courgette cake (one of your five a day, really, according to the cook) than in renewing his study of anatomical adventures, so she may be worrying prematurely. Maybe it’s just that the Fitzgerald family penchant for contemplating the darkness of human existence is infectious, though The Exit is more hopeful than the salonistas - its most touching element is the alliance achieved between the young and the old, between Rose and the other central character, Catherine, a young, thoughtless woman who lives her life through social media. When she has to, she grows up fast, as Joe and his generation undoubtedly will too.
The Exit, by Helen Fitzgerald, Faber and Faber
Pictures by Ria Fitzgerald
It was a black night, the sort of night on which only murderers - and salonistas - are abroad. The heavens were black, weeping dirty rain; the streets shone slick black with moisture and sodden leaves; the Divine Ms Anna was even garbed in black, in a smart little black dress that showed off killer legs and what she called her ‘filthy librarian’ shoes.
‘I’ve had to get out my lady wardrobe,’ she said. After years of perfecting the art of typing while lying prone on the sofa, she was now in full time employment again, replacing someone on maternity leave from the Daily Record in the provision of ‘advanced content.’ Advanced content, it transpired, was what in the olden days we used to call feature writing. If I’d known I was doing something so important I might never have given up journalism.
There could not have been a more fitting guest writer for the evening than Neil Mackay, dark-haired and swarthy and wearing, of course, a sharp black suit. Neil, who is head of news at the Sunday Herald, has something of the night about him and kept abandoning his bean soup to plunge into the murky depths outside the door and have a fag. He was smoking roll-ups, on the questionable ground of health - he’d once seen how cigarette filters were made and decided pure tobacco would be less detrimental to him physically than cyanide and half the contents of the periodic table.
His book, All the Little Guns Went Bang Bang Bang, published by Freight Books,is a dark and atmospheric tale of two child murderers who grow up with the Troubles of Northern Ireland as the backdrop to their lives - as well as child prostitution, neglect and abuse. May-Belle and Pearse have little in their lives except each other. Their touching friendship is punctuated with violent attacks on various children, described so graphically by Neil that his own partner told him she liked his writing but did not like his book.
‘Does motherhood do something to women, that they can’t read about violence to children?’ he pondered. ‘I love our daughters just as much as she does but I don’t have a problem with that on the page.’
The character of May-Belle, it turned out, was modelled on the 1960s child killer, Mary Bell, a person with huge resonance for Neil as every time he misbehaved, his grandmother would tell him to watch out or he’d turn out just like her.
‘I was very shocked by how society treated people like Mary Bell or Robert Thomson and Jon Venables, who killed wee Jamie Bulger. They were treated as monsters yet they were just children themselves,’ he said. ‘I wanted to make May-Belle and Pearse almost heroic, without minimising the impact of the violence. It’s good if readers find it sickening because I wrote it sickeningly.’
He started off the evening by reading a passage where Pearse spends two hours finding out how a gun they’ve acquired works, much to May-Belle’s impatience.
‘You can’t just pick up a gun and fire,’ he said. ‘It’s just not that easy.’
Maggie Anderson, our octogenarian salonista and the only one of us who had had any contact with guns, agreed. She lived in Aden during the time of the military conflict of the 1960s and was given a revolver for protection, though she would have had no idea how to fire it.
‘I had what they called a guard-body,’ she said, adopting a suitably Yemeni accent. (Having been a newsreader out there, Maggie has a finely developed sense of the dramatic.) ‘I was going into the market one day when a bomb went off inside.’
Ahmed, her driver, abandoned the gun, and simply shouted, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, fuck off home now. That was the only English he knew; his knowledge of the workings of the gun were presumably similarly extensive.
As Ms Anna recharged everyone’s wine glasses and served delicious Clementine cake, Neil and Maggie bonded over bombs. Neil had originally been drawn into news reporting by an explosion in Belfast docks, like an A-bomb over the city. He was in the newspaper office that day after a friend at the paper, knowing he wasn’t making enough money from his career as an actor, invited him to do book reviews. When someone was murdered in the city centre that afternoon, Neil was the only one left in the office. Book boy, the editor shouted, you go.
‘It was so exciting, so filled with adrenalin, that Book Boy became Murder Boy,’ said Neil. ‘Newspapers were filled with dysfunctional lunatics, so I felt at home.’
His taste in literature is impeccably Stygian. He may be the only person on the planet who has managed to read Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn more than once, his first time at the age of sixteen, when after a particularly gruesome depiction of the gang-rape of a young prostitute, he threw the book at the wall, thinking, What am I doing reading this? He clearly worked that out overnight, because the next day, he picked it up again and has since read it over twenty times.
‘He’s a genius, so challenging. That’s the kind of response I’d love to have for my books,’ said Neil, almost wistfully.
It was a gauntlet thrown down to the salonistas. Next time we must hone our wall-throwing skills. A grey, measured reaction will no longer be acceptable in our literary world. From now on, only black will do.
‘It could be,’ said the Divine Ms Anna, ‘our last literary salon as part of the UK,’ a thought which made the whole evening shimmer with cultural resonance. We were on the brink of a new future, no-one yet knew what. We were carrying the flag of revolution as we sang La Marseillaise, we were the orchestra on the Titanic, creating beautiful music in a time of destruction. Well, maybe things weren’t quite so close to death and chaos, though the last days of the referendum campaign felt like that. But being at a literary salon seemed like an assertion of the things that matter - art and sharing and ideas and people. With lots of wine, of course.
In honour of the momentousness of the occasion, Ms Anna was resplendent in floral trousers and a necklace that would not have looked out of place on Keeping Up with the Kardashians. She’d made a typically Scottish soup, delicious lentil with lots of carrots, and the literary choice was equally patriotic - The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by BBC presenter, Kirsty Wark.
I have to confess a particular interest in Kirsty’s book. It was my salvation after a gruelling day at the pool on my recent holiday in Spain. I’d been reading a highly garlanded literary novel which shall be nameless. Gosh, it was dull - writing by numbers, totally turgid, with characters who were both dreary and irritating. Had to have quite a few glasses of cava to make up for that one.(Well, all right then, it was The Lighthouse by Alison Moore.)
I hadn’t particularly wanted to read Kirsty’s book but it proved a lifeline - well researched, thoughtful and moving. Set on the island of Arran, it has twin voices, that of the late Elizabeth Pringle, a rather stiff elderly lady whose surprising life story is revealed slowly over the course of the book, and the other that of Martha, a journalist whose mother, Anna, is sliding into dementia. Both heroines are attractive in different ways. Elizabeth Pringle is typically Scottish in her stubbornness, independence of mind, and a romantic identification with the place of her birth. Martha is a typical journalist in her embracing of the pleasures of wine. With a love story, a mysterious secret, family tension and Scottish history, the book is both a page turner and has the ring of truth.
The referendum discussion started over the soup, with analysis of the various supermarkets who’d fallen in with David Cameron’s request to scare the Scots by saying they‘d raise prices if the vote was Yes. It was noted that Lidl, Ms Anna’s supermarket of choice, had not only abstained from frightening the populace but actually had a sign supporting independence outside their Govanhill store. ‘If they can operate from Germany, Tesco could probably manage to get themselves organised from Kent,‘ murmured Jackie McDonald, whose quiet Picture by @moroc manner often disguises the sharp nature of
There then followed extensive discussion of the many superior and inexpensive products on sale there, including wines, three fish roast, and assorted cheeses. ‘You can,’ noted Ms Anna, mentioning a particular shopping centre and displaying a judicious amount of glee at hoodwinking the middle classes, ‘even use a Marks and Spencer trolley.’
Solidarity with the indy supermarket established, we re-charged our glasses and repaired to the salon, where Kirsty read a passage from her book, brushing off incipient applause by plunging briskly into her second reading. This is most unusual in a writer, most of whom, having toiled away in isolation, lap up any applause that’s going. Kirsty’s no nonsense attitude reminded me of her own character - the redoubtable and stoic Elizabeth Pringle is clearly who she’ll be when she’s old herself.
The second passage she read dealt with the exercises the Queen Mary liner did off Arran before her maiden voyage, a topic clearly dear to Kirsty’s heart. Her own grandfather was the ship’s engineer and she’d named one of her characters after him. ’I gave lots of names of friends and family to my characters,’ she said, in that distinctively raspy voice that sounds like fingernails scratching down cardboard. ’That was my private joke.’
The ebullient Jane Grove, who teaches French, said that part of the book had moved her to tears, though I won’t give away which part for those of you still to have the pleasure of reading it. But the talk inevitably drifted back to the coming referendum. Nan Gourlay, a television production manager, said she’d moved from No to Yes and was feeling sick with nerves about the whole thing. A number of us shared her feeling. Finally having a vote that counted was a huge responsibility.
Scots writer Ken Wright then went into a rather puzzling diatribe about the Scots being told all their literary swans were geese and as a result thinking all their geese were swans. Kirsty said she thought it was the other way round, that we didn’t have enough confidence in our own abilities. A riot then nearly ensued when Ken condemned the wonderful and generous-spirited poet Norman McCaig for having the atmosphere of a 1950s schoolteacher in a tweed jacket. Fisticuffs were narrowly averted by Ms Anna’s gentleman caller, Steve Heller Murphy, who returned us to the referendum. He summed it up for many when he said, ‘People who have money should vote Yes because people who don’t are asking them to.’
The arrival of the cake restored equilibrium to the party. ‘This one is the apotheosis of middle class cake,’ declared Ms Anna. ‘Elderflower cordial.’ Ms Anna’s cakes are always divine, but this one was exceptionally moist and sweet. Finally something we could all vote yes to.
I’ve spent the last couple of days not just in mourning, but in wondering what kind of person votes against their own independence. To say no to being in charge of your own future seems to me like saying no to babies or freedom or the scent of roses. It’s like a turkey voting for Christmas.
In the bitterness of defeat it’s easy to say the No voters were selfish or stupid, scared of the future and more concerned with their own comfort than with the common good. It’s easy to point at the unionist neds doing the fascist salute in George Square and say, This is who you lined up with. It’s easy to watch Cameron sticking the boot into Labour or Miliband taking a step back from the so-called ‘vows’ and think the Nos have got what they deserved.
Easy but not true. I have many close and dear friends who studied all the evidence, agonised over their decision and voted for the union. They’re some of the kindest people I know and certainly not stupid. Moreover, the turnout was exceptionally high, 84.5 percent, a record for any UK election since (almost) universal suffrage was brought in in 1918. (Women were granted the vote then but had to be over 30 and meet certain property requirements. Not until 1928 were they finally on a par with men.)
I saw a snide comment about the people who went into the polling booth and put two crosses on their forms - Is ‘stupid’ just another word for Scottish? - but I think it’s admirable that people who genuinely couldn’t make up their minds didn’t just stay at home. Instead they went to the trouble of going out to take part in this historic event and recorded the fact that they could see both sides of the argument. No-one could say the Scots didn’t care about their country.
From a Yes perspective it’s hard to see why No voters weren’t repulsed by the blatant scaremongering tactics of the government in the last week of the campaign, hard to see why so many who support unilateral disarmament didn‘t seize the opportunity to force Westminster to think again about it, hard to understand why people weren‘t more concerned by the potential loss of the National Health Service through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated between Europe and the US.
But they voted in such huge numbers for No that it couldn’t just be about fear and the economy. People were scared, despite the many economists who said Scotland was a rich country, not so much by the threat of the banks’ withdrawal (if you haven’t any money in the bank, that doesn’t particularly matter to you) but by the threat of rises in supermarket prices. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, of course that’s a scary thought - even many working people barely make it to the end of the week as it is. I laughed when I heard Marks and Spencer were threatening to put up prices - lots of people never go in there because it’s too dear already - but Asda was more serious. In fact I recently heard Lesley Riddoch talking about her Africawoman project, which gave African women their own online newspaper and which I had the privilege to work on in the 1990s. A group of the women came to Edinburgh where, despite the Castle and the historic buildings, the place they really wanted to go was Asda. They were much poorer than us but could still afford to shop there.
Despite the economic element, I think the No voters were just like the Yes voters in that they too were voting for something bigger. It was just a different concept of what’s important. For No, it was the sense of being part of a historic partnership. One lady my sister talked to said she thought of her great-uncle, who’d been killed in the war, and she didn’t want to let him down. Many people feel proud of their part in two world wars and, indeed, in building up the British Empire.
And perhaps even more feel a class kinship with working people all over Britain. Having been through the turbulence of Thatcher’s breaking of the miners and reduction of trade union powers, many Scots wanted to express their solidarity with the poor and disaffected through the UK. Those of us who voted Yes thought the break-up of this unequal partnership could only lead to a fracturing of the political status quo and a re-making of the whole country, but the No voters thought there was more chance of effecting change if people banded together. I respect and honour them for that but the irony is that David Cameron didn’t even wait 24 hours before seizing his opportunity to curtail the power of Labour.
I believe the population of England and Wales is so much greater than ours that we will never be able to control our lives while the major decisions are made in their interests. Is it really so selfish to want to control your own resources? I was at dinner with friends last night and one suggested it was, that if oil had been found in Lowestoft, we would expect the profits to be shared throughout the country. That’s a fine thought, but I don’t believe the profits have been shared. They’ve been used to fund illegal wars and the legal gambling of the banking system, used to foster the interests of the Westminster elite, used to favour the south east over other parts of the UK.
I was hoping to see the might of the US curtailed by a small nation. Hoping to see the might of big business controlled. We may have shaken Westminster but we had a chance to shake the world.
I’m voting Yes. For all the usual reasons, of course. I despise the Tory government, I do not want my country to take part in any more wars, nor do I want to be part of one that has the bedroom tax and nuclear weapons. I want to preserve a National Health Service that’s freely available to all, not return to the days when people died because they couldn’t afford to pay for the doctor to come. I’m sick of Westminster’s bankers and wankers, of cowardice and consumerism, of being patronised and pulverised.
But above all, I prize one word - independence. I grew up as a young woman in the 1960s, when girls were expected to flirt and wheedle and manipulate men into giving them what they wanted, not go for it themselves. That seemed both dishonest and demeaning to me and I wanted no part of it. I was the oldest of six children, helping my mother from an early age. I didn’t see why I should depend on a man or expect to be looked after when I was so capable. I wanted to be free to live my own life. It took a long time and a lot of fighting for ordinary women to be able to do that and I can’t see why any country would refuse the chance of something so precious.
It seems to me that independence is the most basic freedom a human being can have, the one we all aspire to. I feel this all the more keenly now that I’ve acquired a disability and can’t do as many things for myself as I used to. The thought of a future of other people looking after me, controlling my life even with their kindness, frightens me.
I don’t think we’ve been frightened enough of dependency as a nation. We’re too bloody comfortable with it. For 300 years we’ve got used to blaming England for everything that goes wrong in our lives. We entered the Union in the first place for economic reasons, after the collapse of the Darien Scheme in Panama drained Scotland of nearly half its circulating cash as well as its hopes of creating an empire like the English. Unsurprisingly the English didn’t fancy us becoming their rival in the colonial stakes. They were under pressure from big business to preserve the East India Company’s monopoly over foreign trade and forced English and Dutch investors to withdraw from our scheme. If that sounds familiar, it is - the current scaremongering by businessmen and the Establishment media is nothing new, just the usual closing of ranks to preserve privilege.
The Scots weren’t put off. They funded the scheme themselves, thousands of small investors pouring money in to follow a vision of linking the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans that would finally come to fruition only in 1914 with the building of the Panama Canal. In the 17 century we’d had years of famine, years of unrest following the Glencoe Massacre. After the collapse of the scheme we did what seemed the practical thing, threw in our lot with the bigger power in the 1707 Union of the Parliaments. But that wasn’t the end of it then - two major uprisings followed, in 1715 and 1745. If we vote to stay with England again it won’t be the end of it now.
We have continued to define ourselves as a nation despite hundreds of years of helping establish the British Empire, fighting endless wars. And hundreds of years of having our views ignored, our country treated as a dustbin and our people exploited. We’re too close to being liberated from all that to give up now.
Recently I’ve been accused of hippyish thinking on independence, of ignoring the global links created by the money markets, when it seems obvious to me that allowing the major corporations to rampage uncontrolled through your country is just folly. Yet the UK is on the verge of endorsing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and Europe, which will not only hand even more power to the multi-nationals, but will mean no-one can prevent the privatisation of the health service. The projected £100 billion growth may be the ‘practical’ thing to do, but it seems to me too high a price to pay for the whole of Europe to end up in thrall to big business and the dollar.
We in Scotland have a chance to opt out of such economic shackles and change our country in the way we want to. It will change anyway if the TTIP is signed - we will be even further away from self-determination, at the mercy not just of England and Brussels but of the very people who caused the near collapse of world economic systems. It was another hippy concept that small is beautiful, but I believe in that too. We have the chance to create something different here, use our traditional independence of thought to make a future where people are more equal, values more human.
I’ve just come back from holiday in Spain, where a lovely night out was marred by a little Englander pontificating at the next table. A restaurant high in the mountains of Almeria, views to the Mediterranean, a blood red moon hanging low over the sea. Then Mr Essex proclaiming that the Scots had been the monkey on England’s back for 300 years and now ‘they want our pound.’ (Whose pound?) We were ungrateful apparently for disliking the presence of nuclear weapons in our country, though I can’t imagine he’d have appreciated it if they’d been in his own county’s seaside resort of Southend, which is much the same distance from London that Faslane is from Glasgow.
The visceral rage I felt surprised me. I lived for many years in England and loved it, but when that kind of arrogance is compounded by that kind of ignorance it’s hard to see it as anything other than an attack. It’s not about nationalism. It’s about being fed up of being dismissed as whingeing Jocks; it’s being fed up of the Westminster elite having the nerve to come to Scotland the week before the referendum; it’s about the Prime Minister refusing to engage in a televised debate with Scotland’s First Minister and leaving the job to a politician who’s not even in his own party. Arrogance and ignorance and I hope they pay the price.
Thankfully, neither David Cameron nor my friend from Essex gets a say in Thursday’s vote. For once, it’s our decision to make, unmarred by the numerical jiggery-pokery of the 1979 referendum, when independence would only be granted if 40 percent of the electorate voted for it - I don’t think much of Cameron and his politics but at least he didn‘t put conditions on the vote. Unlike the idiotic Jeremy Paxman, he grasped that partnerships cannot be sustained unless they’re freely entered into - Paxo thinks the people in England and Wales should get a vote too. Hasn’t he noticed we’re having the referendum because we‘re fed up with them deciding everything for us? He probably thinks only men should be allowed to sue for divorce.
You know what? Last time round the Yes camp won, 52 percent to 48. That’s usually forgotten because we lost out on independence itself. We didn’t all vote that time because it was clear that abstaining was equivalent to a No vote. But 97 percent of the Scottish electorate has registered to vote this time and the energy is palpable. I don’t care what the practical party says, I want change. We’ve had nearly 40 years of Thatcherism from one party or another. If we’re brave we will make a brave new world. Yes, yes, yes.
Summer is causing seismic shifts among the salonistas. The Divine Ms Anna greets her guests this evening in the garden - dressed in a onesie. A onesie! The garment of choice for those who want to hide away from the world, slumped on the sofa while watching the Kardashians and eating Cheesy Wotsits.
The garment used to humiliate prospective grooms on their stag dos, in a far more agonising way than the traditional stripping naked and zapping with shaving foam. Guaranteed to lead to the calling off of the wedding if the bride ever sees him in pale blue nylon fur adorned with pink cow’s udders.
What, you might ask, is the Divine Ms Anna thinking of? Thankfully hers is a spectacular garment, charmingly summery and spattered with multi-coloured flowers. It emerges she bought it in Asda in Elgin when she realised none of the clothes she had with her were suitable for the unseasonal summer that seems to have descended on us this week. (It’s only June and we have a heatwave, for goodness sake.)
‘The funny thing is,’ she reflects, ‘that I stood out in Elgin not because of my onesie but because I was the only person there whose skin was completely free of tattoos.’
The arrival of Elginer Marion, with tattoos on both arms and goodness knows where else, rather confirms her statement.
But the summer break with tradition is not limited to Ms Anna’s wardrobe. The redoubtable Maggie Lennon has, it transpires, become a bird-watching expert since our last salon. A recent glamping trip has confirmed her status as a deeply knowledgable ornithologist. She stayed for four whole days in a log cabin somewhere in Perthshire, eating in the open air, having to fight her way to the communal washhouse for showers.
’Oh yes,’ she says authoritatively. ’Most unusual to see the siskin so far north at this time of year.’
Or maybe it was some other bird. Not being a twitcher myself I can only marvel at the wealth of knowledge she‘s acquired from The RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds. In such a short period of time too.
The culinary traditions of the salon are also thrown to the winds tonight - no soup. Ms Anna bought the makings in Elgin but has arrived back home just fifteen minutes before her guests. Or most of them - La Lennon has been here since six, supervising Anna’s daughter Nina’s homework and casting a benign eye over her eight year old son Joe’s attempts at mountaineering in and out of the flat’s front windows. As it’s extremely hot and we’re eating in the garden, no soup is a good decision. Bread and cheese, roasted peppers and the best pork pies in the city are delicious and easier to eat.
My own collection of novellas, The Four Marys, published by Saraband, is the featured book tonight, bringing the salon full circle as my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, kicked it all off just over a year ago. That night Ms Anna stated her preferences in salon readings. ‘They should always have sex,’ she said firmly.
In deference to this I’ve chosen a scene from The Diva, a story about a Glaswegian woman who becomes a great star on the operatic stage. She falls in love with a famous tenor when they appear together in an open air concert at a stately home.
Authors always have a certain amount of trepidation just writing sex scenes, given the various Bad Sex awards on offer. But reading them out loud? Is there no limit to the challenges facing the modern author? I’ve had to learn how to tweet, where to sign a book (the flyleaf), even how to take a selfie. Becoming a performer is the last straw, but the Divine Ms Anna is stern when I talk about choosing the reading.
‘Let’s be honest,’ she says. ‘Your book is full of squelchy bits.‘
There seems to be a general consensus that the book is pretty female, which is no surprise to me as I am pretty female. I’m more startled by the fact that no quarter is given to the male characters in the book. Having been a rabid feminist all my life, I’m now finding that other women leave me standing in their lack of tolerance of ordinary male behaviour. No-one likes my kind tenor because he‘s been unfaithful to his wife and the husband of the baby snatcher is written off as a waste of space. Even the hot art teacher who marries the sealwoman is roundly condemned.
‘He’s exploitative,’ says Ms Lennon in crushingly final tones.
The male gender having been dismissed, we go on to more literary discussion. The stories feature shape-shifting, baby-snatching, two infanticides and a hanging, so are not gentle domestic dramas - the book’s strapline, Is Motherhood Every Woman’s Destiny? was worked out in conversation with the fabulous Sara Hunt, Saraband’s publisher. With such subject matter there are few options for the reassuring ending. I’m thinking of adopting No Redemption as my new motto, though my publisher is not entirely convinced. (‘I can actually conceive of a situation where redemption might be appropriate,’ she notes.)
As the carrot cake is handed out and more wine is poured, there is discussion of the demands society makes on women, the myths around motherhood, and of women finding their own identity outside marriage and childen. Though it seems I have failed as a writer: ‘I thought the baby in the second story was going to turn out to be a demon child,’ says Maggie Lennon accusingly. ‘That would have been a much better story.’ A plotline I’ll save for future use.
Despite the breaks in tradition Ms Anna is in contemplative mood tonight, looking back to the past and the start of the salon. She had just separated from her husband and wanted to find out what she liked rather than what they had done as a couple. ‘It’s totemic for me,’ she says. ‘I had to work out who I was again, what I wanted to do.’ She gestures round the high-ceilinged room with its elegant cornices, its feeling of space.
'This place can soak up a lot of people. I like it when it's full of friends, noise, wine, books. Joe complained after one salon that he couldn't get to sleep because we were laughing too much. Sorry Joe, but that's the way I like it.'
Looking round at everyone still volubly discussing identity and stereotypes and gardens and Asda’s bread, I can only agree. Divine, Ms Anna.
Look, I'm going to be honest here. I thought it was going to be the clash of the Titans. Katie Grant and Maggie Lennon together in one room? Irresistible force meets?... well, irresistible force. There would be blood spilt on the Divine Ms Anna's floor. Her elegant literary salon would be transformed into a bear-pit, all Maileresque brawling and braggadocio.
But La Lennon, sporting a haircut as spiky as her normal personality, was indisposed this week. On antibiotics. Good grief, she couldn't even drink. She retired early, leaving the floor to the whip-thin and whip-smart Ms Grant, whose novel Sedition is riding high in the bestseller lists. It's currently 58 on Amazon's literary fiction chart, if she cared to look, which she doesn't because she reckons it drives writers mad. Having heard of a divorcé
who kept comparing his novel's standing with his ex-wife's, I reckon she's right.
The evening started with soup the colour of the prospective blood on the floor. Beetroot, according to Ms Anna, impeccably sourced, of course, from Saturday's farmers' market. It was pronounced superb by the more sophisticated among us, though I have to confess Ms Anna found me staring into my bowl in dismay. I think red soup may be an acquired taste.
Katie Grant's book is set in 18th century London at a time when the French Revolution was in full swing and the spirit of dissent was fomenting in the city's coffee houses. There aren't many books which can be described as original but this is one of them, a darkly humorous brew of sex, revenge, betrayal and music that is as seditious as its title and yet also deeply touching. With its two extraordinary female heroines and a Dickensian supporting cast, it's a book that stays with you. In the kitchen table discussion Katie herself said she thought that books lingering was random, but I don't think so. The imagery, the spiritual quality of the descriptions of music, but above all, the people in Sedition embed themselves in your mind.
The reviewers agreed. One described it as the kind of book that 'bookworms burrow inside to devour with relish from cover to cover. The kind you'll secrete behind all the other books on your shelves in case friends steal it and somehow "forget" to give it back. The kind from which you'll read chosen snippets to your offspring when they're old enough. An induction into the magical unruliness of words.'
Actually, it's an induction into the magical unruliness of lots of things: rape, incest, castration, and most alarming of all, apparently, the wildlife that roosts in grand houses when left to themselves. The usually unsinkable Maggie seemed to have been particularly disturbed by a scene where curtains are drawn back in a drawing room and a swarm of bats and spiders emerge from the dust-laden drapes.
'But that's what happens!' exclaimed Katie, regaling the salonistas with tales of similar occurrences from her own family home, a once grand(ish) house (main family house now a museum and art gallery) in Lancashire. On one visit her parents reported that a wall had fallen down in a child’s bedroom. When Katie and her sisters trooped upstairs to see it, the wall had indeed fallen down and was seething with zoological specimens. Her intrepid parents, with true aristocratic insouciance, simply moved the bed a couple of feet away from the epicentre of insect activity.
Picture: Debbie Toksvig
'I suppose that did breed a sort of callous jollity that is part of me and has found its way into the books,' pondered Katie. She has previously written nine children's books, one of which deals with the severed head of one of her ancestors, who was executed for supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie. The head travelled widely, sometimes in a hatbox, and spent some years in the early twentieth century in a basket on a table in the drawing room. Finally buried in St. Peter’s Church in Burnley, the tomb was re-opened in 1978 to discover that Uncle Frank's head had been befriended by another head, origin unknown. The two heads are together still.
But it may have been the ferrets that finally finished Maggie Lennon off. One of Katie's sisters apparently keeps them as pets and had let them out in the night. For reasons which escape me, Katie's children came into the room and saw these little red eyes staring at them out of the blackness. They, having been brought up in Glasgow's leafy West End, were deeply upset, but Katie and her siblings had learned it was best to laugh. 'If you didn't laugh, the darkness of life would take over too much,' she said.
Maggie was looking pale by now, though managed to get in a comment about the Daily Mail and how no decent human being could be liked by the paper. Katie, who often writes for the Mail, ignored the remark and sailed on with a description of an article she'd written about primogeniture. Sedition has generated all manner of themes for debate.
Thankfully, the Divine Ms Anna's delicious orange and clementine cake restored equilibrium and literary pugilistics were averted. Maggie had clearly decided to conserve her energies for her next opponents. She's going on a night of speed dating before flying off to Berlin to hear Rufus Wainwright. 'So I won't give a damn,' she said. Her great charm is that she never does.
Katie Grant sallied forth into the night, plotting her next book, a novel set in 1985. Sedition startled many of her friends and family. After so many children's books they weren't expecting its dark content and savage wit. Her father, in fact, grumbled to one of her sisters, 'How does Katie know about all these things?' Katie, though, is relishing her freedom to write what she wants. I don't think she gives a damn either.