Homecoming 2009 is a calendar of events designed to draw diasporic Scots back to the homeland. The powers that be determined this a good thing to do in the 250th year since the birth of Robert Burns. Scots who do come home during this calendar year can even claim a certificate commemorating their visit! It is to a certain extent a marketing con because most of the events in the calendar happen anyway – the Aye Write literary festival for starters, all the Highland Games, etc, etc. But there are some events that have been designed specially and I shall probably attend one or two of them during the year. What I really want, though, is for a particular book to be published.
Macallan, distillers of a fine Scottish malt, have commissioned a series of short stories by contemporary Scottish writers. The only brief that whisky must feature somewhere in the story. These stories were unveiled during this year’s Aye Write festival. Settling down with a free dram, I attended the premier reading of stories written by Val McDermid and Jackie Kay.
Val McDermid’s The Ministry of Whisky is set in Inverbiggen, a small Scottish town. The minister, John French, is a talented speaker. His church is well-attended, despite half the town being atheist or agnostic. It is clear that he has been exiled to the back of beyond for past demeanours, which are probably not unassociated with Scotland’s most popular export. He has taste for the finest malts with his congregation keeping a bottle on hand for their pastor’s visits. Inverbiggen is a town with open secrets in which everyone turns a blind eye. When Kirsty, the battered wife, stands trial for the murder of her abusive husband, John French bears witness and Kirsty is saved. At this point, the narrator of the story reveals herself and, as McDermid was reading, a sudden chill descended on the audience. The happy ending of this short story curdling into the beginning of something more sinister. It proved also what a fine writer McDermid can be when her pages are not dripping with blood, torture and gore. Her novel A Place of Execution is one of the finest pieces of suspense fiction I have ever read.
The tone of Jackie Kay’s story, Reality, Reality, is manic – a life is spiralling out of control. The narrator is obsessed with reality tv, in particular, Ready Steady Cook and, during a week’s annual leave, prepares a series of meals as she progresses through stages of the competition. The tone is highly comic, the whisky drinking props up her nerves, and gradually the audience became aware that the competition was imaginary, an illusion propping up the narrator’s self-worth. Gradually everything she tells us becomes questionable. When she tells us that she is going back to work to “face the music” – we know no more – we start to doubt whether she has actually been cooking at all. The theme then our modern day obsession with watching and being watched. What is fact, what is fiction? In the week the Myerson story broke, the story couldn’t have been more appropriate.
In the hilarious post-reading discussion (authors and compere demonstrating a wit that had the audience in tears at times), it was acknowledged that the characters in these stories would never make it into novels because they are people that neither author nor reader would be able to live with for that long. Echoing also what Colm Toibin has said, they confirmed that short stories should throw up more questions than answers – the intention to get the reader thinking off the page.
Other events at the festival show that Denise Mina, Rodge Glass, Andrew Crumey, Gavin Esler, Laura Marney, Louise Welch and Zoe Strachan have also written short stories for this special commission. I have been unable to ascertain whether there is to be a published anthology but I do hope so.