Category Archives: Talks

Human Being, with Gavin Francis and Prof. Sue Black (3:30pm)


A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum

This event had the largest audience of all the Dundee Literary Festival 2015 events I’ve been to. It was held in the larger hall on the ground floor of the building, and almost every seat was taken by the time I arrived, five minutes before the starting time. As I quickly and quietly took my seat and unpacked my notebook, music began to play and Gavin Francis and Sue Black entered, walking up the centre aisle and onto the stage to take their seats. Laughing, Sue Black explained that the musical intro had been provided by “naughty people behind the scenes”. I forget the name of the tune, but she explained its personal significance, as it was a melody used as a “warm up” by her piano playing father. This kindly introduction set the mood for the entire discussion that contained laughter and light-hearted comments, as well as serious and somewhat emotional topics.

Having never read the book Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, only the Literary Festival programme description (which captured my interest), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from today’s talk. Sue chaired the discussion, introducing Gavin (who is a practicing GP as well as a writer), who Sue playfully commented had studied, unfortunately, at Edinburgh and not Dundee. This remark generated laughs from the audience and was a reflection of her admiration for Gavin’s expertise. Sue then allowed Gavin to talk about Adventures in Human Being before beginning to ask questions about the book and his general approach to medicine and being a doctor.

The book is “essentially eighteen essays examining different parts of the body”, Gavin began. He explained how the approach is not only scientific, but also takes into account cultural and historical perspectives. He talked about two particular chapters in his book, namely the one concerning the heart and pulse, and the other the human face. Playfully, Gavin asked the audience to find their pulse, showing us how to do this, and everyone placed their fingers onto their neck as he demonstrated. He explained some facts about the pulse and explained that the idea of a pulse is relatively new – only three/four hundred years ago did the idea of the heart pumping blood come to light. He also touched upon the “exhilarating” experience of finding a baby’s heartbeat, particularly when the pregnant woman has visited, anxious that they haven’t felt the baby move for a couple of days. It was through moving comments like these that Gavin’s love for what he does became highly evident.

Although the discussion had a very factual, practical level concerning the human body and its functions, there were also strong emotional aspects to some of the topics touched upon, such as “bequeathers” (organ donars), and those who are terminally ill – how different people take the information and also how can you train a doctor to give fatal news? From questions such as these, the talk also took a slightly different direction – a somewhat more philosophical approach, peeling back the edges of questions such as what it is to be human and the complicated but fascinating relationship between the mind and the body.

I found the talk today with Sue and Gavin honestly fascinating and I feel no review (including this one) could do the event justice. Even though I have not read Adventures in Human Being, I am moving it to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

Frances Kelly

Lunchbox Talks: Designing Stories (With Prof. Mike Press & Holly Scanlan, Friday 23rd, 1pm)

“Designing Stories” is a rather vague title, being one of the classic examples of an event label that have little to no relation to the topic actually discussed. What I attended, was in fact a discussion of blogging – highlighting its merits, including a short reading of a number of blog entries. These were presented by Professor Mike Press, Holly Scanlan (a personal blogger and hairstylist) and three other bloggers who, despite contributing rather interesting points, didn’t quite make it to the Literary Festival guide. These three were Linda Isles, Lauren Currie and Jennifer Jones. Although, it is quite possible that due to the lack of reference material, I have completely butchered the spelling of their names.

Each guest in turn read a short extract from their blog and then answered questions, which ranged from why they felt the practice was generally important to how an individual new to the world of blogging could proceed. Video presentations were integrated seamlessly without appearing forced, but whilst offering interesting insights into the work of Currie and Jones, they didn’t add much else of note. The rest of this review will focus mainly on Press, Scanlan and Isles. These three all read well, yet their chosen extracts and more general discussion of their work revealed a disjunction between the different speakers’ material. Press read a well-structured story about his childhood that gave the impression of time having being put in, and multiple drafts having been written. This is perhaps unsurprising as his usual material is of an academic nature, discussing aspects of current movements in art and design. Scanlan and Isles’ extracts, however, were far more spontaneous, almost in the form of diary entries that, while providing a certain amount of energy, made their work also appear somewhat unpolished. While I am sure the intention of these two very different writing styles was to show the variety of voice and options open to a blogger, I felt it made the event seem somewhat unfocused. This continued into the general discussion where Scanlan’s personal and emotional approach to her work seemed very out of place with the more academic points being brought up by Press, with Isles’ comments alternating between the two standpoints. The mistake, at least in my eyes, was to have Press as both a member of the panel and the moderator, which meant his points overpowered those of the other speakers somewhat.

More generally, the problem seems to have been a lack of direction to the discussion. While each speaker had interesting points to make about their own work, these never seemed to build towards any sort of conclusion, which at moments gave the impression of the event simply being a chance for the guests to advertise their blogs. Deeper questions about the nature of the medium were brought up but were quickly glossed over. These included the worry that blogging is the ultimate expression of narcissism, and whether it created a “cult of amateur”.

Perhaps I am being too harsh in judgement. It was a “Lunchbox Talk” and perhaps its aim was simply to entertain an audience over a lunch hour, which it, of course, did perfectly adequately, always staying enjoyable and never becoming dull.  Yet I feel that the subject matter of the talk was worthy of a little more intellectual probing and thus I left the event somewhat unsatisfied.

Chris Gerrard

Literary Cooties: Publishing and Prejudice (11:30am)

The Bonar Hall had a very calming ambience this morning, with soft, dimmed lighting. As the (what turned out to be mainly female audience) gradually entered, everyone was warmly encouraged to sit near the front where the first two rows were made up of chairs around desks. I think this was to create a more relaxed atmosphere, breaking down the typical forward facing rigidity of the audience, and to encourage conversation amongst attendees. However, never being one to optionally sit at the front of a classroom, I sneaked into a seat in the row second from the back.

This discussion definitely had more of a panel like feel, rather than an interview talk show. Sasha de Buyl chaired the conversation with author Zoe Venditozzi, Claire Stewart (Co-Founder of Electric Bookshop and Board member of the Glasgow Women’s Library), and Chitra Ramaswamy who is an Edinburgh based columnist and freelance arts and features writer. These women were at the Dundee Literary Festival today to discuss the gender issues that unfortunately exist in today’s book industry. Sasha began by introducing each woman and then led the conversation by asking, what is the “core of the problem”?

The perception of women writers appears to be one of the answers. Zoe began to answer this question by reflecting on her own experience of writing about domestic settings and how work of this type is not deemed “exciting enough”. She joked about how she felt if she were to write a book titled, “Sparkly Golden Vagina” that it would become more widely recognised because it shocks. But, (and rightly so) Zoe doesn’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, change what it is she writes about or how she wants it presented just to fit into what apparently sells.

This led the conversation towards the issues of literary prizes and reviewing. These are the main avenues through which books gain recognition, and both areas, as pointed out by Claire and the other speakers, are dominated by males (both male writers and male reviewers). I found out something today that surprised me, as I didn’t realise that publishers are the ones who put books forward for prizes, (embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure how selection was organised) and so the lack of women writers and books about women being recognised this way is partly due to the publishing houses in this respect. Claire (only part jokingly) suggested a new prize, something like, “the Women’s Voice book prize”. Even though this initially seems like it would only encourage the division of the ‘woman writer’ and ‘the writer’ (the male, yet non gendered, title), Zoe commented how we need to “push it [women’s writing] forward so it becomes normalised” because unfortunately, as it stands, it is not.

Although around 70% (I’m sure Sasha noted) of the overall readership is female, there is still something that is seen to be icky about women writing about normative women’s experience. Chitra herself has actually written a collection of essays on pregnancy but she told us these have been deemed “too woman-y” to be good sellers – as she rightly put it, “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.

Today’s discussion on “Literary Cooties” (a term I believe to have been coined by Nicola Griffith) was a fascinating discussion that questioned the book industry and its norms, and attempted in offering solutions to the gender problems that exist within it. Although there is a long way to go before reaching equality, I feel that confronting the problem, and talking about it, making people face it, as these women have, is the first step towards some positive change. What we need now are more male attendees.

Frances Kelly

Word into Art, Art on Words: Graham Domke & Beth McDonough (DCA) and Kirsty Gunn (3pm)

The Word into Art event was set up a little like a talk show, if we imagine Kirsty Gunn as the host and Beth McDonough and Graham Domke as the guest speakers. Kirsty, a lecturer at the University of Dundee and a well-known author, began by introducing herself, and commented that as a writer she “like[s] to think of other media”. She then introduced her guests, namely Beth who is both an artist and a poet, as well as the DCA’s (Dundee Contemporary Arts) writer in residence and Graham, the curator of the DCA.

Kirsty prompted discussion about the relationship between words and art – what is it? How do we explain it? In response, Graham, who described himself as an “avid reader” and “inhaler of culture”, talked of his own experience of writing catalogues for exhibitions, and used his work on Thomas Hirschhorn’s It’s Burning Everywhere (shown at the DCA in 2009) as an example of how he writes what the artist creates. He read a little excerpt from the piece and Kirsty noted how it was an excellent example of the coming together of formal and creative writing. That is, even though the piece was communicating information, it was done so in a creative and thought provoking way. This example highlighted a form of relationship between the written word and art in that it was a written piece about art but also written in an artful manner.

“Poetic work is informed by visual work and vice versa”, noted Beth. That is the reason, she told us, that she was drawn to poetry, having initially started out in the ‘art world’ as an art teacher and jewellery designer (I’m not sure in what order). The incredible attention to detail, she commented, is something that written and visual works share. However, Beth also interestingly noted how there appears to be a boundary of some form that surrounds places such as the DCA (The McManus Galleries not so much) in that people feel they are unable to, or incapable of, relating to the work there. Her work recently, alongside Graham, has involved attempts at “dissolving [those] boundaries” and I found this a rather fascinating project. How to get people to engage with, and (as I’m sure it was Kirsty who commented) ask “normal” questions about art.

These examples are only a snippet of the conversation today as part of the Dundee Literary Festival, and they show only a glimpse of the possibilities of such a conversation. I am sure the discussion could have continued for a number of hours if time had allowed. The relationship between the written word and art is one that is not particularly easy to define, but is definitely a significant one. The key seems to be, as suggested today, to get rid of some of the preconceptions of both genres and allow the imagination to do the talking whilst remembering that “what holds us together is greater than what separates us”.

Frances Kelly

Lunchbox Talks: ‘A State of Nature?’ Landscape, Ownership and Conflict in Northern Scotland, C. 1790-1920, with Annie Tindlay (1pm)

I got the chance to meet Annie Tindlay, briefly, before her talk this afternoon. She joked about how she is an ambassador for the BBC television show, Landward (“like Countryfile, but Scottish and better”), a programme that she is going to be making an appearance on at some point in the near future. One thing that was clear from this very brief encounter, coupled with her talk, was that Annie is very passionate about her research area. She opened today with a warm welcome and a comment that it was a privilege to be able to speak to us today about Scottish land ownership. A comment made later in her discussion (she welcomed, encouraged even, questions and comments from the audience), about how she asked the students of her third year module on the Scottish Highlands and Islands at the University of Dundee how many of them had been to the highlands of Scotland, sadly reflected the level of attention the highlands generally receive from the general public – she was disappointed to learn that very few had been farther north than Stirling.

The relevance of Annie’s discussion today is extremely high considering the topical nature of land ownership in light of the Scottish government’s current discussions about land reform. Annie gave a brief history of Scottish land ownership leading back to (and beyond) 1886 and the “Sutherland land war”. She commented how the highlands are “trapped by the history of the clearances” which have left a “legacy of unfairness” in relation to how the landscape, and the ownership of it, are thought about. She suggested that the population boom of the 1780s has almost reversed in that the problem is now a case of depopulation, something akin to abandonment. This is what she described as “The Highland Problem” – noting the “capital ‘h’ and capital ‘p’”. The problem with land reform is that, as I mentioned earlier, Annie noted we are trapped in the past. She feels that what should be considered in relation to the land is not what has gone before, but she urges that we should look forward and ask what it is Scotland could and should be? She suggests this could be agreed upon through democratic debate and then action – “only then will we recover from the clearances” as “land reform [until now] has left untouched the relationship between power and land”.

Annie made a sweet and jovial comment on how, as a historian, the future is not her area of expertise. However, her talk today highlighted many problem areas in our, the people’s, relationship with, and attitude towards, the land we live on and ‘own’. She recognises that we have an aesthetic and romantic view, a “collective imagination” in relation to the land, and noted that this conflicts with the historical and actual relationship we have with it. Her comment to forget the past and concentrate on the future of Scotland is very interesting, and is possibly something the government should consider in their current debates.

Frances Kelly