John Walsh: Tales of the City

'It's a terrible comedown for Dr Paisley, speaking at a literary festival about infrastructure'
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The Independent Online

Outside the Galloway Inn, two burly, shaven-headed adolescents are trying to punch each other senseless but are so oceanically drunk that they appear to be embracing. Sidestepping them with practised ease, the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, Stuart Kelly, discourses on the love-hate relationship between Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg and John Gibson Lockhart. In the town square, a Mobile Silent Cinema – complete with piano accompaniment – is showing Buster Keaton classics to late-night walkers. In the Ploughboy pub, Scotland's finest theatre critics, fresh from Brian Friel's play Molly Sweeney, are communing, each reluctant to utter a word about the production in case it be pinched by another. It's Saturday night and the Wigtown Book Festival is in full swing.

Ten years ago, Wigtown, population 1,000, was suffering. The creamery had closed and jobs were scarce. Then it beat five rivals to be designated National Book Town – an idea dreamed up by Scottish Enterprise – and soon 22 shops were running book-related businesses. There are two publishers in the town, and the nearby Bladnoch Distillery hosts weddings and poetry readings in the heady whiff of its ruinously expensive single malt. Wigtown is held up to the rest of Scotland as an example of how to reinvigorate a regional economy. And when Wigtown became the Hay-on-Wye of Scotland, it followed, as day follows night, that it must have a festival.

The Rev Ian Paisley gave the opening address. A man not generally known as a literary flâneur, he rose to speak in a deafening, hellish screech of microphone static. It seemed appropriate. (Some sulphur and flames flickering around his knees wouldn't have surprised us either.) The new First Minister of the Northern Irish Assembly was not here to discuss postmodernism or declare his adoration of Zadie Smith. He wanted to remind the audience of the fate of the Wigtown martyrs in 1685. They were two misfortunate women who refused to accept Charles II as the head of the Church and were in consequence tied to stakes in Wigtown Bay and drowned by the rising tide. As the older perished, the younger was asked, "What think you of your companion?" and replied, "I see Christ wrestling there." This cheerful tale was Dr Paisley's way of explaining the empathy he felt with Scotland, or at least the "martyred faith" of its Protestants. As he cast a chill over the gathering, I remembered how his name was spoken in whispers by my Irish Catholic parents when I was in short trousers. And he's still here, aged 81, attributing his longevity to "porridge and honey every morning."

The man is a phenomenon. It was only when he tried to sound like a straight politician that he came a cropper, talking about "improving the roads, to the highest possible level". For a chap whose most characteristic utterance used to be, "We are not men of PEACE; we are men of WRATH," it's a terrible come-down, having to use words like "infrastructure." But he told a good story about Tony Blair ringing him from Florida, last New Year's Day, asking him to dilute the fury of a sentence in some new peace proposal, and being told to bugger off – seven times.


The polymathic A C Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, flew in to the festival to lecture on the erosion of personal freedoms in periods of insecurity (like now). Grayling is ferociously opposed to giving every Briton a biometrical number plate. He told the festival about a stand-up row he had earlier this year with David Miliband. Why, he asked the Foreign Secretary, did the Government want a commodity that would become, like prohibition in the US, a major target for criminal exploitation? Miliband said that the technology couldn't be stolen: it was just a tiny microdot in one's earlobe. "Can you explain to me," asked Grayling, "how having a dot in your earlobe is different from having a number branded on your arm?" Miliband, whose father spent some time in a concentration camp, hit the roof. "For God's sake," he shouted. "What kind of people do you think we are?" "I think you're probably very nice people," replied Grayling, "but what if there are bad guys in charge in 50 years' time, and why are you giving them this gift of power over us?" Hats off to the prof. We're going to need his good sense more and more, I fear.


Best Security Moment: Ian Paisley's minders going through his farewell "goody bag," admitting they were worried it might contain alcohol (to which the Rev is furiously opposed).

Best Literary Insight: pressed to explain why he changed the title of his new novel from Men in Love to Old Men in Love, the harrumphing Alasdair Gray confessed it was a late decision, made while designing the book jacket: "I'm very fond of great big Os, you see."

Best Sexual Display: Charlotte Higgins, author of Latin Love Lessons (about the stuff Roman love poetry can teach you), climaxed her explanation of "the Parthian style" of lovemaking by impersonating a Parthian rider astride a galloping horse firing a bow and arrow back at her interlocutor.