Friday, 25 October 2013

Posts from BOOKMARK - Getting to the Truth of the Matter with James Robertson

Getting to the Truth of the Matter with James Robertson

Oct 23 2013
Before I begin on the main subject of this post, I just want to say – you have no idea what a relief it is to be writing this after doing a Grade 5 piano theory paper. The paper was only a practice (thank goodness) but it was genuinely enough to make my head spin.
So, on with the show…

This, in the context of Saturday 19th, meant that after a quick lunch, I was off to sit in on James Robertson’s session which began at two. If anyone is interested, lunch consisted of a bowl of mushroom soup and a few sandwiches while I sat at a table with James Robertson, Fiona Armstrong and Mairi Hedderwick, among other people. If nothing else, the whole experience was a bit surreal and if that wasn’t enough, I ended up chatting to Fiona Armstrong in the ladies!

 By the time I took my seat for James Robertson’s session, I was in a bit of a daze. I snapped out of it soon enough though and focussed on what was being said on stage. Fiona Armstrong (who was chairing the session) and James Robertson were discussing his latest novel ‘The Professor of Truth’ which is loosely based on the events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing told through the eyes of Dr Alan Tealing. ‘The Professor of Truth’ was described by Fiona as being ‘quite remarkable’ and ‘a wonderful and beautifully written, human story’ by Liz Lochhead, but it didn’t come without its fair share of controversy. This is a) because any book dealing with such a raw subject is going to be met with both applause and opposition and b) because James’s novel comes in on the slant which suggests Megrahi was not the guilty party. Although James has tried to ‘remove’ his storyline slightly from the events on which it was based, it is, for many who believe in Megrahi’s guilt, a hard-hitting novel. During the session, James stated that he thought that Megrahi’s innocence was a much more plausible notion than the idea that Megrahi did do it.

 I can’t claim to know much about the Lockerbie bombing apart from the fact that it was a terrible tragedy in which many people lost their lives in the aftermath of which one man was tried and convicted. Maybe because of that I found myself drawn to James’s ideas about what might have actually happened, though he never once claimed to know the true version of events, instead saying: “What I’m trying to do is not say ‘look, this is the real story’ because it is a novel, but to say ‘maybe we should all step back a bit and try and look at how these narratives get constructed and why, sometimes, they go askew’, and I think the real Lockerbie saga has gone very badly askew.”
Throughout the session, James remained calm in explaining the version of events presented in ‘The Professor of Truth’ (the second half of which is pure fiction) even when Fiona took a turn at playing devil’s advocate. James never once tried to force his opinions down the audience’s throats and was careful and considerate in all that he said on the matter. In fact, the audience was so absorbed in all of this you could have heard a pin drop. However, when the discussion was thrown open to the audience, a few people became quite vocal , asking James’s opinion on Lockerbie and in particular what he believed Kenny Macaskill’s motivations for ‘one of the most extraordinary political actions of the time’ might be.

 When I caught up with James after his book signing in the hub (you may be sensing a theme here) I commented on this and asked whether he found this often happened when introducing ‘The Professor of Truth’.

“Yes, it’s kind of inevitable in a way because it’s based on quite a contentious subject, so I’m not surprised really. It’s interesting because you don’t really know what questions you’re going to get asked, so sometimes you get quite a difficult question like the one that was asked today and when you don’t know the answer you have to say ‘I don’t know’. But I’m used to that. I expect there to be tricky questions.”

I nodded in agreement at this. You couldn’t really anticipate anything else after basing a novel, however loosely, on events like Lockerbie. I wondered if any of James’s other works had ever generated the same kind of response as ‘The Professor of Truth’.

“Not in the same kind of way, no, because they haven’t been dealing with anything quite as controversial as the Lockerbie bombing. You know, people will ask you quite challenging questions but usually they don’t have that edge to them that sometimes the questions around this book have.”
So why tackle something that is still so raw?

“Well, really because I think if you’re a serious writer and there’s a subject that you feel needs to be addressed, then you’ve got to have the courage to do it. Even though I knew it was going to be quite controversial I thought I just want to get among it and write about it.”

And I think this is true. You’ve got to have guts to do something like James Robertson has – thick skin too, and of course, a certain amount of self-belief. You need all of this in order to harness the ability to take the inevitable negative comments on the chin. Thankfully though, these ‘negative comments’ are balanced out by the overwhelming praise for this well written book. Hannah McGill of the Scotsman described ‘The Professor of Truth’ as ‘very good…powered by action and mystery’. Others like John Burnside of the Guardian described it as an ‘impressive study of grief’. And finding all these positive reviews is making me want to read it!

 After the great response James received from his BOOKMARK audience (this member having thoroughly enjoyed the session) I wondered what he thought of BOOKMARK compared to other book festivals he had been to.

“Well, given that this is the first one, I think it’s doing remarkably well. It’s right in a very central venue, there are lots of people coming and going, the audience seemed to be really enjoying themselves and so, I think, have the writers who have come. I think it compares really well and I like the fact that it’s very intimate and friendly.”

This, I had noticed, was something many of the writers had been saying and I agree with them. The audiences at all of the sessions laughed when jokes were cracked, ‘awed’ when Andrew Greig read out his poem describing his unerring love for his wife, and fell into enraptured silence when listening to James and Fiona discuss ‘The Professor of Truth’. This is the kind of festival where an author knows his or her work will be received with genuine interest, where they can get a telling response. The authors might be one of the things that keep people coming back to BOOKMARK, but the audience and hospitality of this book festival is what will attract the authors.

 Now that I’ve finished this post, it’s back to worrying how my piano teacher will react when he sees my attempt at that Grade 5 theory paper…