It must be nice to look out over a book festival audience and think, “Well, at least this many people have read me. Everyone sitting in front of me has followed where I led, whatever the details of each personal journey, my words were the path.”
Based on the turnout, a lot of people have read AL Kennedy. And rightly so.
They say good things come to those who wait, but they don’t tell you for how long and they don’t tell you where you should stand. I’m British and without a ‘Queue Here’ sign I get lost. Luckily it only took three years for me to get AL Kennedy, and she was signposted all the way.
My first reaction to ALK’s writing was to beat back the barrage of verbiage; wield the soon to be blunted blade of my skim-reading machete to try to cut through to the dam point or better yet the dam story. Create something for myself from the superfluosity of words, words and more beloved-words. It was a hell of a commitment to ask from a reader.
Then Sam Kelly (all hail) set On Bullfighting as a text. I didn’t like it. Oh I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like the first chapter. I didn’t like the self-pitying, introspective narrative. Because it hit a nerve. This was how I wrote. And I didn’t like it. Oh I really didn’t like it. Make no mistake AL Kennedy did it so much better – galactically better – but it wasn’t the way I wanted to write, and definitely not what I wanted to read.
Next I tried reading her columns in the Guardian. Yeah, that didn’t work either. I couldn’t move for words. Eventually I went to see her at the Edinburgh Book Festival and after one hour I left with a new appreciation of what is clearly a very clever, very talented and very complex person. I ran into the bookshop for a copy of The Blue Book, which I couldn’t read because of all the dam words.
I gave up.
Not one to be defeated for long and after checking there was nothing on telly, I poured a giant glass of wine, applied a cold compress and prepared to wrestle The Blue Book into submission. I’d like to think it was the wine but AL Kennedy is worth her wait in words. I could not put the book down. You could prise it out of my cold dead hands if you think you’re hard enough but I wouldn’t advise trying. It is belovedly brilliant and so full of wonderful, wonderful words. I’d love to talk to you about this book but don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet.
This year at the Festival Alison, who seemed to be fully recovered from a serious illness, was on excellent form. I took enormous personal comfort from just how complex she is, both as a writer and an individual. She takes dysfunctional to new heights with her inner monologue of doom, and yet she is a self-confessed creature of routine. Her serious fear of flying means she travels mostly by boat and this briefest of insights into The Blue Book was unexpected and charming.
In her introduction Sue MacGregor (all hail Radio 4), correctly identified Alison as a ‘brilliant writer about yourself’. She is. Forget anything I may have said two years ago. She is also a brilliant writer about being a writer, and read one of her essays from her new book (out next year), On Writing. Here was another surprise; AL Kennedy is funny.
After attending the debate about Scottish culture earlier in the week I was interested to hear Alison question why writer always has to be prefaced with ‘Scottish’, or ‘young’, or ‘female’; pick your prefix. She is a writer. Period. Always writing as herself, she is definitely not only writing to or for a Scottish reader.
Alison doesn’t write with any reader in mind, finding this unhelpful in the writing process. She describes writing as ‘about saying something to someone without being there; about creating something beautiful for someone you won’t ever meet’. Oh I like this. I really like this.
Like the US Border Control Guard who thinks AL Kennedy writes romance, I found the romance when Alison insisted at the end of the day, ‘there is only the reader and the writer’.
And the title? When I was leaving the RBS Main Theatre, this is verbatim what the lady behind me said to her friend. As a fledging writer I cannot wait to be described exactly the same.