With three hours till my first event I expected to get to Wigtown in plenty of time for a leisurely lunch and maybe even get in a little bookshop browsing before kick off; it is, after all, only seventy five miles. What was I thinking?
I know the road is narrow and winding, and a magnet for post-pension aged caravan trailers, but I thought I’d factored that in to my calculations. Unfortunately I didn’t factor in my kidney activity. As I passed Dumfries, having been on the road for a mere forty minutes, I realized that I was unlikely to make it much further without a pee stop. Thus I pulled into a farm shop on the A75 that has a cafe and, therefore, a loo. But it feels rude not to buy something from a place whose facilities I’ve taken advantage of, so before I left I browsed the cheese counter.
I left Kilnford Farm Shop with a slab of Montagnolo Affine for D. a pork pie (I had discovered I was hungry), and a bottle of orange juice, and headed up the road as fast as I could. Which wasn’t very fast at all thanks to the fact that hundreds of slow people were making the same trip. The drive to Wigtown is beautiful: Galloway is wilder and more nubbly that Dumfriesshire, and has an untampered coast-line that is sometimes rocky, sometimes marshy, sometimes golden beachy; one can’t really blame people for taking it slow and enjoying the view. The light, even when not sunny, is tremendous. Today it was stormy one minute, brilliant sunshine the next, and by the time I got to my destination the clouds had all but disappeared.
I had half an hour, once I’d parked, to pick up my tickets from the box-office and… what? What do you do for twenty minutes in a town full of bookshops and cafes you’d like to visit? Not much. I looked in a window or two as I ambled towards the venue to take my seat for James Jauncey, who was going to tell me all about his great, great uncle Robert.
This was the first time I’d been to a book event for a book that has yet to be written, and it must be a testament to Jauncey’s story telling and passion that he was given a slot. He was extremely entertaining, here are some notes I jotted as I listened:
Went to Argentina at 17 in an attempt to rescue the family’s ailing fortunes (father William Bontine: head injury as young cavalry officer, fragile, able to be taken advantage of); found the estancia he was due to work on run by alcoholic brothers and in bad state; country in grip of violent revolution; captured by rebel gauchos with whom he lived until the war ended. Went to Mexico to herd buffalo; returned to Europe, married half French, half Chilean actress in Paris who turned out to be a runaway minister’s daughter from Yorkshire. Eulogised by mother who described him as ‘rather brisk but bouncy.’
On Scottish independence he said: ‘Our enemies are among us, born without imagination!’
Once back in the UK uncle Robert didn’t return to Scotland immediately but settled in London with his young poet wife, Gabriella, where he mixed with the cool people of the day. People like Joseph Conrad who once said to him: ‘When I think of you I feel as if I have spent my life in a deep, dark hole,’ and Jacob Epstein who made a bust of him. He also met Keir Hardy with whom he went on to found the Scottish Labour Party, and became an MP on a radical ticket that included universal suffrage (including for women); an eight hour working week, and home rule for Scotland. When the Labour party proved too unambitious for him he went on to help found the National Party of Scotland saying, ‘I’d rather have my taxes wasted in Edinburgh than London.’
He also wrote a lot of books in his lifetime, including one about the gaucho way of life that pleased the Argentinians so much they gave him a state wake before putting his body on a ship home*.
I only had half an hour till my next event so I rushed out to try and find somewhere to grab a quick bite.
It’s not possible to visit Wigtown and not enter at least one bookshop, so while scanning the street for a cafe I dashed into the one whose owner is the guy whose girlfriend dreamt that she ran a Scottish bookshop, googled, found Wigtown, gave up her job at N.A.S.A in California, came to visit, fell in love and stayed. Their names are Shaun and Jessica.
I’m so glad I did, because I picked up The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder; The Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats; and Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which has been on my ‘must buy’ list for years.
By the time I left the bookshop I’d missed the start of my next gig, so I went to the Festival Cafe to relax and delight in my purchases. There I ate an incredibly creamy asparagus quiche with bright, textured, and almost disturbingly unusual salads, followed by a beetroot and dark chocolate brownie – a strong contender for best I’ve ever had. The coffee was good too. Revived I headed off to my next event.
When I got there I found it had moved venues, to the Festival Marquee, so I rolled a fag and wandered over. The place was twice the size and packed to the gunnels which, I guess, is why it was moved. They must have sold double the expected tickets. Why, it was a book about hillwalking?
Turned out that Cameron McNeish, the speaker/author, is on the telly. And quite right too, he was extremely entertaining. Here are the jottings from my notebook:
Hundreds of people here. No idea who this bloke is but he’s begun by singing.** Born in Govan, moved up the road, discovered trees and the river Cart (to him it was the Mississippi). Dreamt of being good enough to climb the big mountain he could see in the distance (Ben Lomond?) – at age around fourteen he and his friends decided they were good enough, lied to their parents, and went to climb it. They borrowed a tent, nicked some pots and pans from their respective homes, learnt by trial and error how to build a fire and cook. Moved onto other mountains – Glencoe; the Buachaille Etive Mòr – became a climber; married and took job as Youth Hostel warden at Aviemore – Ben Macdui (2nd highest mountain in Scotland) = scary: no sign of civilisation. Mount Elbrus – The Bad Step. January Jigsaw.***
McNeish didn’t just sing and talk, he also played clips of his mountaineering exploits, which was slightly odd because it left him sitting there with nothing to do. Nevertheless, I had a blast and left feeling distinctly uplifted.
I won’t pain you with the drive home, except to say the A701 was closed so I had to take a tortuous diversion, which meant I didn’t get home till well after ten. But it was more than worth it, especially when I snuggled into my reading corner to examine the books I’d bought.
*He died on a visit to Buenos Aires in 1936, aged 83
**This was momentarily horrifying!
***I now have no idea to what this refers.