Two taxis, a train and three planes later – it should have only been two, but there was a ‘technical problem’ – and I eventually arrived in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, 170 km north of mainland Scotland. I was there to take part in the 10th Wordplay Book Festival, running comic strip workshops about Space and promoting a new omnibus edition of the three Bloomsbury comic strip books I’ve illustrated so far. Author and curator Donald S. Murray met me at the capital’s tiny airport and drove me to my hotel, telling me all sorts of weird and wonderful stories along the way. I now know how to make gannet pie, but probably won’t.
Islanders are storytellers, and Wordplay was full of them. The next morning at breakfast Jonathan Meades, in a tangerine shirt, discussed the merits of Stornaway black pudding with ex Oz and Time Out editor Roger Hutchinson, here to talk about his new book about Uist islander Angus MacPhee, artist extraordinaire who spent fifty years in an asylum weaving hats and shoes from grass and flowers. Later I listened to Simon Armitage read beautifully, tapping his foot to the rhythms of his poetry, his broad face impassive under the almost-Beatle hairstyle. He told us about his ambitions to be a rock star when he was a young man, “or at least, a contender”, and apologised to the treeless Shetland islanders when he read his poem “Redwood”.
Later still there was a reception and buffet. Exhausted (my Space workshop was very busy) but happy, I overheard a smiling Orcadian poet say “There’ll be instruments later.”
Sadly I never discovered what they were because I fell asleep at my hotel at 9.30.
Astonishingly bright weather. As I was setting up my workshop in Room 10 I got chatting with a woman sitting at one of the drawing tables and making up her face (turquoise eyeshadow). We had a chat about the pros and cons of doing one’s face in public and I suddenly realised it was National Poet of Scotland Liz Lochhead , about to be interviewed. I missed this as it coincided with my next comic strip event, but managed to squeeze into a packed hall for James Naughtie‘s event afterwards. He talked about the importance of the psychology of politics, the fascination of human interaction, and related brilliant anecdotes about, for instance, the ex-Stasi spymaster who wanted to sell his cookbook after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Peter Mandelson’s changing his trousers during a BBC interview.
Later still, in the green room, aka Room 9, we were given tiny boxes of birthday cake to celebrate Wordplay’s 10th birthday. Mine got a bit soggy in a downpour on the way back to my hotel, but I’ll treasure it for always (unless I get peckish on the long way back to London of course).