Book Festival: Ruby Wax | Alexander McCall Smith | Chris Ware
Edinburgh International Book Festival Scotsman review: David Robinson reports on events featuring Ruby Wax, Alexander McCall Smith and Chris Ware
SOMETIMES at a book festival, themes follow you around. You might even start seeing them where none exist because your festival-addled brain is already starting to overlay one writer’s world view right on top of that of someone else you might have heard a couple of hours later on with whom they’ve got nothing in common.
So far, this syndrome – in which the sufferer insists that, deep down, everything is connected and sees links that don’t really exist – doesn’t have a name. From now on, I’m proposing that it should. Charlotte Square Syndrome would fit the bill nicely.
Take yesterday. Ruby Wax, you might think, has absolutely nothing to do with Alexander McCall Smith. You can’t, for example, imagine the creator of Mma Ramotswe lowering himself into the Pacific in a cage for an episode of Celebrity Shark Bait. And you can’t imagine the queen of the brazen TV interview writing anything as quietly, gently comedic as the Sage of Merchiston. If Ms Wax ever does quietly and gently, the world has still to hear of it.
Yet, the technique Ruby uses to keep at bay the depression that has stalked her for decades is called mindfulness. The best way she has found to stave off the black dog’s attacks is to remind herself that the stream of negativity her inner voice is directing against her is to pay more attention to everything around her, to ground herself in the present, to train her mind to be calm again, to notice everything around her, from the feel of the carpet on her feet to the sound of birdsong.
Put like that, it sounds more glib than she was. But Wax, as well as a talent for communicating and a newfound knowledge of the brain’s inner workings (she’s just finished studying it at MA level at Oxford) has an innate ability to be funny and deeply serious about mental illness, which remains a taboo subject for too many of us. She wasn’t¨making ridiculous claims for mindfulness (it’s not going to replace prescribed anti-â€¨depressants, for example) but she made a convincing case for how it does at least give her head a head start.
Moral mindfulness (you can see where I’m going here) is a hallmark of Alexander McCall Smith‘s comic fiction. Put like that, it doesn’t sound remotely funny, yet when the house lights came up after his interview with festival director Nick Barley, at an event celebrating 15 years of Mma Ramotswe, I couldn’t help but notice how, almost without exception, every face was wreathed with smiles.
How does he do it? Perhaps it’s something to do with that kinder world of Botswana, where the inner voice of negativity seems less insistent. Asked how he came up with the idea for Mma Ramotswe, he told of how he’d once been in the Botswana town of Mochudi (home, he added, of the real-life The Last Chance Beauty Salon) when he’d noticed a large woman chasing a chicken around her yard and wondered what her life was like. The chicken, he could have added, was a gift for a doctor friend of his: even at the start, generosity was built into the story.
Emotional generosity counts in McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series too. The passage he chose to read from the latest volume expressed it perfectly. His character Bertie, now seven, is camping near Glenborrodale. His friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, is frightened by the story they’ve been told about the massacre of Glencoe and cannot sleep. Nothing to be frightened of, Bertie tells him, putting an arm on his shoulder until Ranald goes to sleep. Nothing to be ashamed of either. “We all feel that about the darkness into which we go with others, and about the very understandable fears that can be so easily dispelled by a simple gesture of the human arm, at once so easy, yet so hard to make.”
Earlier, graphic artist Chris Ware – one of the world’s greatest – appeared on a double bill with cartoonist foreign correspondent Joe Sacco. Given their mutual admiration (Ware said Sacco’s cartoon reportage had a unique “moral centredness”, Sacco said Ware’s Building Stories would be an unparalleled source for future social historians) this could have been an hour of self-congratulatory hour. Instead, it was a masterclass in how to convey emotional truth through drawing. The only drawback is how long it all takes. “Eleven years for one book?” said Ware. “I mean, really, it’s embarrassing.”
Originally published in The Scotsman