Books: Poetry of Iain Banks & Ken MacLeod at the Edinburgh Book Fest
We’re halfway through the world’s largest literary festival’s 2015 bash here in Edinburgh, and on Sunday as I headed to an event celebrating a new poetry collection even our ever so changeable Scottish weather decided to come out to play, warm late summer sun spreading a glow across a hugely busy Charlotte Square in the heart of the Georgian-era New Town, many happy readers coming from or heading to events, others content to relax in the literary-themed deckchairs and read or snooze or slurp ice creams. And yes, I know, usually when it comes to the Edinburgh International Book Festival events I cover on here they’re ones specific to our fields of coverage, such as the Stripped comics events or science fiction book talks. So why am I covering a book of poetry on here? Well, as the title above has already given away, this particular book, just published in a handsome small hardback edition by Little, Brown, contains verse by two of the UK’s finest SF writers, the late and much-missed Iain Banks and his fellow scribe and lifelong friend Ken MacLeod.
During the event, chaired by Stuart Kelly (no stranger to science fiction or comics) Ken told us a little of how it came about, how like many in their youth studying English literature they both penned some verse (hands up, how many of us have had a go ourselves?), some, perhaps almost inevitably given their interests in the genre, had a science fictional bent (and how delighted they were as young chaps, Ken noted, when they were being introduced to modern poets and found the Scots Makar Edwin Morgan, a delightful bard who was more than happy to mix his love of science and science fiction into his verse), others cover a diverse number of subjects, most of which will have a certain familiarity to readers of Iain and Ken’s, touching on many themes and passions they have explored in their prose works, and indeed some early works, like Zakalwe’s Song would later be worked into the splendid Use of Weapons.
Although he had stopped writing poems for the most part way back in the early 80s, as his prose career took off, he had kept a careful record of them, and he and Ken would often share their verse with each other over a pint in the local. Then in 2012, well before the awful diagnosis would surface of the illness which would claim Iain’s life far to damned early, he started talking to Ken about how he’d like to publish those poems, and how he wanted it to be a joint book with both of their works in it – not such an ego-trip for me, as Iain explained it to him (I am guessing with his customary genial smile) if he had Ken’s verse included too, although Ken, again being modest for he is no slouch as a wordmaker himself. Perhaps it would just be a vanity project, self-published, small-run, but however it was printed, it became clear he was serious about it. Sadly the book would come out after we had lost Iain, but I can’t help but imagine he would be delighted and even a little bemused to see it on the shelves and being celebrated at the book festival, a place he knew very well.
The discussion obviously focused mostly on the poetry and how it had come to be collected, with Ken reading some of his own and Iain’s for the audience (and hearing a writer read aloud is one of the best ways in the world to experience poetry, I think). But Stuart also brought in references to Iain’s prose work, both his “literary” fiction (the clumsy term for his non-SF novels) and his science fiction works, and, fellow lovers of the works of Banks, I am sure you will be happy to hear we all wallowed happily in a wee discussion of the Culture during proceedings too. As Stuart Kelly observed, the Culture is one of the very few utopias from the long, long history of utopian literature, which most readers would actually enjoy living in.
(Ken signing copies of the book after the talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr, click for larger versions)
It was a very busy and well-attended event and, as I’m sure many of you will appreciate, it was also a wee bit emotional to be discussing Iain here at the event he supported so often through the years. And on a personal note, a couple of years on it just felt right to still have some sort of Iain Banks presence at the Edinburgh Book Fest. And yes, I did raise a drink in his honour afterwards.
“Watching from the room
As the troops go by.
– You ought to be able to tell, I think,
Whether they are going or coming back
By just leaving the gaps in the ranks.
– You are a fool, I said
And turned to leave,
Or maybe only to mix a drink
For that deft throat to swallow
Like all my finest lies.”
Excerpt from Zakalwe’s Song by Iain Banks, 1973.