Dundee Literary Festival: A city on & off the page

With the Dundee Literary Festival now just a whisker away, The Skinny tracked down organiser Peggy Hughes to pick her brains on the programme, the city and the role of literature in today’s modern world

Article by Jonny Sweet | 09 Oct 2017
  • Dundee Literary Festival

The Skinny: You previously worked with the Edinburgh Book Festival; how does it feel to currently be working in Dundee? How do they compare? 

Peggy Hughes: Scotland has over 40 book festivals and they're all really different from each other – with 800+ events, Edinburgh is the world's biggest. Some, like Islay and Colonsay, take place on small islands. Some are in tented villages, or wonderful libraries, such as Aye Write, or town halls, such as Ullapool. Others, like Wigtown, take over the whole town, and yet others have a special focus, like Bloody Scotland in Stirling and Granite Noir in Aberdeen, both for crime fans.

Dundee sits within a university [and] city context: it aims to celebrate the brilliant students and graduates who make Dundee their home, to showcase the excellent research going on at the University, and to invite everybody to get together to enjoy wonderful discussions and performances about books and ideas. I find Scotland's book festivals to be very collaborative and supportive. 

Jute, jam and journalism is the famous tagline of Dundee, but surely that description places it in more of a historical context. What do you think defines the city today?

Jute, jam and journalism built the Dundee we know today, but it's a different and changing Dundee: a city that remains famous for its discoveries and its industry and its newspapers, but which now also celebrates a changing waterfront, a place of world class gaming, a UNESCO City of Design. It's a place whose setting, as Stephen Fry said, “is probably more extraordinary than any other city in the UK. It is about as ideal – ludicrously ideal – as any setting could be”. A place, as honorary graduate Seamus Heaney said, has “its head in the clouds and its feet firmly on the ground.” Dundee today is defined by its creativity and its energy and its shape-shiftiness, and always by its folk.

Is there a uniquely Dundonian identity when it comes to literature? If so, can you try to define it? And will we be seeing much of it in evidence over the course of the festival?

Dundee has been home and inspiration to many poets and writers over the last 600 years, but if we were to try and isolate Dundee's literature particularity, I might turn to our Makar W N (Bill) Herbert, whose work for me captures a certain local spirit. Described as “prolific and fluent” in both English and Scots, always taking an ironic and humorous view of his varied subjects, Bill has published ten collections of poetry since the early 1990s. He has been called “a brilliant and notorious maverick”, and his poetry is often fuelled and inspired by the unlikeliest of juxtapositions. It is smart but wears its learning lightly – that seems particularly Dundonian to me. 

There are two Dundee-based publications (People’s Journal and Jackie) under the spotlight at this year’s festival, though both have long since gone out of print. In your opinion, has there been anything similar to replace them in the interim? Can there be, with the increasingly cyber-centric way of the world today?

They're irreplaceable! Jackie was shifting 600,000 copies A WEEK in its heyday – unthinkable today. But stories take all shapes and sizes and our world has new and other ways of telling [them]. 

Regarding the modern technological age, there are a number of talks and sessions at the festival about the state of things today, with an emphasis on the sinister and foreboding nature of modern society (We Know All About You, In the Dark Times..., to a lesser extent, Andrew O'Hagan's talk). What role do you think literature, and in particular festivals of this kind, can play in such a fragile epoch?

Literature opens doors into other times and places, other heads and outlooks, lets us walk in different shoes. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies”, wrote George R R Martin. Literature connects us to each other, stories break down barriers. I would say that literature has always been important, will always be important, but it feels, in these times, that the power of stories, to transport us, distract us and inform us has never been so important. 

Other than the fact that D’Arcy Thompson’s book is celebrating its centenary this year, is there any other reason you chose On Growth & Form as the centrepiece / theme of this year’s festival? Will it be influencing the programme or the event outside of the shows about it?

On Growth and Form seemed a winning theme, not just because it allowed us to place D'Arcy Thompson back in the limelight and to celebrate the impact he had in his time and beyond, but as a theme it is pleasingly broad and baggy: it contains multitudes. Which is exactly what one wants from a festival theme! So we're looking at form as in memoir, as in sonnet, as structure and genre. We're looking at growth as how books help us grow and reshape our opinions, at the books that form us. On Growth and Form gave up nature's secrets, and we're hoping this year's festival will do the same with stories: we're looking at books and their writers, but we're looking at the secrets of the stories too.

In the blurb for the festival, you mention how Thompson has influenced thinkers, inventors and artists from a wide variety of backgrounds – from Salvador Dalí to Claude Levi Strauss, for example. How do you think Thompson’s legacy has influenced literature, or Dundee, or both?

You'll have to come to our talk with D'Arcy expert Matthew Jarron to find out more about that...

Aside from the D’Arcy Thompson events, what are you most looking forwards to with regards to this year’s lineup?

It's illegal for programmers to have festival favourites but Sara Baume and Mark O'Connell on human frailty, grief and machines are going to be fascinating (Beyond Our Times, Sat 21 Oct, 4pm). Jute, Jam & Jackie is going to be hilarious (Sat 21 Oct, 5.30pm). And The Bookshop Band's closing performance is going to be very special (Sun 22 Oct, 5pm). 

Dundee Literature Festival main event kicks off on Wed 18 Oct and runs until Sun 22 Oct. The full programme and tickets can be found on the website.