Dundee Literary Festival 2017: Our highlights

As Dundee Literary Festival announces a typically strong programme, we pick our personal highlights that combine the city's literary history with big name authors such as Graeme Macrae Burnet and Andrew O'Hagan

Article by Jonny Sweet | 06 Oct 2017
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet

After celebrating its tenth anniversary last time around, Dundee Literary Festival is back this year with perhaps an even more momentous milestone in the crosshairs – the centenary of the city’s most famous book. On Growth and Form, D’Arcy Thompson’s influential tome on biomathematics and the natural world, was published in 1917 in that fair city. Though ostensibly a science textbook, the influence of Thompson’s landmark work has permeated a variety of other industries and disciplines, shaping the thoughts and actions of such luminaries as Claude Lévi Strauss, Alan Turing and Salvador Dalí.

To mark the book’s birthday, the good folks at Dundee Literary Festival have built this year’s event around On Growth and Form. Not only is there a three-day conference dedicated to uncovering the full scope of Thompson’s influence, there are also lectures by Matthew Jarron during the festival and later ones by Catherine Mason and Philip Ball after the event. There’s also an immersive exhibition entitled Harmonious Complexity which will run until mid-November and promises to investigate in detail the areas that Thompson’s ideas have infiltrated… but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s on at this year’s edition.

Spotlight on Dundee

With Dundee as the backdrop for the festivities, it’s only fitting that much of the programme should take inspiration from the city. For starters, there’s a peek behind the curtain at Dundee’s industrial past with a guided tour round Verdant Works, Dundee’s restored jute weaving mill. Meanwhile, two events scheduled for the same day explore the city’s past both temporally and spatially, as Think Local looks at the history of Dundee through the works published by the Abertay Historical Society, while Mapping the City will feature a talk from one of Scotland’s top cartography academics, Chris Fleet.

Elsewhere, there’s a look backwards at two of Dundee’s most influential publications, sadly now both out of print. First up is The People's Journal, with an emphasis on the all-too-often overlooked tradition of newspaper poetry, while Jute, Jam & Jackie revisits Scotland’s first ever teen magazine with two of the magazine’s contributors recounting their experiences with Jackie. Meanwhile, Arrest this Moment sees the launch of James Robertson’s extraordinary biography of Michael Marra. Otherwise known as the Bard of Dundee, Marra’s eventful story is brought to life through interviews with his friends and family, including both real and imagined dialogues with the man himself.

Modern Society

Moving away from the city’s environs, there are a whole host of other highlights to whet the literary appetite – especially with regards to the state of affairs in today’s modern world. Andrew O’Hagan’s free (but ticketed) event promises to be a fascinating insight into the work of one of Britain’s most cutting-edge chroniclers. Focusing on his latest book, The Secret Life, the talk will investigate the biography of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the possible identity of the founder of Bitcoin and the increasingly blurred lines between the real world and cyberspace as O’Hagan forges a new identity online with the personal information of a dead man.

Other events focusing on the fragility and paranoia of the modern world include We Know All About You, a talk from Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones. The Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh gives his insight on the age of surveillance and whether or not George Orwell’s worst fears have come to pass in the UK and the USA. Meanwhile, later that same day a panel of writers (Cathy Rentzenbrink, Tim Robertson and Louise Welsh) will examine the role of literature in today’s fractious society with the hour-long event, In the Dark Times, Will There Also Be Singing?.

Authorial treats abound

Of course, no book festival would be complete without some good, old-fashioned author cameos. The headlines will be stolen by crime writer Graeme Macrae Burnet, who came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the country’s most exciting literary talents with the Saltire Literary Awards fiction book of the year and a spot on last year’s Man Booker shortlist. Burnet will be reading from his upcoming third novel, as he swaps notes with fellow writer Louise Welsh.

Other interesting items of note on the agenda include Hannah Berry’s introduction of her third graphic novel Livestock, as the satirical writer and illustrator chews contemporary cud with Creative Scotland’s Sasha de Buyl. There’s an exciting event featuring three new writers (Gillian Best, Ever Dundas and Helen McClory) as they read from and chat about their debut works, while old hands Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allan Poe and Jean Rhys are all put under the spotlight in their own individual events as well.

For the little nippers, Jacqueline Wilson comes back to the place where it all begin in an informal afternoon session which comprises her only Scottish date of 2017. Alan Windram has another show for the rugrats entitled One Button Benny, in which youngsters are actively encouraged to participate, while there are several hosted events at Waterstones on the themes of Harry Potter, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and fairytales in general. With something for all ages and affiliations, the full programme holds many more treats than can possibly fit into this article. Check it out for yourself and start drawing up your own schedule right away. 

Dundee Literary Festival takes place from 18-22 Oct http://literarydundee.co.uk