A Bit of Bissett

A chat with renowned author <strong>Alan Bissett</strong> about <strong>Discombobulate</strong>, his work in general, and storytelling

Feature by Keir Hind | 30 Jun 2010
  • Alan Bissett

Alan Bissett is a kind man. Despite talking to some of the older kids at a school in the north all day (his first two books, Boyracers and The Incredible Alan Spark are deemed to have teen appeal, though he has to stay away from his most recent, Death Of A Ladies Man, about a womanizing English teacher) then traveling back from Aberdeen by train, he’s still happy to talk to me about the events he’s involved with at the Edinburgh Festival. He’s talking specifically about the long running, and very successful Discombobulate spoken word nights that he’s part of.

When I ask what makes Discombobulate special amongst the many similar nights out there, Bissett quickly replies “I think it’s the host, Ian MacPherson. He brings a particularly...” he pauses to produce the right word “...laconic style to Discombobulate. He did stand up comedy for a long time, and that suits Discombobulate, because a lot of the work is comedic, but at the same time we’re always looking for stuff with a literary quality.” Discombobulate ran regularly for about three years, but, says Bissett, “It was never meant to last forever.” It’s now likely to survive as part of special events – special events like Unbound, in fact.

Bissett’s involvement with literary evenings began when he was at Stirling University, where he helped one of his tutors, Magi Gibson, to organise a literary night called Growl. It was “a spoken word night we started to sort of start a scene in Stirling, because there wasn’t much happening there at the time”. This grew later on, when – after a spell in Leeds – he ended up in Glasgow, and with Magi Gibson again, tried to start something similar in Glasgow.

He says, “We knew what we didn’t want it to be. We were both familiar with poetry nights where we’d been bored to tears because the poets weren’t often great performers – which is no slight on their writing, just a reflection on the fact that they didn’t get to perform that often." Bissett is quick to stress that it was others who properly organised the event though: "Magi and Ian McPherson were the main organisers of Discombobulate, and so their rule was that the performers had to be confident in front of an audience – it wasn’t just for anyone who had written something.”

The event attracted bigger names as it went on. Bissett talks excitedly about when they had Alasdair Gray on. "He went into this… it was like a tour of European history at one point, and it really showed the crowd how smart he is. He just started declaiming it, and the Arches audience was completely with him too. It had nothing to do with what he’d come to talk about, but it was great.”

It wasn’t all big names though, because that wasn’t the point. Bissett takes care to mention that they would have people on who weren’t well known, or even likely to appear at spoken word nights. “Working class writers are getting rarer,” he says “but Billy Letford is that. He works as a roofer, and his work just shocked me with how powerfully it affected the audience". And while he says that “We do have screening. It’s not a come one, come all, that’s a sure fire route to disaster” there’s still an air of unpredictability to the events. As Bissett admits, “You’re not going to get Alasdair Gray on and tell him what to talk about.”

It’s probably a mark of quality that, in Alan Bissett’s point of view, Discombobulate wasn’t ever to be a vehicle for selling books. “The way that the publishing industry looks at live performance is that it’s a marketing opportunity for a book, and I never saw it like that, because the performance should be an end in itself. If you’re speaking to a crowd with a microphone, then that’s performance – you can pretend to yourself that it’s not, but that’s what it comes down to. And when I saw someone just intoning from a book then I saw that as disrespecting an audience.” However, polite to a fault, he adds “I understand that some people prefer, or just have to do that, but I didn’t want to, personally.”

Bissett tells me about the first time he appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, and it’s, predictably, a good story. “It must have been about 2001, and I was on with a couple of other authors, and we all read pieces of our books, and then when it was question time this woman stood up at the back and said basically ‘I think you were all shite!’ She said that the listings had said we were provocative writers and ‘I haven’t been provoked in the slightest’, and on she went, and the audience started booing her. It was my first time at the Book Festival, and I thought I’d done a pretty good reading. But naw, apparently not. So I hope I don’t get that again!” He’d be forgiven if that put him off performing entirely, but happily, it didn’t.

Bissett made the move into live performance himself, when, after writing two plays, he wrote and performed in The Moira Monologues, his ‘one woman play’ about – there’s only one way to put this – a gallus Falkirk wumman. The Moira Monologues will be running in Edinburgh during the festival too, so there’s a good chance she’ll make an appearance at Discombobulate. Bissett says, “When I first started out I was a very, very young man, and I was eager to perform.” After giving a lot of readings, he became more confident. He continues, “After a while it becomes something that doesn’t faze you as much, and so that’s why I started going into doing plays and stuff like that."

The question is, does performing affect the way he writes? He’s pretty certain it does, and for the better. “It definitely affects the way you write because you start to think about how it’ll come across live. So it is there, but I think that not everything I write could be picked up and read to a crowd – some of the formal experimentation that you find in my books just wouldn’t transfer”. That said, he expands on his idea of the relationship between the spoken and the written word by telling me that “there’s a really strong oral tradition in Scotland – I mean there’s the bardic tradition and so on, but even at the level of guys in pubs, especially in the central belt, there’s a lot of guys on the job or in the pub telling each other funny stories, and if you can’t do that you’re deid. So that’s what it’s all about really!” And that has to be the bottom line. 

Discombobulate will take place as part of Unbound in the Spiegeltent on Monday 16 Aug. Acts so far confirmed to appear include poet Magi Gibson, comedians Simon Munnery and Arnold Brown, and of course Alan Bissett and host Ian Macpherson. Alan Bissett will be appearing in The Moira Monologues at the National Library of Scotland from 10 to 21 Aug (excluding 14 and 15), £8/6