Neil Oliver at Aye Write 2019 review by Mary Irvine
Aye Write Festival 2019 Neil Oliver 11.30 a.m. -12.30 p.m. Saturday, March 16th Strathclyde Suite Royal Concert Hall
Having driven through heavy snow (Alexandria), meeting heavy sleet (Dumbarton), being overcharged by Scotrail, then very cold rain (Glasgow) I finally arrived at the Royal Concert Hall for my first 2019 visit to the prestigious ‘Aye Write’ Festival. The event was ‘Books that Made Me’ and the person speaking about his six chosen books was Neil Oliver. The three hundred plus audience greeted Neil with thunderous applause the like of which I have never heard for any author event I’ve attended.
Probably best known for his popular T.V. series Neil spoke with the enthusiasm and passion for books he exudes in his T.V. programmes. Reading has obviously played a big part in his life from childhood with his mother especially being a regular library user. His comments regarding the difficulty of selecting only six books must have struck chords with all present. Another time, a variant mood, and the selection would probably have been very different. Neil acknowledged being an eclectic reader but also stated he was respectful of all books, fiction and non-fiction, adding that books meant so much more than merely passing a few hours of relaxation.
His first choice was ‘The Washing of the Spears’ by Donald R. Morris. The book tells of the rise of the Zulu nation which challenged British rule in South Africa in Victorian times. How the worst disaster ever, by men armed only with spears, was inflicted on the British at Isandhlwana. Neil’s almost boyish thrill he felt when later being able to excavate the battlefield was palpable.
The next book was ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ by Kurt Vonnegut. One of Neil’s ‘on the curriculum’ books he was not looking forward to reading it but it opened a new world of writing. The style revealed the many possibilities of how to write, in particular that a ‘plot’ need not necessarily be chronological, or that language can be simple and straightforward.
His third book was ‘Little, Big’ by John Crowley. Although admitting he wasn’t ‘into’ fantasy novels Neil found the interconnections fascinating finding a personalisation of the more you dig into anything the bigger/ wider it gets.
The next book was one read in translation and Neil did acknowledge, as many do, that readers are aware they are not reading the author’s actual words and are at the mercy of the translator. The book was ‘If this is a Man/The Truce’ by Primo Levi. Much more than another Holocaust survivor’s story Neil was obviously very moved by Levi’s story which apportioned no blame, request for revenge nor recognition but was an attempt to try and understand why humans act in this way to other humans.
Neil’s penultimate book was ‘A Gorbals Boy at Oxford’ by Ralph Glasser, the second of a trilogy of memoirs. As Neil reported Ralph grew up in the Gorbals when it was the ‘real’ Gorbals. His readings and telling of stories from the book reflected the humour of a genuine Glasgow man. On a serious note Neil spoke of the phenomena of luck in life, feeling he had had luck as had Ralph and that often it is luck that can create success.
The last book of a very varied selection was ‘The Missing’ by Andrew O’Hagan, published in 1996 to public acclaim and attracting several prizes. Neil, who first read this book while working as a cub reporter, obviously felt an affinity with this author. They had similar backgrounds and upbringings. He found the book moving and felt it ‘spoke’ to him and identified with it, especially the idea/philosophy of ‘missing/absence’ as in ‘never found’.
How could people simply disappear without their disappearance ever being explained?
A pleasant venue, comfortable seats, helpful and cheerful staff and an erudite Neil Oliver who spoke fluently, interacting well with his audience. What’s not to have liked!
Mary Irvine, March, 2019
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