Linen Hall Literary Festival

Anne-Marie Marquess experiences different worlds at Words Indeed!

Words Indeed!Two events that inspired me at the Linen Hall Library's Words Indeed! Literary Festival were 'The Songs of Robert Tannahill',  by Dr Fred Freeman and 'The Future is the Present: Science Fiction and the writing of Kurt Vonnegut'.

On a Friday evening I travelled back in time to enjoy the Scottish folk music and poetry of an era long gone. Then on Saturday morning, it was full speed ahead into the technologically-advanced world of science fiction and the future.

Before either of these events I had not heard of Robert Tannahill, of Dr Fred Freeman or of Kurt Vonnegut. I am now, however, in proud possession of the CD The Complete Songs of Robert Tannahill, as well as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5.

As we waited for Dr Fred Freeman’s talk to begin, my first thought, as I sipped on a glass of complimentary white wine, was ‘What manner of music is this? It reminds me of The Wicker Man!'.

Which is a good thing, because I like the music in that film. The music playing was from Freeman’s The Complete Songs of Robert Burns CD, and was folk music at its best.

Robert TannahillDuring Freeman’s talk we learned about Robert Tannahill, a man not renowned in Scottish literary circles in his time. An 18th century songwriter and poet who tragically committed suicide at the age of 36. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said.

A weaver by day, a writer by night, Tannahill penned more than 100 songs 'of a comparable quality to Burns' according to Freeman. We listened to nine songs and one poem in 18th century Scots.

Freeman held up the words for the chorus so we could sing along to every tune. This was such good fun and momentarily took you back to the days when people in groups would sing along, making their own music, slapping their thighs, clapping their hands, stamping their feet and dancing around.

Heathen music it was, especially 'Coggie Thou Heals Me' (an ode to an old woman who sings to her brew 'Aye my best friend, when there’s any thing ails me.')

We have a song about a boy who braves the elements to be with the girl he loves, 'O are ye sleeping Maggie?' The poem that marks the end of the evening is 'Rob Roryson’s Bannet', complete with instrumental mandolin.

This poem reminded me of Derry animator John McCloskey’s The Crumblegiant, the spoken word accompanied by music proving to be very powerful. Tannahill may not have made it in his own time, but his work has been resurrected and will now see the light of day.

Not every Saturday morning begins with talk of time travel, quantum physics, the expansion of the universe, science fiction genres and Einstein, but it certainly makes for a refreshing change.

Stephen Matterson (Head of the School of English and lecturer in American literature, Trinity College, Dublin), Martin Griffiths (Astronomer, University of Glamorgan and founder member of NASA Astrobiology Institute science communication group) and Ian McDonald, a Science Fiction author from Northern Ireland, came together to discuss the work of writer Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007.  

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut - author Ian McDonald (right)The discussion that followed was a whirlwind ride into a galaxy of mind-blowing information. Vonnegut was mentioned, of course, his life; his work; his writing. The speakers described how they had come to find him, and the effects that his outlook and writing had on them.

According to the speakers, compassion is central to Vonnegut's work. Shaped by his experiences of World War II, a simple central tenet of his writing was the message 'treat others how you’d like to be treated'. The speakers even made reference to Jesus and the ten commandments.

Mattherson began, perhaps unexpectedly, by bringing Edgar Allen Poe into the sci-fi equation. Poe helped to shape sci-fi in the first half of the 19th century, and Eureka, written in 1848, included cosmological theory very similar to that of the Big Bang.

This was considered by Poe to be his masterpiece, anticipating the big bang theory by 80 years. Mattherson also talked about imagined futures and the concept of time.

McDonald talked about the various movements in sci-fi, 'singularity' being one of them. This is the idea that technology moves so fast that eventually humans won't be able to keep up with it and rather than us controlling technology, it controls us. In a world of mass media and electronics, this sci-fi future may not be so far away.

Giffiths, whose work includes searching for extra-terrestrial life forms, told us of the Stars, Science and the Bomb course he had designed, and that the components that make up a star are the same as those that make up a bomb. Explosive stuff, I thought.

We also learned that in Liverpool you could do an MA in Science Fiction, but then sadly learnt that the course was dropped after the university questioned its vocational relevance. Why do the most exciting courses have to boldly go where no man will ever see them again?

Reference was made to 1984, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, as well as Dr Who, Star Trek and Star Wars. But the speakers thought that the type of sci-fi we see on TV is not indicative of the depth and quality of work that exists in the genre. There are whole other worlds out there.

Science Fiction makes us question reality, or perceived reality. It may be an area of the bookshop that a lot of people avoid, but maybe it’s time to take a closer look.

Sci Fi may be closer to the real world than you think, as the boundaries between fantasy and reality become ever thinner. Listening to my Tannahill and reading my Vonnegut, I reflect on a mind-expanding and musical weekend of good words indeed.