• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024
Don Paterson at a book signing

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Don Paterson’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday 16th August was met with rapturous applause in the ECA’s Sculpture Hall. Accompanying the award-winning Dundonian poet was the event’s host and director of the V&A in Dundee, Leonie Bell. 

Bell introduced Paterson to a mostly Scottish-sounding crowd as “one of the finest poets we have,” before revealing his new memoir, Toy Fights, A Boyhood.

Her first question for the poet was how he was able to remember events within the memoir, which follows Paterson from birth to age twenty. He responded in his low, soft Dundonian lilt: “I didnae keep a diary … When they talk about the neuroscience of memory, most memories are memories of memories”, making it hard to trace the origins of his core associations. However, like his father who passed four years ago from Alzheimer’s, Paterson said music—what he was listening to at the time—had a way of transporting him back.

He went on to describe the writing of Toy Fights as a form of “active recovery”. He found too, as he wrote it, many people within the book held entirely different memories of events.

The poet came off as quick-witted, with good chemistry between himself and host Leonie Bell.  Bell recounted the poor council decisions made in building post-WWII Dundee, as well as post-industrial decline and poverty. She said the life chances of those in Toy Fights “strikes you cold”, before asking Paterson his own views. Paterson expressed frustration for social media distracting us from “the real issues”, before condemning Westminster’s policy of austerity post-2010. “It doesn’t work, it’s just class war—it hurts the poor and doesn’t touch the middle class,” he said.

Bell responded by asking Paterson to elaborate on his pro-Scottish independence views in the memoir. Perhaps sensing the tension in the room, the poet sighed a little and paused, before saying his views were homogenous in 1970s Dundee, where growing up “you didn’t know a Tory.” He added, “I never thought I was Scottish until I moved south of the border”, realising when he reached London to start a career in the arts that as a Scot, you must “give up your accent to survive.”

Touching on accents, Bell asked Paterson about his “lecture voice” mentioned in the book. He said it wasn’t a “conscious voice”, just something he used when teaching at St. Andrews to help international students. He then told an anecdote about a student from the Home Counties who approached him after class to criticise his accent as “incomprehensible”. Paterson pointed out he was born and raised 10 miles from St. Andrews, and thus “it’s your accent you’re struggling with, not mine.”

Assuming a more serious tone, Bell asked the poet to discuss an episode in his memoir concerning a mental breakdown in his teenage years and Grayson Perry’s “destruction of the idea of having a core”. Paterson described it as a “horrible time I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” one he only revisited during lockdown, several decades later.    

Recovering from what doctors diagnosed as “an adolescent schizophrenic episode”, Paterson said music helped a great deal. He initially moved to London to follow his father’s career in music. However, at 22, he discovered poetry while living in a run-down bedsit in Tottenham. To much laughter from the audience, he distinguished poetry from other art forms as “more of a diagnosis, a certain way of thinking about language,” before mentioning its “side-effects”, including “an addictive personality and the inability to drive.”

Given its prominence in Toy Fights, the host asked the author how it feels returning to Dundee as an adult. Paterson, who now lives in Kirriemuir, said he hasn’t “got any perspective on it because I’m too close to it,” and that as much as he loves the place, it’s “too much” living there. He added that the city has changed immensely in recent years, highlighting the V&A of which Bell is director.

Asked what Dundee’s “identity” is, while overshadowed by the giants of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Paterson described it as “a dog’s dinner” of a city, with many different layers stacked on top of each other. However, he also felt it was “so enclosed” with a “village mentality”. He discussed the giant of D. C. Thomson (publishers of The Beano, The Press & Journal & The Student) where half his family were employed, including himself before he was “fired for getting high in the toilets.”

In the audience Q&A, I had the opportunity to ask Paterson if he had any advice for young poets lacking qualifications, given he left school at 16 and did not gain a degree. He replied that qualifications will “do you no good: if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it. And always focus on the poem, not your ambitions as a poet—they’ll follow in time.”

Image “DON PATERSON – DURHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL” by summonedbyfells is licensed under CC BY 2.0.