It was the Equinox. Spring had returned from its confident march beyond the winter horizon, slipping back into its familiar cove. Crisp white snowdrops pressed against the blue expanse, the colours of the saltire blossoming under shards of light that swept triumphantly from a glittering, enthusiastic sun.
As sunlight gave way to a pinky dusk brushing the determined shoulders of the city of the stare, the audience at ‘Aye Write!’ remained enthusiastic, spring adding a Glaswegian swagger to the snippets of expectant conversation that circled the air in anticipation of the next, and indeed the final event, of Glasgow’s book festival.
The session was ‘The Books That Made Me’. The subject, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
The Mitchell Theatre was packed, the gender and age demographic of the audience adding a kaleidoscope of colour that would brighten the blackest part of the sky. The tone was apt and stretched long into the night.
When the event host Clare English welcomed Nicola Sturgeon to the stage it was a rock star moment, the room bounced and roared, the applause so heavy it didn’t quite reach the roof. Instead it swooped like swallows, its wingbeat strong and playful.
Ahead of the event the First Minister had been asked to select five books that had ‘made’ her. Not books she simply enjoyed or loved but books that had made an impact, words that had shaped the very fabric of her. Here is her selection.
- Nicola Sturgeon’s first choice shot into the air with a question mark. Only one person in the audience knew of the children’s novel she had selected. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. She read it when she was around 10 years old, and, as a Second World War story about a Polish family torn apart when the father is arrested by the Gestapo, it has had a lasting impact on a child awakened to the horror of war for the first time. Nicola Sturgeon can still journey back to her 10-year old self and remember how she felt while reading this powerful story.
- Her second choice was Lewis Grassic Gribbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, with her overarching favourite being Sunset Song. Another book about war, this time the First World War, and how it betrayed the normal lives of people in Scotland. Reading it for her English O’Grade wasn’t a chore, she cites, it was a gift. She credits the text for its strong sense of Scottish identity and the impact that sense of belonging had on her youth. She confidently read an excerpt from the novel and we leaned forward on our seats, our outstretched fingers gripping each word as though we were climbing a rock face. The actual book brought its own story too. The reading was from Nicola’s personal copy and it included a certificate. She had earned first prize in S5 for Modern Studies, Latin and English. Scotland’s actual modern identity was chiseled into the pages of one of its most outstanding books.
- The next book was William McIlvanney’s Docherty. McIlvanney said the book was “an attempt to democratise traditional culture, to give working-class life the vote in the literature of heroism”. Tam Docherty’s story sat comfortably alongside her own political awakening as the realities of life under Thatcherism permeated aggressively in Scottish working class culture. A book that certainly shaped, if not made, the First Minister.
- The next selection was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for a very clear reason, because it is about sisterhood and feminism and despite its depressing tone it is optimistic, the strong narrative demonstrating the power that women can manifest together, even against the realms of oppression. As a leader with a gender balanced Cabinet the impact is wholly apparent in Scotland.
- Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was perhaps a surprise choice but it is a comforting selection as it demonstrates that in amongst the deep political thinking, Nicola Sturgeon believes wholeheartedly in the power of love. She celebrates love. Love and power are a formidable combination for a nation’s leader to possess so thanks Jane!
- (Yes, six, she sneaked in an extra one!) And so to politics, the next choice another book little known by the audience. It was Doris Kearns Goodman’s Team of Rivals, the historian’s examination of the Presidency and legacy of the ‘Politcal Genuis of Abraham Lincoln’. The First Minister found Lincoln’s ability to form coalitions around him in a time of huge political and civil unrest fascinating and formidable. She suggested that another UK leader could learn from it…
A great evening and one where myself and my sister Pauline, and the rest of this captivated audience, swung freely on its open, palpable landscape. The book choices were interesting and challenging and the carefully constructed, yet liquid, conversation was stimulating and brilliantly led by Clare English.
Fun, enlightening, intellectual and lasting, the chat wasn’t all books per say. We also learned about the First Minister’s love of the vernacular, the earthy right to speak in tune with the environment. She borrowed McIlvanney’s phrase of it being “English in its underwear”. (Being a champion of authentic dialect I am thrilled by this so maybe I’ll send on a copy of The Birds That Never Flew!).
We swayed a little harder when we learned about a passion for the 1970s TV series Crown Court, (swaying in recognition, the theme tune instantly playing out in the minds of those of us who remembered) and we laughed hard when with super quick wit she teased her counterpart Willie Rennie, a gentle chiding that was respectful as well as humorous. As if a captive audience of book lovers needed reminding that one of the best experiences in the world is to lose yourself in a good book, we nodded affirmatively when she told us so, now a collective, all as one.
Nicola Sturgeon rounded up by telling us her big three: historical fiction, crime fiction, and political biographies.
The last political biography she read was about Margaret Thatcher. At the Q & A session I asked her a question. “Presumably, you didn’t read a book about Thatcher for pleasure…so what was the last book you consumed for pleasure and what did you think of it?”
It was another love story. Christopher Brookmyre’s The Black Widow, an interesting Valentine’s gift from her husband. As it transpired it was an apt and loving gift. She adored it, just like the audience adored her. My sister Pauline and I left the theatre buoyed. There was a lot of love in that room, and it wasn’t all for books.
What books have made you?