As a fellow writer, I was excited to be asked to review A.L. Kennedy’s event. Kennedy’s latest book, On Writing, is a collection of her regular blog posts for The Guardian newspaper, as well as a selection of essays, and is one in a long line of works that includes novels, short story collections and non-fiction. In between writing radio plays and performing stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a wonder she had time to pop up to Dundee on this rainy Friday afternoon at all, but the audience were certainly glad she did.
Childhood was a recurring theme throughout the event, appropriately so given that Kennedy was born and brought up in Dundee. Back in the city of her birth, she divulged that Bonar Hall was the very first place she did a reading of her work during the early days of her career. She amused the audience with anecdotes from school days at the High School of Dundee, and read a blog from her book about her grandfather who taught her never to be scared. His words – “If you’re scared, they don’t beat you. You beat yourself” – are a mantra that Kennedy has followed ever since and a piece of advice that arose repeatedly during her talk.
Kennedy read a further two blogs from On Writing: one about railways that, by her own admission, was “uncharacteristically cheerful”, and a funny and rather cynical piece on writing workshops. The relaxed and animated way she read gave away the fact that she has done hundreds of these events before but she appeared in no way bored to be doing yet another. Laughter from the audience was constant and sincere as she imparted tales from her life, and advice about the writing process. It was fascinating to hear Kennedy read the work just as it would have sounded in her head as she wrote it because her humour, intelligence and truthfulness, alongside her sharp humour and her inhibition in imparting personal information, made for an entertaining combination. The piece on railways, in particular, was moving in its blatant honesty and emotion – perhaps paradoxically for a woman who told the audience that she started publishing under her initials, rather than her full name, in an attempt to create a “place of safety” for herself through anonymity.
It became apparent during the session that Kennedy is full of such paradoxes. She claims she was a nervous child, yet she went on to study theatre studies and drama at university; she talked of her low self-esteem yet she appeared completely confident in her writing abilities and at ease in front of an audience; she is prolific in her work yet her biggest surprise is that ideas keep turning up in her head. Kennedy’s knowledge, commitment and skill was no doubt inspiring to all, writer or otherwise.
Judging by the lively question and answer session afterward and laughter throughout the entire event, it is safe to say that everyone who attended hopes the ideas will keep turning up in A.L. Kennedy’s head for a long time to come.