The simple addition of a be-quilted armchair and a mic-stand immediately brought an intimacy to proceedings that can often be lost in larger venues. Lin Anderson started off the evening, reading from her novel ‘Paths of the Dead’. By the end of her second sentence the audience were so drawn into the story that the ‘silence of expectation’ that falls in the novel emanated through the vast space of the cathedral.
Several poets read poems written directly in response to the Syrian crisis. Images of armchair activists, scallop-shell beaches, and a recognition of the responsibility inherent in our position of privilege, underpinned the importance of the evening as an opportunity to share, not just our work, but our feelings of outrage and bewilderment, and our determination to do something.
Moira Forsyth, author of the recently released ‘The Treacle Well’, then read one of her compelling short stories. Loosely based on a childhood incident, the story considers the potentially devastating consequences that result from knowledge and inaction, a central concern throughout the evening.
During the interval, refreshments were available in return for donations. Alongside this, several members of staff from the local Waterstones store manned a station at the back of cathedral, selling books which had been donated by the authors as part of their nationwide Books for Syria appeal. The entire cost of the book became a donation and all three headliners stayed to sign copies of their books at the end of the night.
The latter half of the evening was opened with more local poets contributing their work before Val McDermid took to the stage. While I have previously had the pleasure of dancing with Val at a ceilidh during the last Ullapool Book Festival, it was my first time experiencing her presence on stage. She appears relaxed with an assured self-confidence; her success speaks for itself and she showed great enthusiasm for reading her work and discussing her characters, vehemently proclaiming that no one else will breathe life into her characters when her own has ceased. Her reading from ‘The Skeleton Road’ dealt with the experience of a siege and her voice work recreated the delectably tense atmosphere of two lovers. Her answers to both profound and amusing questions showed that her gifts as a wordsmith do not stop on the page. In finishing, she made an impassioned plea for those present to share what they had with those who had lost everything.
The event itself was organised by Jane Wallman-Girdlestone, an author and priest attached to St. Andrews Cathedral who initially felt helpless in the face of the overwhelming need she was seeing on the television. However, instead of looking at what she couldn’t do, Jane looked at the resources she had: the cathedral; connections to authors, poets, publishing houses; and positive relationships with the Inverness community. Then she combined them to organise an event that raised nearly £900 for UNICEF in the space of a few hours. For me, the most significant message of the evening was that you don’t have to be wealthy, or a celebrity, or super-fit, to raise money for people in crisis; you just need to recognise, and use, your talents, your resources and those of the people around you.
The desire to help is clear, so let this event be the start of something bigger.