This year’s Wigtown Book Festival meets death and then plunges on to discuss what happens afterwards.
Author Salena Godden will be at the festival to discuss her book Mrs Death Misses Death in which a troubled young author named Wolf meets, and befriends, Death in the guise of an elderly working class black woman and begins to write her memoirs.
By contrast former academic, and chair of Edinburgh’s Arthur Conan Doyle Centre, Lance Butler will join whisky writer and raconteur Charles MacLean for A Meeting of Spirits (25 September), in which they will reflect on experiences of the supernatural over a dram, or maybe two.
Prof. Butler, who taught literary theory and stylistics at Stirling and the University of Pau, in France, believes there is abundant and growing evidence to show that human consciousness survives death and that we ascend to another plane.
It’s a chance to hear examples drawn from his own experiences and those of others from someone who firmly believes that the dead are quite happy to communicate with us “if we are interested and are prepared to make the effort”.
As a young man he moved away from his Catholicism in favour of rationalism, but has been brought “kicking and screaming” back to the conviction that there is a supernatural.
Butler, though, thinks there is something essential missing from organised religion which seems more to promote its own interests rather than be truly open to understanding the beyond. Similarly he is critical of Enlightenment rationalism that, while bringing immense gains, he sees as flawed and often unwilling to consider broader ideas.
This October will see the publication of his new book of essays Between Two Enlightenments which he describes as a study of ideas that shows how human thought is often caught between the enlightenment offered by faiths like Buddhism and the capital “E” Enlightenment of the West.
Godden’s event (25 September) will introduce her audience to a book with characters that are poetic, beautiful, unusual and sometimes very funny and was written in part because she feels we live in a culture which isn’t very good at facing and discussing death.
And it’s something that we need to do.
She said: “For obvious reasons we try to avoid death, but we also avoid conversations about it. I have a very early memory of a little girl in my class whose mum died in a car crash. My classmates kind of avoided her because they didn’t know what to say, so I went to her house and gave her my favourite marble and my Coca Cola rubber as a sort of care package.”
And while the book was written before the pandemic, it is very much in keeping with our times.
Godden, who is a renowned poet, performer, memoirist and activist, said: “Here we are now, and there are all these people who have lost someone. Some 150,000 people in the UK alone. There is so much mourning and there’s been no real national, or indeed international conversation or space made for all that hurt and loss.”
Her different, rather more empathetic character Mrs Death, is partly related to her own ancestry and inspired by her Jamaican great, great grandmother. She was a healer and wise woman who was there as midwife and death doula, to help when babies arrived into the world and when the old and sick departed.
Godden says: “There’s just this one remaining black and white picture of her. She’s sitting there wearing a bandana and smoking a big clay pipe. She’s a real rebel, a real soul rebel. I definitely feel she’s there in my DNA and in Mrs Death.”