The announcement that BBC Scotland has commissioned a new arts series to celebrate literature got the Twitterati — on my timeline at least — in quite a fizz. Fizz is good. We all need a bit of it especially on the driechest of June days.
The Big Scottish Book Club is to be hosted by award-winning writer, Damian Barr. That Barr will be front and centre of the show has undoubtedly added sparkle to the fizz. And rightly so, though I should declare an interest here — Barr is my mentor and friend.
The news took me back more than 40 years to Read All About It, also a BBC programme, aired in the 70s, hosted initially by Melvyn Bragg. With its catchy theme music — the Beatles’ Paperback Writer — and a guest list that ran from Kenny Everett to Margaret Drabble, the show made books seem cool as well as serious.
As an angsty, arty teenager, I probably took that to extremes when I cut a picture of Bragg out of the Radio Times and stuck it on the back of my English folder. Even my teacher thought that a tad pretentious. But hey, I was just a kid, working out who I was in the world — and books were part of the journey. A big part.
For some back then, including my mum, books and the box were uncomfortable bedfellows. She’d have had us watching less telly and reading more books. In fact, it was only because my dad won a telly in the works raffle that we had one at all for a time.
I always loved the fact he’d won that raffle and thought one day I might too. It only occurred to me after he died a few years ago that it had almost certainly been a ruse. Like us, he’d just wanted a telly — to watch Mick McManus and Giant Haystack do their thing of a Saturday afternoon.
It wasn’t that my dad didn’t read. He devoured French detective novels — in French. But he didn’t see the contradiction mum could be so haughty about. Rightly — because there isn’t one. Books and the box are perfectly companionable.
Books provide a myriad of things — we lose and find ourselves in them. We explore a world within and discover the world beyond. The books we read as children are testament to that. Stories that stay with us forever.
If we’re to be a nation of readers books need to find a way to us — all of us. Beyond places where we can borrow or buy them — though Damian will tell you as much as anyone, libraries really matter — bookshops too. And TV is the perfect way to bring them to a wider audience. The widest possible because we don’t even have to leave our living rooms.
But not just that — putting them on TV breathes life into books. Talking about reading and sharing the power of stories — the magic that unfolds when pages are turned — has the potential to get more people reading. And to Barr, that matters.
Anyone who has been to one of Barr’s much-lauded literary salons will know that he hosts them with aplomb. The First Minister, who welcomed the news enthusiastically today, knows it too. He interviewed her about a life in books at the Wigtown Book Festival last year.
Barr’s insight as a writer and his passion as a reader is what makes the salon such a hit. It’s not a selling place for books either — just a space for talking and listening. With the Big Scottish Book Club, he’ll bring that same unconditional fervour into our homes.
Books and their meaning extend far beyond the private realm. They are the lifeblood of democracy too— not in the institutional sense, but because they impart knowledge and provide a means of exchanging ideas. In that sense, they represent openness — freedom. In a world that can feel like its closing in, we need them more than ever.
So opening books up to new readers through TV is a no brainer for a public service broadcaster. The BBC has consistently celebrated books through the medium of radio — reading them aloud, discussing them too — and long may that continue.
But TV adds another dimension and offers the opportunity to reach new and different readers. That’s why this new show and Barr’s seat at the helm is so exciting.
The outpouring of warmth for today’s announcement was from the converted — avid readers who already know the value literature can bring. They will be part of the Big Scottish Book Club’s core audience and Barr will welcome them with verve and vigour.
But because of the role books played in changing his own life, Barr’s ambitions for the show will go much further than today’s enthusiasts. Barr wants books to change everyone’s lives. And he really believes they can. Just watch.