tue 27/02/2024

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, Corn Exchange, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, Corn Exchange, Brighton

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, Corn Exchange, Brighton

Canadian literary great and author husband talk birds, and each other

Canadian queen: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Forties childhood was spent knocking around the Canadian backwoods with her forest entomologist, proto-ecologist dad, and it shows. Interviewed alongside her husband Graeme Gibson on the Brighton Festival’s closing night, the international literary prizes, like the gushing reverence with which she’s introduced by Festival director Ali Smith and received by the sell-out crowd, seems to have made little impression.

This is a modest, earthy, dryly witty and straight-talking couple, with the self-sufficient air of those familiar with isolated, country living.

Atwood’s novels, short stories and poems (The Handmaid’s Tale the best-known, thanks to Hollywood) are familiar with the primal narrative forces of fairy tale, myth and the natural world. Tonight, she is essentially here to support her husband’s The Bedside Book of Birds, and her fiction is barely mentioned, with birds and the couple’s ecological concerns the sole subject. Normally, such pet passions are hastily disposed of by interviewers, wary of interminable banging on, while the lesser-known Gibson would be ruthlessly sidelined for maximum Atwood. Not here. Interviewer Anita Sethi is even-handed, and sticks to the ornithological script. The reward is hearing two intelligent people talk about what really interests them, and an incidental portrait of a marriage.

It’s the white-bearded Gibson, 80, pictured above with Atwood, who offers the most telling tale, of a pet parrot called Harold Wilson who, when Gibson gave him to a sanctuary, plaintively called out, for the first time, “Daddy!” Atwood, meanwhile, approvingly mentions that birds “hold in what they don’t need to say,” making them sound like fellow Canadians.

Atwood solicitously searching for her husband’s spectacles in his coat, probably finding them in the same place for the hundredth time, is one sign of 42 years’ comfortable familiarity. Her reaction when, as she holds forth on the importance of birds shitting into the ocean, he interjects, “Fishermen, too...”, is another. “This is what it’s like in our house all the time,” she sighs. “And look how pleased he is!”

In her dry, low, steadily rhythmic voice, Atwood shows flashes of her fictional flights, informing us that transfusions from young mice are rejuvenating old ones – so “guard your babies!”; and, asked which dream bird she’s yet to see, instantly replying,  “I would like to see an archaeopteryx.” Amongst the pair’s informed warnings of ecological catastrophe, Gibson has a contrasting thought about a greater threat. “You don’t need to have climate change,” he states, “if nobody hopes.”

Birds have been one of the themes of Ali Smith’s Brighton Festival, and afterwards, on the beach between the Palace and West Piers, it finishes with a sort of ceremonial installation, Fleeting, by And Now, spectacularly combining fire, water and flight. Crowds gather around hundreds of small, flaming torches receding along the pebbled beach, while actors parade towards the sea with flapping, glittering bird-wing mobiles. Some have turbans, giving the English Channel a hint of Ganges ritual. Recorded voices and music – ska brass to Hollywood classical – climax in fireworks falling into the sea. The starlings who mass about the twice-incinerated West Pier were And Now’s inspiration, and as the last flames are snuffed out on the beach, birds, white in the night sky, wheel around the Pier’s spindly skeleton, spectrally lit like its own ghost. Hopefully Atwood and Gibson made it out to see this graceful tribute to birds, and Brighton itself.   

The reward is hearing two intelligent people talk about what really interests them, and an incidental portrait of a marriage


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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