Book Festival: Neil Gunn | Maurice Walsh | Richard Dawkins

The friendship of two writers, one Scots, one Irish, was celebrated at the Book Festival yesterday, writes Susan Mansfield

Neil Gunn and Maurice Walsh met when both were excisemen in Strathspey, and their friendship grew through shared loves of whisky and the outdoors. This celebration, featuring Dairmid Gunn, Neil Gunn’s nephew, and Walsh’s biographer, Steve Matheson, will be repeated in Ireland in the autumn.

Remaining friends for decades, Gunn and Walsh influenced one another in profound ways. Gunn was enthralled when Walsh introduced him to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and began to write plays – with mixed results. Walsh sent Gunn the manuscripts of his novels before publication, and Gunn fed back suggestions on plotlines. They shared politics, too, with Walsh, a passionate Irish nationalist, influencing Gunn’s sympathies.

It was a fond celebration for two writers who are less well known today than they should be. While efforts have been made to recognise and republish Gunn’s work, Walsh’s novels, including bestsellers such as his first novel, The Key Above the Door, need to be sought out in the catalogues of second-hand booksellers.

By contrast, a writer who has no trouble keeping books in print is Richard Dawkins, whose new book is a memoir of his early life, An Appetite for Wonder. As he discussed the book with Ruth Wishart, snapshots began to emerge offering a warmer picture of the man who has become the high priest of militant atheism: a “shy, gauche” young man, who could nevertheless do a mean rendering of Blue Suede Shoes in his “Elvis period”.

He also described how, in his early teens, he was briefly but passionately religious. “I was briefly seduced by it – I took it all in, I prayed vigorously every night and had a fantasy that if I went to the chapel in the middle of the night, an angel might visit in a burst of light. I never tried it.”

He “stopped speaking to God” at about 15, and much of the rest of the event was taken up with the kind of argument for which he is well known: attacking people with religious faith, and the idea of faith in general. Gloriously objectionable, he announced: “I don’t mind being disliked by complete idiots.” I would rather have heard more about the man who wrote a fan letter to Douglas Adams after reading Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and gets emotional about the extinction of the dodo.

Originally published in The Scotsman

Going to the Edinburgh Festival?

• Unsure what to see? Read all The Scotsman reviews
• What’s hot (or not): Browse the reviews by star rating
• Don’t miss a thing. Sign up to our daily email newsletter
• Join the conversation with #WOWFEST and follow it live