The Edinburgh Fringe is a place of youthful hopes, naive dreams and occasional flashes of genuine inspiration. Usually these turn out to be very much flashes in the pan. But not so last Friday night’s ‘story slam’ at the Southall: a contest of storytelling between writers, poets and ne’er-do-wells divided into two teams, representing their home cities of Edinburgh and Chicago.
The idea grew out of the ‘poetry slam’ format, invented in Chicago in 1980s, which was itself the child — or rather, the polite third cousin — of the ‘rap battle’ wars of words, in which aspiring hip-hop performers would twist language, rhythm and rhyme into weapons to wound an opponent’s amour-propre.
So it is perhaps not surprising that a prose variant of this combative form should also come out of Chicago, and that the founder of the ‘Windy City Story Slam’ should be Bill Hillman, a former Chicago Golden Gloves-winning amateur boxer, who is also a graduate of the creative writing course of Columbia College, Chicago.
The Edinburgh venue for the event is the former dissection theatre of the university’s Royal School of Veterinary Studies, which provides a suitably sanguinary arena, and its 200 seats are sold out. This is not least because Hillman has stacked the deck in Chicago’s favour, not only by bringing over John Hemingway, author and grandson of Chicago’s most famous son, Ernest, but also a former Edinburgh heavyweight, Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting. Welsh moved to Chicago to teach creative writing at Bill’s alma mater before marrying a native girl and settling down.
Proceedings start with much swagger and swearing from the Master of Ceremonies, the Scottish comedian and actor Gavin Mitchell, who revs up an audience already in festival mood. Despite this, when Welsh stands up and reads a passage from one of his novels, suitable as the obscenity of the prose is, it seems to hit a false note and lack energy, being more book launch than blood sport.
Which is why he is defeated in the first round by the poet and political firebrand Kevin Williamson, who was also Welsh’s first publisher. Williamson makes a wittily irreverent attack on the traffic wardens of our illiterate modern world: the television licence inspectors. Funny as it is, the temptation, and the trap, of this populist format becomes clear (the audience reaction is gauged to determine the winner). The easy laugh scores highest, and although this crowd are more discerning than many at the Fringe, they are not immune to the blatant and the puerile.
Which is why I worry about Hillman’s opening line as he comes in for the second round: ‘I’m gonna tell you about the day I nearly killed my brother.’ Speaking without script or even notes, he goes on to describe in detail the horrifying, hilarious and moving events of a childhood dominated by a heroin-addled career criminal of a brother who threatened to kidnap Bill for ransom from their own parents. The story is like something from a Scorsese movie — especially since his other brother is a cop with the Chicago police department. Hillman is clearly also a gifted actor — with a knack for swinging his fists.
The next speaker reads a mildly risqué passage from her book which could have been the product of almost any creative writing course (except Chicago’s): prettily phrased and self-referential, it plays to the soft left gallery.
The highlight of the night, John Hemingway, at last arrives. He gives us an extempore anecdote about his father — Ernest’s youngest son, Gregory — and Norman Mailer that is well worth retelling.
Mailer, who is often regarded as ‘Papa’ Hemingway’s literary heir, was desperate to meet the grizzled Nobel laureate, but never quite managed to, despite a couple of near misses. Which perhaps explains why he became a friend of the medical doctor with an interesting secret, Gregory Hemingway, instead.
It was on one frankly incredible big-game-fishing trip that this friendship, and indeed the entire framework of Mailer’s views on masculinity, were called into question. Gregory managed to hook a ‘big one’, and as the line reeled out into the depths, he told Mailer to keep an eye on it as he walked into the cabin with his doctor’s bag. (I should add here that both men had been drinking for the better part of the day).
Mailer, who was loudly protesting the folly and arrogance of leaving a potential catch untended, was then stunned into silence by the good doctor emerging from the cabin in full drag, from a pair of nylon sheers to a Barbie blond wig. There ensued a scene of bizarre hilarity as Hemingway Jr battled to haul in a 700-pound tuna, all the while arguing about the nature of manhood with Mailer, including a full listing of the sexual ambiguities to be found in his father’s work.
That story overshadowed all that followed — even Hillman’s wife telling of her time with a terrorist group in Mexico. However, since John Hemingway exceeded the seven-minute time limit, Edinburgh took that round, and went on to win the entire slam after Welsh switched sides to his city of birth to make up for a contestant who had gone missing. Although still reading from old material, he upped his game and delivered a passage of such virulent bawdy filth that even Falstaff would have blushed — and the entire theatre collapsed into hysterics.
I’ll be trying my own luck at the next contest in Chicago.