Ten Writers Telling Lies is an ambitious project. A book of short stories, an album of songs, a series of illustrations, all entwined and caught up in a lie which, in the end, is withheld from the reader/listener. It’s the brainchild of Jim Byrne, a Glasgow West End flaneur and songwriter who admits that he was somewhat tired of the normal “record some songs and release them cycle.” The light bulb moment occurred when Byrne was at a book reading, which ended with the author of the night and friends playing some tunes. Mulling this over afterwards Byrne decided to recruit some writers for a collaboration which would entail them writing a story or poem and lyrics for the songs he was sitting on. In addition he asked each of them to take a “selfie” each of which were then the basis for an illustration by Glasgow artist Pam McDonald. The results, all included in the book, follow in the footsteps of the renowned Alasdair Gray who typically would enliven his books with intriguing illustrations although McDonald sets her own style.
At the heart of the project was the somewhat nebulous idea of the lie. Here Byrne was somewhat ahead of the pack as he conceived of the idea long before the issue of “fake news” became commonplace. Anyhow, Byrne states in his introduction that all involved were to agree to lie about a particular aspect of the project to the extent of signing a document forbidding them from revealing this “lie.” It’s a tantalising aspect, a challenge to discover the lie (and which, so far, we haven’t fathomed) but ultimately there’s no need to go all Tin Tin and investigative as the package works brilliantly on its own two feet. You can consider it as an anthology of new Scottish writing (to which it stands up well) with an album of songs to listen to as you read or try to match up the hidden threads which bind the project together.
So there are stories and poems about adolescent courting, rural surgery, beatnik dreams, termination blues and cross dressing priests. As in all anthologies there are different styles and themes but it’s an enthralling read and, if nothing else, a fine introduction to each of the writers. As for the music, Byrne excels. As befits the collaborative element of the project there’s a fine degree of variety on show here although it’s all helmed by his fine voice, at times lugubrious, plaintive or occasionally crooning. There’s a lengthy list of contributing musicians, singers and spoken work participants and the songs range across gospel themed laments, Celtic airs, Ronnie Lane like folky jaunts, Mexicali border dustiness, creamy pedal steel country and finger popping rock’n’roll. Variety for sure but it all hangs together with the overall sense of the album a peek into the human spirit and the many ways in which it can encounter adversity and try to overcome it. From the weeping fiddle that opens Burdon Of Your Cross, a song that recalls Johnny Cash’s religious songs, to the closing Promise That We’ll Meet Again, sung by Elaine Fleming and delivered with a folk purity with Byrne finger picking on acoustic guitar it’s a joy to listen to. There’s tenement gallousness in the spoken parts on Sweet Gone Tomorrows, All This I Learn From A Kiss is a gloriously warped waltz and Blood On Your Hands is a heart melting country duet with Byrne and Dinny Shuff doing their best George and Tammy.
The writers are Stephanie Brown, Pat Byrne, James Carson, Samina Chaudry, James Connarty, Pauline Lynch, Calum Maclean, Gillian Margaret Mayes, Micheal Norton and Stephen Watt. You can read more about the project here.
For a man who says he was somewhat jaded this project has certainly invigorated Byrne. It’s warm, evocative and exciting and well recommended. There’s a launch show at Cottiers in Glasgow this Thursday with readings and music and the book and album are available here.