One of the key strengths of the Paisley Book Festival lies in the variety of subjects that feature in its programme. The sheer breadth and depth of this variety is reflected nowhere more than in this session in which Will Buckingham, author of Hello Stranger was joined in conversation by Roxani Krystalli. Roxani is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and storyteller whose interests include memory and loss, violence and care, and notions of home.
Following on from events covering such diverse topics as radical political poetry, crime fiction, music composition and Scotland’s role in witch-hunt persecutions and slavery, this event presented a very welcome change of focus. It was, from my own personal perspective, one of the most intimate, touching and compassionate discussions I have had the pleasure of listening in to.
Will began by reading an excerpt from his book Hello Stranger, the central message of which is, we need friends in a time of grief, but we also need strangers.
What do strangers bring us in our lives? Roxani asks. The answer given is that they bring us challenges and new possibilities. Strangers bring us futures we could not anticipate by ourselves.
One of the other central themes of the book is how we open our homes and hearts to strangers, the experience of which had, for Will, transformed what it meant to interact with strangers.
Will suggests that we have to make our homes more porous. He lived in a manse – the residential part of a vicarage – which was, effectively, a public building that was porous in all senses. The heat seeped out in winter, the cold and the damp seeped in. People came and people went all the time. There was a sense of blurring between what was a public and what was a private space and one that seems to have profoundly shaped the wonderfully compassionate dissonance between Will Buckingham’s deep-rooted sense of adventure as well as his desire for home, for comfort, for a sense of belonging.
Roxani, herself someone who writes about the meaning of home, reminds us that one important aspect of making a home, but also of encountering strangers, is the role of ritual. She points out that Hello Stanger repeatedly deals with both the welcoming and the departing rituals that people can find both endearing and awkward in equal measure. She asks if there is a particularly memorable welcoming ritual and Will recalls the first interaction with his Turkish Bulgarian friend, who at the time was a stranger, regaling them with hospitality stories while enacting hospitality.
Roxani said that her mother always had an ‘uninvited guest cake’ which no one was allowed to touch, ‘just in case’ someone stopped by unannounced. The fact that in Paisley, people feel personal shame if a guest ‘pops in’ before they can replenish their ‘good’ biscuit tin, suggests that this custom represents something of a universal ritual.
Moving on to departure rituals, Roxani mentions the quote in the book by fellow anthropologist Kate Fox who says that for the English, departures are a mess of awkward embarrassment. Will points out departure rituals are partly celebratory, reflective and redeeming, and adds that a good send-off can redeem a difficult situation, if, for example, you get off on the wrong foot.
A segment of the discussion centred on the fact that it is much more difficult to be a guest than a host. Being a host is straight forward, you are in charge, all you have to do to perform the role well is to provide good food and drink. The guest role is much more complex and requires greater effort.
Other ‘hot-takes’ that emerged from this insightful conversation include:
Meeting strangers in domestic settings, such as the sofa surfing experience, is a good substitute for travel as you are exposed different languages, cultural mores, and culinary traditions providing the sense of ‘newness’ that travel brings.
Restlessness is not a problem to solve but something to embrace. Having spent a decade as a practicing Buddhist, Will began to question the belief that we need to eradicate restlessness, and implores that we embrace both our adventurous sense of curiosity and our desire to set down (temporary) roots.
Answering a question by an audience member, Will chose the multi-cultural city of Leicester as the place with the best sense of connectedness.
This was a truly wonderful discussion, between two delightfully insightful people, on matters of great social significance. You can watch it here by clicking the link.
Written by volunteer blogger Joe Smith.