Wrapping Up the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival

30 10 2011

Edinburgh International Book Festival LogoEdinburgh International Book Festival closed its doors to the public for another year. And now that we’ve all had time to reverse levitate back to earth from the euphoria that went with another hugely successful festival, I think now’s as good a time as any to look back at the highlights of August in Charlotte Square.

As I write this, the white tents are being dismantled by the workmen and new grass is being readied for a fresh layer to see it through whatever a Scottish autumn and winter can throw at it. The smell around the Square is awful after all the mud churned up with the several days of heavy rain, but the magic still hovers as do the many great memories.

Events Galore
The morning of Saturday 13th August seems so very far away already. So much happened in such a short space of time that it’s almost impossible to take it all in while it’s happening, and only through a certain amount of retrospective analysis can it fully be absorbed.

It was a very wide ranging festival for me as I attended 58 separate events through fiction, poetry, biography, political, historical, religious and cultural themes. My total attendances comprised thus:

  • 40 author events
  • 11 Ten at Tens3 debates
  • 1 full day workshop
  • 1 lecture
  • 1 play
  • 1 award ceremony

I also attended half a dozen or so Story Shop readings and a couple of Unbound events in the evening. Only 13 of the events I attended were through the free Press facilities, i.e., I paid my way and supported the Festival.

Pauline Black's Photoshoot with Book Festival Photographer Chris CloseTop 10 Memorable Moments
I had many, many highlights during the festival. Having now had enough time to contemplate them all and reminisce, I can reveal that for me, the cream of the crop were the following:

  1. Alasdair Gray was a brilliant way to start the 2011 book festival with Glasgow’s favourite artist, as he led us through his life and in his new book, A Life in Pictures.
  2. The day long novel writing workshop with Caroline Dunford was money well spent and I made a few new friends into the bargain.
  3. Finally meeting my great writing pal, Diane Parkin, who travelled up from England to spend a few days at the book festival.
  4. Robin Robertson’s hour in the Spiegeltent was packed with gripping poetry that was so moving, even Nick Barley admitted over Twitter to shedding a tear.
  5. Tobias Wolff’s surprise appearance at a free Ten at Ten event, which I was lucky enough to catch.
  6. Managing to bag a ticket to one of the hottest events of the festival: Neil Gaiman’s appearance at the Guardian Book Club.
  7. Pauline Black agreeing to me photographing her staged photo shoot with Chris Close.
  8. Meeting Shereen Nanjiani in the Press Pod. I used to have *such* a crush on her!
  9. The fantastic hour of literary entertainment and laddish nonsense during the Alan Bissett and Doug Johnstone event. I’d love to share a beer with these guys.
  10. Michael Scheuer and his views on the CIA and the American war on terror, so controversial that one bloke couldn’t handle it and had to be ejected.

Amazing People
I was lucky to meet some amazing people over the 17 days of the festival, either through the blogging network, other authors, pure chance, or through my media credentials. However it happened, I’d like to say a huge thanks to all of the following that helped make my Edinburgh Book Festival go with such a BANG!

Inside the Perss PodAuthors
Diane Parkin (author, journalist, long-time friend – website)
Caroline Dunford (author, journalist, awesome tutor – website)
Tina Finch and Andy Corelli from Siege Perilous
JF Derry (author, academic – website)
Pauline Black (for being such a great sport during her photo call)

Journalists
Michael MacLeod (Guardian Blogger)
Francesca Panetta (Guardian Audio)
Charlotte Higgins (Guardian Culture)
Shereen Nanjiani (STV)
Kirsty Wark (BBC)

Press Team
Frances Sutton
Esme (sorry, never got your surname 😦  )
Harrison “Harry” Kelly

Bookie People
Rob Burdock (blogger – RobAroundBooks)
Lizzie Siddall (blogger – Lizzy’s Literary Life)
Janette Currie (blogger – Book Rambler)
Vanessa from the Edinburgh Bookshop
Colin Fraser (ANON Poetry and official @edbookfest tweeter)

Photographers
Chris Close (official site photographer – website)
Chris Scott (another official photographer – website)
The few Press photographers that came and went in the press tent that took time to chat

Technical Console in the RBS Main TentBehind the Scenes
Of course, none of the above could have been possible without the many behind the scenes staff that work at the book festival. One of the things I quickly learned when I received my media accreditation, was the amount of work that actually goes into making the festival run smoothly day by day.

To the visitor, more often than not the experience of attending the book festival is a pleasant one. I never tire of hearing the many compliments paid to the staff and how they are always so nice and polite, and how amazing it is that they carry out their work with permanent smiles on their faces, and a glow that tells how much they actually enjoy working there—and who wouldn’t, right?

But there are others, too, that make the festival run smoothly, people who you don’t often see but without whom, none of it would come off at all. There are the assistants like Fiona Rae who set each tent up as required for the next event, the staff that sit by the technical consoles like Izzy hour after hour to make sure the tents are powered and the microphones work, the staff in the box office like Hanna Wright who sit day by day answering queries and selling tickets. There are the administrative staff in the back office, photographers like Chris Close, and the press team managed by Frances Sutton, all of whom work long days but somehow manage to keep smiling and do all they can to keep the media people happy.

Charlotte Square - The Edinburgh International Book FestivalAnd so this next section is dedicated to all of these people. I took the liberty of interviewing a small selection of staff for this article and you can find what they had to say in the podcast link at the end.

Everyone who visited, worked at, or was a guest of the Edinburgh International Book Festival owes a massive thanks to all of these people and all of their colleagues for making it all run so smoothly.

The Colin Galbraith Podcast

Ep.2: Wrapping up the 2011 Edinburgh Book Festival





Grand Finale: Alasdair Gray’s ‘The Comedy of Fleck’

30 08 2011

The Cast of ‘Fleck’As far as closing night finales go, it had it all: top names in Scottish literature performing a script written by one of our own living legends, that so delighted an audience thrilled to see the book festival go out on a high.

Narrated by Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, we had Alasdair Gray as the meddling Satan (Nick), Will Self as Fleck, a failed chemistry professor to whom Nick promises unlimited wealth, power and sex, Aonghas MacNeacail as God, AL Kennedy as Fleck’s love interest, and other names such as Louise Welsh as May’s friend, Ian Rankin as a lawyer, Janice Galloway as an Earth Spirit, and Alan Bissett as a gangster!

It was a mixture of old-fashioned radio-play slapstick, Scottish pantomime and classic Gray; “It’s an odd piece” to quote Will Self in the Guardian, “but then everything Alasdair does is pretty odd.”

Fleck came to being as Gray’s attempt to imitate Goethe’s Faust but in a contemporary setting and time. He disliked the ending to Faust so much that he “wanted to wrench the story into his own vision,” and so for the 2011 book festival finale, we got the result.

The basis of the story is that Fleck becomes the pawn in a bet between God and Nick. The play moves between media and political commentary as well as a spot of satire in the delivery of Nick’s opinions on humanity.

There were some special moments during the performance, such as the sparks of humour between Will Self and AL Kennedy, a hilarious duo where words were often not requierd, their glances and chuckling more than enough to set the audience rolling.

A mobile phone rang out somewhere in the tent and Liz Lochhead, still perfectly narrating the play, reached into her handbag to retrieve her phone. It wasn’t hers, though. And right at the end, Aonghas MacNeacail spoke the wrong line, stealing one from Gray to his annoyance but to the hilarity of the audience.

Some wanted more from the night but for what it was, it was a rare treat to see. On a wider note, it’s good to see the festival marking such occasions with something special, albeit not to everyone’s taste, but nevertheless it’s one of the many examples of the impact that Nick Barley’s positive stewardship is having on the development of the festival.

A great night and a fitting end to what was a wonderful 17 days at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival.





Author Event: Fiona MacCarthy

30 08 2011

Fiona MacCarthyFiona MacCarthy’s reputation as a historical biographer is second to none. Following critically acclaimed reviews for her work on Byron and Eric Gill, MacCarthy has written a book charting the life of Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer, titled The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination.

“As with all my chosen subjects,” began MacCarthy, “he chose me. It’s very much a case that we were meant to be. I love his work and I love the violence of his responses. How can you not love a man who stuck a red hit poker through a book that he disapproved of?”

Regarding the era she would be working in, MacCarthy said: “The Pre-Raphaelite Victorian era is one I really connect to.”

MacCarthy visited almost 50 churches between 1989 and 1992 curing her research, in order to view the extensive stained glass windows that Burne-Jones designed. “His glass work was amazing and I fell in love with it for its energy and range.”

“Part of the excitement of writing this book,” continued MacCarthy, “was discovering the points at which Burne-Jones and his close friend William Morris diverged. It was a slow and patient process of making your own connections into a past period, which I then had to draw my readers into with me.”

Research is clearly where MacCarthy gets her buzz. “There’s no replacement for tracking the actual steps your subject took,” she said. “You can’t simply do it all on the Internet, and by following his steps I could see and feel how his journeys influenced his art.”

When Burne-Jones split with Morris through his allegiance with the Socialist League, writing those chapters brought her close to tears at the end if each day. “Biographers are in the business of teasing out relations and suggesting tensions, and of unravelling hidden mysteries. The twists and turns Burne-Jones’s characters, I found endlessly intriguing.”

The writing of the book changed its writer in other ways too, when just after MacCarthy had finished the research, her husband died. She recalled how he had been “laid out like King Arthur in one of Burne-Jones’s paintings. I couldn’t write the book for another year after that.”

MacCarthy revealed more sadness when she stated, “Burne-Jones waited far too long for understanding and success to come his way, and as his biographer you develop a relationship with your subject so that by the end, I found myself feeling very happy for him indeed.”





Author Event: Barry Miles

30 08 2011

Barry MilesAt times this event seemed more like a reunion for ex-punks and hippies, as guest Barry Miles recalled story after story from an amazing life, the hotspots being the time he spent with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in the 1970s.

The legendary music writer was in town primarily to promote his latest book, In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counter-Culture, but as the audience started chipping in with their own hazy reflections, I began to feel like I’d perhaps been born 20 years too late.

Still a Soho regular, Miles has lived the rock star life, regularly referring to the running joke of how he could possibly stay sober and translucent while all the madness of sex, drugs and rock and roll went on around him. “I’m originally from the Cotswolds,” he joked. “That pretty much guarantees you a strong constitution.”

Miles first recalled the 18 months he spent on Allen Ginsberg’s U.S. farm cataloguing his tapes. “It was a mammoth job,” he said. “Only 8 or 10 of Ginsberg’s total body of work hadn’t made it onto tape so we recorded it with him to complete it. It was once released in a CD box but there are no plans to ever do so again. You can probably get it all on the internet for free now anyway, but some of it was quite remarkable to listen to.”

18 months with Ginsberg surely led to some form of drug taking, asked chair Iain MacWhirter of The Herald. “Ginsberg didn’t take many drugs,” said Miles. “He did some pot like everyone else and dropped some acid every year… just go keep his hand in, you know. He was too busy for it.”

Back in London and Miles became involved with the Gentleman of St James, William Burroughs. “He wanted, and did his best, to be as anonymous and invisible as possible,” said Miles. “He got some advice from a Mafioso pal of his, and from then on began to walk, talk and dress a certain way so he could achieve this.”

“Burroughs loved his guns,” said Miles. “When he died ten years ago it was discovered he had 28 guns in Kansas, just outside Dodge City. He had one for every occasion, even for going to the hairdresser.”

Miles soon became part of punk scene as it exploded in London but remained in the large alongside it. “Punk was a reaction to the political scene at the time but it had its roots firmly in the hippy movement, despite the fact it was marketed as a ‘hate the hippy’ thing, both hippies and punks had a lot in common. Johnny Rotten was massively influenced by Hawkwind and you can’t get much more hippy than that!”

“Self harm was the bad side of punk,” he recalled. “Take Sid and Nancy—that was just over the top. He used to slash his chest on stage and things—not good.”

According to Miles, “punk lost its edge in ‘77 because the clubs were all closing by then and the bands had all signed up to record companies. The only thing was the producers never realised that the bands were all on speed while on stage, and when they got them in the studio none of them could play.”

These days everything has changed claimed Miles, even down to the so called young British Artist (YBA) movement. “Their whole m.o. was to make money not to reflect society; there’s no real sense of self-expression any more,” he said. “Hurst and Emin set out to shock for commercial reasons, which to me is a side effect of coming from the greedy Thatcher era.”





Author Event: Keith Jeffery

30 08 2011

Keith Jeffery

In week that saw an ex-CIA man hassled by the public and a visit by ex-MI5 head honcho, Stella Rimington, the circle of secrecy was completed today with the visit of MI6 historian, Keith Jeffery.

The Belfast boy agrees he is one of he luckiest biographers alive, or unluckiest depending how you look at it, to have been given access to the secretest of secret places in the UK: the archives of MI6, the UK’s international security service.

In his book, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, Jeffrey was given complete access to MI6 archives leading from its formation in 1909 up to 1949, but limited access to the archives afterwards unless they related. “I never have the time to read everything anyway,” he said. “There was just too much information, and have you seen the size of the book anyway?”

There was another reason why the book only goes up to 1949: “MI6 didn’t want people extrapolating things that happened in the past into current events. 1949 was long enough ago that it can be classed as ‘another time’.”

Makes sense, but as PR goes it certainly is a massive step forward for MI6 to allow a civilian into their building to read their paperwork. MI6, the organisation that once prided itself on not existing in the first place, is moving into the 21st Century with great strides but it has it critics. “We need intelligence services,” said Jeffrey. “Particularly with the foreign reach that the UK has these days.”

Now that he has had time to build a relationship with the organisation, Jeffery says: “I think I’m happy to say that the MI6 have done more good than bad over the years. Take the Enigma machine, for example, they were instrumental in the UK being able to get their hands on it.”

In the book, Jeffery has protected the names of those agents that were mentioned in the information he researched for obvious reasons. However, after World War II, there were a great many that outed themselves and those agents remained unchanged. Other than that, the story is as complete as it can be.

The book contains some of MI6’s more hilarious antics over the years, like their quest to find the perfect invisible ink. They discovered the best material to use was semen, which was eventually scrapped when the smell of the decaying substance became too much even for their hardened agents to bear.

On completion of his research, Jeffery is able to remark that while it is an unfortunate side effect of the job, “MI6 regularly have to break foreign laws. It’s quite simply the game they’re in.” But on the subject of assassination attempts, he said: “Assassinations are a comparatively poor weapon of war because basically it hardly ever works. It’s not off the agenda completely, but it’s not permanently on it either.”

Before he began work Jeffrey was understandably “vetted up to the eyeballs”. And when final clearance was given and he got the job, he was invited to a dinner with the Director General, who told him he could ask him any question he liked about what they were up to. “My answer was ridiculous in hindsight; I told him I didn’t want to know.”

For the sceptics, though, Jeffery left us with the following sobering thought: “Terrorists only have to get it right once, MI6 and the security services have to be right all the time.”





Author Event: A N Wilson

29 08 2011

A N WilsonThe Elizabethan era came under the spotlight on the final day of the book festival, as historical biographer AN Wilson came to talk about his new book, aptly titled The Elizabethans.

“Queen Elizabeth’s reign was a definable period in history,” he said. “And had she not come to throne the world would be a very different place today.” The era is perhaps the main one able to lay claim to be so definable in Wilson’s book, the reason he wrote it, but also because of the impact that many of the events and people involved have had on history as we see it now.

From Sir Walter Raleigh to James Burbage who “as London became a honey pot in 16th Century, decided to take acting off the streets and built what was regarded as the first theatre.”

This was also the time when the “Irish problem” began and that ran for over 400 years. “The lack of property and inheritance laws in Ireland really bugged the English,” he said. “Ireland defined itself in opposition to the English until the final solution was to purge Ireland of the Irish and import Scots; granted, not the best recipe for world peace.”

It was only recently that the current British Monarch visited the Republic of Ireland in an historic event that saw her draw a line under the situation by making a speech, in which she said both sides had been to blame and the past should not be forgotten. “The Elizabethan era has come to an end with the “Irish problem” having been resolved,” said Wilson, using it as an example of the reach the Elizabethan actions have had on modern life.

On the combination of the Anglican Church in Elizabethan times, he gave as an example that “they did not have a word for homosexuality,” before adding rather humorously: “But as we now know from the newspapers Bishops and homosexuals are sometimes one in the same.”

Astrologists would have been offended by his comments that “few people of intelligence these days believe in astrology,” but left the field open when he admitted that “periods of historical strength in a country are periods where people could openly doubt themselves.”





Author Event: Liz Lochhead

28 08 2011

Liz LochheadLiz Lochhead’s appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival had been eagerly anticipated since she was appointed Scottish Makar in January 2011, and she wasn’t about to disappoint.

Promoting her latest collection, A Choosing, but reading from a selection of other books she brought along, Lochhead showed just why the nation holds her so close to its heart.

Modest and unassuming, she is a woman with a huge heart and a massive amount of talent, and she thrilled the full house by revealing that although her new collection wasn’t published until next month, it was being made exclusively available to this book festival audience as a one-off from publisher Polygon.

A Choosing is largely a biographical collection, “that if it had been written on another day in another time would be entirely different,” she said. “Poets have a bad habit of singing the songs of themselves and I wanted to avoid that.”

Lochhead read some poems about the first things she ever wrote, which reminded her of her earliest memory when she was four years old. She had got her head trapped in her gran’s railings and had to listen terribly gloomy music being played on the radio while the adults tried to figure out how to free her. The music was only broken by the announcement: “The King is dead; Long live the Queen.”

Lochhead seemed unsure at times of her position in Scottish literature despite her accolades. “I’m more active since I became Makar,” she said. “But I don’t deserve the job. There are far better poets out there than me. The job is only for five years so at least the younger ones will get a chance to do this later.”

Her new set of commitments will see her travelling more and she indicated she wants to get a lot more involved in schools, but the only impact seems to be on her actual collection publication. “It’ll be the end of my Makarship before my next collection comes out.” And her playwriting? “Oh, that’s not affected in any way,” she assured us.

Lochhead told the audience how she had tried her hand at short story writing but was never any good. “They were all in first person so contained dramatic monologue anyway. I always get pulled towards how I can make something into a play or a poem.”

She hates the “poetry voice”, that drawl that poets often put in when they change the way they talk to deliver a poem. “I always think they sound like a vicar talking, trying to make something sound poetic that isn’t.”

Joyce McWilliam who chaired the event, summed up the nation’s thoughts to end the show with perhaps the loveliest tribute I’ve heard of Lochhead: “Language shapes our world and Liz Lochhead is a true shaper of words.”

Hear hear!