Warning: Long post alert!
At long last the book festival is back. It never seems like a year since the last one, yet it always does, and the feelings that go with arriving for the first day never seem to go away. Charlotte Square at any other time of the year is just a patch of grass, but in August it represents something wonderful for book lovers, but even more so, I feel, for writers. It’s a magical space of inspiration, learning, and vindication, but then, of course, I’m biased.
The weather was the same as last year for the opening day; wet and dank. At least this time I didn’t have to stand in the pouring rain with my daughter for two hours to get a book signed by Jacqueline Wilson. Making the journey up to the tented village on day 1 is always special. From St. Andrew’s Square it is possible to make out the far end where Charlotte Square lies, but today it wasn’t clear enough to see the tents.
I got off the bus at the furthest point on Princes Street – since the best stop is unavailable due to tram works – and walked along the street in line with the castle. Here’s a picture to show just how wet it is:
I turned into Castle Street and then swung left into George Street, passed Starbucks, and my first view of the white tents came into view. As I got closer I noticed a police van parked outside, and at first I thought something might have happened. Then I remembered today’s 25th opening event included a mystery politician in discussion with Ian Rankin, so I surmised it must be someone higher up in the echelons of British politics.
There’s a new box office setup in the entrance foyer, but still the same puddles that gather outside on the cobbles when it rains. I went for a wander around, just to get a feel for the old place again, take in the buzz and the atmosphere, and generally soak up the fact I was back again and have 16 days of it to look forward to. There was already a lot of people inside despite the rain, but that only served to make the book and coffee shops very busy indeed. An African choir was singing from the walkway outside the Spigeltent welcoming visitors to the first day of the festival:
The queue for the 25th anniversary opening event had already grown to a sizeable number so I joined it, and my suspicions of the mystery guest being high profile were further compounded by the sight of policemen standing at the door and a number of excited press photographers mulling around just inside the main tent.
I found my usual seat inside the RBS Main Tent easily enough; far right looking at the stage so hat I can get the faded light from the top of the tent onto my notebook while I take notes, and so that 90% of the guest writers are facing towards me.
There was a lot of movement and noise in the tent; noise from the chattering audience and movement from the numbers of plain clothed officers at the main door. Catherine Lockerbie, the festival director, came on to welcome us and announce the mystery guest who would be talking with Ian Rankin: the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Gordon Brown MP.
Brown, dressed casually in light brown trousers, a light blue shirt and dark blue sports jacket, talked about the origins of the festival and of his own contributions to the literary world, made before he got his current job. Britain’s Everyday Heroes and Courage: Eight Portraits, encapsulated the foundation of Brown’s politics, that there is something special in everyone. “Decisions,” he said, “were made by those who turn up.”
Rankin, who looked totally at ease talking to the PM, injected the interview with some trademark Fife humour, which Brown, hailing from the same part of the country, seemed to appreciate. Rankin asked Brown to define courage. “Those who have a big idea and have the courage to follow it through,” he said, to which Rankin followed up with, “Do you think Barack Obama is a hero, then, and what is it he has that Hilary Clinton doesn’t?”
Brown went on to talk about Nelson Mandela and the plight of Africa’s starving children, the night Mandela rang him to congratulate him on the birth of his child as one of his greatest moments. Many of the questions put to him, although starting off genuine enough, always seemed to deteriorate into a political answer, of what his beliefs are, and what he think should be done, so it was with great delight when one old woman stood up and asked him what made him think his government had the right to poke its nose into every part of our lives. The answer, of course, was typical in that it never really got answered.
There was no signings as Brown had to shoot off rather quickly after the event. It was certainly the tightest security at a book festival event I’ve ever experienced, as can see from the following picture courtesy of AP, yet not once was I asked if I had a ticket.
Close security for Britain’s PM at the book festival
With two and a half hours until my next event, my plan had been to wander up to the High Street and the Pleasance and take in some of the atmosphere and shenanigans that would be happening. The rain was so heavy, though, that I decided a nice coffee and a sit down would be in order, but the bar in the book festival was mobbed and the Starbucks on George Street stowed out. I ended up going into the Kenilworth pub on Rose Street and sitting down with my notepad and a cappuccino.
On my way back to Charlotte Square I popped into the Spiegletent to listen to a jazz band that was playing for the lunchtime audience; The Cam Buchannon Trio entertaining among others, Ian Rankin and his wife, Miranda.
My next event was at 1.30pm and was also in the RBS Main Tent. My ticket was checked this time, leading me to conclude that ex-Blur bassist turned cheese maker and farmer, Alex James, was of more importance than the British PM.
James was very funny. He talked a great deal about his passions in life past and present, which ranged from drug consumption in the 90s (he once claimed he spent £1 million on cocaine leading the President of Columbia to invite him over to talk about the issue), to alcohol (waking up in bed with five Brazilian beauties and countless bottle of champagne).
James has a fascination with space and it was news to me when I found out the Beagle mission to Mars was his idea that he followed right through to conclusion. Asked if he believed there were aliens, things just got a little weird.
James lived it up in the 90s with Blur and made a fortune doing it. He’s put his stories in a book which are probably well worth a read, but I won’t be buying it. He now makes cheese on a farm in Oxfordshire with his wife and three (shortly to be four) children. He’s now just your average boring Joe, but with lots of fantastic stories to tell, but refused to say Blur will never reunite. “I’d be terrified to think it would never happen,” he said. “But if it was happening on Monday I’d be just as terrified.”
That was me for the first part of the day so I jumped on a bus and headed home for 4pm. The rain had stopped but I knew not for long. I rested up back home, took forty winks, checked my email, and had something to eat (having not eaten since 7am). At 5.30pm I freshened up and jumped back on the bus for my final event of the day: How To Make A Publisher Say Yes! With Nicola Morgan
This event was in the smaller Peppers Theatre and was described as a “masterclass for non-published and published writers alike.” Nicola certainly has the credentials, with over 90 published books under her belt. While there was a lot that wasn’t new to me or didn’t come as a surprise, there were several key points made by Nicola that really got my attention. They were all concerned with the handling of publishers and agents and how much a writer can to as opposed to simply following the standard rules. I came away from it with a few new ideas and a little encouragement about what I am about to embark on with Slick.
A few of the guys from my writers’ group were also there, and we had some discussion afterwards about the whole publishing game. Nicola gave us an extract from the latest issue of Bookseller Magazine, which is an excellent article about successful writing. Two of the guys left so Paul and I went along to the Jekyll and Hyde pub to continue the discussion over a couple of pints.I finally got home for my dinner at 10.30pm tonight.
So, it was a long, but excellent day at the festival. Bring on tomorrow, when I have my first workshop (in self-publishing), and an hour with crime writer extraordinaire, Val McDermid.
PLEASE DONATE – For full details of my Abseil off the Forth Rail Bridge in October for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, please go here: