Day 8 At The Edinburgh Book Festival

Alex SalmondI’m way behind with my Slick synopsis from where I wanted to be at this point in Augist, but I’m not going to berate myself for no doing so. I think you can tell by reading this blog over the past few weeks that I’ve been as busy as a beaver, which is also why my email is starting to build up behind me and I’m starting to get frustrated at not having enough actual writing time. With all that said, though, I’m thoroughly enjoying the book festival this year, despite the constant rain, and although the travelling back and forward from Charlotte Square is becoming a bit of a pain.

Anyway, I got the first draft down of the synopsis, which basically consists of a series of chapter outlines and plot points. It’s ten pages long and I need to get it into an exciting and readable form that’s around two pages long; tough job, which is why it’s my least favourite task. Much of the advice I have received this year from publishers and other authors in the tented village is going into this synopsis.

My first EBF event today was the annual Donald Dewar Lecture sponsored by the National Library of Scotland. This evening we were spoken to by the Rt Hon Alex Salmond MSP, First Minister of Scotland.

As I waited in the queue to get in, I quickly realised I was the worst dressed person attending the event. Most folk looked like they were attending a Royal garden party at Windsor, whereas I was stood there in my jeans and t-shirt with ‘stoned’ emblazoned on the front.

The talk in the queue was rather interesting, too, with comments like: “Are you going to see our Great Leader?”; “He’s a national treasure”; “the Great Man”; “He’s very broad-minded and a liberal speaker, unlike that terrible man who said that stuff about Burns (Paxman) – I mean, what’s he ever written?” It was almost as if these people had been placed around me as if to try and sway me into nationalism, or just to annoy me. The latter stood more of a chance.

So what can I say about Alex Salmond, our “great leader”. I’ll summarise what he delivered in his speech first. After some banter with BBC’s Brian Taylor, who as it turned out attended St. Andrews University with together, Salmond commented on the remarkable transformation of Charlotte Square in August, and how of all the festivals in Edinburgh, the annual celebration of books was the one that captured his imagination most when the tented village appeared. “Charlotte Square,” he said, “undergoes the most amazing and magical transformation, it’s like walking into another city entirely.”

With most of the audience now on board after that, he began by pitching next year’s Homecoming Scotland, celebrations on the 250th anniversary of the death of Robert Burns. While referring to Burns, Salmond used the opportunity to ask if we would be celebrating 250 years of the overpaid Jeremy Paxman.

The rest of his speech was given over to the economy. A lot of it was pretty boring stuff, personally speaking, but the jist of it was that Salmond took the credit for dropping business rates and freezing the council tax, which has made the credit crunch easier for families and business to handle. He insists that despite the 15% tax control the devolved Scottish government has, things can still be done to improve matters and that action can be taken to resist the pressures of an impending recession. To prove this, he announced the pulling forward of £100million to support affordable housing.

Every country has a crisis of confidence,” said Salmond, “but we had a 300-year one. We’re on the road to a better future now; we’re up off the couch and fighting back.” All very good, but at five foot six he’s hardly William Wallace.

Turning his attention to Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, Salmond agreed Brown was under immense pressure at the moment, and that “the best way to relieve that pressure is to change his policies – and cheer up!”

Salmond wouldn’t be drawn on the Labour leadership contest, but insisted that he was “watching with much interest.” When reminded there was also a Liberal Democrat leadership contest, he said he was “watching with much interest.”

Salmond closed on education, saying that “we need to educate our young to the best highest possible standard but also create competition in the workplace. Otherwise, all we get is the best educated airport departure lounges in the world.”

What Salmond made me realise is that like him, I too am passionate Scotland. I love the same things he does, i.e. Scotland and all things Scottish. But he hasn’t done or said enough to convince me that breaking away into full autonomy is the way to do it. I’m quite happy loving Scotland and I’m quite happy loving and being proud of my Britishness at the same time. I simply cannot see how we would be better off as an independent state, and it’s at this point Salmond starts talking about oil and of harnessing the sea and the wind. But he’s missing one vital point, which is this:

Salmond’s entire basis for nationalism, and in convincing the Scottish people that independence is the way to go, is based on the principle that the people will decide. He said it over and over during the referendum, and continues to say it is the people’s right to choose if and when they want to break away.

By that rationale then, if we kept all the oil revenue generated in the north east of Scotland we would become a very rich nation head for head. However, if it is the people’s right, then what is to stop the people of Grampian region saying they want to break away from the rest of Scotland? The oil is off their shores, and Salmond says they have the right, so they will surely become the richest and tiniest country in the world. Where would that leave the rest of Scotland?

Salmond can’t answer that question because it goes against his nationalist principles of letting the people choose. He was asked once, and replied: “because it wouldn’t be allowed.”

That’s Scottish nationalism for you.

Alexander McCall SmithEvent two of the evening was an hour with local author, Alexander McCall Smith. The last time (and the only time) I’ve seen Sandy was at the launch of the One Book – One City event in the Festival Theatre a couple of years ago, when he appeared with Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh. I had heard he was a great act, but I thought he was rather subdued and quiet that night, something which was confirmed by Rankin who said Sandy hadn’t been too well and was off form.

This wasn’t the case tonight, though. Tonight he provided the focal point for a fascinating discussion, with humour, poignancy, and honesty in abundance. Sandy was super entertainment and I came away feeling as though I had spent an hour in his living room while he chatted to me, as opposed to an hour watching him being interviewed.

Talking about a recent novel, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Smith revealed he had considered asking his publisher to put a sticker on the front saying ‘nothing happens’ because nothing ever did happen in his books. This novel, however, contained a car chase. “I thought long about including a car chase,” said Smith, “because many of my readers are actually asleep and don’t want stimulation, and I’m hesitant to wake them up. A sticker saying ‘nothing happens’ on the front of some my novels is therefore quite apt.”

Referring to Mma Ramotswe, the protagonist of his awesome No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, of which that book was one, Smith says: “She has forgiveness, which is an immense power in our increasingly retribution and punishment seeking society. People see it in her, which is why they like her.” In the same way, Smith remembers Nelson Mandela walking out of prison and how the impact Mandela made by not demanding retribution, caused the “world’s jaw to hit the table.”

Smith fondly spoke of the director of the movie adaptation of his No.1 series, Anthony Minghella, who tragically died on the day of the film’s premiere. “He absorbed himself in Botswana and understood their values, but we knew he would want us to go ahead with it so we did. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house that night.”

Being such a prolific writer seems to suite Smith, and personally I had to marvel at his amazing output. While working on several novels last year, he was also writing “1100 words each day – one chapter a day – for the Scotsman newspaper to publish Scotland Street extracts, which was very, very hard work.” Smith will begin writing Volume Ten of the series next week, and will complete it by the end of October when he starts on a new novel. That’s only six weeks away, and at an average of three novels per year for the past five years, he certainly is running away in the output stakes.

To conclude, Smith told us of how he wrote Ian Rankin into one of his Scotland Street stories. He asked Rankin if he was okay with it first, “because you see, Ian looks quite smeared, but if you get him early enough in the morning, he says yes to things like that. So I wrote about several archers in the Meadows firing off arrows, and one misses and hits Ian. Ian goes across to complain to the archer that hit him, when one of them realises who he is and points across to a nearby book shop. ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘that shop has your book in the window priced at 25 pence.’

“When I showed the story to Ian he became quite grumpy – and asked me to change it to £1.”

Next event at the EBF: Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin (both Thursday)

Greener is the Grass (Writing)
Greener is the Grass (Writing)

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:

Hex Breaker by Devon Ellington – click to purchase

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About Colin Galbraith

Keen runner, thriller author, Madness fan, Mets fan, St Mirren fan/owner, rabbit tamer, outstanding fake faller. Loves cannolis & espressos. #LFGM
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