Day 2 of the Edinburgh Book Festival and my first full day in the Square. The weather, as it did on Saturday, started off cool and overcast but by lunchtime it was sunny and very warm ,perfect weather in fact, for lazing around on the grass with a book and enjoying a drink or two.
My literary day began early, with the Ten at Ten event in the Writer’s Tent. In previous years the organisers have published a list of those authors reading at this short preview event, but on asking one of the staff I discovered they’ve decided not to this year, so each morning will be a surprise act. Yesterday I was lucky enough to catch Alan Spence reading a selection of poems from his book, MORNING GLORY.
The book contains haiku and tanka forms and I was immediately taken back by Alan’s peaceful and friendly nature when delivering them. To say his work is exquisite is an understatement. In as many as eight words he was able to create vivid snapshots in my mind that I could smell and feel, and through emotional verse laced with subtle humour, he left me wanting more. So I walked over to the book shop and bought my own copy of MORNING GLORY, grabbed a cappuccino and sat down outside to read it. Illustrated by Elizabeth Blackadder, it is truly a wonderful find.
My 11am slot was taken by Philip Ball delivering a talk on How Music Works And Why We Can’t Live Without It. He was able to portray the link between the science of musical notes and the emotional responses they generate in a human being, why this happens and why it will always be needed. It’s too scientific for me to go into but it was very interesting, so you should probably just buy his book of the same title here.
It was approaching lunchtime by this point so I headed back home to grab some food. I also took the opportunity to get changed, having gone dressed for the morning with a jumper on as it was cold enough for it, but with the sun coming out I really needed to get into summer mode.
By half past three I was back up at Charlotte Square and sitting in the Scottish Power Studio tent to see Gary Younge, the Guardian’s foreign correspondent for the U.S. He was talking about national and personal identity through his book, WHO ARE WE AND SHOULD IT MATTER. In researching it, he visited a variety of countries around the world to bring together an account that challenges conventional thought and breaks down much of what we think of ourselves and others.
My next event was Bill Clegg, talking about his life and book, PORTRAIT OF AN ADDICT AS A YOUNG MAN. Clegg was (and is again) a top literary agent but in his mid-twenties destroyed his life through alcohol and crack-cocaine, and the book is his portrayal of those events leading up to his downfall. It was powerful stuff and Clegg spoke with a brutal honesty about himself, which he seemed uncomfortable yet not unconfident in doing with Andrew O’Hagan. The reading he gave from the book drew you in, and while he gained a lot of praise from the audience, I sat there wondering about the hypocrisy of the audience. Had a junkie from Leith wandered in at that very moment would the audience have been so forgiving towards someone with no money, no sense of cleanliness and in need of their next hit? I doubt it. I think the only way drugs can be approached in Edinburgh and Scotland is if the life of an addict is presented to middle class audiences like that in such a harmless and removed manner.
I stopped off for a double espresso afterwards since I was starting to lag by this point. The Square was still full of people lounging around in the sun, reading, drinking and chatting, and for the whole weekend I’d felt there had been a superb atmosphere.
I’d also been aware of some activity on Twitter during the day about an event called #ElectricFriends. It was due to start at 6pm in the RBS Corner Tent, during which time I was standing outside in the queue for Carol Ann Duffy. The theme was to do with a scientific claim that people can only deal with a certain number of close friends, yet despite this, Facebook users average around 130. Much of the discussion was happening over Twitter so I joined in and ended up having a brief discussion with the book festival rep in the audience, after I tapped into the feed it to tell them that “Twitter was great because you could get involved with a discussion happening inside a tent, while standing outside it.”
Onwards then, to Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. I was in my seat early for this one and was still involved with Twittering when a lady came up to me and said she hoped I wouldn’t be offended if I left a seat between us. “I’m a bit blind, you see,” she said, and on hearing her voice I recognised who it was immediately. “Excuse me, you’re Candia McWilliam, aren’t you?” I said. She looked surprised I knew who she was. “I was at your event last year,” I continued, “and I thought you were marvellous.” The look on her face made my day.
Candia McWilliam has published many wonderful books but it was when she took to the stage last year and revealed that she was recovering from her blindness after an operation, which left me with such an unforgettable memory. Book festival events come and go, some you remember more than others, but listening to Candia last year was as much moving as it was inspiring. When I told her this she seemed delighted and we went on to talk about the kind of festivals we were having, what authors we’d seen, the weather, you name it. Within minutes it felt as though I’d known her for years. It was a special few moments.
Shortly after 6.30pm, Carol Ann Duffy took to the stage along with multi-talented musician, John Sampson. The event was split into two parts: Sampson playing tunes on a variety of horns and woodwind instruments, followed by readings by Duffy.
I’d never known until last night how funny Duffy could be. In the interviews I’d seen of her she’d always come across as quite a serious person, but in actual fact she uses her intelligence and writing skills well to compliment her sharp wit with brilliant effect. She delivers her poems at a level one can only dream to achieve; funny, serious, political, socially relevant and deeply emotional, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when she finished with a poem dedicated to her mother.
And that pretty much wrapped up my second day at the book festival. On my way out the front door, though, I’d just crossed the road and was heading round to get my bus home from Princes Street, when I noticed a taxi sitting outside a hotel with its door wide open. As I walked past I realised two women were leaving the hotel and were chatting about publishing. I looked up. It was Fay Weldon. “Evening Fay,” I said, as I sailed past with a large smile on my face. She’s appearing at the book festival later day.
I’ve no events at the book festival today but that doesn’t mean it’s a night off. Today is my 7th wedding anniversary to Gail and tonight I’m taking my wife out for drinks followed by a comedy show at the Teviot—Sean Hughes, the brilliant Irish comedian, is appearing there. That will then be followed up by a later dinner at Rhubarb Restaurant, one of Edinburgh’s top eateries situated at Prestonfield House. It promises to be a fantastic night.
Happy Anniversary, Gail!!