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As one of a very small group of writers who attended the very first Edinburgh Book Festival in 1983, Melvyn Bragg returned to a warm welcome from festival directory, Nick Barley, and a stowed out RBS Main Tent.
Bragg wasnt here to promote a new book as such, rather lecture us on the background and development of the King James Bible and the impact it has had, and still has, on modern life.
If this had been a television programme, I might have turned over to something else but Braggs enthusiasm and instantly recallable knowledge hooked me in from the start. Its the single most important book in the last 400 years, he said, and followed it up with: “It is the most pivotal book ever written; a steel of drive and will that to the development of modern democracy and has shaped our views on all sorts of issues: feminism, slavery, oppression…”
If thats not enough to pique your interest then nothing is.
img src=http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6209/6085501170_f64b9df44e.jpg alt=Melvyn Bragg width=200 align=right /Bragg began at the beginning: History belongs to all of us regardless what our faith is – Christian, Muslim, whatever—or even if we have no faith. It belongs to humanity; there are no boundaries.”
He worked his way through the books origins with such authority, it felt as though he was speaking as a witness, not a man who has simply studied the subject history.
“The idea that slavery is inevitable has been abolished and that is a triumph for humanity. An it happened because of the King James Bible,” he said. “It gave early American immigrants a bond, a common language with which they could connect.”
Some of his statements soon became quite sweeping and controversial. Then again, the delivery of his speech was fast becoming emotive regardless of your position, so perhaps the reaction he gleaned was inevitable.
“I admire Dawkins greatly but I wish he wouldnt write about religion” he said. “Its offensive because his ignorance is often criminal. Hes not done his research; hes wrong about a lot of things.”
“That big bang 13 million years ago : was it the start, middle or end of something?” he asked rhetorically, before adding: “The hadron collider is like trying to find out how many angels you can balance on the end of a needle.”
An interesting image perhaps, but just as soon as it felt he had begun time had run out. So he left is with this vignette to finalise his case of the importance of the King James Bible: “When Obama spoke to our leaders in the Great Hall at Westminster, he made a good speech. But I would much rather have shown him the spot where King Charles I was executed just down the road, and the place where the slave trade was finally abolished. I think that would have said much more.”
“With the death of Bin Laden, the West scored a tremendous tactical victory,” announced ex-CIA man, Michael Scheuer, as he began his reflective speech on Al Qaeda and the war on terror.
Already billed in the book festival programme as “controversy guaranteed,” thats exactly what we got when he was unable to continue after a loud make voice boomed from stage left: “Youre talking absolute shite pal!”
Scheuer turned to face his accuser, the lights full in his face and a silence befalling the audience inside the tent. “I think youre an arse,” continued the man. “Youre talking a pile of crap.”
“I think theres a time for questions at the end,” replied Scheuer, but the man wouldnt be appeased.
Cue an intervention from Ruth Wishart, who approached the man and explained quietly that this event was now over for him.
“Ive paid my money and I can tell him what I like,” the man bellowed.
“You can tell him from outside,” said Wishart. “Youre leaving.”
And with that, Security arrived and hauled the man out as he left a stream of abuse directed towards Wishart, his political views about the CIA now forgotten.
Re-taking her seat, and with an air of tension still floating in the room, Wishart turned to Scheuer and said: “See what happens when you bring your boyfriend in with you?”
img src=http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6065/6086335952_5e0d096bec.jpg alt=Michael Scheuer width=200 align=left /And so Scheuer, the man who led the CIA team tasked with locating Bin Laden between 1996 an 1999, and worked as special adviser to its chief from 2001 to 2004, restarted his speech from where he left off.
“Were at war because of the choices made by Western governments,” he explained. “And we are faced with a problem largely of our own making. Until we realise our actions have consequences, we will lose all over.”
A grim perspective and it only got worse: “In terms of Al Qaeda, its impossible for them to grasp how much progress theyve made since 9/11 because America is far from being able to develop a proper foreign policy on its own.”
On the Arab Spring, he said :“Despite what many writers have commented, the so called Arab Spring hasnt made Al Qaeda irrelevant. It has delighted them and has been an intelligence disaster for us.”
Scheuer was asked whether he wished his unit had taken Bin Laden when they had the chance prior to 9/11. “It was always the intention to take Bin Laden alive at first but we could have killed him a dozen times over. Politically, though, it just wasnt on the cards.”
The issue of Americas continued involvement in the Middle East came with an element of 20/20 hindsight. “We should let the Arabs rule themselves—or kill each other if they want to—but no good will come from the U.S.A. getting involved with their idea of what a democracy is. I think the idea that a U.S. Marine should have to die so that Mrs Mohammed can have a vote is a tragedy of epic proportions.”
And on the current political landscape in Washington, Scheuer commented: “We live in hope that one day we will stop electing politicians and start electing statesmen.”
Denise Minas crime fiction seems to be going from strength to strength. As the the only female and only Scot on the Golden Dagger shortlist, she continually raises the bar of contemporary crime fiction in the UK.
img src=http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6209/6086048929_48e3d31216.jpg alt=Denise Mina width=200 align=right /“Crime fiction is reflecting society just now the way literary novels just arent these days,” she said, by way of trying to explain why the genre was still proving so popular. “Real life isnt what turns readers on, they want something extra.”
With each question asked Mina wandered off on tangents and jokes that only served to warm the audience more to her personality. It was almost as though she was talking to you personally, a rare thing for any author to achieve in a room full of fans.
Continuing on her obsession with crime, her home town of Glasgow inevitably came up. Theres a lot of inter-personal violence in Glasgow, its apparently now the crime capital of Europe. But then, nobody buys crime fiction about people stealing stamps.”
There was good news for her fans too, as she revealed that her novel emGarnethill/em is with HBO at the moment. “But then again, I live in really big house now because of all the people that have optioned it. Its been sold about 8 times!”
When pressed how much she wanted emGarnethill/em or any of her books to be made into films, she replied :To be honest, I dont know if I want it I be made; its my baby and I dont want them television people to fuck it up.”
One Swedish fan in the audience who praised the translations of her novels, prompted Mina to state that “translators dont get the credit they deserve.”
And on the merry-go-round that is almost compulsory for any successful crime writer, Mina said: Crime writers are supposed to think about sales all the time, but the ones I enjoy most write for one person: themselves.
Finishing up, Mina recalled the best line she ever wrote when an old university friend reintroduced herself in the audience. “Theory is nice bit it cant stop things from existing.” It was the high point of my Thesis,” she joked.
A very disappointing 19 people showed up at the RBS Corner Theatre for this event to showcase an exciting new talent from America: Adam Levin. For those that missed it, all I can say is you missed an absolute treat!
Not only is Levin a superb talker but he is very funny both when reading from his new novel, ema href=http://www.amazon.com/Instructions-Adam-Levin/dp/1934781827 target=_blankThe Instructions/a/em, and when answering the questions put to him by chair, Stuart Kelly.
img src=http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6085/6086425281_570c417b28.jpg alt=Adam Levin width=200 align=left /“It took me nine years to write,” explains the Chicago author. “I write every day but ended up deleting most of it then re-writing what was left to death.”
Levin doesnt feel like he belongs to any particular movement of contemporary writers in America, and proved this by getting Kelly out of his seat to demonstrate the mechanics of a “Penny Gun”, and how to get an audience of any size out of their seats and running for cover!
Born Jewish, the intricacies of what that means right down to the construction of the word itself was analysed, because through the protagonist of his 1000 page masterpiece, he has addressed some of the issues he feels close to “Ive tried to define it to an extent,” he said, “but much of it is done through comedy, dark comedy, slapstick really.” Levin cited Woody Allen as inspiration for him in that respect.
Given the time it took him to writeem The Instructions/em, Levin promised his next work wouldnt be quite so long in coming. “Its a collection of short stories,” he said, “but I recently got a pet and have become quite intrigued about what cute things mean to us, for example, when you say things like: youre so cute I wanna eat you—thats something I think I want to explore.
As they say, what this space, only watch it closely.
strongBook Fest Media/strong
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Ciao for now!
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I feel bad that dropped out of the Levin event now :(. Still, my loss by the sounds of it.