Walking up to Charlotte Square for the last time after such an intense, enjoyable and rewarding book festival was a low moment yesterday morning. With a full day still ahead of me, though, the magic was still there but I knew that when I left later in the evening, I would face a sad journey home with only my memories to keep me company.
But that was then and there was much to get through in a day that I had deliberately packed out in order to make the best of my final day.
A N Wilson
The 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.”
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.”
At 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.”
Fiona 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.”
Interviews and Coffee
It was time for my first proper break in my day so I filled it first of all with some coffee. I badly needed some caffeine to give me a lift and I managed a chicken roll at the same time. Result! I also used the time to get another couple of interviews under my belt for the wrap-up podcast. It’s going to a wonderful round-up and tribute to the book festival (I hope!)
Last but not least, the festival finale was upon me and there was much excitement in the Square prior to this one. The area had been noticeably quieter with it being the last day but come 7.30pm the place started to fill up again as everyone geared up for the world premier of Alasdair Gray’s The Comedy of Fleck.
Alasdair Gray’s ‘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.
Tomorrow it will be time to reflect on the book festival and start to unwind from what’s been a very busy time. It’s also time for me to reveal my GDR plan for 2011/12. No rest for the wicked!
Book Fest Media
Catch up on all my reviews and articles on my sister site, the (Unofficial) Edinburgh Book Festival Blog
For visual enjoyment of the Edinburgh Book Festival, click over to my constantly updated photograph feed at flickr.com/colinthewriter
Ciao for now!