‘We go to book festivals for that most analogue of experiences in a digital age, the human encounter.’
21 August, 2004. I’m in a yurt at the Edinburgh book festival, towards the end of a short line of people shuffling forward to be introduced to Muriel Spark. Ian Rankin is in front of me. When it’s his turn to meet the writer whose work he once studied for a PhD (though he abandoned it to do a bit of writing himself), he reaches down into a plastic carrier bag. “I’ve got a first edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” he tells Edinburgh’s grandest literary dame, half-kneeling in front of her, and opening it at the title page. “Would you care to sign it?”
Damn, I think to myself. Another trick missed.
Last month, I was at another book festival event – this time at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose – when Rankin described that moment. “Meeting Muriel Spark was,” he said, “like meeting Mick Jagger. I was a complete fanboy.”
I know what he meant, because that was precisely what I felt too. Most writers you meet – and as books editor of The Scotsman for 15 years I’ve met hundreds – are quite firmly of their own time. Psychologically astute, silkily stylish and wondrously witty they may be, but with most you feel that their reputation and influence might not outlast them. Yet, back in Charlotte Square that August day in 2004 as I followed Rankin and introduced myself to Scotland’s most famous woman writer, the thought crossed my mind: This is what it must have felt like to meet Jane Austen.
It is, of course, notoriously easy to be wrong about writers’ posthumous reputations – though with 15 events devoted to her on this year’s Edinburgh book festival programme, one of its venues named in her honour and Polygon’s new editions of all 22 of her novels available in its bookshop, Muriel Spark is already setting some kind of early-afterlife record. But for me, thinking about that meeting puts at least half of the appeal of book festivals in general – and Edinburgh’s in particular – into focus.
By now, you might have thought, book festivals ought to be declining rather than thriving. Newspaper sponsorship – which used to account for a considerable amount of their income – is all but finished. Publishers’ budgets are stretched tighter than ever, and arts funding is rarely generous. On top of that, the whole concept of an ‘author event’ – “somewhere between after-dinner speaking and a car boot sale” to quote novelist Andrew Crumey – looks increasingly archaic.
Despite this, the Edinburgh International Book Festival not only survives but prospers – and spreads its influence even further across Scotland through its Booked! and ReimagiNation projects. In Charlotte Square itself, every statistic seems upwardly mobile. Last year, for example, 38,681 tickets and 67,000 books were sold and 967 authors from 49 countries attended. Every one of those figures is a record.
There are a number of reasons for this, but the first and most important one is implicit in that feeling of fanboydom (or fangirldom) that Rankin identified. We go to book festivals for that most analogue of experiences in a digital age, the human encounter. With novelists and poets, we seek out those who can transmute reality into fiction with more clarity and flair than we could ever do ourselves. As long as I have a working brain, memories of watching Spark reading from her “milch cow” The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, will be somewhere within it. She’s hardly alone: my Charlotte Square memory palace also has starring roles for Toni Morrison, William Trevor, Amos Oz, Seamus Heaney, John Irving, Alistair MacLeod and quite a few more.
Yet what I remember about seeing them aren’t the jokes or the chat from the stage but the depth of the silence in the audience, that rare quality of attentiveness you get when everyone in the tent has hooked their minds into the story being told. At such moments, you realise just how primal that instinct is, and has been ever since our ancestors gathered around cave-mouth fires and told stories themselves, how much we have relied on stories, from childhood on, to make sense of our lives and develop our imaginations. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.”
Yet we can’t live entirely through stories: we also need writers who can analyse and explain the tectonic forces boiling up through history and changing our present. And here’s the other reason Edinburgh – and all the best book festivals – continues on an upward trajectory.
By the time the next book festival rolls round in August 2019, the UK will be out of Europe. Or will we? Probably, though there’s such a lack of certainty about politics these days that you wouldn’t bet on it. If Brexit is to happen, for example, will it be cliff-edge hard, or softly Norwegian? Will Theresa May retain her fingerhold on power not just this week but next week too? If Brexit happens, will an independent Scotland be far behind or will it be a federal Britain instead? Will scandal ever derail Trump at the mid-terms? Will anything? Will Putin be able to destabilise the West even more than he already has done?
We live in such politically febrile times that even the experts haven’t a clue. At the Borders Book Festival last month, former Times editor Simon Jenkins and Jim Naughtie both admitted that never in their lives had they been less able to predict what was likely to happen in even just a week’s time. Though we never realised it back in the Noughties, we were living in an era of consensus politics, with quibbles around the edges over things like taxation and joining the euro but general agreement about fundamental principles. Now that seems to have gone, and social media is too hate-filled and silo-centred to be the kind of a thoughtful forum for discussion that we need. Book festivals, however, are – and Edinburgh’s programme this August proves the point comprehensively.
Ultimately, as with writers, so with book festivals: the acid test of reputation is posterity. Producing a programme whose lustre still shines almost a generation further on is, of itself, a big ask. Doing so by making a programme as diverse as possible, more open to writing from all of the rest of the world than any other book festival on the planet, as relevant to children and teens as they would want for themselves, and innovative enough to move beyond tried-and-tested formats is an even bigger ask. I hope to live long enough to see whether I’m right, but I’m betting that this year’s Edinburgh festival will do the trick.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place from 11-27 August. Programme details can be found on www.edbookfest.co.uk
‘The more I wrote, the more fascinated I became. Reading James’ words made me see the war, for the f …