I live in the centre of Edinburgh and festival month can drive me a wee bit mad, but I will be eternally thankful that I live so close to one of the biggest book festivals in the world. I look forward to the Edinburgh International Book Festival every year and Charlotte Square becomes my second home for two weeks.
This year I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see Chris Packham, which was the event that kicked of my 2016 Book Fest experience. It was brilliant and insightful; I could have listened to him speak for hours. The event is now online and it’s well worth a watch.
You may remember I wrote a review of Fingers In The Sparkle Jar and I was particularly intrigued by Sparkle Jar’s narrative structure and narrative position. During the Q&A I had a chance to ask why he shifted between first and third person and why he wrote from the point of view of other people. He gave such a great response that shows how considered his choices were:
“It was a conscious decision. At the outset, I felt uncomfortable writing in the first person. I don’t like myself very much, so writing about ‘I, I, I’ sounded— I mean, I’m a lot more interested in other species than I am myself, so that would have been difficult. Although, I also recognise that I had a bit of a problem, in that, obviously it was going to be hugely beneficial if I could exercise the benefit of hindsight, but I didn’t want to do that retrospectively. So what I thought was, if I used real people –all the people in the book are real, they were real characters, some of them are still alive, some of them I still talk to, and some of them are still talking to me – I wanted them to achieve two things.
Firstly, to be able to see that time period from an adult perspective. So, in the 1960s, I was massively into Thunderbirds – I didn’t really know what was going on in the pop music world or the political world or anything else; I was massively into that and my snakes. So it was a way of painting a broader picture of what the world was like in the 1960s and 70s.
And the second thing was that it gave me the ability to portray myself from an adult perspective without it being retrospective, so it wasn’t me looking backwards, it was them looking at me in that contemporary period of time and describing what they saw.
So, I think it achieved three purposes on that account; painting the scene, providing an adult perspective of a young person who can’t see that in that point in time, and also alleviating my discomfort from writing in the first person.
I chose to write the kestrel part of the narrative – which is the only piece that runs chronologically – in the first person. I wanted to do that so it would be immediately obvious that that was important and was very personal. And there’s various other pieces that I’ve written in the first person, and those again are all very seminal parts of the narrative, they’re very important junctures, so I used that tense to highlight that and make that apparent, even if subconsciously apparent, to the reader.”
Next up was Martin Ford talking about his book on robots and the economy. I read his book recently and it’s astute and balanced despite the scaremongering title The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment. The chair seemed intent on the scaremongering angle, but Ford’s answers were always more balanced and during the audience Q&A he had a chance to talk about the more positive aspects and potential solutions. I’m particularly interested in what he wrote about basic income, which I think is a very good answer to many problems, including our punitive and ineffective benefits system.
My next event was about refugees, with Wolfgang Bauer and Gulwali Passarlay, chaired by Bidisha. Bauer is a journalist who has been to warzones and travelled with refugees, Passarlay is an Afghan refugee who fled when he was twelve. It was a moving, insightful, and at times distressing event. It highlights more than ever how much our press and politicians have failed both UK citizens and people who are refugees. I’m ashamed of our UK government.
Bizarrely, after listening to the moving accounts, during the Q&A a man asked, “Why don’t they just stay in the camps?” Seriously. The short answer would be “What kind of life is that?”
The other part of his question was racist, anti-Muslim and sexist: “We can’t have these Muslim boys coming over here with their attitudes towards women.” Again – seriously?!?! Firstly, is the UK an equality utopia? No. Secondly, I bet if you turned it round on him and said “What do you do to promote equality?” I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t have an answer. He was trying to disguise his racism in concern for women. Such a disgusting attitude. The panel dealt with it brilliantly considering how offensive and disrespectful it was, and they basically shot him down (but with the utmost politeness – it was perfect, actually).
I also went to one of the free Amnesty International events about child refugees. The event was chaired brilliantly by one of the Glasgow Girls (I didn’t catch her name). Various authors read accounts by children and teenagers about their experiences. It was grim, moving and… hopeful? I’ve not been a member for years but this event has reminded me about the important Amnesty’s work is, so I will definitely re-join.
Other events I went to include: Charles Fernyhough talking about his book The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves; James King (on Roland Penrose) and Sarah Bakewell (on the existentialists) chaired by Stuart Kelly; Gillian Slovo on the London riots (I’m not keen on her prose but the discussion was very interesting); Jenni Fagan and Sara Taylor; Darran Anderson and James Crawford (I asked Anderson a question about High Rise because I’m obsessed. I also had a chance to chat with him after the event and we bonded over a love of Venice); Death of the Critic (which was a very unsatisfying event – they didn’t really get fully into the debate. It would have helped if the panel had been more diverse – it all felt a bit old-guard protecting their own. There was also some ‘high’ culture/pop culture snobbery going on – slasher films as a legitimate topic of study? Oh, surely not! What’s the world coming to etc).
There’s always a slight melancholy at the end of August when the Book Fest comes to an end and I feel a bit set adrift. But there’s still various events throughout the year to look forward to, and I (of course) already have next year’s Book Fest dates in my diary.
Meanwhile, many of the events are recorded, so I can alleviate the autumnal blues with Book Fest videos and podcasts. I recently listened to the brilliant Laura Bates talk about Everyday Sexism – she’s so articulate, with stats on the tip of her tongue. Well worth a watch. While I found it disturbing, I love the way she often uses humour to deal with it.
I’m also looking forward to listening to AC Grayling talk about HG Wells.