The Joy of Words: Edinburgh International Book Festival

I try hard to dislike the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Nevertheless, I’ve attended the event regularly throughout its 40 year history and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Why the dichotomy?

Other book festivals are available, and many make a for a better festival experience. The Borders Book Festival takes place over four days in June, is hosted in Melrose’s beautiful Harmony Garden and, in addition to talks by authors, has comedy, live music and a food village. A really lovely vibe and it gets the big names too: this year Douglas Stuart, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Val McDermid, Paterson Joseph. There’s hardly a weekend goes by in Scotland without there being a book festival. The annual crime writing festival, Bloody Scotland in Stirling in September looks fun. And if you can stomach the ferry journey to Mull at the end of October, the Tobermory Book Festival – Colin MacIntyre AKA The Mull Historical Society and, of course, Scotland’s favourite interior designer Banjo Beale – should be great weekend.

The audience at the Edinburgh book festival has always struck me as being predominately white, middle class and middle aged. But then, I am white, middle class and middle aged, I fit right in, I’m part of the problem. (And not just at book festivals.)

Ticket prices at this year’s Edinburgh book festival are £15.50 across the board and for that you’re getting 60 minutes of an author being interviewed. Compared to many Edinburgh Fringe shows that isn’t expensive but throughout the year bookshops such as Golden Hare, Topping, The Portobello Bookshop host similar events. The deal with these is that the price is the same as the cost of the book but for that you get at least 60 minutes listening to the author speak plus the book. Topping also do a non-book price for £8. At least two of the authors appearing at the Edinburgh book festival can also be seen at one of these shops in the coming month.

Charlotte Square Gardens – where the festival was hosted until 2019 – was an oasis of calm during the madness of Edinburgh in August and I miss it. Well, that’s I say to anyone who will listen, indeed I said it a couple of days ago to a book festival employee who chose to sit beside me, a decision I’m sure she instantly regretted, more so when I asked her how things were going with Baillie Gifford. In reality you couldn’t see much of the gardens anyway, there was a fair bit of traffic noise, and a village of marquees is not ideal for a 17 day book event (it has been known to rain in August in Edinburgh). The move to the Edinburgh College of Art in 2021 has – for my £15.50 – been a considerable improvement. It’s all change again next year when the festival shifts along the road to a new permanent home at the Edinburgh Futures Institute.

The festival bookshop used to be one of my favourite things. It was run by a subsidiary of the book festival and stocked a load of books from Scottish publishers that you just didn’t see for the other 11 months of the year, the likes of Birlinn, Luath Press, Sandstone Press, 404 Ink. Admittedly I’ve only been in the shop fleetingly so far this year so I can’t be certain, but all that seems to have stopped. One thing that definitely has changed is that it’s now being operated by Waterstones.

The programme of events at Edinburgh is just too big, too overwhelming. Pity the poor author scheduled to appear on the final Monday. Even the most determined booklover planning their festival, making their way through the 100+ pages of the programme starting at the opening Saturday will never get there. This year there are over 500 author events, over 498 now that Greta Thunberg and Saba Sams have pulled out in protest at Baillie Gifford’s fossil fuel investments. Someone on the 35 full time staff of the festival (annual payroll cost £1.4 million) needs to take this on board: bigger is not always better, less is often more. 

So, with these rambling half-complaints, why do I keep coming back to the Edinburgh International Book Festival? It’s for evenings like Monday’s, listening to A.N. Wilson, author of over fifty books and millions of words in newspapers. Now aged 72, it’s extraordinary to think that he appeared at the first Edinburgh book festival with Martin Amis and John Updike, sadly both no longer with us. In the space of an hour he touched on Tolstoy, religion, the current state of journalism, the BBC, pottery, Charles Dickens, the insane frequency of his parents moving house, did a decent impression of playwright Alan Bennett and gave most stand-up comics a run for their money. (Except he remained seated throughout.) His autobiography Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises is next on my reading list.

Walking through the Art College courtyard afterwards I overheard a (white, middle class, middle aged) man say that although he agreed with the sentiments of Greta Thunberg’s protest, she was “going about it in the wrong way” and the book festival wasn’t the “right place for it.”

Along with the likes of This Is Rigged, who recently disrupted the UCI Cycling World Championships men’s road race in Carron Valley, Greta Thunberg might be annoying to some, but I’ll let you into a secret: she’s right, look around you, the world is literally on fire and asking politicians politely to change policy to fix things isn’t going to get us anywhere, protesting is by its very nature disruptive.

And a book festival is absolutely the right place for protesting or at least acting as a forum for discussion of issues that should concern us all. The festival this year has strands addressing solutions to global heating, Ukraine, the foundations of democracy, and – 25 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – how Ireland can come to terms with the enduring memories of the Troubles. The out-going director of the festival, Nick Barley recognises the importance of this aspect of the event too. Part of his response to last Friday’s open letter from 50 authors querying the festival’s sponsorship by Baillie Gifford was this:

“I’m proposing that we talk at the festival – with each other and with audience members who share the same concerns. Let’s talk in the Authors’ Yurt, in the bookshop, in the cafe and in the festival courtyard. Let’s talk in our theatres too: I’d like to find a time when we can invite representatives from across the spectrum of opinion to come on stage and have a discussion which will be open to the public.”

Sure, just talking about these issues isn’t going to resolve them but unless we speak to each other, we can’t move forward and discussion is an integral part of any book festival, without it, you’d be as well staying at home and just reading the book. 

In the introductory video to this year’s festival ex enfant terrible Irvine Welsh says: “If we lose our imagination and our ability to tell stories, we lose our humanity.” Former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway adds that “Creative disagreement is part of the Edinburgh book festival.” Between the two of them I think that sums it up rather well; that’s why I’ll be back at the Art College later this week.

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