by Hayden Murphy

SRB Diary: Festival Diary – How I Became and Oxford Don

August 13, 2010 | by Hayden Murphy

Books, bars and festivals have been central to my life (style) for over forty years. In inviting me to write of this, editor Alan Taylor specifi-cally indicated my known affinity, since the early 1980s, with both the Edin-burgh Book Festival in Charlotte Square and The Oxford Bar in nearby Young Street. In fact, in 1991, he was moved to comment, spotting me entering the licensed premises after a morning literary session, that my “Office hours were ruled by the licensing laws”. This prompts a memory of Flann O Brien, in his lay persona of Brian O’ Nolan, answering a charge by a fellow Civil Servant that he was seen going into an early morning pub in Dublin by declaring that his accuser could only have seen him at that hour coming into the same place.

Maybe now is the moment for an element of sober context.

In late August 1966 I came to Edinburgh for the first time armed with contact numbers for the great and the good from the Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houedard. Included were poets Edwin Morgan and Alan Jackson, bookseller Alan Rankin and the Dominican Anthony Ross. The latter found me accommodation and sent me to Bedlam. Literally the University Theatre loud and shrill in Festival mayhem. I left and discovered Sandy Bells pub. From there I ended up giving a reading with Jeff Nut-tall in a nearby bookshop which I have since learned was run by Jim Haynes who in turn introduced me to the Traverse where I encountered The Scaffold and a very curious series of surrealist plays from Liverpool. In the Lyceum I was entranced by Douglas Young’s Scots adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Burdies. In less than a week I was in love with the Edinburgh Festival in all its guises.

By 1969 I was a hardened regular. So was my liver. I applied for a temporary reader’s ticket in the National Library. I failed to get one but the helpful librarian, Max Begg, together with a tall young man I later discovered was the poet Neil MacCallum, took me across the city and so I found The Oxford Bar. It took years to rediscover it despite one accidental visit with novelist John Herdman in the mid 1970s on our way either to or from a gathering of The Heretics in a nearby hotel basement. Then at the Wick Arts Festival of 1978 I met Larry Hutchison.

Dunfermline-based Hutchison, inspiring teacher and knowledgeable bookseller, was even then the leading figure in what was known as “Willie Rosses”. An unexpected bonus was that he was a close friend of Max Begg and both were enormously helpful in the setting up of an exhibition of manuscripts and artwork from Broadsheet, which I edited from 1967 to 1978, in the National Library of Scotland in 1983. In print I have, unwisely, described Larry as “a near redundant Teddy Boy”. In person I have found him a generous friend, professionally, following a number of visits to his school I consider him a natural educator in the finest tradition, being both teacher and mentor for his students. His management of the Book Fairs Association is legendary and it is one of my long time regrets that a proposal in the late 1990s to embed the Fair within the Book Festival never succeeded. On his retirement from teaching he became full time promoter and manager of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA). Now at weekends he sits on a high stool in The Oxford, at times reminding me of a teacher dealing with a new class, but as ever curious and informative and generous with his knowledge.

But there is supposed to be a linking literary theme to all this.

In 1971, together with actor Robert Somerset, I brought to the Fringe a two-hour Yeats themed piece entitled The Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. It saw my first and last performance as actor, as an even then unconvincing “Boy” in the poet’s last great play Purgatory. A performance memorable only for the occasion when my death scene saw me nearly tumble off the raked stage onto the kilted lap of Hamish Hender-son, who was loyally occupying the centre seat of the front row in an almost empty venue in Teviot Place. However I won a sympathy vote that led to a small romance that led in time to me moving to Edinburgh for the first time in 1979.

A year later the Arts Editor of The Irish Times, Fergus Linehan, created an “Arts in Scotland” column for me. This allowed me access to many aspects of cultural Scot-land. When in the early 1990s the novelist John Banville became Literary Editor of the Dublin paper my “shift” moved to the Books pages where, apart from normal reviews, I was to cover the Book Festival for the next decade or so while being commentator on the other Festivals in The Sunday Tribune. These journalistic changes coincided with a large romance between Glasgow and Dumfries over three years, which in turn led to me returning to Edinburgh early in 1992.

And now to return to normal transmission between Charlotte Square and Young Street.

In 1983 when a proposed Book Festival in Princes Street Gardens was prohibited due to an edict refusing the sale of “tracts” within its lawns and pathways the genteel burghers of Charlotte Square were persuaded to allow a one-off “conglomeration” of seven tents be placed within their private garden. It was to appear biennially with healthy disregard for privacy or silence until 1997. In 1999 dared to add “International” to its now annual title. Since then it has grown and sometimes groaned in expansive splendour.

As ‘foreign’ correspondent at the 1983 debut I, as a Dubliner, revelled in my fellow countryman Owen Dudley Edwards evoking “cradle Catholicism” to make horror writer James Herbert declare him “creepy, even more creepier than I am”. Devotion to literature scored over the sensational. One hoped for more. One got it in memorable appearances from both John Updike and Anthony Burgess. Years later Director Jenny Brown had to remind me that another visitor that year was Jeffrey Archer.

Remembering those days and Festivals over the following twenty years the gratuitous dismissive remark by Muriel Gray in the Sunday Herald that “Catherine Lock-erbie had “transformed what used to be a worthy little affair full of weary authors plugging their books at the behest of publicist” becomes even more offensive than when read for the first time. That was the same year when Gray, according to Lockerbie’s programme notes, was “one of Scotland’s wittiest, most irreverent and incisive writers” giving us an evening “of conversation about her own highly popular horror fiction”. For in those earlier years Ms. Brown, followed by her previous Deputy Shona Munro, who in incomparable partnership with Faith Lid-dell as her press officer between 1995-97 gave us some of the greatest Festivals ever. Among the more memorable events were James Baldwin (1985), Gore Vidal (1989), Brian Keenan (1993) and Yehuda Amichai (1995). Following a blip in 1997, which Ban-ville allowed me tactfully to refer to as when “Shambles were heard singing in Charlotte Square”, Liddell returned for another three glorious years.

Over these years the appearance of the Spiegeltent, a 1920 Belgian invention, introduced a series of early morning “Writers for Breakfast” which, when I stopped sniggering and murmuring “yumyum”, saw some magnificent performances from, among many poets Edwin Morgan, Andrew Motion, Charles Causley, Don Paterson and Tom Leonard. A feature of those early years was the importance of a good chair. One recalls with delight David Daiches leading both Peter Ackroyd and Melvyn Bragg through a stimulating session on “The Historical Novel”. Trevor Royle remembers interposing his voice when the audience responded aggressively to his guest Max Hastings. In 1991 having introduced, to a packed house of Flashman fans, George MacDonald Fraser he then had to listen to a long (and to this listener entertaining) rant on the Conservative

Party and its plans to “ditch” Scottish Regiments. In recent years there has been a sad decline. I am an admirer of the Scottish Poetry Library but being employed there does not make you a good go-between.

Meanwhile in 1983, when I returned from Barcelona, there had been changes in ‘The Office’. Willie Ross was gone and a couple from Falkirk, John and Margaret Gates, had taken over. During the next twenty years, together with Margaret Dodds, Babs Martin and Harry Cullen (late of Milnes) they were to run a convivial shop ever willing to take on the annual influx from the nearby Festival. That The Oxford became a focus for many Book Festival visitors can be put down to the emergence of Ian Rankin’s novels featuring John Rebus, a former soldier turned cop working in Edinburgh. Like his author an exile from Fife, like his author a drinker in “The Ox”.

I was late coming to the Rebus novels though I had, in 1987, reviewed favourably in Ireland Rankin’s first novel The Flood. However by the time I met him I was up to date and both reviewed and interviewed books and author in a designated and proper place in the back room of the bar. At another table would sit a surly Rebus and his sidekick Siobhan viewing with near contempt the Irish Times reader and obvious non smoker opposite them (Set in Darkness). For a number of years I would don my Oxford Bar tie and walk with manager John Gates to hear “the boy” in a tent around the corner.

The Oxford also became a gathering place for writers and their readers. Five No-bel laureates, most of them willingly, have visited. Most memorably Seamus Heaney who on his first visit spoke of nothing but fishing to Norman MacCaig. In 1995, having been dragooned at the last minute to introduce poet Brendan Kennelly in Charlotte Square I brought the long time teetotaller back to the Office. Over the next few hours he beamed at me and demonstrated generously why he had failed as my Moral Tutor long ago in Trinity College Dublin. Another cameo was Margaret Dodds protectively warding off intrusive photographers in pursuit of Brian Keenan.

However, things change. John Gates retired in 2004 and died in August 2008. There was not so much a change of management as a change of attitude. Maybe a necessary one for The Oxford does not lend itself to the Bloomsday madness as too many Dublin pubs are doing these days. In 2001 Catherine Lockerbie took over and turned the Book Festival into a tremendous commercial success. After years of criticising the exclusive nature of her programming – in 2002 one had to choose between Seamus Heaney on Sorley McLean or Kathleen Jamie on contemporary verse – I lost my press accreditation. As it coincided with the discovery of a serious hereditary eye-problem it was not my greatest worry that year, 2006, though the manner of how it was done still hurts.

Now with new persona at the helm in both my houses, for yet another August I will spend my days in Charlotte Square and my evenings in the theatre and in between I will keep my own now comfortable, adaptable, office hours.

Lesley McDowell is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 11.00 on 22 August

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