by Hayden Murphy

SRB Diary: A Barbarian in Charlotte Square

September 14, 2013 | by Hayden Murphy

Transition rather than continuity marks the thirty years that have passed since the Book Festival first appeared in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Jenny Brown, as Director, instigated it in the summer of 1983. Princes Street Gardens were not available. It was a modest but glorious success, not the ‘worthy little affair full of weary authors’ dismissed by self-promoting Muriel Gray two decades later. It was an ambitious and determined effort to place Literature in its autonomous place among the then collective festivals of Jazz, Film, Art and Theatre.

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I was in a singular position to remember it as such. In 1978, curious about the impending devolution referendum in Scotland, and having just lived and worked in post Franco Catalan Spain and a divided Berlin, I decided to settle in Edinburgh for the first time in 1979. As a literary editor (Broadsheet 1967-78), critic and broadcaster I had already covered the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe in Ireland for some years, having encountered the wonder of it as an undergraduate in 1966. In 1980 the then Irish Times’ Arts Editor, Fergus Lenihan, father of the newly appointed International Arts Festival Director of the same name, created an ‘Arts Correspondent in Scotland’ post for me which allowed me a unique entree to cultural Scotland. When in 1991 the novelist John Banville was appointed Literary Editor in the paper I was given exclusive space in the ‘book pages’ to cover the events in Charlotte Square. This was to continue for over twenty years.

‘Admiral Jenny’, as my typo of twenty years ago designated her, ran a tight ship with a splendid crew of Valerie Bierman (Children’s Fair) and Jane Ellis as Administrator. In 1987 Shona Munro came aboard and in due course became an amiable and effective Director herself. Between 1993-1997, in tandem with Press Officer Faith Liddell, she organised a series of events which, in my opinion, constituted ‘The Golden Years’ in Charlotte Square. In 1997 Jan Fairley was Director and in the following year Faith Liddell herself took over before handing on to Catherine Lockerbie in 2001. After 1998 it became an annual event. In 1999 it was renamed the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2009 Richard Holloway stood in for a year when Lockerbie was unwell and in 2010 Nick Barley took over.

These, in chronological order, were the people who organised and programmed the event. They were responsible for the invited authors and as the years went on tried to match quality with quantity, not always successfully. When the Festival went annual a system of rotation emerged and unfortunately some authors took their audiences for granted and ‘simply turned up’. Jenny Brown in a non-judgmental retrospective piece in the Scotsman recalled the changes down the years. There was one ‘tented theatre’ for performing visitors in 1983; now there are eight. Her ‘first skimpy programme’ boasted just 120 writers. This year saw Charlotte Square host 800 from over 40 countries. Initially there was a £1.00 entrance fee to the gardens at the insistence of local inhabitants mainly from the business world. This disappeared in the 1990s.

Two of the stars in 1983, Liz Lochhead and William McIlvanney, reappeared this year in very altered circumstances. Lochhead is now Scots Makar and political pundit. The man from Kilmarnock is just emerging from a period of comparative neglect and is wryly celebrating the long overdue reissue of his early novels. In acknowledging this he was gracious and generous of Brown who is now his literary agent. McIlvanney also suffered one of the most inappropriate epithets in Festival history when his chair, Ruth Wishart, without a glimmer of irony, described him as ‘coy’.

This year, with much furore, some of it contrived, the thirty years since its instigation was celebrated. A caveat. As you will note from the above it was biennial until the late 1990s. So those, and they were an irritating multitude, claiming to have been at ‘all thirty’ Book Festivals were being somewhat specious if not misleading. Similarly the Guardian, a sponsor of this year’s event, got it wrong on several points when stating that Val McDermid had ‘spoken at 29 of the 30 annual International Book Festivals’. In fact I would think that McDermid waited until the mid 1990s before revealing herself as the consummate performance-writer that she has become. Rant over.

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Well that one anyway. There was an element of political posturing ahead of next year’s independence referendum present throughout the Festival. On the second weekend Liz Lochhead lambasted Jonathan Mills’ perceived lack of interest in Scottish culture. Inconveniently for her this coincided with a four-day Dance Odyssey from Scottish Ballet, which was one of the highlights of my Festival ‘proper’. Mills had declared that his programme for next year would be free of referendum-related performances. I acknowledge Lochhead as a fine poet and prominent presence in this part of the Archipelago of Near Nations but fortunately for us Mills’ remit goes further afield. It is an extensive international programme and he rightly emphasises that that includes references to the ‘Great War’ and the Commonwealth of Nations gathering next year for the Games in Glasgow. The independence referendum next year is of course important. But equally important is the autonomy of a Festival which since 1947 has been inclusively international while being gloriously, exclusively placed in the Scottish capital. Somewhat diverting in Lochhead’s argument were her claims for her own play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Has she been carried away by critic Mark Brown’s favourable comparison with Schiller last year? This eye-opening opinion had echoes of the public acclaim for John Home’s 1757 play Douglas – ‘Whaurs yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’.

Watching and listening to a gaggle of BBC notated ‘celebrities’ appearing in Charlotte Square before surrounding the Well of Narcissus that is the TV Festival reminded me of Humphrey Lyttelton’s bittersweet sketch of John Humphrys and his Today colleagues in a George Street Hotel at the end of the last century. The clever but not particularly intelligent Welshman became Richmal Crompton’s William Brown and his gang as personified on radio by Martin Jarvis. That moment has on many occasions since prevented me throwing radios out of windows.

To return to the McIlvanney event and the intrusive nature not only of Alex Salmond but also chair Ruth Wishart. The First Minister’s dry and wooden reading of an excerpt from The Papers of Tony Veitch, published in 1983, made the book appear dull despite the twee stress by politician and chair that it was selected deliberately to avoid the ‘swearie words’. There was a poetic intensity and rhythm to McIlvanney’s own reading of his work that finally rescued this event.

However some readings involving other poets are all too often hijacked by over zealous chairs and often vacuous question and answer sessions. Could I ask for the example of Stuart Kelly with Robin Robertson on the morning of the second Sunday to be followed in the future? Following a brief introduction to let the poet or poets know that they are in the right place and reassure the audience that they are at their desired event, let the poets live or die by their words. Throughout the Festival’s history this has been a successful procedure, from Charles Causley in 1987 to Paul Durcan and Yehuda Amichai in 1995 and Seamus Heaney’s unforgettable ‘rendering’ of Sorley MacLean’s ‘Hallaig’ in 2002.

Throughout the years my August pleasure, both seasonal and sensual, has been to allow myself to move across the festivals on offer and assimilate. Book Festival, Galleries and the Fringe (usually Traverse and/or Hill Street programmes) during the day and the Music/Dance/Theatre offerings in the International Festival in the evenings. Down the years I have found it a rewarding way of gaining, in a somewhat leisurely way, ‘a further education’. Yet, paradoxically, in a year that has seen some fine interpretations of his work from the Gate Theatre Dublin, I recall as a near warning against such complacency a letter from Samuel Beckett to his American publisher Barney Rosset in 1957: ‘If we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we might as well go home and lie down’.

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Time has not yet come for me to lie down. I am in transition. So the question is how to choose and ‘extricate’ to the greatest advantage. My one time editor John Banville, wearing his novelist hat (a somewhat fetching straw boater on his day in the tent this year), extolled the imagination as superior to memory. Illusion rather than delusion. So I recommend Book Festival organisers take a long look at the 1991 ‘Writers’ Conference’, which for three days focused on ‘Aspects of the Novel’ in commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Neil Gunn. Among the speakers were Brian Moore, Amos Oz, Victor Astafyev, Caryl Phillips, David Malouf, Ivan Klima and the aforementioned William McIlvanney. The tone was intense and sometimes exhausting. Of course politics entered the discussions but not in a fixed agenda for a specific purpose. Rather as an integral part of life itself. Maybe that is where Nick Barley could and probably should find inspiration for events next year. Better that, certainly, than the selective, over-long ego-trip that constituted last year’s designated ‘World Writers’ Conference’ series. That was presumed as marking an event in pre-Book Festival Edinburgh in 1962. In 2012 it became parochial and at two hours per session quickly lost the attention of its non-participating audience. Let’s consider 1991 and leave the politicians and self-promoters outside the gates. We literary Barbarians are with Cavafy and wish to mingle with our own. Let imagination and illusion feed the mind.

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