WHAT Edinburgh was like before the coming of the festival is hard for anyone who did not know it then to imagine. That it was smaller, less populous, darker, sootier, beerier and danker is undoubtedly true. In the years immediately after the Second World War, Britain in general was often portrayed in unflattering shades of grey. Scotland’s shade was the grey of old underwear. Rationing was still the norm and bananas were regarded as exotic. Kenneth Tynan, visiting in 1948 on the occasion of the second International Festival, felt that it would take a Daumier to do Edinburgh justice. ‘The well-born Scot,’ he added, ‘is making conversation of a formal brilliance never encountered south of the Cheviots.’
Who exactly Tynan meant by this throwaway remark has long puzzled us though we can make an educated guess. As he flitted from the Usher Hall to the Royal Scottish Academy, from Don Giovanni (‘a splendid show for the very rich and their kiddies’) to a Bonnard-Vuillard exhibition, it is unlikely that he had much contact with hoi polloi. What he did in the main witness, however, were performances of the highest quality. He chortled at the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races, marvelled over Tyrone Guthrie’s legendary production of The Three Estates, and revelled in The Hungarian Quartet playing Mozart, Schubert and Bartók (‘electrically thrilling as a succession of untoward sounds’). It was a very selective programme and it was possible for the assiduous culture vulture to enjoy most of it, giving the fortunate few the impression that they were on top of the arts.
The International Festival was the beginning of an efflorescence that is without precedent and happily shows no sign of waning. Where once every performance could be contained in a few pages there are now brochures as fat as Argos catalogues, offering something for every taste. Festivals are Edinburgh’s modern forte. From time to time doom-mongers have predicted that the capital is about to be usurped by envious rivals with deeper pockets but as yet nowhere has mounted a serious challenge to its supremacy. Of course that must be no cause for complacency. If it is to remain the festival city then it must continue to innovate and invest and reinvent itself annually as it has been doing for nearly seventy years.
Relatively speaking, the Book Festival was a latecomer to the feast, making its debut in 1984, which a few people at the time thought an inauspicious date. From the beginning it was headquartered in Charlotte Square Gardens which loud New Towners felt was a desecration of hallowed ground. In those far-off days it looked more like a Boys’ Brigade camp site than a library en plein air. But its appearance was deceptive. In tents through which wind blew unrestricted, and on which rain hammered remorselessly, writers of the ilk of John Updike, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing and James Baldwin appeared in the flesh and did not disappoint those who knew them only as names on the covers of books.
Over the years the Book Festival has grown, like a tale in the telling. There have been many highlights, many of which were unplanned. Older festival-goers fondly remember those few occasions when the unexpected occurred. One such was in 1987, when Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other chemically-fuelled japes, promised to make his presence felt. It was all to no avail; Thompson never made it out of Colorado. Later, he explained that he had been hijacked by a drunken cab driver who had been to a Grateful Dead concert. As excuses go, it takes some gazumping. In Edinburgh, meanwhile, a chapter of Hell’s Angels who had ridden up from London to see him needed to be appeased, which task fell to Thompson’s sometimes sidekick, the artist Ralph Steadman, which he wisely decided would be life-threatening and declined.
Such happenings, alas, are all too rare, doubtless to the relief of the organisers of what is known today as the Edinburgh International Book Festival. One mark of its success is the number of similar ventures it has spawned. If indeed imitation is the sincerest flattery it should be blushing like a rose. In Scotland alone there are more than fifty book festivals covering all parts of the country. In the late 1940s this would have been unthinkable. Authorship then was not a common occupation. In Edinburgh, for example, you could count on one hand those who earned a living through writing. Poetry was the form to which those who wielded pens aspired. How things change. For the past several decades fiction has been in the ascendant despite regular predictions of its demise. As things stand, however, it remains in robust health as visitors to Charlotte Square this August will surely testify.