Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the last reading Charles Dickens gave in Edinburgh. On 26 February, 1869, the most fêted English writer of his generation appeared at the music hall in George Street. It was a homecoming of sorts. Dickens was no stranger to the Scottish capital; it was where his wife Catherine was born and brought up.
The crowd laughed and wept as ‘Boz’ performed scenes from A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, the latter featuring the grisly episode in which Nancy is murdered by Bill Sykes. The Edinburgh Evening Courant’s reviewer awarded him five stars. Dickens’ performances, he recorded, were ‘marvellous exhibitions, which are unique in themselves, and in their combinations of power and elocutionary felicity which have probably never been rivalled’.
A little over a year later Dickens was dead, aged just 58. It is perhaps fair to say that as well as being a great novelist he was also the first writer to seize the potential of public appearance and capitalize on his celebrity. What cannot be disputed is that he started a trend which many of his peers fell over themselves to follow. A couple of decades later, Mark Twain enchanted his fellow Americans with a routine that would now be recognized as stand-up comedy, regaling thousands in his trademark white suit with his iconoclastic wit and pungent story-telling. Later, in the twentieth century, the author’s tour became a rite of passage, in part to help bolster reputations but also because it was financially attractive. Dylan Thomas’s exploits on the gold trail on the other side of the pond are the stuff of legend. In Dylan Thomas in America, John Malcolm Brinnin relates how the Welsh bard would fortify himself with ‘several pre-performance highballs’ before taking to the stage. For one tour he disembarked at New York in relative sobriety but after a couple of days of drunken debauchery he was bedridden with gout and a broken arm, having fallen down a flight of stairs while leaving a dinner party to attend a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Thomas’s misadventures did not, how-ever, deter others. The poet Hugo Williams travelled to the US in 1980, giving readings from east to west, often to audiences which struggled to reach double figures. The blurb to No Particular Place to Go, his hilarious account of his journey, is eloquent in its evocation of an era that now seems as distant as that of the dodo: ‘There are girls and more girls from lip-smacking California-fresh April Stanley to Vicky in Manhattan with the weight of a thousand affairs on her shoulders.’ Nor were Scottish writers immune to the allure of life on the road. Paisley-born Gordon Williams – no relation to Hugo – produced a novel, Walk Don’t Walk, which lightly fictionalized his own western odyssey.
Having said all of which, until quite recently writers were more read than heard. This began to change shortly before the advent of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which became a fixture in 1983. Before then, of course, there were book events in Scotland, many of which were organized by public libraries. One such was held in Renfrewshire where writers read and jousted, not always verbally. While not the most edifying of sights it was a sign that the participants took their jobs seriously; flyting and fighting, back in the day, were not mutually exclusive. Nowadays, alas, such shenanigans are rare and most authors – or at least those who are invited to festivals – comport themselves with diplomatic decorum. The idea that one writer might call another ‘metropolitan scum’ – as Hugh MacDiarmid did his fellow Scot Alexander Trocchi at the 1962 Writers’ Conference – would doubtless now be labelled a ‘hate crime’.
Be that as it may. There is a need in this time of fake news, online manipulation of the democratic process and politicians whose economy with the truth far outstrips any competency they might have to run a nation’s affairs, for book festivals to become more than mere polite debating chambers and reflect the anger and frustration countless of us feel at the way things are being conducted. Having attended book festivals in various parts of the globe we appreciate that those who attend them are from the more civilized crannies in society. Audiences listen in respectful silence and, on occasion, ask questions which, while interesting, rarely challenge the sentiments and opinions expressed by a speaker. We can count on the fingers of one hand, for example, the number of events at which the person on the podium has been taken properly to task for any rubbish he or she has been spouting. This is particularly the case with politicians who, having retired from the fray, do the book festival circuit as if it were part of their pension plan. Safely covered by a canvas counterpane, they are no longer reviled or remembered for their misdeeds or lost promises but respected as national treasures and cheered to the rafters even by those of us who would never have voted from them. Is that not the very definition of niceness?