Day One: Friday 17 August 2018
As a man of modest means, this year I have set myself the task of spending three moneyless days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I live on a farm twenty miles south of Edinburgh, so transport was the first hurdle to overcome. When I heard there was a small space going in an 8am citybound car on 17 August, I packed my bag with a notebook, a pen and some scraps of food, then squeezed aboard. In the interests of abstemiousness, I decided to leave behind my wallet.
A few days previous, I’d chained my bike up at Hillend, at the base of The Pentlands. So, at 8.45am, feeling like a belittled sardine, I fell out of my transport, found my wheels and pedalled off through the car-swamped streets of Auld Reekie in search of what Dorothy Parker called ‘the booksy ones’.
I arrived in Charlotte Square at 9.45am, gulped down some free coffee from the press tent, and headed over to the Main Theatre. The first talk of the day was billed as Muriel Spark: Religion and Exile. Kapka Kassabova and Gabriel Josipovici introduced two new editions of Muriel Spark’s lesser known novels, Territorial Rights and The Mandelbaum Gate. The chair’s opening remarks, however, were directed towards John Calder, the publishing firebrand who died last week. Calder was instrumental in setting up the 1962 International Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh, a forerunner of today’s Festival. He also published avant-garde writers, in the days when they still existed, and risked imprisonment for disobeying censorship laws.
The Conference brought together the likes of Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Stephen Spender. The Scottish literati played their part, and a few flung about their rhetoric and their fists in the service of ideas, writing, and the ego. Those were the days. Calder was the first to publish Scottish writer and general degenerate Alexander Trocchi in the UK. Trocchi was in attendance the 1962 Conference, where he was subject to Hugh MacDiarmid’s infamous slur, ‘cosmopolitan scum.’ Muriel Spark was also there, but stayed away from the fracas. Her only memory, apparently, was of eating fish and chips with Lawrence Durrell on Lothian Road.
On paper, the talk looked to be a serious affair. But, if there is one writer who can make religion and exile funny, it is Muriel Spark. Josipovici emphasised the joyfulness with which Spark went about living and writing. He said joy was ‘a rare commodity among writers, who tend to be a gloomy lot’. He and Spark were friends, and he prefaced his remarks about her life by saying, quite rightly, that ‘the true essence of a writer emerges in their work’.
Spark referred to herself as a ‘constitutional exile’, who, for a variety of reasons, never felt entirely comfortable in the Edinburgh of her birth. Interestingly, both The Mandelbaum Gate and Territorial Rights are about characters’ relationship with their homeland. The former is set Jerusalem in 1961. The protagonist, Barbara Vaughan, an upper-middle class Catholic convert, of Jewish decent, goes on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Territorial Rights follows the expatriate community in Venice. Kassabova said it is a novel ‘permeated with a sense of paranoia and conspiracy’.
The conversation, rejoicing in its swiftness and liveliness, moved from a discussion of exile to identity – Territorial Rights is about ‘how we construct our own identities’ – and on to the impact of Spark’s Catholicism on her work. Spark, however would have hated being ‘pigeonholed’. You could say the same for many of her characters, whom Kassabova described as ‘citizens of the world.’ They often shift and change their public image. One thinks of the majestic and devilish Dougal Douglas in The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Similarly, many of the best writers are changelings. Each new day is a chance to put on a different hat.
Ben Okri, on the other hand, is rarely seen without his black beret. He gave a bizarre, cringe-worthy appearance at the Main Theatre in the early afternoon. He was in town to talk about his new book, The Magic Lamp, a collaboration between Okri and the painter Rosemary Clunie. Okri lived with Clunie’s paintings for five years and has produced a series of pretentious and hyperbolic prose-poems to accompany them. Okri’s talk involved the dreaded audience participation, platitudes about ‘divisions’ in the arts and vague ideas about how to ‘look’ at a painting. When the chair, Asif Khan, finally stopped writing down notes in his huge purple folder and joined in, he told us he had spent the morning crying over Okri’s book. Cheer up, Mr Khan. Few books are worth wasting tears over. After some, quite frankly, embarrassing questions, the discussion moved on to a political poetry anthology that Okri has edited, entitled Rise Like Lions. Okri was keen to emphasise how the political mood in Britain has changed over the last seven years. Apparently, few of us have noticed that. Mr Khan and Mr Okri then read a Bob Marley ‘poem’ together. Upon hearing the two of them recite the lines, ‘emancipate yourselves from mental slavery’, I thought I might have to emancipate myself from the tent.
After I’d finished being sick, the afternoon improved considerably. There is always plenty to bore you at a book festival. But one of great things is to encounter a writer or two who you had not noticed before. For me, the Scottish poet J.O. Morgan is one of those. He appeared in the Spiegeltent – where poets always seem to end up – and recited some impressive and surreal poetry from his new collection, Assurances. It is a long multi-voiced narrative poem about the possibility of absolute destruction during The Cold War. Although he told the audience ‘you won’t learn anything about me from my work,’ he admitted the poem grew out of his father’s experiences as a pilot in the British Airforce in the 1950s. Its main theme is the act of waiting. Morgan set out to capture those trepidatious moments before a bomb is launched, and then before it lands.
Morgan’s recitation moved between the thoughts of an Airforce navigator contemplating the slow tick of his watch and the existential musings of an everywoman who has been given ‘the four-minute warning’ ahead of a nuclear attack. His voice was perfectly pitched and eerily transportive. The final section was a dramatic monologue from the perspective of The Bomb as it makes its heavy way to the earth. As an idea, it sounds dubious, but Morgan pulled it off with élan.
Things were a little smaller, and less deathly, in the Writer’s Retreat at 5pm. Benjamin Markovits, who won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for You Don’t Need to Live Like This, introduced his new novel, A Weekend in New York. The first in a trilogy, it is about an upper-middle class family, the Essingers, one of whom has become a moderately successful tennis player. In a touch of good taste, Markovits’ inspiration for the novel came from Philip Larkin’s poem Mr Bleaney, particularly the idea that ‘how we live measures our own nature.’ Not that ‘content’ should matter all that much to a novelist, but novels about particular strata of society seem to be unpopular at the moment. For Markovits, writing about those who live in material comfort has its advantages. There’s less drama, for a start, and he is a writer who wants ‘as little to happen as humanly possible’ in his novels. Now here’s a man who knows that style trumps substance.
The conversation, inevitably, turned to comparing tennis and writing fiction (anything, seemingly, can be compared to the art of writing). Markovits said ‘you don’t need any friends’ to play tennis or write books. As a tennis player, I know this is to be patently untrue. I have tried playing tennis by myself. It is a futile, lung-bursting exercise. Like his main character, Markovits has achieved moderate success in his career, and he is all too aware of the deleterious effects of having to spend your life performing in front of crowds: ‘Public events are a way to expose you to more humiliation’. Like sportsmen, writers are now celebrities, or have to think of themselves as such, even the minor ones. Gone are the days when writing was a private affair. But, one of the benefits of family life, said Markovits, is that it protects you from ‘the bombardment of history’ and wider society. It reminded me of something else families can offer. One member of mine had offered me a free couch somewhere in the dark depths of a Gorgie tenement. I decided, tired and bloody hungry as I was, that it was time to claim it.