EDINBURGH BOOK FESTIVAL NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY

 

The cast of Good Grief! had plenty to smile about at the Book Festival. Picture by Bill Heaney

The rubbish has thankfully gone from the streets of Edinburgh, but bookworms across Scotland can still strike it lucky by taking off for a few days to the capital city’s Book Festival, which will continue for the rest of this week. It hasn’t gone away, you know.

The bells were ringing at the old fire station in Lauriston Place yesterday – the new venue that has replaced Charlotte Square  – to support the cleansing workers’ strike for a deserved, decent pay settlement, while welcoming fans of Sir Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.

Between the filthy streets and the poor traffic management, which saw miles of tailbacks on all roads leading into the city, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP “government” has much to answer for.

She was of course out there grabbing the limelight cast by all the publicity going, but nowhere to be seen when  it came to carrying the can for the civic shambles on the streets.

Sir Ian Rankin, who can be a bit of a curmudgeonly character, has had quite a year. Perhaps his relatively new knighthood will make him more civil to journalists, more modest and less pushy, but I doubt it.

He co-authored The Dark Remains with the late William McIlvanney, a much more pleasant person, who thankfully had not yet reached the stage of believing his own publicity before he sadly died.

The book is said by critics to have gone gone down well with McIlvanney aficionados, who are many,  and with Rankin’s legion of readers.

On Sunday, it was the turn of the late George Mackay Brown to have a special tribute paid to him – Beyond the Swelkie, an anthology featuring poems and stories about the reclusive Orcadian,.

The large, some might say lumbering, self effacing Mackay Brown, left,  was one of the most influential Scottish writers of the past century.

Jim Mackintosh presented a biographical performance, telling Mackay Brown’s life story using archive film footage and music provided by two of Scotland’s finest folk musicians, fiddler Duncan Chisholm and pianist/flautist Hamish Napier.

It will come as a surprise to some that authors themselves buy books and read extensively.

A session on Friday in the Wee Red Bar in the old Edinburgh Art College courtyard featured Glasgow-based Rachelle Atalla debut novel The Pharmacist. 

In her book, outside the nuclear bunker, the world is reeling from cataclysmic events; inside the bunker a select few wait for it to heal, including Wolfe, whose job it is to guard the medicine.

The Pharmacist shows us that even in a place of apparent safety, our luck can run out.

Atalla discussed with her audience a vision of what remains at the end of the world and where we might hope to find comfort. Interesting.

I thought the book, which I bought from the fantastic Festival Bookshop, an ideal gift for my daughter in law, Helen, a pharmacist, who kindly looked after me. I hope she enjoys it and shares it with members of her book enthusiastic club.

Wendy Erskine’s Stories of Belfast is her deserved award-winning debut and has appeared on multiple prize shortlists. It was optioned for TV.

Her second book,  Dance Move, packs a similar emotional punch: a housewife recalls a teenage love affair; a pop singer accepts a compromising gig; a mother combs the streets for posters mounted in search for her dead son.

These are poignant tales, life is what happens while you are making other plans.

Belfast was in the spotlight again when Lucy Caldwell and Louise Kennedy discussed their books about this extraordinary city.

In Lucy Caldwell’s These Days,  it is 1941 and Belfast has escaped the worst of the Second World War – until the Blitz brings devastation. Now two sisters must find a way to carry on their lives.

Louise Kennedy’s Tresspasses is set 30 years later when a school teacher’s relationship with a married man sets her on a path towards violence – and lines she never though she’s ever cross.

Would-be writers will have benefited from listening to the intricacies of the role of literary agents with Heather Parry, co-founder of Extra Teeth magazine.

Joined by an impressive line-up of literary agents, Parry chaired an interesting discussion that explored current trends in the book industry.

And they gave clear insights into what agents look for in submissions and how they work with writers.

Our own Richard Holloway, left, to whom book festival regulars need no introduction since he’s been there for the past 23 years, discussed the Heart of Things – with celebrated artist Clydesider Alison Watt, also left.  This was a discussion of Holloway’s favourite poems and quotations, knitted together with the Valeman’s own tender and sometimes vulnerable musings.  The retired, often controversial, Bishop of Edinburgh and parishioner of the now closed St Mungo’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Alexandria, talked about life, inspiration and morality.

There were big book world names aplenty at the Festival, including Michael Ignatief, Andrew O’Hagan, left, Alan Little, Antony Beevor, Colm Toibin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Fintan O’Toole, Gemma Cairney, Michael Pedersen and, of course, the great Sir Ian Rankin.

There was much to be joyous about at this festival – and also one particularly commendable event about sadness.

Victoria Wood once joked that the British response to death was a woman dragging herself into the kitchen, “72 baps Connie. You slice, I’ll spread.”

Good Grief! is an attempt by Pedersen and the gregarious Cairney to do away with the idea that grief should be hidden.  It works. This was an excellent Book Festival performance which showcased celebrating grief in all its forms.

Hamnet was a runaway best-seller before winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. Unsurprisingly, Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel is one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2022. She talked with Damian Barr about The Marriage Portrait, a portrayal of the battle for survival by a captivating young duchess in 16th century Florence. A red carpet laid out for the irresistible world of Lucrezia de Medici. Picture of Maggie O’Farrell by Bill Heaney

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