Lit Chic: 36 hours at Charlotte Square

Originally written August 2011 for Fest magazine’s website:

I hope you’ll forgive my temporary absence; today I only saw Jasper Fforde, which may not have led to the most interesting – or at least wide-ranging – entry I’ve ever written. So I gave myself last night off from writing and now bring you an extra-special, 36-hour Lit Chic.

To avoid any chronological difficulties – of which, more later – I’ll start with Wednesday. I was allowed a late start, with my first event being Martin Sixsmith at a quite luxurious 2pm. And, in history geek bliss, luxuriate I did: the former BBC correspondent was discussing his latest work, the literary spin-off of his recent Radio 4 series about the history of Russia. It takes pivotal moments as its central point of consideration and questions why the country seems to favour autocracy. I was most struck, however, by his opening comment that he credits his amazing career to a particularly inspiring Russian teacher at school. I chatted to him afterwards about diminishing languages studies in schools and he told me what a shame it is: “languages give you a way into another country, another culture,” he said, “which is incredibly important.”

The other big hit of the afternoon was Neil Gaiman, whose signing queue was still so long an hour and a half after his event that Festival staff weren’t letting anyone else join it and instructing people to have their books open, ready to be signed. Charlotte Square – and Twitter – was full of swooning fans, but my signing highlight of the day had already been established: Maggie O’Farrell, sporting the best shoes I’ve seen at the Festival so far – postbox red suede wedges which clashed rather fabulously with her hair.

Now I think about it, this was quite a day for literary celebrity spotting. I later found myself standing next to Audrey Niffenegger outside the LRB bookshop, who was chatting to fans and very graciously signed a book for my pal’s absent girlfriend (this story is better if I mention that it provided a happy ending for the fact that said pal had come across town especially to meet Niffenegger, only to discover that she wasn’t doing an official signing).

My daily 5:30pm Amnesty fix focussed on writers from the 1970s: Alaide Foppa de Solorzano, Irina Ratushinskaya, Jack Mapanje and Nawa El-Saadawi. The works were read by Sally Kindberg, Penny Simpson, Keith Gray and Michael Arditti, all of whom spoke about how privileged they feel to be able to express themselves in writing without fear of prosecution: something that these events have made me realise we can’t take for granted, even now.

Moving away from literature itself and towards the people who control it, I watched a debate about the rise of e-books – but more on this can be found in a separate article, so I’ll say here only that I went into the event feeling fairly ambivalent about the issue, and failed to have my mind drastically changed.

Post-debate, I went to my first Unbound event. These free evenings of literary entertainment are hosted in the Spiegeltent, which is almost certainly my favourite venue in all of Edinburgh. I’d already spent a few afternoons curled up in a 1930s-styled booth under its draped velvet ceiling and after the event my conviction that Edinburgh downright needs a year-round venue like this was thoroughly cemented. Paris Review editor Lorin Stein compered the event, which featured readings from contemporary American authors Donald Antrim and John Jeremiah Sullivan. The cabaret atmosphere of the Spiegeltent lent itself well to this type of evening; after the readings, the Paris Review team solved the audience’s literary dilemmas (my companion and I thought, but were too scared to ask, about the following problems: Who will produce the next truly great cover art? How can I stop being such a sad young literary man? Why can’t there be events like this in Edinburgh all the time?) This was a fantastic evening, and the Unbound series looks set to carry on the standard it set with this: the events are daily, free, and come highly recommended from me.

Today was a rather lazy day – hence my decision to add it onto this post. Jasper Fforde spoke about his latest book, One of Our Thursdays is Missing. Fforde seems to inspire utter devotion in his army of fans (I have heard them described as “cult-ish”, but if they are a cult, they’re a very friendly one). Anyway, as a relatively new convert to his cause, I found his talk very illuminating: he described the way he writes as “a series of narrative dares.” He explained that he likes to write himself into a corner – the caveat being that it “can be stupid, but silly is bad” – and try to come up with an entertaining and plausible way out. This was best explained by his description of one of his first short stories – all of which remain, sadly, unpublished – where a man wakes up to find a gorilla in his garden (this being the afore-mentioned “corner”) and Fforde then concocts an elaborate back-story to explain the situation.

He also spoke candidly about the problems and pressure of reading classic literature, which was refreshing: it was a revelation, he said, when he realised he didn’t have to enjoy Wuthering Heights. Coming from an academic family, it seems natural that his work is as literary as it is, but in fact this seems to be something of a coping mechanism: a way of finding pleasure in works he struggled with as a young reader. I was later told by a Fforde fan that her 11-year old son had been inspired to try some Bronte after reading the Thursday Next series. If Fforde’s work serves to make literature more accessible, then that is explanation enough of its value. It helps that he is a very engaging and entertaining speaker, and completely charming: at the signing afterwards, he chatted and posed for photographs happily, and brought limited edition postcards to give to his fans.

This was a pretty diverse range of events for a 36-hour period, and it really highlighted for me just how good the Book Festival is at making a coherent programme from an enormously varied set of talks and readings. On the opening night, Alexander McCall Smith referred to “Edinburgh syndrome”, where the sufferer finds themselves panicked by the range of shows on offer and subsequently can’t do anything. The joy of the Book Festival is that, although there is an enormous amount of interesting events, it is in no way overwhelming. My infatuation with Charlotte Square continues.


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