Lit Chic: Opening Day at EIBF

Originally published on Fest magazine’s website: http://www.festmag.co.uk

The Book Festival opened today in fine fashion, with a sunshine and mud combination lending Charlotte Square a rather Glastonbury-esque vibe. Whether it was the Guardian-branded deck chairs, each with different quotations (I sat on Julia Donaldson, as it were), or just the preponderance of Hunter wellington boots, I can’t say – but regardless, the crowd was happy.

After his A Life in Words and Pictures event, the signing queue for Alasdair Gray seemed insurmountably huge – I heard later that he was there for over an hour and a half – but he was characteristically genial, doing individual drawings on every book brought to him. Across the room, children’s author Cathy Cassidy drew a smaller but no less devoted crowd – a choice soundbite being “Are you sureyour parents won’t mind me signing this?” when presented with a Kindle and a marker pen. Elsewhere, Julia Donaldson mania was still rife from her opening event – attended by the Gruffalo himself no less. In fact the whole square seemed somewhat overrun with small children; a nice if noisy reminder that this is a very family friendly festival.

By lunchtime, a carnival atmosphere was building in the Spiegeltent, which will play host to the Unbound evenings from Sunday. Today, though, potential revellers just seemed to be enjoying the bar facilities – and, in true festival style, an escape from the suddenly ominous grey sky.

Pathetic fallacy, perhaps, but my first proper event of the day was the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers Series with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Much of the work read aloud – by Jonathan Meres, Bettany Hughes, Simon Stephenson and Sophie Hardach – was heart-wrenching stuff, but imbued with enough warmth and hope to get a good proportion of the audience sniffling. It is entirely to the Festival’s credit that they are putting these important events on for free, and I hope the series continues in the inspiring manner it began.

“Welcome to a home fixture,” James Naughtie told Alexander McCall Smith fifteen minutes later in the big opening event of the day, and indeed McCall Smith was clearly in his element in front of a predictably packed house, chuckling his way through excerpts from his 44 Scotland Street novels and discussing tapestry, Freud, and Auden with Naughtie. Fairly predictable stuff, perhaps, but the audience lapped it up and it was certainly an entirely pleasant way to spend an hour.

Later, while festival goers discussed Alexei Sayle’s swearing, and reactions to Tom McCarthy ranged from amazement to utter confusion, I snuck off to the RBS Corner Theatre to hear Sophie Hardach and Carlos Alba in discussion with Rosemary Burnett. Hardach and Alba each read excerpts from their debut novels, which both deal with themes of migration and family. Hardach is somewhat deadpan; Alba is overtly funny – a description of a grandmother’s first visit to Britain from Spain ends with the protagonist, a young boy, getting the nickname “Spanish Granny Pants” after his neighbours spy his grandmother’s underwear, which is “of gargantuan vastness”, on the washing line. On a more serious note, the speakers considered the bigger ideas behind migration: Hardach ended the event with a passionately optimistic eulogy to Britain’s “fantastically multicultural” society.

All in all, a highly promising start to what looks set to be a very good few weeks for Edinburgh’s literary crowd – and their children.

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