Last night, as the clock crept towards midnight, my train pulled back into Norwich. It is a 6 hour train journey from Edinburgh and you may think it strange but I enjoyed every minute of it – with the possible exception of the twenty minutes sitting in the drizzle on Peterborough station! To me, you see, long transport journeys are like being given a magic device which allows me to freeze time. Of course, I can’t do much except sit there and read, but without any distractions just doing that uninterrupted for hours on end is a joy. On the way up there (on the way up on Monday at 6am!) I was able to read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from cover to cover and on the way back it was the turn of Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.
These long train journeys/read-a-thons were a perfect way to bookend four exciting days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Thanks to the fantastic Arts Council, East project East to Edinburgh which provided excellent accommodation right in the city centre, I was able to experience the sights, sounds, and general ambiance of Edinburgh in August. It is no exaggeration to say I have never been anywhere like it. You cannot walk down the street without encountering a Fringe venue and an army of flierers, or have a meal out in the evening without being startled by the flyby aeroplanes and fireworks of the military tattoo.
And then, right in the midst of it all, there is this haven of literary adventure which takes place in a park on a roundabout just off Princes Street. Even with the traffic droning all about you and the occasional gust of wind or lashing of rain buffeting at the very fabric of the tent you are in, it is a relaxing, thought provoking place to be. Over the course of the festival I believe somewhere in the region of seven hundred events take place. While I was there I managed to catch twelve of them, seeing nineteen different writers sharing their excellent work. I had not seen any of them before and came away wondering exactly how we could programme them all into our next year or so of events. Particular highlights included:
· The eclectic and entertaining ‘reading’ given by French rock star Mathias Malzieu on his new book, The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart.
· Hearing two readings from Emily Ballou’s enthralling new collection. The Darwin Poems manages to tell a story about Darwin and his family which is well characterised, funny and thought provoking at the same time.
· New Writing Ventures winner Eleanor Thom reading from her debut novel, The Tin Kin, which including some enthralling passages being read by members of her family.
· Newly appointed UEA Writing Fellow Jeremy Page reading alongside Joseph Boyden. They seemed almost as impressed with each other as the audience was with their work.
· Kate Summerscale in conversation about her hugely successful and thoroughly exciting work of creative non-fiction, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.
I had to remain constantly vigilant to stop myself going into the Bookshop tent after every reading and splashing out on another big pile of books. But the great thing about visiting Edinburgh is that it is not just the authors and their books which allow you to enter different worlds. The city itself is like no other I have been to. You can be walking along cobbled streets around the castle one minute, with fairy tale houses rising high on either side and the smell of yeast wafting in from the breweries. Then you turn a corner and suddenly, rearing up in front of you so close you feel you could reach out and touch it, there is a vast cliff face. Around another corner you come across a sweeping vista across the Firth of Forth. It is a beautiful land to visit, where aged buildings rise up from the landscape itself, as though they are each a part of the a great timeless story. You can see why few cities have inspired such a preponderance of top writers. It will be an honour and a delight if Norwich is able to join Edinburgh as an UNESCO City of Literature soon.
But back to there (recently) here and now. It rained during much of my time there, but even wet shoes couldn’t dampen the mood. I met old friends and former colleagues, wondered aimlessly for hours on end, and even found the time to visit some Fringe events as well. A big thanks to Luke Wright whose show, The Petty Concerns of Luke Wright, is attracting rave reviews from all who see it, myself included. He even took time off from a busy schedule to join me for lunch and provide a personal guide to the Edinburgh Fringe while pushing a buggy through the busy streets of the Royal Mile.
There is just so much to discover. And the Book Festival isn’t the only scene of literary adventure. The Edinburgh Book Fringe takes place at a small independent bookshop on West Nicholson Street. I picked up a brochure and saw that there was a launch event for the new Scottish Writers’ Centre, an exciting young organisation with big ambitions for the future of writing in Scotland. I went along and had a mutually beneficial discussion with them which gave me a host of ideas to consider for the future. Then there is Utter!, a daily selection of words in a small bar just off George Street. The night I went to was on the theme of Political writing with three poets offering their take on politics, literature, and pretty much everything in between. I was particularly impressed by poet Jenny Lindsay who stood out and appears to have lots of potential indeed. Check her our if you get the chance.
All in all it was a wonderful week. I just wish I could have stayed a few days more! But in case you are planning an jaunt to Edinburgh in the next week or so, here are my top tips for getting the most out of your trip.
1. Go to the free Ten @ Ten readings each morning and follow them up with Wake up With Words in the Spiegeltent. Although the latter is pricey at £9 you get complimentary coffee and as many cinnamon buns you can eat. The readings aren’t bad either.
2. Go to The Bookshop after 3pm one day and treat yourself to an individual pecan pie. In the immortal words of William Carlos Williams (as referenced in Hannah Walker’s Escalator Showcase) “they were delicious”.
3. Collect a free copy of The Times in the entrance pavilion each morning and read it sat around the statue while soaking up the atmosphere. Maybe the sun will even shine if you are lucky.
4. Chat to the person next to you. I met some fascinating people while waiting for talks to start.
5. Pick up a leaflet and check out The Edinburgh Book Fringe.
6. Take a walk up Arthur’s Seat. It takes about an hour but the views are stunning.
7. And remember, the great thing about Edinburgh in August is that there are five concurrent festivals taking place. Check them all out. To quote Mr. Elton John: ‘there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.’
I think I’ll leave it there…