Sunday, 28 August 2011

Sunday Supplement: 3 days in Edinburgh

One of the biggest privileges of a job that corresponds with my passions is that work trips become a little bit like holidays. It is work, and I work hard - there's no sitting by a pool drinking cocktails and having affairs as is the way of literature (I've just read Something Happened by Joseph Heller, which is almost exclusively about work enabled misdemeanors) - but work done in the pursuit of passion is no different from pleasure.

I came across a quote scrawled across the side of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh that captures what excites me about working in literature. "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation." said Alasdair Gray (pictured right), though he in turn attributes it to Canadian poet Dennis Lee. The early days of a better nation, a time when humanity takes a step forward, must be the most hope-fueled times, when all come together and anyone may make a difference. To work amid such an atmosphere must be inspirational.

These are not the early days of a better nation - the UK I live in is old and tired and wracked with embarrassments of social inequality that inspire in me little more than despair at those who set the tone of our national dialogues - but we cannot determine the times we live in. What we can do is follow our passions and contribute. When I get back to work on Tuesday, the first thing I'll do is type that quote up and stick it above my computer screen to remind and drive myself forward.

But enough pocket self help, it's the beautiful city of Edinburgh in its August pomp that I want to talk about. I arrived late on Tuesday evening, emerging into a cool bright evening that almost took my breathe away. I've been to Edinburgh three or four times now, but no amount of memory prepared me for the cityscape that emerged as I walked up the ramp out of Waverley station. With the castle lit, glowing atop its volcanic mound, and other grand stone building scattered about and illuminated in soft yellow light, it was a little like entering an impossible fantasy city.

Edinburgh is by far my favourite city in the UK, rivaled only by Barcelona of those worldwide cities I've visited. When I first properly visited Edinburgh, aged 20 or so, I remember sitting on the train as it pulled out of Edinburgh, cramming my neck to get a last look, then scribbling wildly a piece of florid description. I've just dug it out in an old notebook, and despite its rather overblown language, I am rather pleased to see that my thoughts still stand:
"Edinburgh is a formidable city. Gazing at its rising Old City capped with the castle at it it's fore, is like staring at an ancient knight. The knight sits atop his steed while behind and around him, the buildings line up like foot soldiers. They would be a formidable army, but somehow a feeling of calm drifts across the valley. A sense that this bastille of the ancients has seen too much for battle, is too old and wise and strong to need to resort to violence. This is why Edinburgh is formidable: it is architecturally and historically beautiful and powerful so as to crush the soul. But it doesn't. It wont. It stands and watches and like a mighty oak reminds us of our transience, our weakness; that in the grand scheme of things we are but momentary blips in a majestic and mighty world."

Whatever the many festivals offer, it is nothing compared to the physical landscape that underpins it. That is saying a lot, given how much the festivals offer. I was there primarily to take in the International Book Festival, but also some live literature at the Fringe and over 2 and a half days managed to see twelve events, play a literary game, win a Five Dials quiz (though I contributed nothing to the win!), meet inspiring people from Edinburgh City of Literature and holding their new book sculpture, visit museums, and even sing along with a rosy cheeked folk singer in the basement of a pub! Busy times.

I saw some fantastic authors reading from their work and discussing writing and literature. Particular standouts included James Robertson reading from his epic work of Scottish history, And the Land Lay Still, Gerrard Woodward from Nourishment, Elias Khoury and Tahar Ben Jelloun in conversation, and an Amnesty celebration of the works of Aung San Suu Kyi with readings from four authors including Jackie Kay, Naomi Wood, and Kevin Crossley-Holland.

There were some fascinating comments within these and other events. Namita Gokhale, Indian writer and director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, made me laugh with a throwaway phrase from her latest book: "age is no defense against anything. It doesn't even cure you of youth!" Chan Koonchung (left), a Chinese author talked eloquently about changing Chinese mentalities and whether citizens would choose a 'good hell' or a 'counterfeit paradise' , another Chinese writer and winner of the MAN Asia Prize, Bi Faiyu offered a wonderful metaphor of publication and translation being like pouring water from a big jug into different glasses for different people to drink. But it was Elias Khoury and Tahar Ben Jelloun who had the most interesting things to say. I particularly liked Elias Khoury's thoughts on influence, and belief that stories don't so much reflect real life as they do other stories, that they are shaped by what came before and after, and that for this reason the 1001 Arabian Nights is the ultimate book.

It must be difficult to be an author of Arab descent at the moment. It doesn't really matter what you say about books or literature, how interesting you are on these subjects or how convincing your reading, the Arab Spring overshadows all. It is all any interviewer or audience member wants to ask about. They had interesting comments, of course, and the scrutiny was on every word they said on this subject, but they were far more interesting on writing. A quick look at the Twitter #EdBookFest hashtag will show you what I mean.

That said, Twitter really helps bring events and readings alive, enabling audience members to talk to each other about interesting aspects of events. For those attending events alone as I was, this social aspect made a huge difference.

One of the most enjoyable events of all was Unbound, a nightly evening of literature and entertainment in the Spiegeltent. I went to one hosted by Five Dials, one of the most interesting and experimental literary journals out there. Hosted by its editor Craig Taylor, the evening included readings from Catherine O'Flynn, Ross Raisin and a lascivious biographical description of Colm Toibin's youth in Barcelona. There was also a great idea for a fun quiz and lots of free whiskey!

At the Fringe I took part in Hinterland, a playable poem in which you seek conversations with strangers in order to generate and contribute to the development of a series of cantos. Having made an avatar at a playschool-esque table of paints and pipe cleaners, I was given a little red book and sent out into Edinburgh to seek a French speaking person with whom to converse. Having found said person, we discussed the sky and things we don't like, phoned the answers through to an operator, and, a little while later received the first canto. At this point I returned to get the second volume. Sadly, time prevented me progressing further, to canto three or four, but it was an enjoyable experience, an interesting attempt at combining place specific gaming with poetry, and something I'll keep an eye on with interest. You can listen to the four cantos here.

Add in a number of useful meetings, the creative milieu of the city, and a couple of museum trips, I had a very useful few days. I've taken away lots of ideas for future events and programmes, encountered a number of authors I didn't previously know and some others I knew but had not seen read. I can't wait to get to work on Tuesday and start putting this all into practice.


Helen W. Mallon said...

Beautiful. We should all be condemned to work so hard at what we love!

Sam Ruddock said...

Great comment. I love your use of the word 'condemned' there. Fits perfectly. Thanks Helen!