For the past decade or so, I’ve been counting down my years in Edinburgh Book Festivals rather than birthdays. It’s a much less painful system, it means over two weeks of celebration, and the real birthday is in there somewhere for traditionalists.
While the Fringe rages all around it, this festival is an oasis of bookish bonhomie populated by like-minded folk, all obsessed with the written word. The festival team know they have a formula which works, so don’t overly tinker with it. The secret of that success? Invite the best writers available and get them to talk about their books all in the one place. What could be better?
This year it all happens between the 15th – 31st August, and, as usual, there’s far too much of the good stuff to mention it all here. I suggest reading the whole programme at edbookfest.co.uk, but not before you’ve read Scots Whay Hae’s preview of this year’s festival.
Scotland’s greatest writers are out in force, with Ali Smith and John Burnside leading the way on the opening weekend. If you have to beg, borrow and steal to see those two (and you may have to) then no jury in the land would convict you. Janice Galloway has a new collection of short stories, Jellyfish, which I highly recommend and she is always worth listening to. Others include previous SWH! podcast guests Louise Welsh, James Robertson, and Karen Campbell whose latest novel Rise is one of the best of the year so far. Michel Faber appears on the 29th, the author of Under the Skin and last year’s unforgettable The Book of Strange New Things. The day before, the equally charismatic Andrew O’Hagan will be talking about the inspiration behind his latest novel The Illuminations.
There is a common, if idealistic, perception of Scotland as a liberal and tolerant society, leaning nonchalantly to the left (with exceptions, such as those who like to take a morning stroll in celebration of ancient religious rivalry, and golf clubs); a place where a man’s a man for a’ that, but such a generalisation can lead to complacency and may hide troubling specifics. It is worth reflecting that homosexual acts between consenting male adults were criminal until 1980, when the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act was passed, 13 years after such legislation was passed in Wales and England. Consider how Scotland, and the rest of the world, changed in other ways between 1967 and 1980 and that disparity is as shameful as it is shocking. As Jeff Meek asks in his Afterword to Out There, the recent anthology of Scottish LGBT writing, “Why was Scotland different?”.
It’s a question which Christopher Whyte, whose story ‘Unfamiliar Rooms’ also features in Out There, posed in the introduction to his 1985 book Gendering The Nation: Studies In Modern Scottish Literature. He explores the theory that the growing importance of questions of nationalism in this period overshadowed other issues of equality. For a while it was if Scotland could only deal with one thing at a time. Certainly it has been posited before that Scottish Literature was spending so much energy justifying its existence in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that it was a rare voice which commented that what was being offered as a Scottish canon, and, in turn, the criticism of it, was hardly diverse in terms of analysis, gender or voice. If you believe that a country’s literature is a reflection of its society, culture and people, then the connections are clear. Continue reading
In the latest edition of the online literary magazine The Bottle Imp various people were asked to name their best books of 2014, and although there were a lot of really good books this year (see Five Alive: The Best Fiction of 2014… for just a small selection), Ali Smith’s How To Be Both was the outstanding choice for me, so much so that now I come to write a full review of it I find it difficult.
I once wrote an appreciation of The Blue Nile album Hats for the sadly defunct Word magazine, and found that almost impossible due to the fondness I have for the record. It’s something to do with wanting, or needing, to do the thing you have come to love critical justice. It deserves your best. I’ve read How To Be Both twice now, and before 2015 is out I know I’ll go back for a third time. This is partly because it can be read in a number of ways, but it is mainly because, like all the best art, it gives up something new and exciting every time. Continue reading