Book Festival: Edinburgh’s part in writing history
When Edinburgh’s International Book Festival began 30 years ago, it was one of just three in the UK. How times have changed, says its first director, Jenny Brown
Crossing the threshold of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I’m bombarded by memories. The years peel away, and while the leafy central venue of Charlotte Square may be the same, I remember the Gardens as they were for the very first Book Festival in 1983. The tents were more like a scout camp in comparison to today’s magnificent tented village. Then we had just one theatre for author events, and now there are eight. It’s hard to equate this world’s biggest celebration of books with its modest beginnings 30 years ago. That first skimpy programme boasted just 120 writers compared with a record this year of 800 writers from 40 different countries. Then we received 30,000 visitors (all of whom paid an entrance fee of GBP1); 30 years later the Festival will welcome seven times that number.
But all good things need to start somewhere, and a book festival was a brave venture in 1983, with just two others in the UK (now there are an astonishing 300). And factor in early 1980s Edinburgh, with no established tradition of live author events, and in those pre-Waterstones days, bookshops closed at Saturday lunchtime and only re-opened on Monday morning. Braver still was the Book Festival board in entrusting the running of this new festival to someone from the Fringe Office in her mid-twenties. Fortunately, my colleague, Val Bierman, had lots of experience in organising children’s book events and assembled a fabulous programme for young readers which included Leon Garfield, Raymond Briggs and Shirley Hughes.
Since that first event, the Book Festival has notched up some three million visitors. Given the competition, what entices writers and readers back here year after year? The answer lies in the guiding philosophy, discernible from the outset but taken to new levels under Nick Barley and his predecessor Catherine Lockerbie’s directorships: the festival’s deeply democratic nature, treating all writers with the same respect; the interchange of ideas between authors and audience; the joyous celebration of the written word by literary stars and debut talent; and the essential emphasis on inspiring the next generation of readers. And of course the irresistible draw of Edinburgh itself, festival city par excellence, the first Unesco City of Literature.
The burgeoning of literary festivals comes at a time when the book industry is in a state of flux, with the rise of e-books, piracy and internet sales. Despite the changes, it seems that the British are reading as much as ever: total book sales last year were GBP3.3 billion. The sale of physical books was slightly down, but the figures were more than compensated by digital sales, up by 66 per cent. The appetite to engage with authors in live debate has never been greater. Away from the barrage of instant news information, writers can offer a more subtle perspective on everything from economic issues to wayward relationships, so our programme includes not only fiction writers and poets, but philosophers, historians – and politicians if they have something new and urgent to say about our world. These are by no means one-way presentations, but participatory sessions, making the Book Festival one of the leading forums for debate and discussion.
Over the past few years, the festival has pushed at the boundaries and sought to innovate, such as the free late night Unbound events which offer wonderfully eclectic literary entertainment. And Stripped, this year’s celebration of comics and graphic novels will introduce regular visitors to fresh ideas in reading and storytelling, and draw a new audience to Charlotte Square.
I have a special interest in seeing at this festival two writers from that first 1983 programme who have since become stars of the Scottish literary firmament. One is Liz Lochhead, now Scots Makar, the other William McIlvanney who then read from his newly published novel, Laidlaw. This year he returns on the wave of the triumphant republication of his work by Canongate.
To celebrate the Book Festival’s 21st birthday in 2004, the then five directors in its history assembled for a photo in Charlotte Square Gardens. Our collective memory may be the nearest to an official history the Festival will ever have.
Over the years there have been many glorious moments as authors spark and crackle on stage: Christabel Bielenberg with Jung Chang, Carole Shields in conversation with Liz Lochhead, James Baldwin with James Campbell, and Norman Mailer and Andrew O’Hagan, separated by the Atlantic but memorably brought together for the Festival audience by technology. One of my all-time favourite events featured two octogenarians, diplomat Fitzroy MacLean and art historian Steven Runciman, discussing travel in the first half of the 20th century. It was another era: Fitzroy recalled persuading his wife to jettison her ball gowns from the trunks before crossing the Himalayas on foot.
One of the highlights was a no-show – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author Hunter S Thompson’s failure to turn up at the very last minute, despite his publishers laying on every inducement possible in Scotland, from golf to grouse. His leather-clad fans were turned away at the box office, muttering that they had never really expected him to come anyway. Not so the audience for the following event, historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett and Antonia Fraser. The avid Dunnett fans (to all appearances respectable women of a certain age) caused a near stampede at the box office when they discovered the event was sold out.
Technical hitches cropped up frequently in the early days – the sudden failures of power which plunged Garrison Keillor and Maya Angelou into darkness and, memorably, Douglas Adams at the opening event of 1991. I remembered meeting a visitor a few days later who commented she had been in the audience for Adams’s reading. “Mmm … dark,” I offered by way of apology – “Yes, and very handsome!” she rejoined.
Many of the best moments happen off stage. In my time, Angela Carter and Jan Pienkowski, surrounded by a host of children, delighted by the huge colourful frieze they had all created that morning. Two memorable handshakes from past years seem to encapsulate the enduring generous international spirit of the festival: one, a photo still on my wall, was the first meeting of Israeli writer Amos Oz, at the height of his fame, and Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri, then still unpublished, in the centre of Charlotte Square. The other was the encounter, over breakfast, between the two stars of that first 1983 programme. One proffered his hand: “Updike? Burgess – we have corresponded.”