Edinburgh International Book Festival: Richard Holloway | Rupert Everett
Scotsman critic Susan Mansfield rounds up the latest from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, with events featuring Richard Holloway and Rupert Everett
Richard Holloway was a fitting guest to begin a series of interviews celebrating the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 30th birthday. In the first of a series which will take place over the next few days, Holloway was invited to reflect on the last three decades, which have seen his personal transformation from bishop to BBC broadcaster, chairman of the Scottist Arts Council, and public thinker on a variety of topics, religious and otherwise.
In conversation with the festival’s first director, Jenny Brown, he reflected, as Rowan Williams did earlier in the week, that institutions – financial, political, religious – are in a period of crisis. Religion is “stuck on a particular understanding of itself”, too much of which is “defying modernity, with a bronze-age God and bronze-age values”.
However, he likened the Book Festival to “the right kind of church”, whether serious-minded thinking and debate still happens and where the “alumni” of the church can be “consoled, nourished and challenged”. Certainly, they flock to listen to Holloway, whose “secular sermon” on the final night of the Book Festival, a regular event for several years, was always a sell-out.
In his role as chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, Holloway underwent what he describes as a “conversion” to the power of the Arts, and he became an impassioned spokesman for the intrinsic value of creative endeavour. “Politics is something we need to do in the same way we need to clean our lavatories,” he said, succinctly. “The Arts are the best of humanity”. One of his current passions is his role as founding chairman of Sistema Scotland, the organisation behind the Big Noise orchestras, which aim to change the lives of young people in deprived areas through classical music.
Holloway has been for many years an advocate of the rights of gay people, “marrying” his first gay couple when he was a priest at Old Saint Paul’s, Edinburgh, in 1972. In this respect, he would have had plenty to discuss with actor Rupert Everett, the next guest to take centre stage at the Book Festival, who spoke movingly about travelling to Russia with representatives of the UN to observe the situation faced by gay people in that country.
New laws introduced by Putin’s government mean that gay people in Russia live in fear of arrest, and those with HIV are forced to pretend to be drug addicts in order to access treatment. Everett backed Stephen Fry’s call for a boycott of Russia’s Winter Olympics at Sochi in 2014, after Fry used Twitter to compare the situation to the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
This, however, was a serious moment in a colourful event in which the actor scandalised and delighted the audience with his salacious celebrity anecdotes. Everett, who has proved himself a fine writer, with two volumes of memoir and two novels to his name, is capable of moving seamlessly from a story about being stuck without his clothes at a nude night in a Berlin leather bar, to explaining how he has been reading the 18th-century social reformer Jeremy Bentham.
These days, he said, his best acting jobs tend to come through projects he himself has initiated. He has been working for seven years on a film about the last years of Oscar Wilde in which he will star and, after a successful on-stage appearance as Wilde in David Hare’s play, Judas Kiss, he hopes that the film may at last leave the starting blocks in 2014.
Sunday evening concluded with novelist James Robertson being interviewed by fellow writer Denise Mina about his new novel, The Professor of Truth. “Some of you may have noticed there are some parallels here,” Robertson smiled, referring to the fact that his novel explores in fiction the events of the Lockerbie plane crash and the “huge questions” which remain about what happened, 25 years on.
Robertson was working as a bookseller in Waterstones in Edinburgh’s George Street in December 1988, fielding the pre-Christmas rush, when he heard the news of the Lockerbie crash by phone. His interest in the events and subsequent investigation grew in the years that followed, and he spoke of the potential in fiction to “crack open a door” when a judgement appears to be all but concluded.
While emphasising that the book is fiction, but he spoke of how fiction has a role in “getting under the skin of fact”. “That’s what fiction should be about, going into difficult territory and finding out what happens when you get there.”
Originally published in The Scotsman