Book festival: Right around the world in words

WHERE else but the Edinburgh Book Festival can you travel from London to Libya without leaving your seat in Charlotte Square? Or journey in a single day to take in the gates of Auschwitz and the summit of Everest?

First, there was Will Self, with an erudite, grandiloquent lecture on WG Sebald and the Holocaust. Beginning (somewhat improbably) with Woody Allen’s parody of Albert Speer at Nuremberg, he proceeded to contrast Speer, the First Architect of the Third Reich, with Sebald, the German author of The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. Sebald, who lived much of his life in East Anglia, was always haunted by his country’s past. He was doggedly determined to expose the small untruths of wartime complicity and produce what Self called “an active literature of atonement”.

Thence to London, where detective Tom Thorne finds himself investigating a hostage situation in a newsagents’ shop. Moreover, one of the victims in Mark Billingham’s new novel Good As Dead is police officer Helen Weeks, a previous heroine from a stand-alone title. Billingham’s book is currently at No 2 in the hardback bestseller charts, and with reason. In a completely different way to Self, he too is a master of making words do his bidding.

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Some 90 minutes later, another writer of flawless prose, novelist James Robertson, used the platform of the Saltire Society Book Prize to address the subject of “The Lockerbie Affair and Scottish Society”. Culture, he argued, should not be isolated from the political, legal and social framework of the nation, all the more so as Scotland moves towards an increasingly self-determining future. He called for the SNP government to institute an inquiry, as the “many questions” which still surround the Lockerbie trial “hang like spectral shadows over the future of our country”. Instead of fielding questions for Robertson, chairman Menzies Campbell, himself a former advocate, used much of the question-and-answer session to argue his own – contrasting – point of view on the issue.

Finally, to the mountains, with Andrew Greig, whose two poem sequences, Men on Ice (1977) and Western Swing (1994), have now been published, with other mountain poems, in a new volume, Getting Higher. It was a sublime reading, all the more so because Greig delivered it while battling bronchitis, and even found voice for a song.

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