There were only about 40 people watching Elif Shafak interview David Grossman this week, but if there’s one good thing about online book festival events, it’s that we can start multiplying those numbers straight away. Missed the best events in the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s first week? No, you haven’t. Step right up …
Thursday was de facto International Booker Day, with this year’s winner David Diop telling the hitherto sidelined story of the troops from French West Africa who fought in the First World War. As there were 135,000 of them, this is no small omission. But if you only have time for one International Booker winner, go for Grossman’s event. As Shafak pointed out, few writers write about sadness and tragedy - Grossman’s son was killed on the last day of the 2006 war with Lebanon - with such gentleness and grace.
Here is a novelist who, if he came from a less contentious country, would probably already have won the Nobel Prize. What I love about him is his openness: the acuity of his insight into writing for children, his refusal to stick to predictable points of view. That applies to his politics as well as his open-hearted fiction: we’ve all, he said, got our national story, which we can tell better than anyone, but sometimes we can get trapped by it too. This from a man who says he can’t feel completely at home in Israel until Palestinians do too.
For our own national story, we turn to people like Sir Tom Devine. But when he himself started out as a historian, more was known about post-1707 Yorkshire than Scotland. Ironically perhaps, he told Allan Little, who led him on an enjoyable gallop through 20th century Scottish historiography, it was English historians who made the difference - not political historians of Scotland, because back in the 1960s there were no such jobs in our universities - but economic and social ones. The significance of this English-led revival in Scottish history is that it predates rather than follows the rise in support for devolution.
Other highlights? You might have heard of Eyal Weizman and his website, www.forensic-architecture.org. I hadn’t. Like Eliot Higgins’s bellingcat.com it’s basically a VAR for human rights abuses. Thanks to smartphones, sharing apps and live streaming, it is now possible to use open source evidence in all kinds of unlikely settings, with increasingly realised aim of bringing their perpetrators of war crimes to justice.
She’s not singing with the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers at this festival, but Val McDermid’s talents shine out all the same. On Sunday, her interview with Pat Nevin was a joy from start to finish. I knew all about Nevin’s cultured right foot, but didn’t realise that he’d even worked as a DJ in the bar next door, or that he had such a happy childhood (“Like Shuggie Bain if you need cheering up”). She was back on Thursday to talk about her new novel, 1979, which as chair Zoe Strachan pointed out, is her best yet.
It’s also the start of a series of five novels, each set a decade further on. For the next - 1989 - she might find herself mentioning the fall of the Berlin Wall. The BBC’s America correspondent Nick Bryant did just that in his event, during which he made a case for the comparative greatness of the first President Bush. Why? Because even though he was urged to fly to Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Wall, he deliberately didn’t. It’s called statecraft, and right now there’s too little of it around.
Edinburgh International Book Festival events can be watched online at https://www.edbookfest.co.uk.
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