Edinburgh Book Festival reviews: Helen Macdonald | Maggie O'Farrell | The Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize

Even self-confessed traditionalist David Robinson has to admit that this year’s virtual Book Festival has certain advantages over the physical festivals of years gone by
Helen MacdonaldHelen Macdonald
Helen Macdonald

Call me a Grinchy, glass half-full traditionalist, but I prefer the old ways of doing things at Charlotte Square: listening to actual people and not just staring at screens, meeting friends, not just idly following chat box chatter. Let’s take all of that as, well, read.

All the same, I don’t have to struggle to accentuate the virtual bookfest’s positives. You want inclusivity and diversity? Try a festival where all 100+ events cost nothing (though all donations gratefully received). Where you don’t have to be healthy to attend. Where you can pause, rewind and replay everything. Where you don’t have to rush for the Glasgow train. Where, in the case of Joan Bakewell’s excellent interview with Val McDermid on Saturday, you could press one button and read what they were saying, another for sign language, and a third to vote on the best question from the audience. And where the whole wired world can eavesdrop on enlightenment, not just the lucky winners in the annual June hot ticket scramble.

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Let’s try some more heresy. That sometimes (Dame Joan again) an interviewer can be in a different country and still sound as though she’s in the same room. That Alycia Pirmohamed’s delight at being told she’s won the £20,000 Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize was perhaps even more natural at home than in front of 300 strangers in an Edinburgh tent. That, in the Opening Night Strange Times event, Karine Polwart’s song about her village’s communal togetherness in the face of the pandemic was best heard stabbed out on the keyboard of her piano in Pathhead, not in the Spiegeltent.

Here’s the big one. There’s quite a good case that when the words are really good, the setting doesn’t matter at all. Listen to Helen Macdonald read her superlative essay about swifts’ vesper flights (no, do: she’s at 45:35 into Strange Times) and I defy you not to be lost in wonder. Catch Maggie O’Farrell talking about Hamnet, and you can see how with absolute clarity how much writing about the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son meant to her. A completely engaging event concluded with chair Stuart Kelly reading out a comment the audience had already seen arrive on screen. “As a mother who has lost a child,” it read, “Hamnet has claimed a part of my heart”. Sometimes, you realise, the festival’s medium isn’t the key message at all.

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