I’ve been reporting on the Edinburgh International Book Festival for this newspaper for 20 years now and in a strange way, this online festival reminds me of my very first one. For a few years after 2000, provided we were quiet and discreet about it, journalists were allowed to slip out of one Charlotte Square tent and into another. We could sample pretty much everything, from Seamus Heaney to Candace Bushnell, and all for nothing.
Now, everybody’s got that same magic ticket. There are almost 150 events, and if you cared to, you could see them all, live or via catch-up. How much is that worth?
Measured on last year’s ticket prices (maximum: £12), it’s well over £1,000. Of course, even a former books editor like me wouldn’t want to see every single event, but I would still have liked to see at least 18 of this week’s events. “Thank you Mr Robinson,” says an imaginary box office voice in my head, “that’ll be £216, please.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,”
I reply. “It’s not a real festival, is it?”
Well, is it? Can a series of online events ever add up to a “real festival”? Of course not, was my first reaction – festivals have to be live, they are made by their audiences, just as books are made by their readers. Indeed, I know at least one book festival director who would go even further. The value of what happens in Charlotte Square, she would say, isn’t just the live spark of engagement between audience and writer, but also the creative connections that flow from meetings between writers themselves.
On those terms, this isn’t a “proper festival”. But to me, it is. Yes, there’s always a risk it will just shrink away to nothingness on the online ocean. But I don’t think the Edinburgh International Book Festival will, and here’s why.
It never was and never can be fair that only a small number of people in Edinburgh could get to see this Nobel laureate or that Man Booker Prize winner, but the poor, the sick or otherwise disadvantaged and people everywhere else in the world could not.
The Book Festival has a good track record on accessibility, but this year it really threw the switch. Everything is free for the next month, and not just (as with the online Hay-on-Wye) for the first 24 hours. And while I accept that it’s not strictly comparable, it’s worth pointing out that anyone wanting to watch the speakers at this week’s online-only Edinburgh TV festival (with David Olusoga, Grayson Perry, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal all on the bill) would have had to fork out £249 for the privilege.
My second argument is the Book Festival’s second week programme itself. For me, the tone was set early on in a charming event with Michael Morpurgo and Polly Dunbar. They’ve still never met in person, but the conversation between the author of Warhorse and his latest illustrator seemed even more relaxed than if they’d shared a stage.
In their book, Owl or Pussycat? Morpurgo goes back more than seven decades to the first time he appeared on stage. He was five, dressed up as an owl, in love with his feline co-star, but tongue-tied at the very moment when he had to serenade her in their pea-green boat.
As Dunbar drew the scene for us, they talked of other things. Sometimes, she said, words carried such a heavy magic that she wondered whether they really needed illustrating. She mentioned how much she was missing the theatre, and that feeling of togetherness as the audience sets off on its collective journey. Yes, said Morpurgo, he did too: he loved the way in which everyone relies on one another in the theatre, and the sheer riskiness of performance.
All that applies to book festivals too, and no writer this week had a riskier appearance than Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. Just 23, but already he is used to being stalked, verbally abused, and banned from any country that wants to keep in with China, and he goes to sleep each night not knowing whether the police will break down his door at 5am. He could even, he said calmly, be arrested under the new National Security Law – punishable by death, though he chose not to mention the fact – just for speaking to us.
Future book festivals will no doubt do even more to link up with front-line activists all over the world (come in, Greta Thunberg, you don’t even need to leave Stockholm) and that’s clearly one advantage. But surely the trade-off is a complete lack of that vital intellectual spark that was always part of the old way of doing things?
Well, that’s what I would have thought too. But the really great communicators prove me wrong. Watch – no, I insist – David Eagleman on the latest secrets we’re uncovering about the brain and see if it doesn’t fire up at least a few million of the 86 billion neutrons locked away in your skull.
If your jaw doesn’t drop at the possibilities of adding to our available senses (seeing new colours, using Fitbit-type devices which are already helping the deaf to hear) or his theory about what dreams owe to the planet’s rotation, then you’ve no sense of wonder at all.
In which case, catch Helen Macdonald talking about swifts, meadows and watching eclipses and some of it will surely return. Or, come to that, Richard Holloway on why even a sense of wonder isn’t enough to draw him back to the certainties of faith.
What else? Boringly, I’d have to rate it a score draw between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and MSP Ruth Davidson as interviewers (both excellent, of Bernardine Evaristo and Alexander McCall Smith respectively), though Ms Sturgeon is made of sterner stuff than me if she really did read both verse novels in Evaristo’s back catalogue.
Fangirl enthusiasm in an interviewer can sometimes be offputting, but Vicky Featherstone’s sheer love of Anne Enright’s novel Actress was so infectious I’d happily see it again, and I’d say the same for Douglas Stuart’s chat with Damian Barr, which was both warm-hearted and wise about growing up gay and working-class in 1980s Scotland.
Or Palestinian writer Adania Shibli telling Fatima Bhutto about being arrested in Israel as an Iranian spy. Or … well, work your own way through the programme, because for the first time, everything is still freely available. And that’s got to count for a lot, hasn’t it?
Not everything worked. Zoom book signings were relatively few, had to be booked in advance and were often poorly attended. After a wonderful event with Michel Faber, I was the last in a virtual queue of just three people; had the event been in Charlotte Square, there would almost certainly have been 100 or more. Against that, there are a stream of positives, only some of which will be able to be measured in the statistics the festival will unveil on Tuesday.
But even though it has still got another three days to run, for providing Edinburgh with its only August festival with a daily changing programme of quality and range, and for turning their own jobs inside out to make it happen, its staff already deserve bouquets, both virtual and real.
All Edinburgh International Book Festival’s events are available to watch for free at www.edbookfest.co.uk. The programme continues until the end of the month.
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