Edinburgh International Book Festival review: Day One

Australian writer Tim Winton
Australian writer Tim Winton
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Unexpected sunshine graced the first day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday, drawing the crowds to bask in Charlotte Square.

By the time the heavens opened in the early evening, the festival was well under way.

The first guest in the New York Times Main Theatre was leading Australian novelist Tim Winton, bringing an air of sun and surf from the Antipodes. Winton, 59, a multi-award winner for novels such as Cloud Street, Dirt Music and Breath, still surfs every day near his home in Western Australia. Writing, he says, is a lot like surfing: much time spent waiting for the swell, then a ride back to shore on a wave which began beyond the horizon.

Softly self-deprecating as he is (asked a question about his writing practice by the New York Times’ John Williams, he replied: “I just make this s*** up as I go along, mate”) Winton is a prolific and committed writer whose finely tuned, compassionate novels are both critically acclaimed and popular. His latest is The Shepherd’s Hut, the story of a disaffected 15-year-old burning his way across the Australian desert, encountering a reclusive priest (in the eponymous hut) and confronting the big questions of life.

Winton explained that his novels always start with landscape – “like a scene from a bad western, the shimmering haze across the saltpans from which the characters emerge”. In this case, the one who emerged was the teenage Jaxie Clackton, who is, among other things, an angry, misogynistic racist and a dab hand with a shotgun. Winton admits he was both intrigued and appalled by him as the story evolved.

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The troubled journey to manhood was also the subject of a conversation between Damian Barr and Richard Holloway yesterday morning. After the publication of his best-selling memoir, Maggie & Me, Barr described how he became fascinated by the true story of Raymond Buys, a South African teenager who died after a catalogue of abuse in a camp run by former soldiers which promised to “make men out of boys”.

Investigating Buys’ story, Barr had “questions I couldn’t answer in the present”, and found himself looking back to the Boer War, in which Britain had the dubious honour of building some of the world’s first concentration camps (which later inspired the Nazis).

Barr’s first novel, You Will Be Safe Here, interweaves a fictional present-day story of a boy like Buys with that of a white South African farmer’s wife in the Boer War who is taken, with her son, to a camp as British forces instigate a scorched-earth policy. When Jacob Rees-Mogg is speaking on Question Time about how concentration camps have been misunderstood, he said, and the language of a post-Brexit return to empire is bandied recklessly about, there was never a more important time to understand our history.

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Meanwhile, Booker prizewinning novelist Ben Okri also addresses the current political situation in his latest book The Freedom Artist. Okri’s recent work has inhabited the world of myth and allegory, but the new book has an element of political satire too, imagining a world in which a populus, fed on a diet of fake news and social control, sleepwalk into voting away their freedoms.

In a festival which has boldly proclaimed the need for new stories, Okri made a powerful argument for the role of books in waking people up politically: “It is an important job of storytellers to unmesmerise us.”

SUSAN MANSFIELD

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