Edinburgh International Book Festival reviews: Alice Oswald | Jeremy Deller | Blake Morrison | John Niven

Some authors have chosen to boycott the book fest this year, but others such as Alice Oswald haven't, and the award-winning poet had a suitably elegant explanation why. Elsewhere there were illuminating discussions about poetry-as-magic, “sib lit” and a deeply personal memoir, writes Susan Mansfield.

THE writers at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival may have found themselves facing a last-minute decision: follow Greta Thunberg’s lead and boycott the event due to sponsor Baillie Gifford’s links with fossil fuels, or come along anyway. Thankfully for us, many have chosen the latter, including the multi-award-winning poet Alice Oswald, who began her event with a typically elegant explanation of her reasons.

Saying she was appearing “willingly and belligerently”, Oswald went on: “You can’t change culture through information and opinion alone, you can only change culture through imagination… The Westminster Government has decided to cut funding to ‘low value arts courses’, to switch off the imagination. That will affect how we respond to the current [climate] crisis.” A vote for the book festival, then, is a vote for imagination.

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Oswald shared the stage with another extraordinary poet, Zaffar Kunial, reading from a project they devised together after meeting at a literary festival in Norway, brand new work on which the ink was still wet. The question ‘If you were an animal, what animal would you be?’ developed into ‘What animal would a poet be?’ and thus into an exchange of poems about beetles, badgers and a spider found in a shoe. The chance to be the first audience for new work by two of the leading poets working in English felt like book festival fare at its best.

If poetry is a little bit magical, so is art, at least according to contemporary artist Jeremy Deller who was in conversation with journalist Charlotte Higgins. His book, Art is Magic, is a kind of restrospective-in-print, bringing together his artworks, from his reconstruction of the Battle of Orgreave between police and striking miners using former miners and battle re-enactors, to ‘We’re here because we’re here’, his memorable project which placed soldiers in First World War uniforms in city centres around Britain on the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Deller, who won the Turner Prize in 2004, said that trying to find the right tone for the book, to talk about his work to as broad an audience as possible, was “the most mortifying experience of my life”. Surely, it was worth it, though, because his art is a kind of magic, weaving together politics and history and culture and imagination, whether that’s persuading brass bands to play acid house tunes or creating a bouncy castle version of Stonehenge.

Meanwhile, poet and memorist Blake Morrison coined a new genre: “sib lit”. “Most memoirs are vertical, about parents and children, books about siblings are much more rare.” His new book, Two Sisters, is about his sister Gill, who could be two very different women, depending on what stage she was at in her long battle with alcoholism. It’s also the story of Josie, the daughter of a family friend, whom he discovered in later life was his half-sister.

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Memoir, he said, provides a way to tell the stories one “couldn’t make up”, like the story of his mother, a GP, delivering baby Josie, the child of an affair between her husband and her best friend.

John Niven PIC: John Phillips/Getty ImagesJohn Niven PIC: John Phillips/Getty Images
John Niven PIC: John Phillips/Getty Images

He shared the stage with novelist John Niven whose memoir, O Brother, tells the story of his Ayrshire upbringing and his brother Gary, a charismatic drifter and sometime drug-dealer who committed suicide at the age of 42. Always one to turn a fine phrase, Niven described a suicide in the family as “the Chernobyl of the soul”, leaving a long chain of questions with a lingering half-life. The process of writing was “not closure or catharsis” but a privilege: an act of spending time with the person who has gone and the questions left in their wake.