The little festival that grew

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FESTIVALS ARE NOT A PERMANENT fixture on the landscape but the white-walled pavilions on Charlotte Square are no longer made of canvas. Wind and rain may fell the fireworks in Edinburgh but this year the books and their writers are assured of staying dry, sheltered from the gales by walls of hard plastic. Happy Birthday, book festival.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival has come of age; 21 today, with a fully fledged mini-city in Charlotte Square Gardens. Literature may not be measured in statistics but some 650 events will draw 200,000 people, with a million pounds worth of books on sale. Dame Muriel Spark, at 86, makes her debut appearance at the event. That milestone could only be eclipsed by the return of one Joanne Rowling - that was how she was billed in 1997, reading to 20 children in a teepee and telling of how it felt to publish your first book.

Under heavy security, JK Rowling will now read to an audience of nearer 600 people with tickets chosen by lottery; if she chooses to sign all their books, she could be creating rare editions worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Sitting around a table in a George Street bar, rather awkwardly, over a couple of bottles of Prosecco, are the five people who made all this possible. All female, for the most part firmly rooted in Scotland; a very different story from the typical festival chief in Edinburgh.

Jenny Brown, literary agent; Shona Munro, educational psychologist; Jan Fairley, musicologist; Faith Liddell, director of Dundee Contemporary Arts, now founding Scotland’s first children’s film festival; and Catherine Lockerbie, director of EIBF and former Scotsman literary editor.

There was no blueprint for a book festival, Jenny Brown recalls. In 1983, when she moved from being assistant administrator at the Fringe, the Fringe itself had just two staff members. The Edinburgh book festival predated rivals such as Hay-on-Wye, in the days before Waterstone’s in Edinburgh, when city bookshops closed at 1pm on Saturdays. "These were pioneer days," she says. "It was supposed to be a one-off celebration of books. Nobody thought it could be sustained.

"There was no out-of-hours culture, no demonstrated thirst for books and hearing authors talk. Author book readings were just not around so much. It wasn’t something that people did, or something that publishers demanded their authors do." The nearest equivalent, Brown says, was something called the Bedford Square Book Bang, in London. Martyn Goff, who worked on that event and joined the Edinburgh book festival board, was always pushing for bad weather precautions; he knew the perils of being washed out.

Goff and his colleague in Scotland, Mary Baxter, were lynchpin figures in the early days, along with Lord Balfour of Burleigh, former chairman of the Scottish Arts Council. The council itself threw in its support; as did Ainslie Thin, of the James Thin bookshop family.

But it was the London publishers, says Brown, who backed the voyage into uncharted territory. At a meeting, Andr Deutsch, born in Hungary but a grand old man of British publishing, stood up and declared: "I am not going to give you any money, but I will give you John Updike." Updike’s presence gave the festival a huge lift; he was joined by Anthony Burgess. Brown remembers the two men meeting at the Roxburghe Hotel, with Burgess offering his hand: "Updike? Burgess. We have corresponded."

The children’s programme got off to a flying start. Brown credits the work of Valerie Bierman. Well connected to the London publishing scene, over the years she brought authors Rosemary Sutcliffe and Astrid Lindgren; the Asterix cartoonist, Albert Uderzo; and Laurent de Brunhoff, the son of the Barbar creator. Since then about a third of the programme has been directed at children and young people.

"It was a very early book festival," Brown recalls. "There were book fairs for the trade, but it was quite difficult getting over to publishers and the press what this animal was in those early days. It took quite a long time for the London journalists to know how to report it."

The public, however, knew how to respond. They showed up, about 30,000 of them, for the 14-day event, with about six events a day, and bought about 60,000 worth of books. It was an all-hands-to-the-pump operation. Every day at about 10pm, Ainslie Thin and David Flatman, of Bargain Books, would count the day’s takings in a Portacabin. Children and students helped out with staffing. One recollection is shared by all the former directors - plodding across the battered lawns of Charlotte Square, picking up cigarette butts.

In the early years there were persistent problems with power cuts; literary luminaries such as Garrison Keillor, Maya Angelou and Douglas Adams were all plunged into the dark one year. Another time, clouds of flying ants invaded the main tent. "We invited James Baldwin," Brown recalls, "and the publisher said ‘I don’t think he will come, he doesn’t have a new book to promote’. He came, and people were crawling under the tent flaps because they just wanted to hear him. You can’t do that with solid-sided tents."

From being a one-off, the festival went biannual. Jenny Brown directed five festivals, from 1983 to 1991. Shona Munro, an enormously important figure in the festival’s development, worked closely with her, and took the event on through the mid-1990s. The festival wouldn’t become international until 1999, but it was leading the way in world outreach. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai made his last appearance in Britain there.

Jan Fairley ran the festival from 1996 to 97. She had taken a Third World literature degree and taught in South America, and her tenure reflected that pedigree. She brought Che Guevara’s biographer, and held a major session with Gillian Slovo, daughter of Ruth First and Joe Slovo, on the African National Congress. Peruvian novelist and journalist Mario Vargas Llosa opened the festival.

Faith Liddell followed. As the festival went annual, it went up a notch and Liddell, running the event from 1998 to 2000, took on new Scottish politics, from land reform to drink. "I came in at an interesting time because it was just at the point where devolution was happening," she says. "That was a great festival to use the writers and look at cultural identity, politics and society, but we even looked at things like alcohol that year. We just brought in a lot of people who were writing about alcohol, in one form or another."

Liddell’s best moment was when Norman Mailer told her the festival had reshaped his thinking. The worst was the Ann Widdecombe riot. In 2000 the shadow home secretary was reading from her novel when asylum protesters surrounded her tent. "They jumped the fence, tried to break into the Spiegeltent, jumped on my staff, then went round hammering on the tent. We were barricaded inside." Widdecombe was escorted out by six policemen, but the protesters then converged on her taxi.

Current director Catherine Lockerbie approached this, her fourth year, determined to bring both Muriel Spark and JK Rowling to the birthday party. During her tenure, turnover and staff have doubled, as have visitor numbers - expected to hit 200,000 this year. Lockerbie has survived the festival’s hottest year and its wettest - in 2002, trenches were dug, and staff swapped T-shirts for cagoules. Physically, she says, the festival simply cannot grow any bigger within the boundaries of Charlotte Square. "It’s not about growth any more.

"I wanted to get JK Rowling reading at the book festival where she belongs, where she will not be a global celebrity or the world’s richest woman, but return to what she is and always has been: a wonderful storyteller. I was adamant that she needed to read again."

For Muriel Spark there is the lure of the first Enlightenment Award, in the form of a gift commissioned this year from Tim Richards, who turns architectural sculptures into elaborate book ends.

"One of the things that inevitably happens is that there is a finite number of the world’s great writers; they don’t clone and reproduce themselves every year," says Lockerbie. "It’s an interesting challenge, as the book festival grows older and matures, to bring people to the festival who have never been before, because inevitably that list diminishes year on year."

There are now hundreds of book festivals across the world, popping up on an almost weekly basis, and pushing 200, small and large, in Britain alone. The market has become far bigger; publishers and authors can pick and choose. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," says Lockerbie. "The more of these festivals there are, the better, but it does make our job harder, not easier. The marketplace is getting quite crowded and I constantly have to be thinking how we can maintain our distinctiveness, maintain our national and international reputation, maintain what it is that makes us special and what makes authors want to come."

Increasingly, the festival is about much more than one-off appearances by authors; discussions and debates are high on the bill. "This is a festival where you come to talk as well as listen," says Lockerbie. "It’s not a passive experience; both authors and punters love that." She estimates that the festival has grown 20 times in size since it began. There were 120 writers at the first event; about 600 attend now. This year, managers will order about 1m worth of books for sale over 17 days.

But the basic model, of the public meeting authors in a tented village in those gardens - from great international authors to leading Scottish authors, to new authors and children’s authors - was broadly created back in 1983. Festival directors were not from the newer breed of "arts professionals"; with the exception of Catherine Lockerbie, they all worked in their early days at the Fringe. "I do think it’s interesting that we are all female and all from here, which is absolutely the exception to the rule," says Lockerbie. People assume, she says, that Edinburgh’s festivals are fixtures, solid institutions. "But the book festival has run on pure passion through the years, and sometimes there’s been a slight feeling of almost being on the precipice.

"From the outside, looking in, it feels like a nice reassuring institution. But all of this is contingent, we have had to scrape and fight and beg and borrow over the years to get enough money to put the festival on. There’s been a high rate of attrition. It’s mentally and physically exhausting to run something of these dimensions. In the last three years we’ve managed to catch up with ourselves and draw breath, but festivals are not guaranteed to be there forever.

"It takes a huge amount of hard work and stubbornness to keep the momentum growing."