NEVER has the Book Festival’s main theatre felt so much like a revivalist meeting as it did when Rev Jesse Jackson arrived on Saturday evening. Trailed by an entourage of black men in smart suits – including a photographer intent on snapping the audience from all angles – Rev Jackson made his entrance to booming applause, shaking hands with the people in the front row.
We were won over immediately, of course, not that the veteran civil rights campaigner who stood for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 1988 had much winning over to do. As a venerated member of the American Left, about to receive an honorary degree from Edinburgh University, he was clearly preaching to the converted.
In conversation with Ruth Wishart, he was less a firebrand than a measured, intelligent voice on American politics. It was only at the end of the event, when he insisted on taking further questions from the audience after time had been called and shaking more hands in the crowd, that his personal charisma really started to shine through.
Jackson spoke of recent American politics in terms of “a wave of hope and an undercurrent of despondency”; that the progress made on civil rights, healthcare and international relations during Obama’s presidency has happened in the teeth of a “headwind” of determined and personal right-wing opposition. A black man in the White House has far from vanquished racism, as recent shootings of black men by American police confirm.
Jackson, however, is able to take the long view. As a student in the 1960s, he was arrested along with seven classmates for using a public library in the segregated South, and was present when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. There has been progress, just not enough. “It’s a ham and egg sandwich situation,” he said. “It seems equal. But the chicken needs to drop an egg and the hog needs to drop a leg.”
There is equality in sport – “We did not know how good soccer could be until everybody could play” – but in other spheres of life the playing field is less than level, and structural racism continues. “Freedom without reconstruction means freedom to starve, freedom to be uneducated. Those with the advantages of education, wealth and skills maintain all of these and share none of them. Effort and excellence mean a lot, but inheritance and access mean more.”
Jackson gave his views freely about the war in Iraq: “We have lost lives, money and honour and created Isis, those who led that campaign have no credibility”; Donald Trump running for president: “In a democracy, crazy people have the right to vote”; and even touched on the Scottish Enlightenment: “Adam Smith would not find a home in America today.”
A strong supporter of Obama, Jackson said he had not yet decided whether to put his weight behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democrat candidacy for next year’s US election, but he did speak out about the need for gun control (ironically, as the fireworks from the Tattoo did a good job of creating the sound of gunfire in the background), pointing out that America loses some 30,000 lives a year to shootings – five times the number of US servicemen killed in Iraq.
Sitting in exactly the same spot ten hours earlier, novelist Howard Jacobson talked about the need to eradicate another, similar prejudice: anti-Semitism. His latest novel, J, evokes a futuristic society recovering from an unnamed horror which is referred to only as “What Happened, If It Happened”. “A people have apparently been destroyed in a catastrophe which looks a bit like a genocide – I wonder who they are?” he said, eyebrows raised.
J is the first of his novels to be set in the future, and has attracted comparisons (which he does not entirely relish) to Orwell and Huxley. But, as with all his books, the backbone is the story of a relationship; the tentative romance of Kevern and Ailinn, whom he describes as “the nicest couple I’ve ever written about”. “I am couple-centred. My books are all about love. When something goes wrong between the couple in the novel there is something wrong with the world.” His first and best writing inspiration, he said, is Jane Austen – he had pictures of Austen and George Eliot on his bedroom wall as an adolescent. “When someone asked me yet again whether I was the English Philip Roth, I said: ‘I would rather be the Jewish Jane Austen’.”
The society Jacobson creates in J is one without argument. Consoles pump out gentle music and soothing news 24 hours a day, in an act not so much of censorship but of withdrawal from engagement, wit and improvisation (jazz, for example, is frowned upon). Just as winning an argument can feel worse than losing (or continuing) one, society without discord is a dangerous place. Far better to be open-minded “in constant turmoil about everything”; a state which good literature encourages.
Later, we considered “a post-apocalyptic novel set 1,000 years in the past” in one of the most intriguing events at the Book Festival. Paul Kingsnorth read from his novel, The Wake, a book set in the aftermath of the Norman conquest, written in a form of Anglo-Saxon dialect. Initially crowd-funded by writers’ organisation Unbound, it went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Kingsnorth was signed to Faber for the next two books of his trilogy.
The film rights for the book were purchased by the actor Mark Rylance, who did the readings from The Wake as part of the 90-minute sell-out event, making the book’s rich, poetic language come alive. Meanwhile, Kingsnorth described the background – the history of 1066 most of us fail to learn at school, a systematic campaign of colonisation and occupation waged by the Normans after the battle and bitterly resisted by the ordinary citizens of England.
That resistance had its last stand in the salt-marsh lands of the Lincolnshire fens, where The Wake’s protagonist, Buccmaster, a local farmer dispossessed of his land, led the guerilla band holding the town of Ely. The strange, other-worldly landscape of the fens and its myths pervades the book; a tale of “lost gods, lost myths, old stories, old ways of telling”.
Kingsnorth and Rylance were joined on stage by West Country storyteller Martin Shaw, who brought to the event a strange tale of kings, gods and monsters believed to be roughly contemporaneous with the events of The Wake. His dynamic retelling, engaging the audience with references to today, was aided by input from a cheerfully improvising Rylance. Together, they created a magical sense of transportation into the world of the book.
There was also time for poetry to bring its own, quieter, enchantment to the Book Festival programme. Blake Morrison read from his first poetry collection for 30 years, Shingle Street, which makes its territory a little south of the Fens, on the eroding coastline of Suffolk. His work evokes the atmosphere and stories of that landscape, from the tightly wrought, highly rhythmic title poem to a comic vignette about a woman sharing her ice-cream cone with her spaniel.
He read with Niall Campbell, regarded as one of Scotland’s most promising young poets, whose imagination was forged in his home island, South Uist; a formative landscape from which his poems now radiate out into a broad range of themes, from fatherhood to the sculpting of Rodin’s The Kiss.
In an event earlier in the afternoon, organised by the poet Luke Wright, one of the programmers of the spoken word strand at the Book Festival, five contemporary poets celebrated the influence of Philip Larkin, 30 years after his death. Clare Pollard, Tim Cockburn, Helen Mort, Sam Riviere and AF Harrold read their favourite Larkin poems, followed by a poem of their own written in response to one of his.
What would Larkin make, Pollard pondered, of the world of Facebook and Instagram? Indeed, what would he make of an event like this? Possibly not much, particularly of Harrold’s “song-ish” about the death of a hedgehog at the hands of a lawn mower, inspired by Larkin’s poem The Mower. But it was nonetheless a pleasure to hear the current generation of poets celebrate what he means to them with such creativity and sincerity.
And it was sheer pleasure to hear again Larkin classics: Mr Bleaney, Dockery & Son (read by Cockburn in the style of Alan Bennett, after a vote from the audience), High Windows and the peerless Aubade. Wright described his genius using a quote from Andrew Motion: “I want my writing to be as clear as water… I want readers to be able to see all the way down through the surf into the swamp,” while Pollard said he wrote “statements so direct and true you think they must be truisms, until you realise that no one has said them before.”