Edinburgh Book Festival: Philip Pullman brings touch of fantasy to opening day

Philip Pullman, whose latest work is The Book of Dust. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Philip Pullman, whose latest work is The Book of Dust. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Sunshine and acrobats welcome book lovers to an expanded festival, writes Susan Mansfield

The Sun was shining as the Edinburgh International Book Festival opened its doors for 2018, while performers from Universoul Circus turned somersaults on the grass of Charlotte Square. The keyword for this year is “bigger”, with many of the event spaces enlarging their capacity, including the Main Theatre – which now seats 750 – the Spiegeltent and the newly renamed Spark Theatre in George Street.

The first guest of the day, veteran journalist Neal Ascherson, set a tone which might say something about the festival as a whole: good-humoured, intelligent discourse; a Scottish perspective on a wider world, and the courage to try something new, such as writing your first novel in your eighties.

An award-winning journalist and author of non-fiction, he described himself as being “full up to here with stories – and the only way to get rid of a story is to tell it”. This prompted his novel, The Death of the Fronsac, which takes as its starting point the true story of the sinking of a French destroyer in the Firth of Clyde in 1940. He grew up in nearby Greenock, then a major port, and reminded us that Scotland in wartime was anything but parochial, playing host to French, North American and Australian troops, as well as thousands of Polish servicemen.

Ascherson also made the first reference of the day to Muriel Spark, who presides over this year’s Book Festival like a benevolent ghost. A strand of events celebrating the centenary of her birth runs through the festival, with Scottish writer Janice Galloway, a long-time admirer of Spark, delivering the first.

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Galloway, who travelled to Italy to interview Spark in her eightieth year, described how she turned up for the meeting in full evening dress and was “the best laugh ever”. She challenged the much-held misconception that Spark is a dark or unsympathetic writer, describing, instead, the way she courageously “changed the writing expected of women” in a male-dominated
literary world.

As well as queering the pitch for generations of subsequent women writers, she was a survivor, determined to encounter the world on her own terms, and making the best of the difficult circumstances life often threw at her. Her novels, which have the rare quality of changing if you read them at different ages, are full of characters who do the same.

Jasper Fforde is one of our great comic writers, a man of seemingly boundless imagination, with an unending supply of jokes, puns and absurd ideas, from the kidnap of Jane Eyre to a mythical monster which can be distracted by folding laundry. However, having written a book every year for 12 years, he described how – while working on his new standalone novel Early Riser – he encountered writer’s block for the first time.

He triumphed, however, and the book is now published, a thriller set in a world where human beings need to hibernate and winter temperatures drop to minus 40. It’s a thriller with a climate change subtext which begins with a dead woman on a train playing Tom Jones’ Help Yourself on the bazouki, suggesting that the remarkable Fforde imagination has made a full recovery.

A day at the Book Festival can take you from one extreme to another. One might be listening to Fforde talking about the political implications of a family of rabbits moving in next door, and 20 minutes later, be in another packed theatre learning about a humanitarian disaster which was successfully hidden from the world for more than 50 years.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anne Applebaum, in her book Red Famine, describes the famine in Ukraine in 1932-3 in which some four million people died, and some rural villages lost 50 per cent of their population. It was an entirely man-made disaster, the result of deliberate policy by Stalin to divert food resources from the country to the city.

However, the way in which the policy was enforced – confiscation teams going door to door to take food from people’s homes – was also a deliberate attack on the Ukraine, the so-called “bread basket of Russia”, which made a bid for independence in 1918, before being steam-rollered into the Soviet Union, and was regarded by Moscow as a threat.

Given his abortive invasion in 2014, it seems President Putin has a not dissimilar attitude to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Half an hour later, we were back with stories, with the charming and avuncular Philip Pullman, making a long-awaited return to the Book Festival. Interviewed by novelist Val McDermid, Pullman talked about the importance of stories, and of poetry, in his own life, and in the lives of children and young people. When he said he had hoped to run against David Cameron in the 2017 election representing the Nursery Rhyme Party (the constituency is near his home), one feels he is only half-joking.

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As a teacher of nine to 13-year-olds, he told stories to his classes: tales from The Iliad and The Odyssey, fairytales and ghost stories – always with a cliffhanger just before the bell.

The transition to writing came after writing plays for the children to put on, and he became one of the most remarkable writers of children’s fiction of the last fifty years.

Pullman’s novels do something which Muriel Spark’s work also does: they are continually surprising, making daring narrative leaps.

His new novel, The Book of Dust, is no exception, and is already a worldwide bestseller – half a million books in the first US print-run alone.

To the unreserved joy of many, it is the first in another trilogy set in the world of His Dark Materials.

Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o is another master storyteller, a gift which manifested in a tendency to digress into good-humoured anecdotes rather than answering questions. One of Africa’s most important post-colonial writers, he is celebrating a new edition of Wrestling with the Devil, about his time spent in a high-security prison in Nairobi in 1978, after the state became suspicious of his literary activities.

Here, on prison-issue toilet paper, which was the only paper available, he wrote his seminal novel Devil on the Cross, the first modern novel in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. Language then became the focus for the rest of the event, as Ngugi spoke of his optimism for the future of diverse languages across the world, describing monolingualism as “the carbon monoxide of cultures”.

It is appropriate, then, that the Book Festival has taken a new short story he has written and is translating it into as many languages as possible – 70 at last count, most recently Shetlandic – a golden thread uniting diverse voices across the world.