Playing it by the book in wake of past controversies

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CHARLOTTE Square is alive with activity. Men and women in fluorescent jackets and the kind of deep, even tan that office-bound workers have to pay Fake Bake for are busy erecting poles and laying out chairs and walkways.

Walkie-talkies are buzzing and, in the corner, a spiegeltent is taking shape, its sides being slapped up with almost unseemly haste. The biggest book festival in the world is almost ready to roll. Just one small problem: the fat drops of water currently landing with splats on the plastic walkways covers.

"Richard, you promised this wouldn't happen," says Frances Sutton, the book festival press officer, shaking her head with mock disapproval at the 70-something gent with a rucksack slung casually over his shoulder and a Panama hat in his hand.

"Well, I don't have any influence with the Weathermaker any more," replies the former Bishop of Edinburgh and currently guest director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival as he gazes at the greying sky.

In fact, it's been nine years since Richard Holloway stepped down from his role as Episcopalian bishop of the city and Primus of that church in Scotland.

So perhaps it was foolish for him to make public meteorological promises, as he did at the book festival launch in June. But then the "barmy bish", as he was known by certain tabloids back in the 1990s, has been known to come out with rash statements on occasion.

"I'm just a gobby Scot," he admits. "I engage my mouth before my mind."

Since he laid down his mitre in 2000, though, he's been using both his mouth and mind to good effect, chairing the Scottish Arts Council and turning out thought-provoking books such as last year's Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition. He's also been involved in the Big Noise project on the notorious Raploch estate in Stirling, teaching disadvantaged kids how to play orchestral instruments.

"It's expensive but it's wonderful to see these kids of six or seven loving their instruments and showing real skills," he enthuses.

The scheme is looking to expand into two new centres over the next five years, with possibly one in Edinburgh. "We are going to change Scotland through music," he beams.

But for the next couple of weeks, Holloway's focus is on Edinburgh and the book festival, where he's organised a series of debates on "hot button issues", including women in Islam, modern childhood, Darwin and the abuse of his ideas and the new aggressive forms of atheism and religion.

There is also a new event over one weekend of the festival, bringing together graduates of four Scottish universities' creative writing courses and publishers in the hope of uncovering the next big literary sensation.

It's part of a recognition that no event can rest on its laurels, even if the book festival's recent years have mostly been a story of increased sales and sell-outs rather than crashed computer systems and threats from global rivals, like its August bedfellow, the Fringe.

"It's a great brand and a great system but nothing stays the same. If we want to carry on, we have to adapt and change," says Mr Holloway. He points to another innovation; the launch of top Canadian author Margaret Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood will be at St John's Church on Princes Street, where there will be a choir as well as actors providing a "dramatic reading". Mr Holloway will be one of them – he's playing Adam One, one of God's gardeners.

As to what other changes might lie ahead, that will be left to the new director – whoever that is. When he accepted the role as guest director, Catherine Lockerbie was still festival chief, albeit on sick leave – hence the need for Mr Holloway. Last month, though, she announced she'd be standing down and the search is on for a replacement.

And who could be better qualified than a certain former bishop turned author who's done some work experience as director, lives in the not-so-starving writers' ghetto of Merchiston and is pretty good at generating headlines? So will he be applying?

"Of course not," he almost bellows. "At my age? I'm nearly 100!"

In fact, he's 75, although looking at his CV it's hard to see how he's packed so much into his life.

He became most well-known – notorious, some would say – during the 1990s for his views on sex, marriage, women priests, homosexuality and politics. Few months went by without someone calling for his resignation, mostly from churchmen who preferred a black and white view of God, rather than Holloway's grey. And there were those who didn't like his outspokenness – calling a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury "pathetic" and opponents of women priests "miserable b******s".

He doesn't miss any aspect of being a bishop – "all that dressing up!" – although he says there are times he could have used "safer language". He still preaches, though, "mostly at funerals".

Does he still believe in God? He hesitates before he says: "I describe myself as a practising agnostic Christian. I try to live a Christian life, I go to church but I'm a bit dodgy on the doctrine."

He may have moved on but the issues that he highlighted years ago are still troubling churches of all denominations, particularly homosexuality – the Kirk almost spilt earlier this year over the question of gay ministers.

"The gay issue is the big difficult one for them all," agrees Holloway. "It's even more difficult than the women issue."

Splinter groups are almost inevitable. "It's the nature of life," he says. Humans change, religion stands still, although that shouldn't necessarily be the case, since religion is by humans for humans, he adds. But surely most people would say religion is by God?

"But we never get God neat," he says. "It's always God through humanity and humanity gets things wrong. That's the God that hates gay people, hates women priests, tells us to fly a plane into a building. We are always getting God wrong. We should just get humanity right and leave God out of it."

Well, at least there's no chance of a dull debate when Richard Holloway's around.

&149 The Edinburgh International Book Festival begins tomorrow. Guest director series: The End of the World has been Postponed, 17 August; Women and Islam, 18 August; The End of Childhood?, 19 August; The Use and Abuse of Darwin, 24 August; The Old Religion and the New Atheism, 25 August; The Other Britain, 29 August; Enjoying Less and Learning to Love It, 30 August. Log on to – and see tomorrow's Evening News books page for details of events with tickets still available.


BORN into a working class family in Glasgow who moved to Vale of Leven when he was a child, Richard Holloway was captivated at the age of 12 by the candles and incense of an Episcopalian church. A spell at a monastic college ended when he decided he "couldn't hack celibacy".

He trained in Edinburgh and studied in the United States before returning to the Capital as rector of Old St Paul's in Jeffrey Street in 1968, helping to found Castle Rock Housing Association and urging people not to sign a public decency petition organised by the Church of Scotland, claiming slums were a bigger moral issue than sex.

He left in 1980 for Boston and Oxford before returning in 1986 as Bishop of Edinburgh, adding the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1992.

Probably the biggest storm was caused in 1994 when he said humans were born with a natural instinct to polygamy which they had to learn to control.

There was also fury when, in his 1997 book Dancing on the Edge, he argued that the church should allow gay people to marry, treat couples living together as equal to married couples and stop pronouncing on matters of sex, and in 1998, when he called for the partial legalisation of cannabis.