Chris McCall: Book Festival’s good-natured debate is antidote to Trump

You don't need a ticket to sample the book festival's unique atmosphere. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
You don't need a ticket to sample the book festival's unique atmosphere. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Going to the Edinburgh International Book Festival was an annual traditional for Chris McCall and his father, but following the latter’s death earlier this year, he cannot bear to go

My dad was not a football man. He never checked results and probably attended fewer than two dozen games in his life. The worst aspects of fan culture – the excessive drinking, the general boorishness – appalled him. But he did have an appreciation for what was left of the game’s Corinthian spirit. Ask him what team he supported and he’d reply Berwick Rangers. He was not one to read the sports pages, yet took great enjoyment from columnists who wrote about the black humour found in the nation’s lower leagues.

He had a similar contradictory stance towards books. While my dad read several newspapers and subscribed to various magazines, he seldom finished a work of fiction. Yet he eagerly looked forward to Edinburgh International Book Festival each year in Charlotte Square. For him, the chance to hear leading writers talk about the issues of the day in a convivial atmosphere was a privilege to be enjoyed. You didn’t need to be familiar with the complete works of Ian Rankin to appreciate him answering questions from a lively evening audience.

In a former life as a comedy critic for one of the festival publications, I sometimes heard the book festival disparaged as the most elitist of the big Edinburgh cultural celebrations. The Fringe sprawls across the pubs of the capital’s student heartland, but the book festival contents itself with a small corner of the New Town. There is no more douce a venue than Charlotte Square.

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Attend a stand-up comedy performance and the majority of people – from the performer on stage to the staff collecting tickets – is likely to be wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Spend a pleasant afternoon milling around the various tents that make up the book festival and the odds of spotting someone in a well-pressed linen jacket and a choice fedora will shorten considerably.

The festival, which attracts 230,000 visitors every August, has been based in Charlotte Square since it was launched in 1983. Last year, the organisers were forced to deny that its future was threatened by rumoured plans to relocate along George Street. The square is an architectural masterpiece and the damage caused to its gardens each year is substantial.

But it would be a great shame if the book festival was forced to leave its current environs. It offers an oasis of calm while the wider city is in the grip of festival madness. There is nothing to stop anyone wandering into the gardens and enjoying a free seat outdoors. Tickets to a show are not a prerequisite of sampling the event’s unique atmosphere.

This year I will be missing all this for perhaps only the second time in my adult life. My dad, a resolute supporter of the event from its inception, died suddenly in February. The festival was our father-and-son outing, a tradition we continued even after I left the capital for Glasgow. In my younger years, he had patiently endured several matches at Easter Road until I was old enough to make the trip myself. The festival was a trip we could both enjoy, with no risk of an inept Hibs performance spoiling the day.

I’m unfamiliar with the 2018 EIBF line-up as I could not bring myself to read the latest edition of the weighty festival guide which crashes through my letter box each spring. The new brochure promptly arrived just weeks after my dad’s passing. Grief-stricken by the very sight of its brightly coloured front cover, a reflection of the event’s innate optimism, I dumped it in a kitchen corner where it remains unread.

I still implore anyone who has never ventured to Charlotte Square in August to give the book festival a chance. For the cost of a ticket – generally no more than you would pay for a show at one of the big comedy venues

– you could have the opportunity to quiz any number of literary heavyweights. Theresa May may avoid taking questions from hacks and the public alike, but no one at the book festival is spared the roving microphone that’s passed among the audience at the end of each show.

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Being a literary event, questions are generally polite and good-humoured. But that didn’t stop Alex Salmond facing a stern comment from one audience member after joining the late author William McIlvanney on stage in 2013. While Mr Salmond is more than capable of fighting his own battles, he looked slightly relieved when the redoubtable Ruth Wishart, who was chairing the discussion, stepped in to remind the audience they were not here to berate the First Minister.

Authors who successfully face down the audience must then prepare to meet the public all over again at the inevitable post-show book-signing. This was my dad’s favourite moment. He would routinely pick up on some innocent comment the writer had made during the previous hour and ask them to expand upon it.

I have a fond memories of Irvine Welsh being briefly flummoxed by my dad’s theory that his new short story must have been based on a long-forgotten TV comedy from the early 1990s. William McIlvanney spent several minutes cheerfully denying he had ever said a philosophical quote my dad insisted he had heard during the chat with Mr Salmond.

Authors can now rest easy. They won’t be button-holed by my dad any longer. While I mourn his loss, I know he would agree with me on this point: in the age of Trump and social media blowhards, any forum for respectful debate must be supported.