Edinburgh Book Festival, you have made my heart soar – Christine Jardine MP

The Edinbrugh International Book Festival will go ahead this year – unlike some other events – with a major programme of online events, writes Christine Jardine MP.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, picture before the days of coronavirus, is returning in an online form this year (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Edinburgh International Book Festival, picture before the days of coronavirus, is returning in an online form this year (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

In a world already too full of zoom calls and meetings, I did not expect that it would be news of two weeks of 140 online events which would make my heart soar.

But the announcement of Edinburgh Book Festival’s new format for this year was a like a huge burst of light in what I feared would be a much gloomier August than normal. Of course, I shall miss the gin garden with friends, the excited chatter in the queue to get in and the “I didn’t realise” conversations afterwards, but the important thing is that it is going to happen.

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And the implications of that reach much further than the opportunity to have a glimpse of what those authors whose imaginary worlds we visit are like in real life.

As the parents of a small child, the book festival was integral to introducing our young daughter to the joys of reading. The pure happiness she gained from being in the same space as Karen McCombie, the woman who had created some of our budding bookworm’s favourite stories, is a memory I cherish.

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Last year that now adult daughter and I enjoyed together Sally Magnusson’s insightful interview with David Nicholls about his, at that time, new publication Sweet Sorrow.

Sitting in that familiar setting in Charlotte Square I couldn’t help but wonder how much that earlier visit had contributed to not just her love of books, but general attitude to literature, learning and life.

And how many other young people’s lives have been shaped or influenced in a similar way.

Earlier this year, when we were all still getting used to the new life which lockdown had dictated, I had conversations with organisers of various of Edinburgh’s festivals.

While each I spoke to in turn gave the clear impression that they were determined to find ways of ensuring some sort of experience and continuity, it seemed that perhaps the Book Festival might have the greatest hope of a positive reboot.

At the time I had just experienced Hay on WiFi – the hugely successful shift online which offered a template for so many to follow. That the Edinburgh event has managed to put together such a fantastic programme of writers this year is, of course, in some ways attributable to the success of Hay encouraging others to take the plunge.

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But it is also testament to the importance of the annual fixture not just to us book lovers, or to the city’s economy, but to the literary world itself in stimulating awareness and promoting sales.

Of course, the same is also true for many of the other creative industries who contribute to what has become a normal August for so many of us.

Those summer evenings drinking beer in the Pleasance waiting to see Matt Forde, snacking outside Underbelly before enjoying the Austentatious group, Nish Kumar or some of the many now famous faces who first grabbed our attention at the Comedy Festival.

Last year I also enjoyed one of those special moments with which you are unexpectedly presented and feel unique to the Edinburgh Festival. Heading to a late show I was suddenly face to face with comedian Tony Slattery.

Before I had time to stop myself I blurted out what I hope wasn’t too embarrassing a thank you for all those Friday nights he had brightened up with his performances on Whose Line is it Anyway?

And that is perhaps the greatest gift which this iconic event delivers every year.

I do not believe it is the estimated total audience over the month of several million, all of whom contribute to the financial health of our hotels, bars, restaurants and cafes not to mention the city council itself. Nor is it the approximately £1 billion which those visitors contribute to the UK’s, £200 million directly to the local economies. Or the almost 3, 000 jobs in Edinburgh and 3,400 more across the country that it supports.

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No. I believe that the greatest gift is the shared experience of having so many of our creative industries’ past, present, or even future leading lights here in our city contributing to its rich cultural heritage and our enjoyment.

And that is true whether you most favour the glorious splendour of the International Festival or your primary interest is drama, comedy, books, television or simply soaking up the atmosphere with friends.

Over the years I have seen one of my favourite actors perform Hamlet, enjoyed a future comedy giant before they were widely known and listened to a McTaggart lecture that set the agenda in television for the best part of a decade.

And then there are the fireworks which I once had the privilege of being invited to witness being set up in the days before they lit up our night sky. The Tattoo, I am embarrassed to admit, I have yet to experience first-hand, and hope that Covid 19 has not permanently denied me.

Before sitting down to write this, I already had Maggie O’Farrell, Marian Keyes, James Naughtie and Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong written into my diary for two weeks’ time.

I know more are likely to follow.

August this year will not be the unrivalled festival of experiences I have come to love over the years.

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Even the frustration of crowded streets and venues cannot diminish its attraction or mitigate the disappointment that it will not be the same this year. But unlike some of this summer’s other annual celebrations we know for sure that we will not be denied it completely. Our festival has not gone the way of Wimbledon, the Open Championships or the Olympics.

And Edinburgh will be the winner.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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