Edinburgh Book Festival: Reaping the rewards of confounded expectations

One of the EIBF's strengths is it seldom gives you what you think you'll get, writes David Robinson

Ali Smith saw her work performed for the first time. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Even when you think you know what to expect, the Book Festival can often prove you wrong. Take actor Greg Wise. Charming, good-looking, intelligent, empathetic: yes, but along with half the country we either already knew that or had picked it up from the heaps of interviews he did back in February to publicise his first book.

This was based, you’ll recall, on the blog his sister Clare had written about living with cancer. She was always gregarious, but when the cancer moved into her bones she shut herself away from everyone else apart from her adoring younger brother. So he took over her blog along with the responsibility of looking after her.

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That’s the story – sad, simple, commonplace, and were it not for Wise’s celebrity both in his own right and in his marriage to Emma Thompson (or “the dame” as he calls her), it’s hard to imagine it selling out the Baillie Gifford Main Tent. And as Wise had already read his reflections on how “we don’t speak death” to so many other audiences, wouldn’t this event only amount to something as well-rehearsed as it was predictable?

Well, obviously, the story can’t change. Nor can its key messages – that helping a loved one on that last journey is as hard as it is necessary and can even be rewarding. But if Wise was ever tempted to go on autopilot, Sally Magnusson’s interviewing made sure he never did. She mentioned how she and her father Magnus had never had THE conversation about the imminence of death; Wise said that neither had he and Clare. But, he added, maybe Magnus and Clare were the kind of people who wouldn’t want to share such things, and this was their call, not anyone else’s. And at that moment, this became a genuine conversation – individuated, involving and intimate – not just a chat about a book.

Take another example. I’ve now known Alan Taylor for even longer than he knew Muriel Spark, have heard him speak about their friendship, read his book Appointment in Arezzo, and attended a number of events in the Book Festival’s Sparkathon: if that strand wasn’t working, I’d be tiring of it by now. Yet again, here was the mystery of a live event, one that took us back to the start of a friendship. This began, Taylor admitted, with some trepidation on his part, as he interviewed her over dinner, gradually catching the cast of Spark’s interrogative mind. The way he told it, it still sounded fresh. She asked him whether he tinted his hair and then denied that she – “a flaming redhead at 72” – did the same.

But the best example of overturned expectations came later, in the Playing With Books event in which a six-strong Royal Lyceum team had been given a mere three days to produce and perform a credible, intelligent, allusive adaptation of Ali Smith’s novel How To Be Both. Imagine that: three days in which to come up with the music and select the words to tell a story that skips gender, identity and even centuries, one minute centring on a Renaissance painter, the next on a 21st-century woman remembering her dead mother. Adapting it for even five minutes would have stumped me, never mind the planned 45 minutes – with the same amount of time again for a discussion in which Smith herself would give her verdict. Pressure, or what?

So all praise, then, to Clare Duffy and Julia Taudevin – who co-wrote the three scenes we saw – and to Seiriol Davies, Saskia Ashdown and Annie Grace, who performed them. To explain how they exceeded my expectations, I’ll just give two examples from the music alone: one number involved a Renaissance tune morphing into Miley Cyrus’s Like a Wrecking Ball with a chanted DNA underlay (trust me, it made complete sense), another had the mother and daughter dancing to Twisting the Night Away both before and – separately and movingly – after the mother’s death. This was she first time Smith had seen her work performed onstage, and she was blown away by the adaptation’s pithy playfulness.

“It moved me in a way she had never expected,” she said. “It is like a novel I both wrote and didn’t write, and showed that How To Be Both can be more than both”.

She’d always thought, she added, that a book only came alive when it was translated, when it was re-thought and could stand on its own, and this was the nearest equivalent. She had only one last question: “I’d like to see it all now. How long do I have to wait?”

If those were all events in which I wrongly thought I knew what to expect, what about the ones when I hadn’t a clue?

Former Greek foreign minister Yanis Varoufakis was fascinating on how his parents met (“My anti-communist mother was told to keep tabs on my communist father… I was the result”), lucid at explaining what a 15 per cent fall in GDP means (basically, that a £1,200 monthly pension slips to just £250), and convincing on how his country was mugged by the EU and on how the UK will be too unless it goes for a “Norway-plus” Brexit option. Although he shared the Far Left’s fanciful faith in the trustworthiness of social media, he was otherwise sharp and engaging, and in his memoir Adults in the Room has at least tried to attempted to see his political enemies’ point of view.

In that, he could agree with Kit de Waal and Joanna Nadin, whose latest novels share not only a certain kindness towards their protagonists but to those ranged against them as well. “I worked in criminal law for 18 years,” said de Waal, “and met loads of murderers and rapists and I didn’t meet a single one who didn’t love their mothers, get on with their neighbours or cry at Bambi.”

Saturday night’s event with Bruce Dickinson – the polymath frontman of rock icons Iron Maiden for all but seven years since 1981 – ran out of time for audience questions and didn’t even mention his exploits flying jumbo jets, producing best-selling craft beer, or the time he ordered two tonnes of manure to be delivered to his Oundle School housemaster (although he did reveal why he was actually chucked out of school: for urinating on the headmaster’s dinner). Most of the event, though, concentrated on his memoir What Does This Button Do? with stories from his years fronting one of the world’s biggest bands, and his many fans in the audience – glad to see him back in jovial form after his 2015 throat cancer scare – wouldn’t have wanted anything else.

Finally, congratulations to Eley Williams, winner of the James Tait Black fiction prize for her experimental short story collection Attrib And Other Stories, and biography prizewinner Craig Brown, whose Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret was rightly praised for being laugh-out-loud funny and formally innovative.