Monday, 10 September 2012

Festival Blogger. Oh that's right.

I've been meaning to write about my recent month at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, but I'm not quite sure what to say. Because I'd just be boasting. It would just be one massive boast.

Basically, I was employed by the biggest Book Festival in the world to go to about fifty events in August, some of which were by the most prestigious writers of the last few decades. I got to meet some of those writers, I got to eat Percy Pig sweets, and I got to write about it all each day. I know right? What a lucky little piece of sh --

So be under no illusion: this post will be 1000 words of boasting. Nothing more, nothing less.

My base was the Press Tent, which is secretly situated in the secret secret behind-the-scenes secret section of Charlotte Square Gardens.

I spent my time in there prodding and poking the press team, who have enough warmth and friendliness between them to set the gardens on fire (they're pretty dangerous then, really). When I wasn't doing that (or actually working), I was chatting to some of the other press tent regulars.

Like Tim, who spent 30 years at the BBC before moving on to the Guardian, and gave me loads of fascinating journalistic tips. And Rob, who comes armed with a typewriter and some of the most bang-on literary insights I've ever heard. And Chris, a photographer who wouldn't stop taking nifty photos if you locked his camera in a furnace. And Mo, a sketch artist whose speedy pencil managed to capture more than a few Book Festival authors. And Penny, who knows literally everyone in the world. And Sarah, who doesn't.

I had conversations with Andrew Motion and Vivian French and David Rain and Chris Riddell and Colm Tóibín and Jim Haynes and Antony Beevor and John Burnside and... and some other writers and illustrators whose names I can't remember, but I should remember them, because they were all magnificent and funny and good and great.

And I had ALMOST conversations with Simon Callow and Danny Wallace and Carol Ann Duffy and Jeanette Winterson.

Oh, and I touched Michael Palin. I TOUCHED HIM. I shook his hand. THAT MEANS TOUCHING.

He was getting his photo taken, thus:

And I was told that as the official official Book Festival blogger I could ask him some questions if I wanted, but I could not, because of fear.

But as he was walking away, I bounded up to him and said, “hello!” “I'm only staff”, I said. “But I just wanted to say hello.” He greeted me in his very own Michael Palin voice and he something amiable that I can't remember, and he shook my hand, and I said “I'm going to sell that handshake on eBay”, and he laughed, which gave me a high that lasted the rest of the month.

In terms of events, I went to about a billion of them – including nine on the last day. Clive Stafford Smith's event was a big stand-out for me. Because he had an agenda. An anti death penalty agenda. I liked that. I'm sure you can imagine that I liked that.

As for the other events, my highlight was the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference. I sat in the front row with Anna from City of Literature, and together we monitored the online buzz around the Writers' Conference for two hours every day for five days.

Here's a photo I took of Irvine Welsh, writer of 'Trainspotting', sitting in my seat.


Sitting on his right is Ian Rankin. I said he could sit there for the photo, but it would have to be with my extremely feminine handbag, because I wasn't going to move it. He said “that's okay, I have my own extremely feminine handbag”.

To be fair on him, his wasn't very feminine. And to be fair on me, neither was mine. We were just exaggerating. ONE OF THE MANY MANY MANY MANY MANY MANY MANY THINGS IAN AND I HAVE IN COMMON.

Anyway, if you've not heard of the Writers' Conference, this is what it is.

They put fifty writers from around the world together in a tent. They surrounded them with 400 members of the public and a slightly smaller number of film crews. Then they threw the most controversial literary topics at them and said “... GO.”

The result was mad and absurd and wild and funny. And focused and unfocused.

People shouted and swore a lot, but that was padding for an enormous amount of frighteningly good points by frighteningly apt humans.

Ali Smith, for instance, made me want to wear her brain.

And during a number of the conferences there was this voice from the row behind me, infused with sapience and weird cleverness that could put Will Self in the shade. But he always said his name too quickly, so I didn't know who he was. Until one day, when he was speaking, I turned in my seat to catch a glimpse of him, and I was met with... what appeared to be a Kraken spilling out of a human skull.

It was a tattoo on the mic-weilding arm of what turned out to be China Miéville, a genre-fascinated writer who just has to utter a few syllables to get a round of applause.

Let's just say he's still my desktop wallpaper.

The topics of the Writers' Conference were: 1) Should Literature be Political? 2) Style vs Content. 3) A National Literature? 4) Censorship Today. And 5) The Future of the Novel.

I think the most interesting of the five was the one about a national literature, for which Irvine Welsh was keynote speaker.

Only for exploitative reasons have I ever called myself a “Scottish writer”. To be in with a chance of a Scottish screenwriting grant, for instance, or in order to enter a competition for Scottish writers. I feel my style isn't anywhere near developed enough to sing of any particular nationality, be it Scottish or British. But that's a naïve thing to say. Writing style is subconscious, and filled with clues on upbringing, prejudices, and, yeah, nationality.

But that doesn't mean there is such a thing as a national literature.

All five of the conferences are on YouTube, by the way. I'm in all of them, on the front row. At least I didn't pull any stupid faces.

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