Whatever the competition from screen-based forms of entertainment, books show no sign of losing their popularity and the burgeoning of literary festivals bears this out. I love these events, love being surrounded by books and readers and writers. August invariably finds me in Edinburgh, where my son and his family live. For at least a week every year I have all the cultural riches of Edinburgh’s Festival, the largest arts festival in the world, at my disposal. But for me it’s not the four thousand or so acts of the Fringe that compete for my attention and money. Rather, it’s the International Book Festival that seduces me every time. It feels like my natural home and I come away from each talk exhilarated, inspired and wishing I had all the time in the world to read and to write. With hundreds of events and speakers from over fifty countries, Edinburgh Book Fest is always stimulating, thought-provoking and entertaining.
One talk I attended this year had the sea as its pivot, ranging from migration and the tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean to the plight of sex slaves and drug mules at sea and the environmental damage to the world’s oceans. Another focused on Jewish fugitives in the 1930s and 40s, with two writers – one Icelandic, the other English but of Hungarian Jewish descent – speaking about their new novels. My vote for most entertaining was the talk by Viv Groskop about what led her to write her book, The Anna Karenina Fix, which attempts to use the Russian classics as a reference point for solving all life’s problems. Want to know how to survive unrequited love? Read Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Struggling to overcome inner conflict? Read Crime and Punishment. And so on.
Literary festivals happen all over the world, from Gibraltar to Jaipur, and wherever they take place, there is always that same incredible buzz. I suspect a fair number of their enthusiastic fans not only read but also write, gaining inspiration from their favourite authors just as I do. Over the years, I’ve been to many literary festivals and heard numerous authors, some famous, others less well-known. At Cheltenham in the mid-90s, only a couple of years before his death, I was privileged to hear Laurie Lee talk with eloquence about his Spanish experiences as a young man, and it was there too that I listened to Yevtushenko reciting his poetry in the original Russian, his voice stirring and passionate, his eyes blazing with intensity. (His 16 year-old son read the English translation rather less dramatically). Jeanette Winterson, Maggie O’Farrell, Ian McEwan, Sue Townsend, A L Kennedy and the late Helen Dunmore are among the many authors I’ve heard talk about their writing processes and sources of inspiration.
One thing I love particularly about Edinburgh’s Bookfest is that alongside Nobel and Booker Prize-winners, leading politicians and thinkers, debut authors are given a voice and a chance to promote their books. Each year, particular themes are chosen, always with an international perspective. This year they included Freedom and Equality, Identity, Politics for Change and Our planet and us. However, this year more than any other, the Festival was hit by visa problems. A dozen of their invited speakers, mostly from the Middle East and African countries, were refused entry to the UK after a humiliating process that involved submitting three years of bank statements, even though these authors had their costs guaranteed by their publishers and the Festival and were being paid. Womad musicians had experienced similar problems earlier in the summer. How sad that even cultural events like music and literary festivals should suffer from the ‘hostile environment’ that has taken over in Britain. Depriving us of non-native artists, many of them highly acclaimed, can only serve to impoverish our culture.