We had our last Edinburgh International Book Festival board meeting of the year yesterday.
It has been a fascinating year as world events swirl around us and we’ve found ourselves debating issues as diverse as whether to initiate a cultural exchange involving representatives of the Chinese government, and what might be the pros and cons of a potential new media relationship with the Murdoch organisation (this before the hacking scandal broke and vindicated our eventual decision).
Yesterday it was one of the smaller agenda items that intrigued me most, a snippet in director Nick Barley’s report concerning our bookselling operation. The temporary, tented bookshop in Charlotte Sq turns over nearly £600,000 in the 17 days of the festival. It’s an integral part of the proceedings, a large airy space where you can browse, have coffee and meet authors at after-event book signings. It carries a vast range of fiction and non-fiction, including of course the current titles of all the 700-odd authors appearing. This year our two bestselling titles, both at around 350 copies, were Liz Lochhead’s A Choosing and Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees.
Two poetry titles. Not fiction. Not memoir. Not biography. Poetry.
What does that say? That in times of uncertainty we turn to poetry for meaning? That in an age of increasing digitisation, the role of the book as artefact is still essential as the physical setting for poetry? Or simply that a poet at the top of her game, as both these are, can say more to us about the business of being human than any novelist, biographer or historian ever can?
It could be any or all of these things, though it may not be indicative of a trend. Of all the places on the planet where one is most likely to find a concentration of poetry buyers, it’s Charlotte Sq in August.
Nevertheless, it’s heartening; particularly since, as I mentioned last week, we’re hoping to produce a volume of all the writing from the four 26 Treasures projects via the crowd-sourced publisher Unbound. And most of those pieces are poems – not necessarily because people set out to write poems when first confronted with their museum objects, but because the constraint of 62 words ends up shoe-horning most people’s thoughts into the poetic form.
As I write this I realise what an apt metaphor it is for the approach of Christmas, the constraint of the last few days. Everything gets shoe-horned into a frantic burst of last-minute activity. I’m hoping that something creative comes out of it. Inspired present-buying would do. Kindness, love and family togetherness would be better.
See you in 2012.
PS… Since first posting this, Tessa Ransford has emailed to remind me of this, which she has now designated her Christmas poem for 2011:
A Cup of Kindness
Faith, Hope and Charity
wrote St Paul in his hymn to Love
these three abide
In Iraq, explains Canon White on the radio,
Democracy is not what people yearn for
blasted on them as it was through missiles and bombs
What they most want, why can’t we understand,
is water, electricity and kindness
life, communication, things working normally
God only knows
Buddha only knows
Mohammed only knows
everyone knows we want the kindness
which lies at the heart of our being
In Scotland we have given a song to the world
‘a cup of kindness’
to take, to drink, to share
Water, electricity and kindness,
but the greatest of these is kindness