Tomorrow I leave for France for 10 days. This is a holiday that feels like it’s been a long time coming.
The year so far has been one of hard domestic slog, clearing out my mother’s house in Kent and moving the majority of her possessions, by stages, up to Scotland. It has been not only physically draining – such was the disorder that, for example, I had to open more than 60 boxes of books, unopened since a previous move, in case there might be first editions buried among the paperbacks – but also emotionally wearing, oddly so in some ways, since she’s still very much alive, now living on my doorstep, and in full possession of most of her wits.
It also, for the first time ever, threw me and my brother together with our much younger sister which has been a pleasure for all three of us. We weren’t really brought up as a family. We feel much more like one now.
Then there’s been what has seemed like a particularly hefty workload, a succession of large writing jobs for a manufacturing plc, a well-known private school, a hotel chain and an important new cultural institution. Perhaps it’s a function of age but getting it right, doing a good job, seems to matter more than ever. The stakes feel higher each time, the pressure greater.
Ready as I am now to switch off, there’s one thing I will be sorry to miss when we’re in France – the board meeting and official programme launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
A mid-morning event with buck’s fizz and breakfast canapés, it’s one of the few dates in the calendar that brings together literary Scotland at its broadest. Journalists and publishers, agents, arts folk, illustrators and writers of every stripe gather to hear the unveiling of this year’s bill of fare for August, when Charlotte Square sprouts tents and yurts, bookshops and cafes, decking and (if we’re unlucky) duckboards, as close on a quarter of a million people attend some 800 events over the 17 days. If the battle to breathe life into the language of the business world sometimes seems too burdensome, I know this is where I will always find the balm.
This morning I heard Iain Duncan Smith talking on the radio about the measurement of poverty. At one point he used the dreadful expression ‘low-hanging fruit’. I don’t remember the exact context, but it was something to do with those people who would be lifted over some statistical threshold with just an extra pound or two in their pockets.
I’ve always found it a particularly repulsive cliché, not just because it’s blatantly predatory, with its connotation of easy pickings, but also because, by association, it summons for me another very different image, that of black corpses twisting in the breeze in the jazz classic Strange Fruit, with its haunting description of lynchings in the deep South. Billie Holiday adopted the song and when she first sang it during her residency at the New York club, Café Society, she silenced the place.
And that’s the difference. Much of the time, low-hanging fruit is deemed good enough for the world of business and politics. But it takes Strange Fruit, with its shocking yet beautiful lyrics to strike home and say something that has real, deep meaning. It’s for language like that that I make my way to Charlotte Square each year.