I’m writing this at a table outside the author’s yurt in Charlotte Square Gardens. The sun is trying to break through and at the same time it’s spitting with rain. This is Edinburgh in August and the Book Festival is in full swing.
For the last dozen years or more it’s been the way my summer has ended. The holidays are over and hints of autumn are pushing in on the breezes. But although the season of decay is round the corner, this brief interlude is one of intense creativity and invigoration, a late flowering of vitality not confined to the leafy Georgian environs of Charlotte Square but pulsing through the arteries of the whole city.
When they first discussed it, over lunch in London in 1944, the founders of the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama can have had little idea of what their creation would eventually beget. Their model, artistically and in setting, was the Salzburg Festival and their aim was to provide ‘a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’ that would enrich the cultural life of Scotland, Britain and Europe in the wake of the Second World War. The first festival was held in 1947.
66 years later, as well as the International Festival, Edinburgh now has 12 others: the Festival Fringe – which has hugely outgrown its parent with 2,500 shows across 250 venues this year; the Science, Film, Children’s, Jazz & Blues, Art and Storytelling Festivals; the Military Tattoo and the Mela; and of course my own (as I’ve come to think of it after a decade as a board member), the Book Festival. This year, our 30th anniversary, we have 800 events and somewhere in the region of 250,000 people will pass through the gardens over 17 days.
It’s like being immersed in a cauldron of stories. Last night, over dinner, I heard the writer and documentary-maker, Catrine Clay, recounting stories she had once heard as she filmed a reconciliatory encounter between the children of holocaust survivors and the children of prominent Nazis. Another dinner companion, Caroline Moorehead, told of the village in the high Cévennes, the setting for her forthcoming book, where the villagers hid nearly 4,000 people from the Germans over the course of the war.
Today I heard the novelist Jonathan Coe tell the story of Brussels Expo 58 and, among other things, how the designer of the British Pavilion, James Gardner, the Danny Boyle of his day, came up against a stuffy, backward-looking, xenophobic British establishment in his efforts to create something worthy of the age.
In another tent I listened to historian and Borders Book Festival director Alastair Moffat explaining that what the Hanoverian troops had thought was the opposing forces starting to sing, just before the start of the Battle of Culloden, was in fact the Highlanders, arranged by clan, intoning their family genealogies, invoking the presence of their ancestors, summoning the dead to their sides in the battle to come.
Stories of conflict, in one way or another, all of them, I realise as I write. But all stories embody conflict of some kind, otherwise they wouldn’t be stories. And it’s conflict, uncertainty, the will-they-won’t-they of a good tale, that stirs the blood, sets the pulse racing and makes one feel alive. Whether one is sitting among the audience or looking out into the auditorium from the platform, the minute a guest starts to tell a story, the sense of engagement is palpable. People’s eyes brighten, they sit forward, and stop fidgeting. A different, enlivening energy pervades the tent. And that, in one word, is why my summer ends so well, why I am propelled forward into the autumn with spirits lifted, each year.
Stories. They remind us to be human. They remind us how good and how terrible it is to be human. They connect us, hearts and minds, and grant us our place on the continuum of history, along which the turning seasons are just one of the many pulses to which we respond.
Stories. Autumn. Renewal. Being in Charlotte Square in August is the nearest thing to an elixir I can think of.
Since I last posted we have hit our pledge target for the Dark Angels collective novel and it will be published, possibly under the alternative title of Keeping Mum, in time for Christmas. It’s a fantastic result and I can’t thank enough anyone who has signed up for a copy! The pledges continue to roll in so if you would still like to sign up, just click here.
Festivals are a great opportunity to indulge to excess. The mark of a good one is that there are more events that you want to see than you could ever physically attend. Edinburgh in August is evidence of that, if proof were needed