Here is a story. Fifteen years ago, Catherine Lockerbie, then the literary editor of The Scotsman, was appointed director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. For several years I had regularly written book reviews for her. We had also sat together on the old Scottish Arts Council’s Literature Committee and had got to know one another well. Within a few months of her new appointment she invited me to join the board of the festival.
Over the next 14 years, my involvement with the world’s largest celebration of the written word became one of the highlights of my working life. Writing is a solitary business, and although I have many connections and activities beyond my writing room, the board came to feel like a kind of family whose company I always looked forward to, and whose exchanges were always stimulating, whether we were discussing the autumn returfing of Charlotte Square or the dilemma of whether to accept a delegation of writers sponsored by the Chinese government.
It went further than that. I’ve often written here about the thrill of the festival itself, those two weeks in August when Charlotte Square blossoms into a magical tented village overflowing with the world’s finest words and stories. It’s a great outpouring of the best of what it means to be human, and it never fails to inspire, connect, transport and energise in a way that nothing else I know can; which in itself is a tribute to the extended family of people who programme, organise and otherwise make the festival happen, and with whom I’ve also become friends and made lasting connections over the years.
Personal highlights of the festival are too numerous to recall, but one that springs to mind is chairing an event that featured two then relatively unknown writers, a few weeks before one of them won the Booker Prize. The year was 2002 and the writers were Michel Faber (The Courage Consort) and Yann Martell (Life of Pi). From the other side of the footlights I’ve witnessed few more affecting events than the one, this summer, featuring the two Mexican writers who spoke so lightly of the deadly danger they face daily as they report on their troubled country’s endemic corruption and war against drugs (see here).
But at a board meeting at the end of last year, during a big, intense discussion about the future direction of the festival, I began to hear a voice in my head saying it was time to go, time to make way for someone younger, someone with a higher literary profile, someone who would bring fresh energy to the board. I realised then that I no longer knew exactly when I had joined – a sure sign that the increasingly insistent voice was right.
Last Tuesday there was a dinner in a small, book-lined private room at the Signet Library in Edinburgh to mark the departure of our remarkable chairman, Susan Rice, whose tenure has also come to an end. (A board meeting with Susan who is, among other things, the first woman to have headed a UK clearing bank, is a masterclass in how to chair thoughtfully and firmly yet with the lightest and warmest of touches.) Dinner was followed by a presentation. Susan received a ‘Penguin donkey’, a portable bookcase, containing copies of one important literary novel, inscribed to her by the author, for each of the 15 years of her chairmanship. Then Nick Barley, the festival director, declared that they also had something for me.
I unwrapped a framed A3 page, illustrated with this year’s festival imagery and bearing the following text, a prose sonnet by James Robertson (the 366th, I believe, of his sequence of 365-word stories):
The Stories We Tell
for Jamie Jauncey
Just as the stories we tell are made by us, so are we made by the stories we tell.
Across the world new stories are travelling: they are adventurers, explorers, migrants, refugees, seekers after kindness. They will, or will not, end happily.
Then there are older stories, ones we think we have forgotten, but we have not forgotten them, nor they us: we have simply left them somewhere, or they have left us.
They are still out there, drifting ghosts. Sometimes they return, to warn or to warm us.
There was once a man – your great-great uncle, as it happens – who also travelled the world: a man of action and ideas, a man of humanity who loved horses, a man who felt an affinity with both the wretched and the magnificent.
He admired many things on his travels, and deplored others. He hated big money, the brutality of empires, the prejudices of the rich and powerful.
He told stories that spoke truth. In one land he saw a magnificent race made wretched, dispossessed, their culture destroyed by another. This grieved and angered him. He wrote of these people that they were ghosts dancing, ghosts of ghosts whose only crime was to have been born, unless it were a crime to love the rustle of the grass more than the shrieking of the engine. He predicted that their dance would be ended by bullets, and he was right.
We sat by the fire at the old man’s feet, listening to his stories until we fell asleep. When we awoke, he was gone
The stories we tell today are the ghost stories of tomorrow.
A few kind words make a small, good thing. Do they make a story?
We do not inherit the earth; we borrow it from our children.
A child is a story begun. A forest is a library of stories. Our ghosts are already grazing like deer among the trees.
When a child’s story is lost in the forest, the deer start at its cry, but they cannot give it kindness. They are too afraid.
Have courage. Take a ball of wool into the forest, search for the child’s story, and bring it home.
I write now with conflicting emotions. I feel bereft, moved, privileged, inspired, empty, sad and glad to have made what I know was the right decision. Of course my connection isn’t severed. The tents will be there again next August, and the one after, and the one after that, and there will still be events to be chaired. And as one literary chapter in my life closes there’s the hint of another one opening as Jenny Brown, my agent and, until two days ago, fellow board member, reports encouraging noises about the new novel, Jaguar, from two publishers in Edinburgh and one in London.
Life, along with the stories we tell, goes on.