Birnam, the village where I live, and neighbouring Dunkeld, across the river, have a combined population of just 1,100 souls. For our size we’re unusual in having an arts centre, fully equipped with a 150-seater auditorium, studio and meeting spaces, and an excellent café. Even more unusually, perhaps, we now have a book festival. The first Birnam Book Festival took place last weekend.
From my long experience of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I know that an identifiable campus is one of the key elements of a successful festival. Birnam Arts was our mini-campus for the weekend and the entire programme of twenty or so events took place between three spaces in the building.
It’s common these days for book festivals to have themes – biography, say, or nature writing, or crime. Ours didn’t. The first time around you get who you can. We were lucky enough to get the octogenarian folk singer and lifelong activist, Peggy Seeger, for a thrilling headline performance with her memoir First Time Ever.
Other authors, some relatively local, some from elsewhere in the UK, brought poetry, romantic and crime fiction, psychology, science, social commentary, music and children’s events. Of the visitors, some bought weekend passes and went to every possible event. Others dipped in and out. Birnam Arts buzzed from Friday evening till late Sunday afternoon.
And over the forty-eight hours a theme began to emerge; a theme that had less to do with any of the literary genres and more do with a sense of coming together. It could have been simply that our friends and neighbours had turned out in force and the place was full of familiar faces. But it wasn’t. A good number of visitors had come from much further afield, and by the end of the weekend many people were starting to remark on it, including one of the authors who told me, “It’s extraordinary. It feels like a community gathering with international speakers.”
Good book festivals, in my experience, do engender a feeling of shared experience, one which most often revolves around intellectual engagement. They have become one of the principal public forums of our age, the places we go to to hear the most important ideas of the day being aired and debated.
But there was another, more emotional thread present in Birnam, which I would describe as a pervading sense of social concern. Many of the events seemed to have a humane theme at their heart, and over the course of the weekend I sensed that people were becoming more and more moved, not just by individual events, but by their cumulative effect, and indeed by the whole experience of being present at the festival. For one reason or another, people had been led to look into their own hearts.
Maybe this was in response to the speakers and their subjects; maybe to the current state of things, a feeling of heightened need for human connection. I’m not sure. But it was a remarkable forty-eight hours, and I know there will be intense discussion now about how it can be repeated next time.
Meanwhile, there’s a personal coda to this post. Dark Angels are producing another book, Dark Angels on Writing, our collective wisdom from 15 years of running our programme of writing courses. Twelve authors are each writing a chapter, and I have editorial responsibility for four of them. On Monday morning, drained but elated after the book festival, I received the chapter from our Seattle-based associate, Richard Pelletier, entitled: What does it mean for a writer to pay attention?
Richard is a photographer as well as being an exceptional writer. What he said in his chapter seemed to speak of all the things that were extraordinary about the weekend. He wrote so luminously about them that it was almost as if he had been there.
I went to bed on Monday with all this going round in my head and woke at 4.30am, with the feeling that some kind of inner connection had taken place. Unable to get back to sleep I got up and started on the project I have been putting off for the last couple of months, the introduction to the book about my great-great-uncle, RB Cunninghame Graham.
Paying attention. Perhaps that’s what we had all been doing at the weekend. I’m certain that had it not been for the inaugural Birnam Book Festival, the introduction to the book, which I need to include with a funding application, would still be no more than a good intention. I wonder if other people who were there have since found that they had been paying closer attention than they realised.
We’re crowd-funding Dark Angels on Writing through the publishers Unbound. It’s going to be an extraordinary book and we’d love your support. You can pledge here https://unbound.com/books/dark-angels-on-writing/
I know Birnam, but not the community – not until this weekend when perhaps I started to. There was a palpable sense of that community and of a web of shared interest reaching out to the surrounding towns and villages – and beyond. The festival was not too big. It was a bit like an amazing, stumbled-upon secret.
The Birnam line up initially tempted me for the children’s programme but in the end it was the programme for adults I couldn’t resist. After a ten year absence from that kind of shared forum of ideas I am delighted to have found one again. It felt like waking up. And what a place for that to happen, with community and music and in that wooded, misty, slightly mysterious, slightly old-fashioned, otherworldy place that for me, is Birnam. It was like walking into a fairytale setting and finding wholly modern stories.