Edinburgh International Festival
At this time of year I have a sort of love-hate relationship with the city. Edinburgh, I mean. Because the festivals – no, THE FESTIVALS – are in full swing.
The city itself is a crazy hugely over-populated maze splattered with lost motorists who don’t understand British road markings, suicidal tourists who find the only place for that perfect snapshot of the castle is the middle of the road, single minded art-loving enthusiasts charging from Gallery A to Theatre B to Exhibition C in defiance of time and all impedimenta, and hundreds of performers in costumes, masks, and sundry guises thrusting leaflets at every passer-by. It’s chaos mixed with bedlam liberally laced with artistic overload. And I confess I go out of my way to avoid the centre whenever possible during August.
But on the other hand it’s a paradise for artists/writers/ theatre-lovers/musicians. As I heard one famous comedian say on the first day of The Fringe Festival, ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.‘ Yes, there’s a glorious and diverse choice of events to attend. And a magnificent backdrop against which it all happens.
The Book Festival is, naturally enough, top of my personal list, and this year I’m sitting at the feet of luminaries such as AC Grayling, Audrey Niffenegger, AS Byatt, AL Kennedy, in awed wonder. (I’ve just noticed they all begin with ‘A’! Well, that’s merely the start.) Simply walking into the tented wonderland of Charlotte Square transports me into a world far away from all things humdrum. I wrote my first creative writing assignment about it, so it has fond associations going way back. And even after a long day on my feet working in a charity cafe (which our church is running this week for Send a Cow) I can still manage to stay wide awake and engaged in that darkened theatre listening to two folk chatting about writing.It is so reassuring to see so many folk browsing in the bookshop, queuing to hear authors, asking such intelligent questions. Paying good money to do so, what’s more. Then once those lights go down … and the show begins … Yep, I love it. All those tourists and cars clogging up our fair city are forgiven and forgotten.
And this year, compared to the bloodshed and devastation of the riots in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, this is positively cultured disorder. We have much to be thankful for.
I’m feeling very fortunate. I’ve recently been talking – well, no, actually I’ve been listening – to people who’ve either given or received organs. It’s all part of research for my current novel, which has a working title at the moment of Over my Not-quite-dead Body.
The emotions are still powerful years after the actual transplant, and some of the donors as well as the recipients weep as they talk. I feel immensely privileged to be trusted with their stories. But I’m also awed by their generosity. Every single one of them so far has been a busy person, involved in all sorts of activities and campaigns, and yet they find space for someone like me.
But they (as in inventors of aphorisms) do say, if you want a job done, give it to a busy person, don’t they? And that’s certainly my experience. Every time I write a book I send it out to various experts to check its accuracy and authenticity; and ‘household-names’ provide endorsements. It’s rare for anyone I approach to refuse no matter how famous and busy they are. Best-selling authors, celebrities and peers of the realm, as well as full time policemen, journalists and medical consultants – they’ve all been incredibly generous with their time. I salute them all.
Speaking of busy … Edinburgh is absolutely heaving with folk at the moment. It’s Festival time. Buses take ages to creep along Princes Street, tourists crowd the pavements blocking routes, thespians and artists of every hue vie for one’s attention. Ordinary life is hampered at every turn.
But metamorphose into a festival-goer, and everything changes! It’s an exciting place to be. I’m slotting in events here and there in between doubling as a waiter/cook in a charity café run by our church this week. (Will my feet ever be the same again?) We’re collecting for Village Water Zambia this time. The very idea of relying on scoop holes in the ground for all your water, the disease, the infection … makes you shudder just thinking about it.
The monologue: An Evening with Dementia, I told you about was superb. Poignant as well as humorous. So much truth conveyed so artistically. It certainly rang true for me.
- Yes, people do use unspecific phrases and words to cover holes in their memory. (My mother can still dredge up an occasional bright smile and ‘Hello, dear’. Chance visitors tell us encouragingly, ‘Oh, she knew me instantly.’ But we, the family, know better than to confuse a reflex cover-all reaction with genuine understanding.)
- Yes, there is a fine dividing line between reality and imagination. (The actor peered at us and debated with himself whether we were actually a real audience, or he was inside the virtual theatre of his mind. And I see this doubt sometimes in the eyes of a friend I spend time with.)
- Yes, we all need to be more aware of how we react and speak; people with dementia can be aware at all sorts of levels. (He summed up humbug and obfuscation from relatives and staff perfectly.)
Well worth a visit if you’re in the capital.
And I’m just back from the Book Festival listening to Candia McWilliam. She’s a novelist (she describes herself as ‘intensely Scots’) with a colourful past who’s won several awards herself and judged the Man Booker Prize. The process of judging involves reading about 120 contenders for the title at a rate of about a book a day. No wonder, you might think, that after a while she had to force her eyelids to stay open with her fingers. But this was no normal fatigue. She had developed a condition called blepharospasm, where the brain instructs the eyes to close, though the eyes themselves are working perfectly normally. By the time of the Booker Prize evening she was ‘functionally blind’. After conservative treatments failed she had surgery to insert tendons from her leg to peg her eyelids to her eyebrows. Her book, What to Look for in Winter is both a literal and metaphorical journey through not only physical blindness but also the experiences of alcoholism and betrayal of her second husband.
I didn’t dare ask a question, though I was wanting to. It was stressful enough watching others silenced by a quelling one-liner! Unusual in the Book Festival where authors tend to bend over backwards to make what they can out of any question that comes their way – even the ones about inspiration and technical process and why-did-you-write-this-book that they’ve answered a thousand times before. Not this lady!
But that aside, tonight it was a particular treat to just sit still with nothing more demanding to do than listen. My joints and legs have unilaterally decided that the sedentary life of a writer is a doddle compared to the life of a waiter. Well, it’s a different kind of busy. And I’m certainly not complaining. What’s a measly week on my feet all day compared with a lifetime of feeding your children contaminated water from a scoophole?
The great Edinburgh International Festival is almost upon us again. Time to pour over those brochures and raid the piggy bank.
Being within hailing distance of everything, we natives can get a bit blasé about events that other folk travel half way round the world to attend, but this year I booked a few performances early on to make sure I didn’t backslide. As you might expect it’s the Book Festival that gets the bulk of my patronage and I’ve learned to be quick off the starting blocks for the ones I really really want. Only one disappointment: Hilary Mantel of 2010 Man-Booker fame has withdrawn. Hope she’s not ill again.
On the theatre front, no prizes for guessing why I’ve elected to go to a one-man play, An Evening with Dementia. Intriguing. It’ll be interesting to see how this ex-RSC actor combines humour with sensitivity in such a delicate area – an abiding concern of mine while writing Remember Remember.
And when it comes to lectures, I’ve plumped for a one-off: Why a scientist believes in God. I got advance warning of that one because the lecturer is actually someone I know. With that topic in my mind I just had to get stuck into The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which I read between trips to hospital (ferrying and visiting, I hasten to add, not being ill myself). The author is Dr Francis Collins, a prominent American geneticist, and head of the now famous Human Genome Project, so someone who commands huge respect from a scientific point of view. From a religious angle he appealed to me too – going from agnostic through atheist to ‘a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God’. Wow! How come?
It’s a very clearly laid out book – lots of headings and numbered options and arguments and counter arguments. All very orderly as befits an evidence-based scientist. Nor does he shirk the less hard-nosed tricky questions and thorny issues – the harm done in the name of religion; the dangers of a God-of-the-gaps theory; the relative merits of different possibilities – young earth creationism, intelligent design, theistic evolution …
One straight read isn’t enough for my little grey cells; I’ll need to study it slowly to have any chance of assimilating his arguments properly and deciding how far I go with his reasoning. But it certainly underlined for me my own limited knowledge of science, and the truth of that proverb: ‘It is not good to have zeal without knowledge.’ [Proverbs 19:2]
After all that brain-bombardment and challenge I slunk into the garden for a little light relief. But the questions continued.
The poppies are spectacular right now. How did we get such a huge range and diversity? ‘Creative genius’ rang in my head. Could it all be slow evolution? Is it the direct hands-on work of God? Or is it a combination? At least I know better than to talk loosely and superficially about ‘intelligent design’ now! And just wallowing in that glorious profusion of colour, and admiring the intricacy of each flower, lifted my spirits. I guess for me, none of it makes sense without God. We shall see what that lecturer says on 18 August.
Oh, before I forget, all you book bloggers out there, there’s to be another meet-up of like-minded souls on Saturday September 25th in Oxford. If you’re interested and want to be kept informed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Merely contacting him doesn’t commit you to anything.