Edinburgh Canal Festival

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Last weekend was the annual Raft Race and Canal Festival just a few minutes walk from my flat in Edinburgh. I’ve been going since it started just a few years ago on the regenerated Union Canal where it ends around Lochrin Basin in central Edinburgh (although once upon a time I’m told it went a little further than this, crossing the nearby road, around the back of the old Co-Op building (which is why its back wall is curved) and through where the large modern offices of the financial district are to end nearer the West Port (I always assumed West Port meant ‘west gate’, port derived from French for a doorway), but it seems it meant port as in tying up many commercial barges). It started as just the charity raft race a few years back and obviously my camera and I went along to document it, all sorts of wacky boats and rafts taking part in a charity race. It has now grown into the Canal Festival with rides, acts, stalls and of course the raft race. And with the astonishing heat wave of weather it was pretty packed this year – was nice to go along, last year was the only one I have missed, as I was through to help dad every weekend while we waited on his operation, so I couldn’t go. Huge crowds enjoying the music, dancing, races and stalls, some cooling off by dipping their feet in the water while watching the racing.

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Oops – some raft designs didn’t quite cut the mustard and, as they used to say on the Goon Show “”he fallen in da water”. The International Rescue (no, not Thunderbirds, Pete, don’t get all excited, mate) folk were on hand to fish them out with this nifty boat which has a ramp in the bow which hinges down to make it easy to haul people in out of the water:

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They also demonstrated how to help someone out who was in difficulty – contrary to the action scenes in movies and TV you are not meant to dive in yourself, you should try using floats or lifebelts on ropes if available to reach them from the banking:

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If there is a boat in the water ask them to help guide the person in distress (not that he looks very distressed here!) to the bank as well:

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All that kayaking demonstration is thirsty work:

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I’ve seen this handsome traditional rowboat with a fabric hull at several canal fests now:

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There was music, such as this folk group set up by the old Leamington Lift Bridge:

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This band doing some rather good rock and pop covers:

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And this French chap doing some cool pop music en Francais:

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The model boat club had some nice ships, some on display nearby, some powered and actually racing around in the canal:

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Everyone seemed to be having a good time:

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Even thought some found it harder going than they envisaged, they kept going:

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And the ladies from the local belly dancing class got big cheers for their gyrations:

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Pat Mills, Rodge Glass, Nick Hayes & William Goldsmith at the Edinburgh Book Festival

(Pat Mills on the left and Rodge Glass on the right signing after their talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the weekend; all pics from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)

The Edinburgh International Book Festival for 2011 came to an end last night and over the final weekend I was lucky enough to catch not one but two final comics-related talks, both of them double headers, with Rodge Glass, author of Dougie’s War, talking with Brit comics godfather Pat Mills about the portrayal of conflict in comics and the aftermath of various effects on the men and women who have to engage in real warfare. This was followed later on Sunday evening with two of Jonathan Cape’s latest alumni, Nick Hayes and William Goldsmith discussing their recently published works.

My Sunday at a soggy but still happily buzzing Book Festival started with the Rodge Glass and Pat Mills event, where the focus was on the depiction not only of warfare in comics but the effects the events and stresses of combat have on real life soldiers, especially after the conflict is over and they find themselves on their own, away from the support network of the comrades in their unit and the infrastructure of the armed forces and back to ‘normal’ on civvy street. Rodge wrote the recent Dougie’s War, the title itself a nod to the influence of Pat’s earlier work (and one of the great classics of British comics) Charley’s War. Where Charley’s War shoved us into the brutality of the mud and blood of trench warfare in the First World War Dougie’s War deals with a contemporary conflict as our protagonist has to deal with his return to everyday life back home after fighting in the dust of Afghanistan, with an admirable focus on having to cope (or failing to cope) with the emotional and mental after-effects from the intense strain of combat situations, seeing and being involved in violence and death.

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And as we know men in general are rather poor at seeking medical help at the best of times, with a proud former soldier, meant to be self reliant and tought, it can be even harder to ask for that help (if it is available) but if they don’t the effects can spiral – it’s a very sad thought that quite a number of veterans in the UK, USA and elsewhere will end up with a broken family, homeless or with a criminal record all from the effects of what they called Shell Shock in the war Pat and Joe Colquhoun so clearly documented and what by the time of Rodge’s book would be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, soliders who have performed often heroic acts at great peril, unable to reconcile themselves back to normal life afterwards. The pictures on the AV display flicked between the earlier and later comics works and some documentary photographs, from the bizarre electrical and optical devices scientists cobbled together to try and treat Shell Shock in the Great War to modern psychologists who mean the best but usually can’t totally relate to the soldiers they try to help because, simply, they weren’t there… Both Charley’s War and Dougie’s War both took pains not to varnish the truth or to make warfare look glamorous and both have been well received by actual veterans as well as readers and critics.

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In the evening I was at the Jonathan Cape double-header with William Goldsmith and Nick Hayes, both of whom had some very interesting debut works out from Cape this spring, William with the visually unique and fascinating Vignettes of Ystov (there’s also a sample of his style to be found in the Karrie Fransman-inspired Imaginary Cities anthology from the London Print Studio) and Nick with the massive Rime of the Modern Mariner (you can read a Director’s Commentary with Nick talking us though Mariner here on the blog).

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William’s Vignettes of Ystov is a series of interlinked short stories, each only two pages, set in a fictional city with a central/Eastern European feel to it, each story standing on its own but also, as you progress through the work, building connections, weaving up a tapestry until, like the acclaimed Raymond Carver in Short Cuts, the stories of various seemingly unconnected individuals in a big city come together to show the connections we all, often unknowingly, share in a large urban environment, all with a very distinctive, loose art style (William said he experimented with different styles at art school but the final, loose art came to him when he realised he only had a few weeks to his project deadline!) that is, visually, one of the more unusual and unique (not to mention interesting) looking comics works in the UK this year, with the mutliple short stories set in the same city allowing us to take in a large cast of quirky, eccentric and sometimes wonderfully absurd characters (which may be why he said the short story form appealed to him so much, despite the fact that it demands a real economy of storytelling on the part of the creator). I’m happy to report that he is planning further Vignettes in the future.

Nick explained some of how he approached Rime of the Modern Mariner, which, inspired by Colerdige’s original verse, uses clever rhymes with the comics frames to deliver a contemporary take on the classic poem which takes a much more environmental bent. In fact Nick explained that he was originally inspired by reading about some of the horrific messes humans have made of our planet, such as the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex where many worldwide ocean currents converge, which also means it has become a focal point for the garbage we’ve dumped into our seas, mostly especially plastic that refuses to biodegrade but does, as Nick explained, photo degrade, slowly shrinking until small particles of it float in this large mass of plastic and are consumed by marine creatures… and then later in the food chain by those who consume those marine creatures, including humans. It isn’t all doom and gloom, thankfully – Nick takes his repentant mariner on a voyage both literally and metaphorically, which eventually opens his eyes and mind and soul to the natural world, and showcases some fabulous imagery, not least a beautiful depiction of a blue whale. Published in a format similar to a hardback prose novel it is a huge but very satisfying work.

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The event went very well, I’m pleased to say and there was, despite it being late in the evening and rather cool and wet (ah, the joys of the late Scottish summer! But rain is no stranger to Book Fest veterans and doesn’t stop us!) and both writers/artists being fairly new to the scene, with a good line of readers eager to get their books signed (I had to kick myself for leaving home with my books, carefully left on the table near the door so I would remember them, left behind… bugger…) and those readers all having a good chat with the Cape boys. Great night and both books much commended for your reading delight.

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And so ends another year of the world’s biggest book bash, just under 800 authors have graced the graceful Georgian environs of Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square and thousands of book lovers, with folks from the comics community playing their part in the diverse make up of the festival, from talks to comics workshops (in fact I bumped into Metaphrog’s Sandra and John during the Pat Mills signing as they were on their way to run a comics workshop for kids, still obviously delighted at their earlier chairing of a masterclass event with Shaun Tan at the Festival). Again it is great to see such a major literary event embracing the medium so happily, backed up with a good display of graphic novels in the on-site bookstore as well. Many thanks to the organisers and especially to the lovely folks in the press office for sneaking me into the events. You can read reports with photos from the Grant Morrison and the Neil Gaiman talks at the Book Fest earlier on the blog.

Book Festival unveiled

As I was off for the start of my annual Edinburgh International Film Festival break I could accept an invite to the launch of this year’s programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest literary celebration, which took place, assisted by some nice drinkies (ah, booze at half ten in the morning, I do love the booktrade…), in the splendid environs of the city’s Central Library. Director Nick Barley outlined the adult programme of events:

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While Janet Smyth told us some highlights from the children’s programme:

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There are some fabulous events too look forward to, as always, including a celebration of probably the greatest living Scots writer, national treasure Alasdair Gray (including a performance of one of his plays in which a number of his fellow authors will play roles alongside actors), Neil Gaiman returns to the Book Fest, this time talking with Audrey Niffeneger and there are far too many other events to list here (almost 800 authors, around 750 events over two weeks, literary mecca). I did a quick report on it on the comics and SF side mostly for the Forbidden Planet blog and, of course, you can check out the full programme on the EIBF’s website here.

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(inside the Central Library where the Scottish literary community and the media had gathered for this year’s Book Festival programme launch)

I bumped into a number of folks I know at the launch, including a couple of old chums and former colleagues:

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Bell, Trudeau and Rowson at the Edinburgh Book Festival

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(Garry Trudeau being supplied with beer by Steve Bell at the signing after an extremely well attended talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival yesterday evening)

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Steve Bell in conversation with the celebrated cartoonist and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Despite irregular outbursts of rain (yes the wee rubber ducks were floating in a puddle in Charlotte Square gardens once more, they enjoy our unpredictable Scottish weather) the venue was totally packed with a pretty broad range of readers and I have to say Trudeau was fascinating to listen to,starting with talking about his early days as an undergrad at college doing cartoons for the student paper (also involving running a cartoon about a scandal involving bizarre fraternity house initiation ceremonies for a frat house where one George W Bush was one of the big cheeses. As Garry said, it’s almost like fate…).

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The conversation ranged over a number of subjects, from the rapid changes the traditional newspaper (and so paper cartoonists) are trying to deal with (or sadly often failing to deal with) to Trudeau’s earliest days, as a young 20 something trying to secure syndication (when some older editors refused to take the strip his syndication contacts said don’t worry, these guys all die. And guess what, they did and the younger editors who replaced them took the strip) to developing his unique style – Bell was particularly interested in the way Trudeau can depict major political figures without actually depicting them. As Bell pointed out his form of political cartooning relies on him studying those characters then trying to recreate a recognisable caricature of them, but Trudeau often uses something far more abstract to represent someone, such as a floating feather for Dan Quayle back when he was vice president (which I seem to recall was more than Bush Snr got in the same era!). Apparently with Quayle junior now running for office in the US and having his father’s same unique command of the English language he’s going for a smaller feather – the family franchise is renewed! Such characters appearing on the political scene are, as Trudeau said to Bell, a gift for people in their line of work.

The most powerful part of the evening, however, came when Trudeau talked about his depiction of the soldier’s point of view in strips dealing with the War On Terror in Doonesbury, most notably with long-time character DB losing a leg during the Iraq war. I didn’t know Doonesbury had been carried in the American military paper Stars and Stripes for years and this gave Trudeau some serious fans in the forces. He recounted how when he pondered killing BD off in the line of duty he decided that giving him this terrible injury was the better course – the injury and the huge implications it had for the character and those around him when he came home were a good way of showing readers the human cost of conflict and just what dreadful cost young men and women are paying for the decisions of their political masters. Trudeau talked about being invited to meet some of the badly injured and maimed troops (‘to make sure he got it right’ as he put it) and when he recounted meeting a young woman soldier who had lost an arm you could have heard a pin drop. It was disturbing, emotional stuff and he was obviously affected hugely by it and trying his best to do justice to the suffering of the soldiers while still maintaining his own personal anti-war stance.

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Earlier yesterday I was also lucky enough to attend another of Steve Bell’s events (the Guardian cartoonist was given his own mini strand at the Book Fest this year and has several guests), this time with his fellow Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. Again a very interesting event, with Rowson wryly noting that this particular event was made possible in part by sponsorship from the Times, which amused him hugely given that several years before the Times had fired him. While he spoke he had some of his work being projected on a screen, including one cartoon depicting Rupert Murdoch leaning over a toilet bowl with the tagline “I’m just watching Fox News”. Discussing the Times, though, did give a good excuse to show some of the very Hogarth style, incredibly detailed drawings Rowson did during that time and he took much delight in walking us through one densely populated cartoon of a political get together of politicians and various journalists. After he had pointed out various figures he then started to explain that if we looked at this person (a depiction of Steve Bell, as it happened) you could see the arms made a shape, and the person next along made a rough shape of a letter also and so on. Until, he explained, you could see that hidden in this mass of figures carefully arranged you could discern a message saying ‘fuck’ to the then Times editor. It had to be visible after looking for a while but obviously not aparrent at first glance otherwise it would never have been allowed to run (their fault for giving him a couple of weeks notice, he said). Once it had run safely in the Times he gleefully informed Francise Wheen and Private Eye, Lord Gnome doubtless chortling to himself, happily ran the story of the hidden fuck you message so all the world knew. It rarely pays to be mean to satirists…

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Bell was also fascinated by Rowson’s ‘other’ professional life as a creator of graphic novels, from his version of The Wasteland (more an interpretation/pastiche than literary adaptation as he was denied the right to use the original text) to his version of Sterne’s classic Tristram Shandy, which was just recently reprinted by SelfMadeHero (talking briefly to him later he said he thought the new SMH edition was a lovely edition and seemed very pleased with how they had done it, considering it to be nicer than the original version). He also revealed that he is working on a new graphic novel literary adaptation, this time of Swift’s immortal classic Gulliver’s Travels, a very appropriate choice for Rowson given that it is one of the greatest satires of human nature, politics, beliefs and morals every penned. I think he said that work would be coming from Grove Atlantic at some point (he’s still working to a deadline which has already had to be pushed back). One to watch for, methinks.

The pair also discussed issues such as censorship and editorial interference, although both seemed to share the opinion that although they did sometimes get questioned by their editor they were also quite often allowed to get away with a lot too (and in the case of Rowson who also provides cartoons to the Morning Star free of charge he has no editorial problems there since that’s part of the unspoken rule of him supplying them his work gratis). Asked about what some of the politicians thought about the way both depicted them, they seemed generally unfazed – Rowson talked about then chancellor Brown bumping into him at a function, he took him to task for how he could run the policies he espoused yet still claim to be a Labour politician. Brown in return just grumpily asked him why he was always drawn so fat. Naturally Rowson told him because he was. But the general consensus was that they were drawing on a centuries old tradition going back to Gilray and beyond whereby the great British cartoonist had a duty to satirise and lampoon the great and the powerful, to help keep them in their place and remind them that they’re being watched. Amen to that. (pics from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)