All the world’s a stage…

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Four hundred years to the day since William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil, a popular playwright in his own time, he may well have been just a footnote in literary history like so many others, and yet, partly due to the posthumously published First Folio collection in 1623, put together by his friends so that Will’s work would not be forgotten after his death. Could any of them have imagined that these would become part of the absolute canon of world literature, told and retold endlessly across the centuries, adapted to new mediums and new ages…

shakespeare folio portrait martin droeshout

(the portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio, by Martin Droeshout)

How many ages hence,
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Julius Caesar

Four hundred years on and Shakespeare’s works still suffuse not only the cultural heritage of Britain but, appropriately, given the name of his famous theatre, the Globe, so many lines entering the popular language, used even by those who have no idea they are quoting from the Bard. They’ve been adapted again and again into new media that Will could never have dreamed of, from radio productions beamed into our homes through the ether like some magic by Prospero to the glories of the silver screen, and re-interpreting his works and life as inspiration for new tales – witness Neil Gaiman’s remarkable use of Shakespeare several times in his magnificent Sandman comics, both the plays and the man and also looking at the act of artistic creation, the cost of crafting stories (using the medium of stories to examine stories…). I’ve been a bookseller for more than two decades, a reader all my life, and I know full well that of the many stories published each year some can go on to become hugely popular, bestsellers as we’d call them today, and yet ten or twenty years later even those bestselling writers can slip into out of print obscurity.


(One of the Shakespeare elements of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, from on of my favourite plays, The Tempest, Prospero and Miranda, artwork by the incomparable Charles Vess)

Save for a precious  fraction of all the authors who have ever been published – the Jane Austens, the Charles Dickens, the Cervantes, the Borges, the Walter Scotts, eternal Homer of course, Mark Twain. These remain in print, always re-read, across the world, loved and admired and passed on to other generations, translated into languages Shakespeare would never have heard uttered, read again even in nations which didn’t exist when Shakespeare walked the streets of Stratford. As Gaiman has Dream tell his version of Shakespeare, there are some stories which are simply forever, which will always need to be retold as long as human tells stories – and storytelling is in the very blood of humanity, we’ve been doing it since we sat around fires telling oral ballads and drawing on cave walls. Times change, but people are people and the best stories say something about our nature, about what it is to be human, and that makes them forever pertinent to any age. And of course they’re also just bloody good stories to enjoy!

City built on books

Reading today that the vast knowledge the great consulting detective Mister Sherlock Holmes displayed was due largely to his Edinburgh author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attending classes at the Royal Botanic Gardens in his teens. One hundred and forty year old records show a young Conan Doyle’s signature for attending his classes, where he would have learned about a number of interesting plants, including the deadly Belladonna, which would prove very useful several years later when he began writing the Sherlock Holmes tales, along with the already very well-known inspiration for Holmes himself which Doyle had in the shape of the remarkable Edinburgh lecturer Doctor Joseph Bell.

Sherlock Holmes 02

This is one of the things I most love about living here in Edinburgh – not just the very long, rich history, not just the culture (like having the largest arts festival in the world), the amazing architecture, perched in turn on top of even more astonishing geology (giving Edinburgh a skyline like no other and wonderful walking opportunities along streets which curve down and up, and around), it’s the books: this is a city built on literature as much as its geology. Books are everywhere here, and I’m not just talking about the obvious form of bookstores or the Edinburgh International Book Festival (again largest in the world), it’s the way so many corners of this old city are deeply tied to authors and writing, from Robert Burns, Hume and Scott, Stevenson and Doyle to publishers like Chambers with their great reference works.

Robert Burns on the Mile

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson 2

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today you can still see Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle’s childhood homes, drink in pubs they visited… And it goes on, from the mid 20th century “poet’s pub” in Milnes, where rhymers and bards got together (the Portrait Gallery here has the wonderful painting of them all together in the pub, for where else should a Scots bard be?) to the cafes where a struggling single mother was writing what would become the Harry Potter novels which so galvanised the reading habits of millions of children (and adults!) or a drink in the Oxford Bar where Ian Rankin’s bestselling Inspector Rebus enjoys a jar or three, and indeed it is not unknown to bump into contemporary Edinburgh authors when out patronising one of our city’s many fine drinking establishments, enjoying a small refreshment. It’s a book-lover’s city.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar

Two hundred years of Waverley

The Edinburgh City of Literature campaign is celebrating two hundred years of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, and the huge Edinburgh railway station which shares that name is currently peppered with quotations from Scott to mark the bicentennial of the famous Scottish novel:

The Edinburgh Book Fest unveils 2013 programme

Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 01
(Susan Rice opening the programme launch of the Edinburgh Book Festival 2013)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 08
(inside the gorgeous Signet Library)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 09

I was fortunate enough to be invited again to the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s programme for this year, once more in the handsome and historic Signet Library in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square in the heart of the Old Town. Over right hundred events, a vast array of authors and artists on all subjects from biography, science and history to fiction, children’s books, music and this year there is a massive strand, Stripped, focusing on the increasingly vibrant international comics scene, with days of events including up and coming new comics talent, major names (Bryan Talbot, Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware to name but a few), works for adults and kids as well as workshops and even space for the excellent native small press, self published comickers and the first of the new comics awards. I don’t know any other major literary fiction which has given such a huge emphasis on the graphic arts like this, let alone the world’s biggest public literary festival. There are more details of Stripped over on the Forbidden Planet blog here.

Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 03
(above: Janet Smyth announces the children’s programme; below: EIBF director Nick Barley talking at the programme launch)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 04

Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 06
(above:John and Sandra of Glasgow’s Metaphrog, creators of the gorgeous Louis books among others with the Book Fest’s Kirsten Cowie who is overseeing the Stripped segment, below: local comickers Edward Ross and Jeremy Briggs chatting in the Signet Library)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 07

Scott Monument, spring evening

Walking home from work a few evenings ago, chilly and yet such gorgeous light quality – a pale blue dome of sky above and the stretched out, amber light of the sinking sun splashed over the city creating a soft glow on the old buildings of Edinburgh. I love the changing quality of light we experience in our northern kingdom, especially spring and autumn. As the warm light touches the ancient stone it produces a beautiful colour, and the low sun creates both light and long, contrasting shadows, which against the blue of the sky makes it irresistible to my camera…

Scott Monument, spring sunset 01

I’ve taken many photos of the great Gothic rocket of the Scott Monument over the years, but walking past it on an evening like this I find myself compelled to pause and get the camera out again, shooting yet another version of it, but each time it is a little different, so I can’t resist…

Scott Monument, spring sunset 04

One of the grotesques projecting from the first floor balcony of the two hundred feet of literary monument (and yes, it is a grotesque, not a gargoyle – it’s only technically a gargoyle if it also functions as a water spout)

Scott Monument, spring sunset 010

And Sir Walter still looks upon the city, reclining in marble splendour between the massive stone ‘legs’ of his towering monument. I always think that the fact in a city full of remarkable buildings and monuments one of the largest (indeed the largest literary monument in the world) in the city is not to a king, queen, duke or conquering general of imperial grandeur, but to a writer, well, I think that’s very, very civilised.

Nursery Rhymes for the modern audience

Many nursery rhymes have been passed down for generations, but in our modern, wired-up, interconnected age where youngsters are more savvy to trends and tech than ever,  perhaps many of them are losing their relevance to contemporary children, so we need to modernise them a little:

Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker man, bake me a low-fat, high fibre muffin, as fast as you can (and a skinny latte to go with it, please)

Little Jack Horner, sat in his corner, thinking when I grow up I will be a famous paleontologist

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, then called Injury Lawyers For You and sued someone to cover his own clumsiness

Mary had a little lamb, it used to send out her email spam

Old Mother Hubbard, went to the cupboard, then decided it was more convenient to order her grocery shopping online

There was an old lady, who lived in a shoe, because the mean bailed-out bankers wouldn’t give her a mortgage

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, his high-fat sedentary lifestyle made him die

Jack and Jill went up the hill, as part of their daily cardiovascular exercise programme (didn’t want to end up like Georgie)

Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, which she had assembled herself from an Ikea flatpack using an Allen key

This isn’t just any half a pound of tuppenny rice and half a pound of treacle, this is M&S tuppenny rice and treacle

Frankenstein, signed by Mary Shelley

An incredibly rare first edition of Frankenstein, signed by the author Mary Shelley to Lord Byron. That stormy night in the villa Diodati (a summer made wet and stormy by atmospheric disruption caused by a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world) saw two great literary births as Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori encouraged each other to come up with chilling tales to pass the wet evenings. The literary model for the vampire for the best part of the next two centuries would be created (based partly on a fragment written by Byron, then expanded hugely by Polidori who used Byron, who he had fallen out with, as his model of the cold-hearted, aristocratic vampire, a standard model for so long afterwards in the genre), and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. An outstanding tale, part horror, part early science fiction, part cautionary tale on knowledge trying to push into areas perhaps we simply were not meant to know about, part analogy to her own awful losses (children lost to mortality, who haunted her thoughts), a tale that has a seemingly endless fascination for each new generation from 1818 right through to our own modern, highly technologically advanced society, where even today we take morals and themes from it and apply them to new developments that worry us, always the mark of good writing when themes remain immortal and forever adaptable and relatable to passing decades and centuries (link via K A Laity):

Lord Byron’s first edition presentation copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Peter Harrington on Vimeo.

Edinburgh International Book Festival programme launched

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be invited along to one of the highlights of the UK’s literary calendar, the launch for the programme for the world’s biggest literary festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This year the team held the launch in the gorgeous historic splendour of the Signet Library next to the old Parliament hall. There was a mixture of looking back to the beginnings and towards the future; director Nick Barley paid tribute to the Edinburgh Writer’s Conference in 1962 and great Scottish scribes like Hugh MacDiarmid and others who helped to reshape the cultural landscape in a city and country that was still struggling with the post-war place in the world and the decline of traditional strong areas like heavy manufacturing and a seemingly declining interest in our rich culture. Fast forward to 2012 and a very different Edinburgh (and Scotland and the rest of the UK), home to the biggest arts festival in the world, the largest literary festival, home to many great writers past and present, a UNESCO City of Literature… Well, you get the point, the richness of our artistic culture has become far more celebrated and has also given a practical boost in terms of bringing in visitors,and it makes me happy to think that books are at the core of that change. To mark that early 1962 beginning the EIBF has teamed up with the British Council and will be recreating those writer’s conferences, not just here in Edinburgh but in various nations around the world, celebrating the importance of writing and reading and publishing.

Edinburgh Book Festival programme launch 2012 04
(inside the beautiful Signet Library)

The programme for the adult and the children’s section is, as always, stuffed to the gills with events – over 800 authors I think Nick said during his introduction. On the children’s side there will be an artist in residence, none other than the very fine Chris Riddell, who will be doing various events and classes throughout the festival, including discussing his political cartooning for the Observer and he will be working with his regular collaborator Paul Stewart and also with a certain Neil Gaiman, who had such a ball last year at the EIBF he’s back again this August, I am delighted to say (he and Riddell will have an event marking the tenth anniversary of the delightful Coraline, a children’s book which is far, far too good to be left just to children, I think, discussing the interaction of writers and illustrators).

Edinburgh Book Festival programme launch 2012 07
(Janet Smyth outlines the extensive children’s programming for this August’s EIBF)

Also on the extensive kid’s programme those Etherington Brothers are again being allowed out (under responsible supervision) for a comics workshop, the Tolkien Society celebrates 75 years of the Hobbit (especially appropriate with the first part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie on the way later in the year), the Genomics Forum folk will be doing a piece for younger readers on science in fiction (which should be good, they have held regular science-literature crossover events in recent years in the city which have been fascinating and informative). The actor McKenzie Crook has not only written a book it turns out that illustration is his first love and he’s returned to it, providing his own artwork to his book The Windvale Sprites, Jenny Colgan and Steve Cole discuss writing Doctor Who novels, top illustrator Axel Scheffler will be there, as will his regular collaborator the wonderful Julia Donaldson.

Edinburgh Book Festival programme launch 2012 08
(director Nick Barley introduces the adult portion of the Book Festival programme, pic from my Flickr)

In the adult programme one of our finest science fiction writers, Ken MacLeod, continues his work bringing together art and science as part of the festival’s Science Meets Fiction strand (on a related note if you haven’t read Ken’s recently published novel Intrusion you should – an absorbing near-future UK slice of SF very much dealing with some of today’s issues in a clever manner, much recommended). The inventive Jasper Fforde returns once more, local lad Iain M Banks will be there, of course, the excellent reviewer, cultural commentator and writer Kim Newman will be talking about the very welcome new editions of his Anno Dracula series (huge fun), Flame Alphabet writer Ben Marcus will be part of the Science Meets Fiction series, and the brilliant China Mieville will be in Charlotte Square talking about his new novel Railsea.

On the comics front as well as Neil Gaiman returning another of last year’s guests returns too – one of the medium’s best known scribes and one who has just recently been ennobled in the Queen’s birthday honours list, no less: Grant Morrison, MBE (how cool is it that one of our top comics scribes should appear on that kind of list? Not something I ever expected to see, well done, Grant!). Grant will be following up from last year’s sold-out event where he discussed his new Supergods book; he will continue on from that work to discuss the place of superheroes in the modern multimedia age. Bryan Talbot pays a return visit to the EIBF and this time he is joined by his wife and now artistic collaborator Mary to discuss their fascinating graphic novel Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, which intersects Mary’s childhood with a noted Joycean scholar for a father and the life of Lucia, daughter of James Joyce (an excellent work and again highly recommended – you can read a guest commentary by Mary and Bryan about Dotter here on the FP blog). Another welcome returning face is one of the finest editorial cartoonists working in the UK today, Martin Rowson (I was lucky enough to get into his last talk at the EIBF with Steve Bell, one to try and book if you can); Martin will be discussing his updated take on Swift’s superb fantasy satire Gulliver’s Travels.

Edinburgh International Book Festival - Grant Morrison 011

(above: Grant Morrison at last year’s EIBF, below Neil Gaiman at the 2011 EIBF, pics from my Flickr)

Edinburgh International Book Festival - Neil Gaiman 05

Naturally with such a vast programme I can only bring you a little taster of some of the comics, illustration and science fiction folks out of a much larger, incredibly diverse programme featuring literally hundreds of writers, not to mention many other events – debates, live readings and performances, masterclasses and more. You can now get hold of the programme in print or browse online: this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from 11th to the 27th of August in the New Town’s splendid Charlotte Square (box office opens on June 29th), right slap bang during the absolute madness of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe exploding all over the city. Despite how incredibly busy it is though, the Book Fest also offers up a nice oasis of calm among the greater festival madness, also being a nice place to sit back in a deck chair (if the weather stays nice) with a book and an ice cream or of an evening into the Spiegeltent, or browse the very well stocked bookstore. It’s a book lover’s dream tucked away into one historic square and has to be experienced. As always I’ll hopefully be reporting later in the year from a couple of the events.


(this report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog)


Stopped on the way home last night to watch the launch of the enLIGHTen festival in Saint Andrew’s Square, three weeks of contemporary writers responding to quotes by some of the great figures of that powerhouse period, the Scottish Enlightenment (a period which produced science, philosophy and art which still influences to this day). For the next three weeks their words, animated, will be projected onto various elegant buildings and landmarks throughout Edinburgh’s New Town (which we still call new despite being older than the United States – we reckon time differently here). One of our contemporary poets opened the events with a reading (always best way to experience poetry, being read out by the scribe):

enLIGHTen Edinburgh 02

My literary chum Sara, formerly of the Edinburgh Book Festival, explaining more of the event:

enLIGHTen Edinburgh 03

And as it started some words from the great Scottish philosopher David Hume scrambled slowly up the tall monumental column in the middle of the square as well as being projected along the base – apologies for the picture being fuzzy, the lettering was moving and as I had come right from work I had no tripod to steady it (although as the text moved the tripod might still not be enough to get a sharp image):

enLIGHTen Edinburgh 04

enLIGHTen runs from 6pm to midnight until March 18th – you can find a map of the locations and more about the writers on the official site here.

And while we’re at it, here’s one I shot earlier… This was from Carry A Poem, a similar campaign two years back from the Edinburgh City of Literature crew, where famous poetical lines were projected onto buildings in the city, such as this piece of Byron on the walls of the National Library of Scotland, fairly brightened up a winter’s night, walking home and finding a piece of poetry written in light on the pavement or on a wall:

carry a poem - national library of scotland 02

Poetry in motion

I’ve been on a bit of a poetry kick this month; Edinburgh City of Literature’s annual campaign this year (previous years have seen Conan Doyle and Stevenson used to boost interest in reading) is in collaboration with the Scottish Poetry Library. Carry a Poem is encouraging people to find ways of taking poetry around with them and sharing it; as well as giveaways of books and cards it also includes projecting verse onto public monuments and buildings, such as the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge (an institution which, coincidentally, digitally archives this very blog):

carry a poem - national library of scotland 02
I love this idea; in our northern kingdom night falls very early in the winter months and I think it is rather wonderful that as darkness steals across the land the very fabric of the city becomes a page for the poet’s art. For an ancient city such as Edinburgh it seems most appropriate; it’s a city of history and culture, part real, solid buildings and streets, part fantastical, drawn from the imagination of painters and writers and photographers and others and the written word is as much Edinburgh’s foundational fabric as her native stone and volcanic rock, from scholarly treatises penned by kings to the centuries of endless writers who have lived and scribed away inside her, their words shaped by the city but also shaping the city itself, re-imagining it, be it Burns or Stevenson or Hume or modern authors like Rankin. Even her streets have become pages, home to the written word:
Carry a poem - Royal Mile
How sad then that so many people walked past as I stopped to look at these scenes, words written in light and displayed on ancient stone, most of them oblivious to these little gems of art and life the city was offering up to them as they hurried home after the day’s labour. Even when these schemes are not running there’s so much that draws the eye, little stories beckon, little glimpses of history and lives and small delights and wonders if you but pause for just a moment. Look, here carved in stone it tells you Scott once lived in this building, that Stevenson drank in this howff. Sometimes my walk home may take ten minutes longer than usual as I pause to look at something (and usually try to photograph it too), but what’s ten minutes? Who cares if it’s home ten minutes later when those moment were spent not in the dull, mundane every day of work, home, dinner, washing up but in looking at something beautiful that most people are too blinkered to notice, a tiny splash of magic that made me smile.

Their loss. The city speaks if you have eyes to see and ears to hear and you haven’t closed off that sense of wonder that first is stoked in childhood but so many seal off in adulthood, letting it atrophy, assuming it a childish thing and always left afterwards with a tug somewhere inside for something they know they have lost but they don’t know what it is let alone how to recover it. Pity such people; they like to project an aura of being capable, practical, down to earth; often they affect to pity the dreamer as one who is a little addled perhaps or merely too indulgent, even childish. But they are the ones who are hollow within, closed, lost, stumbling through the world with their most important senses blinded to the wonder around them.

I think it’s why I love poetry; it’s like jazz, it stands outside of prose, although kin to it, it touches directly on sensation, experience, emotions in a way no other artform does, although many borrow from it for their own medium, which becomes richer for it. Poetry is one of our most ancient artforms – long before we wrote them down they were told orally (still the best way to experience a poem) and passed on, from the short to the truly epic, the longer ones memorised in verse because it helped the cadences of the storytelling and for the storyteller to recall it for their audience. Words, especially the written word, were seen by the ancients as being akin to magic, a symbolic way of interpreting and reworking some part of the universe. They were right. Since I’m on a poetry jag, here’s a lovely little animation by Julian Grey I found which accompanies former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins reading his poem Forgetfulness:

Rhythm song

As Britain (finally) after several centuries appoints a woman (and a Scot) for the first time to the post of Poet Laureate (which has until now been unremittingly the preserve of white, English males, despite being supposedly a post for the whole of the UK) the BBC is embracing verse, with a special poetry season across its various networks, with, as is now almost the standard practise, a good web site to support the programming. I know, I’ve banged on about poetry before and realistically I’m probably wasting my breath (or typing) as people mostly polarise into those who embrace poetry and those who say they can’t stand it.

Now I say they can’t stand it, but for most of them what they actually mean is they’ve never really tried and have written off one of our oldest art forms, a magical form of writing, which has spaned millennia of human development. Perhaps they were put off by a bad English teacher at school, perhaps they simply assume that its not for them without trying, but either way it shuts them off from a huge swathe of human culture. Bards have been a vital part of our cultural heritage literally for thousands of years; long before the written word and the novel and the play were commonly available using verse as a method to memorise tales was the method that was used, its probably how huge epics like the Iliad would have been transmitted across the centuries before it was written down.

I love the written word; its a magical power, to be able to communicate thoughts and ideas and feelings across time and space; it links people. And in the realms of metaphor and literary structure and notional worlds that the written word embraces, poetry is a special case all its own, a unique way of talking to the world and to the heart and to the soul in a way few others can. Writing was once seen literally as magic – Egyptian priests casting spells to protect the dead pharoah in the afterlife through the use of words, pictograms drawn on cave walls of Lascaux to drawn on the power of what they represent, the use of the exact, written form of a person’s name to give power over them. We’re so surrounded by communication media today we’ve forgotten how remarkable the act of being able to articulate thoughts and feelings in the written word, in a way that can go beyond ourselves to many others and even outlast us, actually is. Poetry is a direct link to that time when few could read and write, to magical incantations, but not to cast spells or summon angels or demons, but to draw and share emotions directly. And to hear poetry read aloud, by the light of candles and fire as it was for millennia is to partake in a ceremony of magic.