Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018

I’ve just been enjoying a couple of weeks at the world’s largest literary festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, seeing a number of fascinating author events and also being fortunate enough to chair several comics and science fiction events too, from Young Adult science fiction and graphic novels to graphic non-fiction covering science, gender and history, as well as taking in two very famous, gifted but different artists, Mr Alan Lee, and Scotland’s own Frank Quitely.

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The comics folks were out in force on the first day of the book festival, with the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival gang organising a free comics fair for small press and Indy creators in the hotel right across the road from the main festival in Charlotte Square, which was a very nice touch, giving the small press comickers a chance to shine at such a huge lit fest, in the middle of a city buzzing as the Fringe and International Festival were also going on and it feels like half the planet has packed into our ancient volcanic city to enjoy the biggest arts and culture bash in the world, a terrific place for our fellow comickers to strut their funky stuff.

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Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 03

The opening day also saw the regular lovely old Spiegeltent being used for more events, with a talk involving BHP Comics’ Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer and 404 Ink’s Laura Jones discussing We Shall Fight Until We Win, an all-woman creator anthology celebrating the centenary year of (some) women in the UK getting the vote, with a female figure from each decade of that century explored by the different writers and artists. Both Indy Scottish presses, BHP and 404 Ink, had collaborated on this, and in a remarkably brief timescale – much of the writing, drawing and editing was achieved within a couple of months. Larger publishers would probably still be going over contracts at that point, but small publishers can be swifter and more nimble on this kind of turnaround, as the panel explained. The audience was pleasingly mixed, as far as I could see, comics readers but also a lot of regular book festival goers who had come along partly out of interest in the subject and also perhaps to help support local publishers.

I had the most people I’ve ever had on stage at any event I’ve chaired at the festival for a SelfMadeHero evening, which included John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy talking about the amazing Tumult and Javi Rey discussing his beautiful graphic adaptation of Jesus Carassco’s Out in the Open. Javi’s English was fine for one on one chats but on stage we had an interpreter, Carolina, so all in all there were five of us packed onto the small stage (Carolina is also an Indy publisher as well as interpreter, and she brought that to the proceedings too).

Both books were very different, but there was a lot of common ground too, especially in the way the two different artists had used light and colour, and rather nicely it ended up being one of those events where instead of just me asking questions the comickers all started commenting on each other’s answers and asking each other questions too. There was a lovely flow between Michael’s art and John’s writing in Tumult, the art achieving the difficult task of showing the same woman but hinting at the different personalities which manifest in her, while Javi chose to adapt the novel into comics by dropping most of the words, letting the art – including some stunning, Sergio Leone-esque landscapes – carry the story, more an interpretation than adaptation. Interestingly he told us the publisher in Spain approached him and asked him to adapt the hugely successful novel into comics form. At the post-event signing Javi produced his watercolours box and proceeded to paint colour art for every person who signed. I can’t recommend Tumult and Out in the Open highly enough, two of the most fascinating and beautifully crafted graphic novels I’ve read this year.

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I was delighted to see Darryl Cunningham, returning to the book festival (he was here previously for Supercrash), bringing his quite excellent Graphic Science from Myriad Editions (reviewed here) to the festival. He had been put on with computer scientist Ursula Martin, who had written on one of the woman pioneers of computer science, the great Ada Lovelace, which proved a good match as Darryl’s graphic work explores several scientists who are less well known and respected than they should be because of gender, class, income or colour, and it was a good reminder of the power of intellect and learning, for the individual of any kind, and the positive effects their work, if they are given the chance, can have on a wider society. I was also cheered when Darryl was introduced as writing graphic non fiction but in his talk he said some of the terms like that applied to creators were clumsy, and he said he simply thinks of himself as a cartoonist. I was very proud to hear him use the “C” word.

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Frank Quitely gave a great late night talk at the festival, taking his recent Drawings + Sketches art book published by Glasgow-based BHP Comics as the basis of the evening. Frank had pages of his work from the Drawings book on screen, and he and chairperson Stuart Kelly used those as a good way to explore not just Frank’s impressive body of work, from Broons parody The Greens in Electric Soup many years ago in Glasgow to major works from US publishers such as We3 with Grant Morrison and Jupiter’s Legacy with Mark Millar. The fact this covered everything, from the roughest doodles and sketches to variations in ideas for characters, costumes, layouts, all the way to the finished works, gave the large audience a terrific insight into the creative process.

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Frank was also generous with his praise for others, such as the writers he has worked with, the importance of work largely unseen by readers proved by editors and others behind the scenes, and discussing some of the other creators whose work he hugely admires. Dave Gibbons was one artist Frank singled out for praise, mentioning how every so often he likes to take out Watchmen and have a look at some specific scenes, to see just how Dave planned and drew them, except, he added with a smile, the story is so well done that he soon finds himself reading away, lost in it, before remembering he was meant to be studying Dave’s art and layouts from a technical point of view. Despite it being a late evening event the turnout was good and there was a solid line for the signing session afterwards (props to the bloke who arrived clutching a branded bag from the sadly now defunct Plan B Books in Glasgow).

I was very pleased to see Jean-Pierre Filiu returning to the festival this year. Jean-Pierre, a former French diplomat, now writer, lecturer and historian, wrote the absorbing trilogy of graphic history/politics books The Best of Enemies, a history of US-Middle East relations from the very creation of the American Republic in the late 1700s to the modern era. The series offers a fascinating insight into this complex history of competing influences and alliances, wrapped up in some truly astonishing artwork by one of France’s greatest comickers, David B.

Last time he was here Jean-Pierre explained there would be a gap between book two and three as the demands of the complex artwork had exhausted David B, and he required a break. The third volume was published in English by SelfMadeHero earlier this year (see my review here), and was one I was eagerly awaiting. Jean-Pierre commented how the third volume, covering the most recent years, was in many ways the hardest to do, principally because this was a period he had personally experienced (he was actually in Baghdad one evening as Allied airstrikes hit it, a planned outing to a classical concert changed to a cellar after the venue was hit by a Tomahawk missile), and how much harder it was to maintain balance and not become too emotionally entangled.

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He also explained the final pages, wordless images of a wide selection of men and women from across the Middle East, Arab, Israeli, young, old, all just looking out of the page at us, looking directly at us as if to say “what will you do? How will you help make this better? We’re just people like you and want to live with our families in safety and prosperity”. Fascinating and extremely compelling, and not a little emotional too.

I had the pleasure of chairing some events in the Children’s Programme this year too; I’ve chaired author events many times before at the festival, but this was the first time I worked on the kid’s programme events, and it really was fun. I had a terrific chat about YA science fiction with Barbados writer Karen Lord (who has one of the brightest and bestest smiles I’ve ever seen) about The Galaxy Game, a follow-up to The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Paul Magrs (who many of you will know for his Doctor Who and Big Finish tales) who was there with the third part of his Lora Trilogy, The Heart of Mars, following a young teenage girl’s journey to save her family and friends across a future, terraformed Mars.

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While both books were very different they had a lot in common, both with complex and well-realised societies with rich traditions and customs, and both, I found as I read, avoided the “omniscient narrator” and gave the reader only the same information as the main characters, which had the effect of placing us right there in the journey with them, learning right alongside them, this process immersing us more into the book and cultures and also empathising more with the characters.

The theme of this year’s book festival was freedom, and Gutter Magazine had produced The Freedom Papers, a collection of personal essays on what freedom means to different people, by over fifty writers from around the world, including Karen and Paul, and instead of reading from their own books they both read their essays. Given some dozen important authors (many from African and Middle Eastern countries) were blocked by the incompetent, Kafka-esque Home Office from obtaining their visas to visit the book festival, this discussion on freedom was all too relevant to those of us at the festival – freedom of movement is important, denying it can be, in effect, a form of censorship, and for a government to stop so many lauded writers from entering the UK to its largest celebration of the written word was utterly shameful and hardly does much to enhance the UK’s reputation of being open to the world.

Also on the children’s programme I got to work not only with a pair of Nobrow/Flying Eye creators, Alexis Deacon, there with the first two volumes of his beautifully illustrated YA fantasy graphic novels Geis (pronounced Gesh, as in the old Gaelic term for a form of curse or enchantment), and Joe Todd-Stanton with the second of his Brownstone’s Mythical Collection tales, Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx, and The Secret of Black Rock. Joe’s work mixed elements of the classic children’s picture book format with elements of comics to create a delightful hybrid, and boasted some quite gorgeous scenes – in fact Alexis drew attention to a two-page spread by Joe depicting the Egyptian god Ra’s sunboat traversing the sky, all shown in a cutaway fashion, like those lovely Dorling Kindersely books, and the audience of youngsters all agreed with him how beautiful some of those scenes were. It’s always nice when instead of just you as chair asking the authors questions, they interact with each other and discuss each other’s work and processes on stage too, and it becomes more of a natural conversation rather than interview.

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With so many young readers in the audience both Alexis and Joe were happy to discuss how they got into illustration and comics (in Alexis’ case this was his first proper comics works, his previous, award-winning works being picture books, but he had long harboured a desire to do longform comics), and how they create their works, from ideas for a story and little doodles to the finished page. Unsurprisingly many of the youngsters there liked the idea of making their own stories and comics, and they seemed to especially enjoy hearing Joe and Alexis explaining to them about how they go about making their tales and their art.

As part of the Scottish Government’s Year of Young People a group of schoolchildren – calling themselves Codename F – worked with the festival programmers on choosing events, and in fact Alexis and Joe were authors they had specifically asked to have at the festival (you can imagine how delighted they were to learn that!). Three of these youngsters took part in the event with us, talking to us beforehand in the Author’s Yurt, they then introduced the three of us at the start of the event (unusual experience for me, normally I am introducing the author, this time I was being introduced with them!) and they had lined up questions for the audience Q&A segment after our on-stage chat. The kids were so enthused at being part of the book festival, and over the moon at meeting some of the authors they had loved reading, getting to talk to them, getting their books signed (both Alexis and Joe did them lovely wee sketches too), they were absolutely beaming, one youngster telling us that this was the best day of his life. It was wonderfully sweet, even to a cynical old bookseller like me, and quite wonderful to see the children so involved and happy at book events. I think that was one of the nicest events I’ve ever done…

On the last day of the festival on the holiday Monday I had my last event, and boy, what an event to finish on: illustration royalty in the form of the great Alan Lee. HarperCollins are publishing the final JRR Tolkien tale, The Fall of Gondolin, this week and this was the first proper event in the world to celebrate that landmark. Ironically this final publication is the earliest Middle Earth tale – Tolkien himself noted in a letter to a friend that this was the first proper tale in his world that he ever started – begun during a break from the horror of the trenches in the Great War. Tolkien, as he often did, rewrote and changed his story over the years, so much so that although parts have appeared before, the full tale, as seen in this book, was thought unlikely to ever see the light of day. His son Christopher Tolkien painstakingly, forensically reconstructed the full tale from multiple versions and drafts (including one saved from destruction by his mother), and the book comes with copious notes on how he put it together and explaining how it fits into Middle Earth history, which is as compelling as the actual tale.

Who else could illustrate this almost lost tale of the First Age of Middle Earth, millennia before the time of Lord of the Rings, but already setting up ideas and sowing seeds that would come to fruition so much later chronologically, in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion except Alan Lee. An impeccable pedigree of world-class illustration in pencils, inks, charcoals, oil and watercolours and awards from the Kate Greenaway Medal to an Academy Award, he is one of the artists most responsible for how legions of readers worldwide visualise the rich tapestry of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (and of course that is why Peter Jackson asked him to work on the films with him).

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Instead of the usual Q&A session format, Alan had explained he had put together an illustrated talk, and I was happy to forego the time for the Q&A to hear it alongside the packed audience. Alan took us through his work in chronological order, from early works with the great Brian Froud in Faeries to illustrations for Rosemary Sutcliff’s acclaimed children’s takes on the Iliad and Odyssey, the glorious illustrated Mabinogion tales (I still have a copy of that edition, those rich, ancient Celtic myths, source material for much Arthurian lore, married to Alan’s paintings, just enchanting) and of course his many Tolkien works, sharing with us sketches and finished paintings from Lord of the Rings to the Fall of Gondolin, and also his works for the film adaptations with Peter Jackson.

Alan showed us a sequence of works depicting the great city of Gondor, explaining how as well as showing the city from the plains he would then make multiple sketches, effectively tools for himself, taking himself through the streets and buildings so he had a full understanding of how it all connected and worked and looked, inside and out. Part of this found him drawing the different levels and streets as Gandalf rides up to the summit of the city; flicking through these sketches quickly was reminiscent of an animatic used by film-makers to plan a sequence, and indeed Alan added that this eventually went on to be used in the film itself. Alan was also kind enough to include a plethora of sketches and other works which he hasn’t published or shared before, save showing to family or friends, including works from notebooks and sketchbooks he carried with him, and a number of landscapes which he liked to capture in a sketch then would often use later for inspiration for book illustrations, noting Tolkien would have approved given the landscape was such a huge inspiration to him and his writing.

The turnout for this event was huge – sadly we ran out of time and didn’t have space to do the usual audience Q&A session, but everyone agreed it was worth sacrificing those moments to let Alan finish his illustrated talk, and the round of applause for this master wizard of the brushes was enormous and heartfelt. The audience did get a chance to ask him questions at the signing session afterwards, and ye gods, what a line! The queue snaked out of the signing tent, down the walkway then doubled back on itself – by the time I had to leave, a full hour and a half after the end of our event, Alan was still signing for a line of people! Rather nicely I noted that he avoided the chair behind the table provided for the signing, and instead chose to stand in front of it to chat to each reader in turn, right next to them, then sign and sketch for them.

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We all know the “Roads go ever ever on, Over rock and under tree”, but here we were, at the end of our journey through Middle Earth, returned to the very beginning, a long journey Alan has also taken with his achingly beautiful art. Although we didn’t get time for a Q&A on stage I did get to chat to him beforehand as we were getting ready, and I asked him if it had been a bit emotional for him, as an artist, to have followed this long journey through Middle Earth, to end up on the final book and going back to the First Age, and yes, of course it had been. A remarkable journey, made all the better for Alan’s artwork keeping us company along the long road.

And now it’s all over for another year, the Book Festival village will be folded away, the Fringe and International Festival have finished, the thronged streets are suddenly passable once more, and the posters for the multitude of events hang slowly fading from walls and railings like ghosts. Always a peculiar feeling just after the festivals finish, a mixture of relief at reclaiming the city and an ennui at the party being over. Until next year, of course…

Nevermore….

Today would have been the birthday of one of my favourite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve been reading Poe since I was about twelve and still love his work. Here, to celebrate his birthday, enjoy another of my favourite writers, one I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times, Neil Gaiman, reading The Raven:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”

Edinburgh from above…

Recently on a day off the sun came out to play – a low-in-the-sky winter sun, soft and golden light and long shadows. So I decided instead of going off to the cinema I’d go for a photo-walk, originally planning to walk up Calton Hill (which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote was one of the finest spots to take in views over our city) to take some photos looking out over Edinburgh. But on the way there, on a sudden whim I diverted into Princes Street Gardens and did something I haven’t done for years – climbed the Scott Monument. Several hundred narrow, spiral stone steps winding their way up over two hundred feet. Pretty exhausting, and, especially in the final third, pretty claustrophobic – the final couple of twists of the topmost steps is so narrow I couldn’t fit unless I turned side on! Not for anyone who gets dizzy easily, or fears enclosed spaces (and obviously not for anyone with no head for heights). But worth all the effort and discomfort, because two hundred feet up you get tremendous views over the ancient, volcanic geology and cityscape of Auld Reekie:

Edinburgh from above

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Jenners old department store with its richly carved facade normally towers over me as I walk along the street, peculiar to be looking down on it, rather than up…. As ever, click on the pics to see the bigger versions available on my Flickr page to see more details.

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Looking towards Saint Andrew Square and the tall column of the Melville Monument – normally I have to look up at this, but from the top of the Scott Monument I could zoom in and take a pic of the statue at the top from a straight-on perspective rather than angled up from the ground. In the background in the distance you can see some of the modern apartments which have sprung up in parts of the old dockside areas down in Leith, by the mighty Forth.

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Looking eastwards towards the huge Scots-Baronial architecture of the Balmoral Hotel, which started life as one of the great Victorian railway hotels. The clock tower, a landmark on the Edinburgh skyline, has a timepiece which is actually set a few moments fast, by tradition – to encourage travellers to hurry down the stairs in front of it in time to catch their train in the station below. As with the Melville Monument I normally have to take pics from an angle looking up from far below, but from this vantage point I could zoom in and take a photo looking pretty much straight on for a change.

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The great bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the enormous extinct volcano which sits right at the heart of the city, with the palace and parliament nestled at its feet, the whole lying in a royal park – you can go not just for a “countryside” walk but a decent bit of hill-walking here without leaving the city centre! And the views from the top are pretty spectacular too. Part of the ancient volcanic topography which gave Edinburgh its unique cityscape, it is also one of the places which inspired the modern science of geology, with Hutton wandering around Arthur’s Seat as he began to form some of the first understandings of how our planet is shaped over vast eons of time. And it’s a pretty spectacular piece of scenery to have right in the middle of a capital city – I rather enjoy looking at it each day on my way to work.

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The low, now rapidly setting winter sun casts shadows and warm tones across the western side of the New Town, with the tall, triple spires of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, more landmarks on the city’s skyline, almost silhouetted in the declining sunlight.

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And the view looking downwards towards Princes Street below!

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looking up

And here’s what I had to clamber up to take those pics – over two hundred feet of a Gothic rocket, like a stone version of Thunderbird Three. I have always thought it exceptionally civilised that this enormous monument – the largest monument anywhere in the world to a writer – is not dedicated to some king or general, but an author, a teller of tales, of stories and books. Given that my Edinburgh is built as much of the printed pages as it is history and geology and architecture (look here, Robert Louis Stevenon’s home, there the Sherlock statue marking where Conan Doyle’s family house was, there the pub where Inspector Rebus drinks in Ian Rankin’s novels, there the spot where the early encyclopedias and dictionaries were published, there a cafe where a then impoverished single mother huddled for warmth and wrote her tales of a boy wizard, here the Writer’s Museum, there the Storytelling Centre, over there the largest literary festival on the planet). The Scott Monument itself boasts dozens of sculptures from top to bottom, characters taken from Sir Walter Scott’s many books. Literature in stone.

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…

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(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.

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(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.

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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

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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

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

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(above: Janet Smyth announces the children’s programme; below: EIBF director Nick Barley talking at the programme launch)
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(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)
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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…

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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…

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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)

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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.

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(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).

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(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.

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(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.

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(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)

enLIGHTen

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):

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

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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:

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