At home the day had started dreich, but by the time I arrived at the Edinburgh Book Festival the sun was out and I was in my shirt-sleeves, lugging my leather blouson around as another piece of impedimenta, along with my rucksack, iPad, camera, kitchen sink… What follows is little more than my impression of the day. I had no event to go to, so what I did instead was simply soak up the atmosphere. It’s what I do every year, but on this occasion I was here as a journalist, and had to set my senses a notch or two higher.
First stop is the Festival press centre. Tucked away in a corner, in what seems to be a kind of triple-yolker yurt, is where I find it. The folk there, once I’ve announced myself, quickly get a name-badge for me, tell me what I can and cannot do, and launch me. It’s a bustling wee place, and they are kept busy with phone calls, emails, and callers-in-person. Luckily I’m there early enough to help myself to a coffee and a croissant, and am able to find a quiet corner to sit down and start tweeting. One simply has to tweet. I’m here! I’m here! Tweeting is de rigeur. But here’s the thing: yes, I can see people with laptops and tablets in the press centre, and around and about the lawn, the outdoor tables, and the bookshop café there’s the occasional person tapping at an iPad or an iPhone; but most of the visitors are quite clearly people of ‘the book generation’. This is no reflection on the Festival, because after all it is about books, and there are books by the skip-load here, all in ‘hard copy’, all begging for an author’s autograph at one of the book-signing events. But if I look at the long queue for an event, stretching all the way round the covered, cloistered, tent-canvas-and-decking quadrangle, I am struck by that singular demographic. I may feel young and vigorous, I may immerse myself in my literary agency work and in being on The Mumble team, but – heck! – I’m past retirement age, and most of the folk queuing, well, I’m talkin’ about my generation, man, and somewhere along the years we quite clearly dropped the ‘Hope I die before I get old’ line from our song. We keep on coming, and we’ll keep on coming for a good while yet. Hurrah!
There’s a quiet but definite buzz in the queue. No matter what way Scotland’s referendum on independence goes, the queue here is always essentially British. Polite, patient, eager, but never jostling, it surrounds a much calmer area where people relax with a book, a magazine, a picnic, a conversation. As I scan the central area, I see heads down, attention held. Very few folk – if anyone at all – is actually doing what I’m doing, taking in the scene. One or two pass purposefully through, a book or a periodical under one arm. So I take photographs.
It’s perfectly acceptable to take ‘candid’ shots of scenes with people in them, without asking permission, but if I want to take a shot of a particular person, couple, or small group, it’s expected of me to ask them first, and I do. Most of my photos, however, are of large sweeps of the place, but might well be cropped for the sake of composition. Thus they might look as though I had been snapping a small group when in fact I hadn’t. The finished product always confirms this head-down, attention-held behavioural phenomenon. It’s fascinating.
It’s the same in the bookshop. All I seem to see is people’s backs. They’re engrossed in what’s on the shelves. Everyone, everywhere seems so single-minded. I walk round. The books themselves radiate newness, they are crisp, they are clean. Good grief – there’s even a ‘new’ collection by Charles Bukowski! If there any copies left on my next visit I’ll buy one. Memo to self: pack less clutter in the rucksack.
“Hey, man!” comes a call from several yards away. It’s Damo Bullen, who else! It wouldn’t be Edinburgh Festival season if I didn’t manage to meet up with this bloke. Readers of The Mumble don’t need me to introduce him. We grab some more free coffee at the press yurt, and for half an hour or so we have a loud and animated chinwag at a convenient table in a quiet corner. At least it was quiet until we got there. We lay plans for The Mumble excitedly, discussing future events – The Dundee Blues Bonanza, Perth’s Southern Fried Festival, Fringe comedy shows, gigs – before he has to dash off and meet folk at Waverley station, leaving me to spend some more time watching the absorbed folk and the insouciant seagull perched on the head of Prince Albert in the centre of the square.
This is a good day. Thank you Edinburgh Book Festival. The clouds even have the politeness to wait until I have left for the day before they intrude too far into the sky and introduce some spots of rain. Yes, a good day.
Briefly let me revise what I said a day or so ago about the demographic. It depends on the day! On two separate occasions here at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the cross-section of visitors has been totally different, and the key factor is what’s on, who’s appearing. On my latest visit, for example, Patrick Ness was one of the authors who was appearing. There were also presentations by Mark Greenwood, Tommy Donbavand (although I’m sure he would say that his comedy/horror vampire / spy stories appeal to all ages), and readings by Kathryn Ross from Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. That being so, the young visitors outnumbered the mature, with long tail-backs for book-signings. Queues were still very polite and orderly; where they crossed each other, they did so without mutual disruption, often marshaled by Festival staff.
On the train going home I spoke to a woman with two young daughters, who had sat quietly reading, all the way from Edinburgh Waverley to Perth. They had been at the Book Festival all day, had not been to any event, but had spent their time buying books and taking in the atmosphere. It’s as I say – you can do that. Although Charlotte Square is always full of people, it’s almost a haven of peace if you have been on the packed pavements around Fringe venues. There’s still time to get some of that!