The horror, the horror… of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

This article is from 2008

Alan Bissett's festival blog


Ah the Edinburgh International Book Festival! My home from home! My August social life! The Author's Yurt! The free tea/coffee/wine/beer/finger food! The celebs!

The horror. The horror.

Man, I love the Book Festival. As its director, Catherine Lockerbie, often boasts, it's the strongest forum for public discussion of ideas and art which exists in Scotland, and which offers a forum for debate of the hot issues of the day - whether cultural, political or scientific - often absent from mainstream media outlets. The programme is vast, taking in everything from the pitch-black stylings of Chuck Palanhuik to Storytime for kids. Buoyed by an early morning coffee, I made my way to two completely different talks, both shocking and exciting in their own way.

You know you're onto a winner when the first image you see in a Powerpoint presentation is the image of a solar system exploding. Such are the ways in which Stuart Clark grabs attention in the Popular Science strand of the Festival. Topics don't get much bigger than The Nature of Space and Time or How The Universe Will End, a hailstorm of fairy dust girdered by Clark's solidly structured and paced Powerpoint lecture. If this was Astronomy for Idiots, I was happy to be an idiot. Clark railed against the cloisterdness of the scientific community, explaining that if it wanted to interest the wider public in science it had to drop educational agendas and simply let lay-people like myself experience the awesome power and beauty of the universe through simple images and narratives. As such, Clark adopts the techniques of a novelists, anthropomorphosing celestial objects. Gravity gets 'agitated'. Black holes are dominant and aggressive space bullies. The images themselves from his new book, Deep Space, are things of staggering clarity and wonder. A highly enjoyable and accessible hour that made the universe into a giant, trippy playground for the audience, and you know you're at a different kind of book festival event when someone asks, 'Dr Clark, you haven't said much about the nature of infinity. Would you care to talk about that?'

Next up was Stephen Bates and Kathleen Burk's discussion on America. Bates, a Guardian journalist, has written on the rise of the Christian Right, while Burk, an academic, has produced what seems to be a definitive account of Anglo-American relations. The talks themselves were individually interested - Bates likably despairing about the idiocy he encountered while researching his book God's Own Country; Burk's encyclopedic knowledge lending her a presence and authority - although it was sometimes difficult to see how the subject matter dovetailed. Questions were predictably incisive, though the audience seemed more interested in Burk, perhaps because of the issue of Britishness involved. Did we know for example that it was the Brits who imported evangelicism to the US, not the other way round? No we did not. The Special Relationship? 'Every time America wants to destabilise a country,' Burk tells us, 'Britain has an island nearby.'

A reality just as frightening, in its own way, as Clark's black holes.

So while the intricacies of British-American relations might seem small-fry in comparison with the eventual collapse of the cosmos, each event, did exactly what the EIBF seeks to do: placed the individual consciousness at the centre of a discourse far larger than itself. You walk outside from the buzz and fizz of ideas into the light and grass and chatter and you are a thousand miles away from the flyer-thrusting demands of students on the Royal Mile, or the braying of attention-starved theatrical types from Hertfordshire. The book festival is a tropical lake of thought in the midst of chaos; it makes you feel connected to the universe instead of harangued by it and bullied into seeing its show. Lockerbie said Let there be light, and there was light.