2012 Edinburgh Book Festival reflects on 1962 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference

  • The List
  • 10 August 2012

This article is from 2012

Edinburgh World Writers Conference

50 years on from landmark event featuring Burroughs, Mailer, MacDiarmid and Trocchi

In 1962, the Edinburgh World Writers Conference caused a literary stir as the likes of Burroughs, Mailer and Trocchi came to town. Fifty years on, the Book Festival marks that vibrant occasion with a new set of talks and speakers. We talk to some of this year’s delegates about their choices from the 1962 vintage, and pick some of the big books published 50 years ago. Here festival director Nick Barley tells us why this had to be the centrepiece of the 2012 event

Although the Book Festival started in 1983, the 1962 Edinburgh World Writers Conference is part of the festival’s story. It was in 2010 that it struck me that 2012 would be 50 years on, and I thought we should probably do a bit more than run a single event to mark that.

There’s a lot of myth going about who said what and soundbites are used that may well have been taken out of context. We have been working very closely with John Calder and Jim Haynes, who organised the original event, to make sure that we represented it properly. In 1962, some of the infamy came from the disagreements between Hugh MacDiarmid and Alexander Trocchi and some of the insults they threw at each other; I’m not necessarily hoping for pugilistic attacks here, that’s not what we’re aiming for.

What was important about 1962 was that it gave us a snapshot of what writers were for and to explore the reason for fiction. I think it’s important to ask that now: why is fiction important for helping us make sense of the world in 2012? That’s what it’s all about, it’s not about hoping for a fist-fight in a yurt.

Obviously, 1962 was a different time, a post-war era with genuine austerity. Edinburgh was a buttoned-up city which did not embrace culture very easily and along came these writers who shocked everybody. Now, in a globalised information age, it’s a very different context yet it seems to me that the questions they asked then are just as relevant now: for example, what should the relationship be between stories and the political world we live in? That’s still relevant and I want to see how writers are both similar and different from 50 years ago.

Chika Unigwe on James Baldwin

My first encounter with Baldwin was as a young girl reading whatever book I laid my hands on. I read Just Above My Head greedily, soaking up words that I only partially understood but which thrilled me with their beauty. Serendipity drove Notes of a Native Son into my hands after I moved to Europe and began, for the first time, to view myself consciously as a ‘black person’ in a way I never had reason to in Nigeria.

Reading it shook my dungeon. I felt less alone in my loneliness, but it also empowered me by articulating my own experiences and frustrations as a minority in a relatively small Flemish town. Baldwin is a phenomenal writer. He writes with such eloquence and grace, such love and incisive intelligence that I always emerge from reading him certain that I’ve been touched by the hand of a benevolent god.

Ewan Morrison on Alexander Trocchi

We are all cosmopolitan scum now. History is cruel in who it edits out of its archives. Scottish-born writer Alexander Trocchi was, for over 30 years, one such individual. He was an existentialist and avant-gardist in Paris, a close friend and champion of William Burroughsand Allen Ginsberg in New York; a co-conspirator with Guy Debord and creator of inflammatory agit-prop Situationist texts.

But nonetheless he was excluded from all of the histories of Scottish writing until a decade ago. This was not because he was also a sometime pimp, junkie and writer of pornography, but because of a single verbal fight he had in 1962, with Hugh MacDiarmid, at the Writers Conference in Edinburgh. In the infamous exchange, Trocchi accused MacDiarmid of ‘old fashioned quaintnesses’ while MacDiarmid called Trocchi ‘cosmopolitan scum’.

Over time, history has a tendency to turn on its victors, and as we are about to recreate that conference this year, we have to ask who was really victorious. MacDiarmid’s aesthetic and political project of a communist revolution based in national identity and Scottish language died with the fall of communism in 1990; while when we look at globalised consumerist world of today – the permissive, libertarian, hallucinogenic, pornographic, postmodern society of the spectacle, we have to conclude that we are living in Trocchi’s world. For better or worse, we are all cosmopolitan scum now.

Ali Smith on Edwin Morgan

I remember seeing Edwin Morgan on stage in one of the smaller tents at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about ten years ago. He was, as usual, slim, slight, self-effacing, and when he read his poems it was like that tent filled with energy. It was a pure kind of joy. It was like he’d taken the roof off it and let in the universe.

I saw him many times; this one was, typically, an experience like nothing else, where selflessness, intelligence and something loving and alive moved like a lifeblood through form and revitalised everything it came near. I think that’s what his work, in all its forms, does and did; it is always an act of generosity of vision, inclusive revelation. He celebrated intelligence, wit, playfulness, the voices of all things, beings, languages, planets, possibilities.

In a world where writers are increasingly meant to be celebrities, he went beyond self and he let the work not just have space but make space. He knew the power of the local and he defied parochialities. He was an open force of imagination right at the heart of Scottish writing, going round quietly crossing the borders and opening the doors. What a legacy.

Kapka Kassabova on Muriel Spark

They are my own secret rules but they arise from deep conviction. They cannot be formulated, they are as sincere and indescribable as are the primary colours,’ says Lucy, the narrator of Muriel Spark’s story ‘The Fortune Teller’. Lucy may as well be explaining – in Spark’s characteristically seductive tone – her creator’s approach to writing.

Judging from records of the 1962 World Writers’ Conference, Muriel Spark was one of those writers who didn’t make shockingly operatic statements about their own sexuality, commitment, nationality, and overall genius. She didn’t need to. All the shocking stuff went into her books, which is what matters if you’re a true artist. She put her best self into her writing, and left the rest to the rest. This is why Spark could convincingly object to Lawrence Durrell’s view that literature should change people: ‘I think,’ she said, ‘that for a novelist to try and change anybody, for anyone to try and change anybody, is horrible.’ Change happens through insight – her speciality; not through the coercion of grand statements.

Have you read her Complete Short Stories? Read them again. At 600 pages, the book is too short; that’s how unrelentingly good she is. And always uncomfortable. As John Lanchester says in his introduction to The Driver’s Seat, ‘It doesn’t tell us a single thing that we want to hear’. But we can’t stop turning the pages because we know that Spark is the custodian of a great dark truth. Read her and be changed.

The books of 62

A Clockwork Orange
With its inventive ‘nadsat’ argot, Anthony Burgess unleashed Alex and his ultra-violent droogs onto an unsuspecting world

Something Wicked This Way Comes
A scary carnival comes to town in the late Ray Bradbury’s fantasy chiller whose title comes from a line in Macbeth

The Golden Notebook
Dubbed one of Doris Lessing’s books of ‘inner space fiction’, this tale tackles motherhood, war and psychological breakdown

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey’s critique of institutionalised care came about from his time working as an orderly at a Californian mental health facility

Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel and one of his most widely discussed works is presented as a 999-line poem written by the fictional John Shade

Full details of events in the Edinburgh World Writers Conference can be found at list.co.uk/festival

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