August is festival month in Edinburgh. Music, art, drama, literature, film, comedy — the list covered seems endless. As well as the official festival, over the years a large, sprawling fringe festival has grown around it. Its performances can be serious or zany, thought-provoking or madcap, taking place in streets or one of the many venues pressed into service around the city centre and beyond.
This year my husband and I have been so busy —self-publishing is all-consuming of time and energy — that we haven’t managed to attend a performance as yet, not even a talk at the book festival which is one of our favourites. Each August the central gardens in one of Edinburgh’s sedate New Town Squares, is taken over by a tented village of venues — three event tents of varying sizes, book-signing areas, a bookshop, tent for children’s events, hospitality space, bar and performance area and admin.
In the central grassy area visitors lounge or mill around. If the weather is good they loll on the grass and sunbathe or read, drink coffee or enjoy ice cream.
Two or three years ago we were fortunate to secure tickets for the Iain Banks event. Iain, who sadly died recently, was one of our most highly regarded writers. His events were always filled with flights of his legendary imagination, serious discussion and riotous humour. That year the person who was to introduce him and ask him questions on his writing was Alex Salmond, the First Minister of our devolved Scottish Parliament.
The session was highly enjoyable with the two hitting it off to provide moments of great hilarity that, at times, had the audience almost rolling in the aisles. As we left we took our time sauntering along the covered boardwalk, recalling our highlights. A heavy shower had rain bouncing off tent roofs and puddling the trampled grass. As our car was parked some distance away we hoped the rain would ease before we made our dash for it.
Our event had been one of the last of the evening, so the place was emptying, leaving it strangely eerie and ghostly, a lit stage with no performers or audience. As we loitered near the exit, Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, walked towards the exit with the First Minister who thanked him for his time, said he was sure he still had things to attend to. As Nick Barley turned to leave, the First Minister sauntered across to us and started to chat.
On the drive home in the car, and for days after, I thought of all the issues, clever ideas, intelligent thoughts, sensible phrases I should have raised, expressed, even blurted out. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember what I had talked about. Whatever we said must have been of some interest as he stayed chatting to us for ten or fifteen minutes, perfectly relaxed, very gracious, friendly even, saying little but responding positively to what we said.
We look forward to our visits to the book festival as there is always a frisson of excitement about what literary celebrities might be seen dashing between tents, or ensconced at a table with piles of their latest book. We rarely expect any of them to chat to us beyond answering a question one of us might ask at their session, or querying what name should be scribbled on the book just bought. But never had we anticipated we might find ourselves hobnobbing with our First Minister.
Just shows what exciting places book festivals can be.