Monday, 24 August 2009

An Edinburgh weekend

So 32 hours in Edinburgh...jam-packed. What did we do...what did we see...what did we bring home to mull over?

Saturday 8.32am
We leave Montrose on the big train south. It is a beautiful, beautiful train journey south to Edinburgh from here (well, when it's not crowded and it wasn't this time). We look at the water (the South Esk, the sea, the Tay, the sea, the Firth of Forth...) and read (a strange article about publicity-shy Alain de Botton going to work in an airport in my case). Then we play cards (at Girl's request) - pontoon (that she likes) and then Mark and I play cribbage. Rock'n'roll diaries, or what? Please try to contain your excitement.

I am reminded on the train (by looking around...) that a lot of people in cities wear make-up and smart clothes and that I have pretty much forgotten all about such things (they were never exactly my specialist subjects to be honest). One of my Leeds friends said (on her first visit to me up in Angus) “now you live in the country and you look like you do.” But she's an old friend. So I was not offended.

Saturday 10am
We wander about Edinburgh and soon realise that any Scottish people left living in the city are in hiding due to the huge numbers of visitors from elsewhere who are here for the various different bits of the festival. It feels a bit like Disneyland Paris in that respect (we were there for 43 hours in the summer, remember?). In fact it feels a lot like that – I think maybe I even see some of the same families. They look just as tired as they did last time.

We have the most delicious elevenses in a lovely super-posh café on George Street (nothing like that in Montrose...) and then head to the reason for our visit – the Edinburgh (International) Book Festival.

When we first arrive I'm really surprised by the whole Book Fest. set-up. I don't know that bit of Edinburgh well so somehow I'd imagined it would all be...bigger. I mean the programme is HUGE (a big thick book in its own right)...but the site when you get there is...not. They do a pretty good job of squeezing such an ambitious project into a smallish space but there are times when it starts to feel a bit cramped and uncomfortable. Like, you know, this is a big do we have to all queue on this crowded walkway? Do we have to plan our toilet trips so far in advance? Do we have to squeeze into this bizarre café/book signing area where all the old hands know the ropes (quite literally) but the rest of us just look bemused and end up standing in (horror of horrors) the wrong place?

Anyway, here we are and our Girl is excited (mainly by the huge children's bookshop on site) so we go for an expensive but not very nice sandwich in the chilled-out Spiegel Tent (and spot at least one quite famous author having her lunch with someone who must be from her doesn't look like she's exactly having fun...). After this Mark takes the Lovely Girl off to queue for the Michael Morpurgo reading (it's a sold-out event – we got the tickets ages ago) and I disappear to do other things. They both very much enjoy the reading and as the Girl has a couple of Morpurgo's books already she wants them signing so they queue up (again) for that. They queue for ages but the Girl doesn't mind (she just reads...right place for it I suppose). I am glad Mark does this part of the trip as I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of book signings and would not want to pass on my moanings on the subject to the innocent child. I tend to think the whole business of book signings has got, as it were, completely out of hand.

Instead I look at the not-children's bookshop (adult bookshop would suggest something quite different...) and go and say hello to all the poetry books that are on display (a couple of good sections). I see plenty of Carol Ann Duffy and lots of Jen Hadfield and chunks of Ruth Padel and Don Paterson, Jackie Kay and many other poets that you might have heard of. I look at Duffy's book of love poems ('Rapture') again and still can't decide whether I want to own it or not. Other people's love poems...I'm just never sure they're what I want to read at home. Saying that I still might buy 'Rapture' (probably second of these days). I also pick up Kei Miller's book 'There is an anger that moves' (because I've seen his name online here and there) and I do like the snippets I read in the crowded store (though it's not an ideal way to peruse poetry really). Again it's one I might buy on another day, in another place (I very much like the opening poem). We're spending a lot of money on this weekend away (train, hotel, tickets, food...) so I can't just buy a heap of books without giving it some thought – I have to make sure it's something I really, really want. And now I sound like a Spice Girl...time to move on.

Saturday 2pm
Speaking of girl power I now have on-my-own free time till about 4pm. What to do? I suppose some people would go clothes shopping or something but not me. Instead I walk in sunshine to the Dean Gallery and just sit outside for a while enjoying peace and quiet and a chance to think. Then I go in and see the current (free) exhibition (also mentioned by Swiss in the city – back here). I enjoy parts of it - the Letter Writing Project by Lee Mingwei (and I did add a little letter of my own – why the heck not?) and the film by Joshua Mosley about two dead French philosophers wandering about a forest. And then I go downstairs to look at the Dalí and the Miró (both always good for a laugh).

Over the road at the National Gallery of Modern Art I go into their (also free) summer exhibition and am pleased to get to know photos by Francesca Woodman (I'd never heard of her, she was an American who lived 1958-1981) and the fascinating work of Vija Celmins (never heard of her either – loved the work though...spiders webs and stars and all sorts of lovely dusky, dusty things). In contrast the work on display by the show's big names (Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol) just bores me and I get away from it as quickly as I can. I try to be really fair when I look at the Hirst section and not let things into my head like 'he always seems such a tosser' and 'I knew some of his friends once and they were tossers too...' but none of that does any good. I just find his whole area more shop than gallery, more product than art, more money than...well, anything else really. And it's not just hating famous Brit artists (or whatever they're called) because I really enjoyed the Emin exhibition here last year. And it's not a gender thing either because after this visit I go upstairs to see one of my favourites things in Edinburgh (Picasso's little blue period piece 'Mère et enfant'). It's always up there (as part of the gallery's permanent exhibition) and I could just look at it for hours. And Picasso was a bloke, right? And probably a tosser a lot of the time too.

Then I go to the hotel nearby and read an interview with Richard Dawkins (another one...) and a piece by Margaret Atwood about her latest literary tour (can't seem to find that online). The Times newspaper is free every day at the Book Festival (hence my change from usual paper!). It's not too bad.

Saturday 5pm

We eat. We meet up with Gillian Philip who I know vaguely through writing matters and who is here for work and play (she writes fiction for teenagers). She goes off to hear David Peace at the Book Festival and we three go up to the Royal Mile to see all the shenanigans going on up there. We have a lot of fun watching a very entertaining Canadian unicyclist (wearing only his Y fronts...) and then we go back to the hotel and to bed.

Sunday 7am
We get up early as Lovely Girl's first choice of book reading is Jacqueline Wilson and that starts at 10am (festival doors open at 9.30). We are all pretty sleepy but we shake ourselves into action. Jacqueline Wilson is VERY popular with young girls in the UK so this will be a busy one!

Sunday 9.32am
There is already quite a queue outside the tent where Wilson will be reading but we join it and I try not to think too much about my years and years of panic attacks in crowded places (see two posts ago...). There is more than a hint of power-mothering going on in the queue (those horsey English women – where do they breed them for goodness sake?) and I consider copping out and getting Mark to take the Girl in instead. But then I think that I really would quite like to hear Wilson so I stick with it and in we go.

Jacqueline Wilson is charming so even with the hordes (and the odd waves of nearly-panic-nausea) it is a very enjoyable hour (the writer smiles and smiles and smiles). There is a good interview with her in yesterday's paper (here) and very much part of her tale is that she was told she would never be a writer (by everyone – including her mother!) and look at her now (one of the most successful children's authors around for sure...and a very good one too). Lovely Girl is disappointed not to be one of the chosen few to get a book signed at the end (Wilson has a lot of devoted fans and due to a recent illness is under doctor's orders not to sign too many books!) but I have to confess I am not disappointed (once again the queue is enormous, even with the limited signings available). The on-site children's bookstore is mobbed so we leave the site to find a quieter spot.

Sunday 11am

We go to Waterstone's bookshop on Princes Street and it's really quite civilised considering the festival round the corner. Lovely Girl walks from stack to stack with a misty look in her eyes ('ah books, my friends!'), Mark watches the cricket score on his phone and I go down to the poetry section in the basement. Now this is more like it – a great selection and peace and quiet to enjoy it all too. I browse and browse. I look at the Kei Miller book again. I say hello to Katy Evans Bush (well, her book anyway ...I don't buy it though – already got it). I pick up a Glyn Maxwell because I remember reading about him at TS Eliot prize time and thinking I liked the sound of his writing. I look at lots of books and titles and names (so many poets in the world, I think, as I see name after name that I've never heard of before). I look at Nick Laird's book and think how nice it must be to have your poems in a Faber and Faber cover and be married to Zadie Smith (but I'm sure he has his problems too...who doesn't?). I would very much like to have poems in a Faber and Faber cover but am aware that this life outcome is unlikely (things as they are) and that this is something I really shouldn't dwell on too much.

As I was just sorting out bookshelves at home the other day I am all too aware that I buy quite a lot of poetry books that I then hardly read at all (there are some I do read and reread but they are quite a minority). With this in mind I try hard to pick a book today that I might actually still want to read in a week's, a month's, a year's time (it's hard to work this out in advance of course). In the end I buy Margaret Atwood's 'The Door'. I have read her prose before but never her poetry and the lines I read from the book as I stand in the shop seem to speak (or sing?) out to me in a way that so many of the others don't. I have said before that one of my problems with a lot of printed poetry coming out just now is that so much of it seems to be trying so very, very hard to be clever (I am all for cleverness but not that forced look-at-me, pat-me-on-the-back, aren't-I-brilliant much as anything it's just not to my taste...and there's so much of it already). Maybe because Atwood's novels are so prestigious she doesn't feel the need to lay her poetry on with a trowel because 'The Door' certainly does come across as simpler, clearer, less cluttered than a lot of the other books on the shelves. Maybe I misjudged it though and I'll hate the book when I actually sit down to read it more thoroughly. I'll let you know...

Sunday 2pm
After another meal out Lovely Girl and I go and line up for Anne Fine back at the Book Festival. Fine is reading in a smaller venue (and this event is not sold-out) so this is quite a different experience to the other two readings. The Girl is very fond of one of Fine's books ('Bad Dreams' – a very serious little novel about a bookworm, a great story, we both loved it) and she also liked 'Mrs Doubtfire' (Fine, of course, wrote the book that inspired that movie) but beyond that neither of us know much about her apart from the fact that she's English and has written lots of books for all ages.

I can't say this bit is the hit of the weekend for me. Mainly Fine reads from her new book...which I have to say sounds fairly painful – one of those books full of 'hilarious adventures' and 'crazy characters' (er, cheesey stereotypes more like...) that are so not my reading choice these days. She does a lot of laughing at her own jokes and to be fair a lot of the audience laugh along too (our Girl included) so maybe it's just me (I'm afraid I am very, very picky about humour...even worse than about poetry). Her humour, in this instance, seems to consist of some tired old stuff about Scotland (the weather, the crazy characters...) - all with the excuse that she used to live here (well, in Edinburgh anyway). She also reads sections of the book featuring a 'hilarious' New Age bimbo character (that reminded me of stuff Alexei Sayle was coming out with twenty years ago or was new then!). Then she does a lot of slagging off of whatever the hell 'political correctness' is (and this activity is usually an excuse to get away with lots of tired and lazy material, I find) and then a lot of talking about how she couldn't work with anyone ever (hmmm...). More than once, partly because of her horsey English lady voice, she makes me think she might just be Jennifer Saunders trying out a new daft posh lady character for 'Jam and Jerusalem' (and no, I haven't watched the new series, but my Mum has...). I don't hate all of the reading though – Fine says some good things about kids and reading, some OK stuff about families – and I do laugh once or twice. She is nice to Lovely Girl too and answers her possibly bizarre question and signs her book (small queue) so all things considered I might buy more of her books for the Girl in the future....though not in any particular rush (and not the new book – not never!).

Sunday 4pm

We do some more wandering the streets and watching street performers (one Scottish fire-eater, one New Yorker comedy-escapologist) because it's not raining and the Girl loves all these (really) crazy characters. I love them too...always have loved buskers (the more creative the better) and anyone who attempts to make their living from standing outside doing something unexpected.

We have another meal, get another train, play some more cards. I read a lovely article about Michelle Obama and Washington DC and 'controlling your own destiny' and think 'well, Faber and never know, do you?'. And then we're home.



swiss said...

i am currently easing my way through the door and while it's not really comparable to eating fire i like it for all the same reasons. i particularly like the poems about her dead cat at the beginning, esp the one in the freezer

Rachel Fox said...

You confused me there...I thought you just meant the door (as in coming through the portal at the front of the house) but you mean the book!

Even your comments are poetry, I think.

Eryl said...

I am so excruciatingly envious that I'm going to have to have a huge bowl of ice-cream to ease the pain. You make every nanosecond sound worth experiencing: from posh coffee to horsey women who talk rubbish. And I am so with you on the humour thing: ill considered attempts at humour are bordering on the insulting, it just seems such bad manners.

Now, before I reach ranting fever pitch, I'll go and get that ice-cream. Glad you all had a good time.

Titus said...

I am consumed with jealousy, however it is eased somewhat by the virtual tour. I may not need to go to a reading again! I think of the three I would have chosen the Morpurgo though. I've seen Jacqueline Wilson quite a bit on the television and she always comes across as fun, level-headed and quite normal considering her success.
The queueing thing is really bizarre though - this is a big, well-organised event (I presume) so surely that can be sorted.
Name names with the delicious elevenses cafe in George Street please.

Titus said...

Actually, Eryl's ice-cream idea sounds like quite a good idea for easing the envy.

hope said...

Whew! I just read that and I'm exhausted. Thank heaven I have you as my Scottish Travel Guide.

Sounds like you had fun [most of the time] and as for standing in line, not a big fan of that either.

Now, go rest a bit. :)

Dominic Rivron said...

My grandma and grandad used to play cribbage, sticking matches in one of those bits of wood with holes in it, specially made for the purpose. The things people did in the days before telly...

Ever played Basra? It's pretty good when you get going and it makes a change from those other card games everyone knows.

Rachel Fenton said...

Well, I'm going to rub my feet now, I feel like I was there with you after that! I think Atwood is so confident with her prose that she simply allows her poetry to be. I like going to her website and listening to her read her own poems...if you've never heard her speak before you should do that! And the poem that has the line 'I brought you flowers' has me weeping buckets.

Rachel Fox said...

Eryl - one of the less good moments was a not-very-nice ice-cream I had on Sat night from a shop off the Mile! Somehow you knew...

Titus - yes, Morpurgo is (in every sense) the man! I have seen/heard him at StAnza before which is why I let Mark take her to that one (plus I thought the J Wilson girlfest might be too much for him!).
The cafe was Centotre - very fancy, beautiful room, learn-Italian cds playing in the loos!

Hope - I don't know if it was rich food or busy days or what but I do need a rest now! Not feeling too well, truth be told!

Dominic - no, don't know that game! Will try it.

Rachel - thanks for that Atwood tip. I will go and listen - definitely. No queueing involved then either!


Rachel Fox said...

Goodness me...exclamation mark attack in that comment or what?

Titus said...

Thanks, we've been to that one (didn't know that was George Street). I remember the loos and how incredibly child-friendly the place was for being a grown-up cafe/restaurant.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I think I could live there.

swiss said...

guardian reviews artists rooms here
good to see the pier getting a mention.

no hirst tho, i wonder why! lol

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks, Swiss. Can you believe the year we went to Orkney the centre at Stromness was closed for renovation?

I think people are just tired of Hirst now. If there was a public vote I bet most people would choose to have him sent off into a wilderness somewhere (never to return). But we're stuck with him. I once compared him to Simon Cowell (on a blog elsewhere). It's not a perfect comparison but there is something to it.


Kat Mortensen said...

I have Duffy's "Selected Poems" and I love it!
Sounds like a brilliant weekend. As always, I am envious.


Rachel Fox said...

As cities go I really liked Toronto too, Kat (not that I've spent a huge amount of time afternoon!).

I envy you lots of things about Canada though. The food was great when we were there...and much cheaper than here (eating out anyway). Liked your coffee too. I hardly drink it here but I did like it the Canadian way.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Glad you enjoyed yourself! Yes the Book Festival is so crowded, especailly when the queues for several events all intersect and you can find yourself waiting for the wrong writer.

Make up? Never worn the stuff and I've always been a city gal.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, we did enjoy the weekend but I'm not sure I'd rush back to the Book Festival for itself (though I'm sure our Girl would!). The only lit fest I've been to regularly is StAnza and whilst that has its oddities it is so much more spread out and comfortable somehow! Different thing altogether though of course.

And yes, make-up...sometimes when I see photos of myself these days I wish I did wear it...but I really just don't (or if I do it's very, very minimal). I just don't think about how I look very often.


deemikay said...

I saw Jacqueline Wilson Top Trump cards in WH Smiths today... :)

Dick said...

What an epic! You must have been taking notes throughout. Thanks for the vicarious visit.

Gillian Philip said...

Wow you fitted in a lot! It was lovely to meet you and Mark and the Girl - Lulu would love to meet her! My event went really well I think and I enjoyed it, especially once it was over... ;-)

As you can imagine I'm not best pleased with Anne Fine's well-publicised comments about there being too many 'gritty' children's books around...

Now relax and put your feet up! See you again xx

Rachel Fox said...

Ah yes, D, there is a set of those cards in this house somewhere (bought from a charity shop but there all the same). It is one of the better TT sets these days (see Bratz or HSM...).

You got me, Dick, I take notes all the time! I'm like a private detective or something...though not very good at lying or sneaking not a very good one.

I hadn't heard about those comments, Gillian, but I can imagine her saying them. I tried to be very fair in this report (the number of times writers/people I've written about on here turn wouldn't believe!) but really she did..well, witter on a bit (no other word for it) and some of it was...well, less than interesting or original thought! As I say it wasn't all bad though. Glad your thing went well.


Rachel Fox said...

And look an article about the Anne Fine and gritty books business right here. It doesn't say if she gave examples of particular books and their effect. If you're going to make a big statement like that I think some examples are a good idea...though overall it does sound like more nonsense really. There have always been books with happy endings and books without (both for children and adults). And that's how it should be!

Rachel Fox said...

Likewise a mixture of realistic and completely lost in fantasy can only be a good thing. The more styles of writing available the better. Innit?

deemikay said...

I wrote a post about the realism/fantasy thing here.

I've also had chats with a primary school teacher friend of mine - "What's more popular? Stories about fantastical things or stories about a 'normal' British child's life?"

About 50/50 she said... so we need about half and half of each type, apparently.

Gillian Philip said...

To be fair to Anne Fine, I've now seen her say she's been misquoted by the Times. (At the same time it sounds like she's said something similar before, having a go at Melvyn Burgess. His answer is that the hope comes from the reader, which is a nice way of putting it).

I agree that we simply need every kind of book for children, just as we do for adults. Children are surprisingly good at knowing what they can handle. The crucial thing is that we offer them a choice.