Tuesday, 9th August
Couldn't keep the maniacal grin off my face as we pulled in aboard the Scotrail shuttle from Glasgow. Leaving the station, I bounded up the Fleshmarket Close steps and had to stop for ten minutes at the top to get my breath back, dropped my bags off, then back up the hill to George Square and Teviot (which I stubbornly refuse to call the Gilded Balloon). Met some old friends and had a lovely picnic moment on the grass on the Quartermile with expensive hot chocolate and mango cheesecake from Peter's Yard. Put Ciaran on the train at 5pm and had a forward flashback to my own departure in under a week's time and already wanted to slow down time. Had Palmyra chicken shawerma for dinner and it was delicious.
Rain. Walked into town under flimsy umbrella and had a bedraggled breakfast in Black Medicine (cheese and ham croissant and pot of tea). Read manuscript. Thought that this is how I'd like my life to be. Met Corinne and we revisited old haunts - a delicious chicken wrap in Coffee etc, where we used to lounge on the sofas before lectures. Weather cleared up and we went for a long walk down the Canongate and around Holyrood. Back to base, collapsed for a while - all that walking - and finished the manuscript, which was The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue - Picador, September. (It's a saucy, scandalous Victorian era story of a loveless marriage, a steamy affair, an old friendship and a legal battle culminating in the revelation of the eyebrow-raising truths behind these seemingly prim and proper lives. A veritable bodice-ripper.) Later on, met Réjane on the Grassmarket, had delicious pizza and a carafe of wine in Gennaro's, then on to the Forest Cafe for some amazing live blues/rock n roll by The Blues Water Collective. Danced until 2am and had more Palmyra on the way home to replace the lost energy. Chicken shawerma so good.
Met Clare at midday. It rained all morning and I got wet feet. Gobbled down a really garlicky garlic & mushroom pancake immediately before seeing first show - Mad About The Boy - recommended by Réjane and absolutely stunning. Lyrical, poetic, topical and performed by highly talented actors, a simple, low-scale production but hard hitting and pitch perfect. Bought wellies & thick socks - feet dry! Later on in the afternoon met Jonathan and he talked non-stop about his beautiful new girlfriend. Met Réjane for dinner at Mum's (used to be Monster Mash) and sat next to a very friendly couple called Sandy & Pam. Frisky & Mannish at the Udderbelly - fabulous! Pop cabaret comedy gold. Had to leave early so Réjane could catch the sleeper train and I headed straight to the Pleasance for Jonathan's show, heckles surprisingly aggressive. Afterwards, the VIP comedy bar at Potterrow (Pleasance Dome for anyone who's only been to Edinburgh in August), met Jonathan's girlfriend, who really is beautiful. Saw Milton Jones at the bar and got badly chatted up by an awkward, tartan-shirted comedian. Change of scenery at 2.30am - Teviot Library Bar, another old haunt. Stayed until 4.30am, wandered home to Charlotte Square, didn't sleep at all until 7am.
In bed all day, trying to sleep amidst the Charlotte Square traffic. Ventured out to Pret at 6pm and got a free mocha for buying so much food. Met Lisa off her train at 7.30pm, went straight out for dinner at 8pm - dodgy mussels and a green salad - then on to Pleasance for Chris Ramsay - Offermation which was brilliantly funny, a great pick-me-up.
Left Clare's and got the train through to Glasgow with Ben to meet Mummy Fyfe and Ewen. Lunch at Brown's - rejuvenating steak and chips and a low-alc wine. Met Ross, Lynsey and baby Ella - still tiny! Later had coffee with Ben & Ewen and energy crashed. Tried not to fall asleep on train back through as had to meet Lizzie for a drink in the Brass Monkey - they've brought back the enormous bed! - I copped out and had a cranberry juice. Lovely to see Lizzie again but fear I picked her brains too much about PhDs. Tesco trip on the way home, pizza, tea, and bed. Exhausted.
Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square.
11.30am - Ali Smith.
The compere says that it is "inexplicable and perverse in the extreme" that There But For The by Ali Smith was not nominated for the Booker. This is the first time I've seen Ali Smith - I queued on the phone for an hour at 8am while I had flu to get a ticket. It's worth it, of course - immediately she is warm and funny, slightly theatrical and endearingly self-deprecating. She thanks us all for coming out so early on a Sunday morning and I think that this could be a good equivalent to church. Ali gives the compere a touching little kiss as she goes up to the microphone. She reads like she's actually telling the story - so animated and natural and just brilliant. It's a pleasure to listen to her. After she's read, she talks about the importance of puns, which feature heavily throughout the book, and says that a good pun is like a light switch going on, meanings coming together and touching each other in more than one place at the same time. Then the questions move to the unusual title and she says that the point of it is that banal words can become poetic, and in this case they also become the whole structure of the book. There's a question in the incompleteness of the title - you have to fill in the blank yourself, or if you don't, you have to wonder what it might be. It amazes me that she is so eloquent and expresses herself perfectly - she just tells you exactly what she means and leaves you in no doubt. Her book isn't "plotless," she argues, rather things have a presence in their absence (like the Cutty Sark - ravaged by fire and no longer standing impressive on the Greenwich skyline, you can't help but see it even more). You could - and should, she says - take whatever you like from a book, and it is the fluidity of her plots and her characters and the way they run the lines and run away and seep onto and off of the pages that help you to do this.
After the event I queued up for quite a while to have my copy of the book signed. She greeted each member of the public as if they were a friend. I told her she was brilliant at reading from her novels and she said she's always worried that it'll go wrong. I said I bet that never happens.
Midday - hoofed it from Charlotte Square back into town to the National Museum to see the stunning lighthouse optics on display. Also saw scale models of the Bell Rock and got some information on a model of Skerryvore which to my disappointment is currently on private loan in Argyll.
3.30pm - Kathleen Winter & Megan Abbott
I notice that the pretty girl in the cool tweed blazer I sat beside during Ali Smith is in the row in front of me at this event - we must have similar taste in books. She's writing in a black Moleskin reporter-style notebook and has beautiful handwriting (which for some weird reason always makes me quite jealous). Now I'm sitting behind her so I can sneak peeks at what she's written and see if it's better than what I've got, but she's just writing verbatim quotations from the authors. Still, it's distracting - I find myself looking over to compare my notes with hers, and I'm pleased to see that sometimes we write the same thing.
Megan Abbott is from Detroit and has the most bizarre, comedy cartoon-character accent - high pitched and saccharine with a lisp, but with those harsh Detroit edges! She reads the first chapter of her book, The End of Everything, and the words which were a little flat for me on the page totally come alive. It's set in the 1980s and is a nostalgia-struck memory of Suburban detroit, an all-American, coming-of-age crime mystery novel. It's a heady and poignant mixture written, she says, partly from experience - and teenage memories are so powerful because everything is a perpetual trauma. As a thirteen-year-old girl you're on the brink of girlhood, but you're awkward and not really quite girly yet. You are beginning to 'perform' your gender, but you are unprepared for the windows into adulthood that present themselves. Life is big, you have urges and strong feelings, everything is 'noir,' dramatic - and then something happens which brings the end of everything - in this case the disappearance of the narrator's best friend. Being a teenager, Megan says in that wonderful voice, is 'transformational.'
Kathleen Winter, altogether more severe-looking with short grey hair and glasses, but kind eyes, reads from her novel Annabel, which is utterly wonderful. The book is about a hermaphrodite, Wayne Blake, who is brought up as a boy in rural Labrador, Canada, by loving but confused parents. His mother, Jacinta, is the twinkling lights of the city, loves the hustle and bustle, the chit-chat. She is full of almost-regrets, and will always love the girl that Wayne might have been. His father, Treadway, is the country. He is taciturn, and belongs in the outdoors, out on his trapline, and knows the natural world by heart. Wayne has a golden heart and we see him through his adolescence - friendships, enemies, school days, teenage parties, body worries, pivotal moments, unfairness, and life in the Canadian wilderness. A time, Kathleen says, that for 'normal' children, is also a transition from androgynous to male or female. She explores duality and gender, and how much of our maleness or our femaleness is intrinsic, and how much is learned. We are bombarded by ideas of what we should become - like Megan said, we 'perform' our gender. Wayne has a fascination with architecture and bridges, and this in part represents a side of his identity that has nothing to do with gender roles or being a hermaphrodite, but at the same time it's an idea, a metaphor that spans and arcs the novel from one side to the other, linking, joining together, the two opposite sides of himself.
Kathleen also talks about her experiences growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the clash of feelings this evokes. She says, shrewdly, that she "loves country living unencumbered by small-town thinking." But she also loves the twinkling lights of the city, and "it took somebody to come into my world and make it bigger." This is also what happens to Wayne. There is a moment near the end of the book when I thought the whole train was going to go off the rails and the book was going to take an entirely different, dramatic direction, but Kathleen writes bravely and doesn't succumb to sensationalism, and I love her for it. Finally, she talks about the stress of ending a novel, and about how she has to set herself imaginary deadlines. But in Annabel she has written the most perfect ending I have ever read - so perfect that I can't keep it to myself:
"Treadway was a man of Labrador, but his son had left home as daughters and sons do, to seek freedom their fathers do not need to inhabit, for it inhabits the fathers."
Evening: the Camera Obscura. On one of the lower floors of the building there's an incredible visual vortex tunnel that makes you feel like you're spinning around with all these florescent lights and it's like being on Doctor Who (I imagine). The camera obscura at the top was great too - it was a clear day (I could see all the way to the Inchkeith lighthouse) and I said goodbye to my city on top of the tower.
8.30pm - Poems from Small Islands
A poetic, linguistic and cultural delight. Five poets, from Northern Ireland, Malta, Majorca, Cyprus and Lewis, went to Crear to write, inspired by their island habitats. Then they translated each others' poems into their native languages and read them to us in Edinburgh. Lovely, lovely. I've never listened to poetry being read in a language I didn't understand before, and in a wonderful way it forces you concentrate on the rhythm and the lyricism rather than the words. Afterwards, we met the poet from Lewis who looks exactly like what he is - an island fisherman - in an old woolly jumper and raggedy jeans, with bad teeth, and a vague whiff of wine.
Following this, all too fast, a last walk along Princes Street stealing longing glaces at the grey-and-silver lit castle up on its hill, arriving at the station and imprinting Edinburgh on my retinas one last time before descending with a heavy heart down the walkway into Waverley. Cramming in a hasty dinner of all that Burger King had left at 11 o'clock at night (no chips! No joke). Boarding the sleeper train and finding, to my horror, that my reclining seat didn't actually recline very far. Realising that it was probably a mistake to think that I'd be fit enough for work at 9 o'lock tomorrow morning.
11.15pm - sleeper train departs. Until next time, windy city.