Last Sunday's coverage of the Edinburgh Festival in the Observer included this comment on the international book festival: 'While every other festival venue is on a crazy Darwinian mission to expand, reinvent, colonise, the book fest stays politely as it should, a civilised little blue and green planet parked in Charlotte Square'.
This image of the book festival as a centre of decorous calm surrounded by the publicity-seeking alarums and excursions of the rest of the Fringe gave me instant pause. Lifting my coffee cup in a kind of salute, I remembered the different world in which for the first time the Edinburgh International Festival was persuaded to extend its coverage of contemporary arts by venturing into the world of books.
The year was 1962. As the most junior of junior lecturers in Edinburgh University's English department I happened to become involved in the organisation of what became known as the 'Writers' Conference' – an official event in that year's festival programme. The idea of staging such an event had been initially dreamed up by Jim Haynes, that colourful and kenspeckle American who had arrived in Edinburgh a few years earlier, studied briefly at the university, and then bought out a junk shop in Charles Street to establish the first paperback bookshop in Scotland.
Not far from George Square, in the area that in subsequent years the university in its wisdom would convert into a shabby wasteland, the shop soon became a focus for everything that was lively and progressive and avant-garde in Edinburgh's cultural life. Jim pursued the idea of a writers' conference with John Calder, the Scottish (but London-based) publisher of Samuel Beckett and other key modernist writers. Calder brought on board Sonia Orwell, widow of George. And Lord Harewood, then the festival director, finally gave his consent.
Everything had to be organised in no time at all. Sonia Orwell was probably the key figure. She seemed to know everyone and the writers she approached seemed always willing to take part. So remarkably the conference duly took place in the McEwan Hall between the 20th and 24th of August 1962. There were sessions on such topics as censorship, the future of the novel, and contemporary Scottish writing.
The line-up of writers was pretty impressive – Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Hugh MacDiarmid, David Daiches, Angus Wilson, and many more. Inevitably there were some no-shows, but all in all the whole event was regarded as a major success, giving the Edinburgh Festival a whole new dimension. So much so that in the following year Haynes and the others were allowed to organise a Drama Conference. Same location, same style. But this time disaster struck.
On the last day of the conference a theatrical 'happening' was staged in the McEwan Hall. It ended with a naked model being wheeled across the hall's organ loft. Bourgeois Edinburgh was outraged. The city fathers made it clear to the festival's organisers that such morally offensive events would not be tolerated. There would be no more writers' conferences.
Despite his crucial involvement in the creation of the original Traverse Theatre, Jim Haynes would soon leave Edinburgh for London and a wider world. Today of course a naked model on the Fringe would hardly be worth a comment. And the occasional controversies stirred by writers' remarks at the book festival are rarely much more than storms in teacups. Life and letters, I feel, were very different – and perhaps more engaging – in the Edinburgh of the early 60s.