Dare one ask, but has not the appalling physical attack on Sir Salman Rushdie in New York also been a shot-in-the-arm to the Edinburgh International Book Festival? In the week before the opening, its director Nick Barley weedily proclaimed that there would be no 'trigger warnings' in the programme – people should expect to be 'challenged' by its content.
This little chirrup of editorial boldness would have had greater authenticity were not the same programme mostly a dawn-to-dusk parade of all that is modish and au courant
in the literary anglosphere. A quick glance at the 'themes' of the festival reveals that the only people likely to be challenged by its content is that tiny fragment of the literary establishment not presently part of the seemingly settled progressive consensus around such issues as the 'Legacies of Colonialism'; 'Our Planet and Us'; 'The Heart of Europe' and 'Celebrating LGBTQIA+ Voices'. As for the punters, they are not really there to be challenged or entertained so much as to be educated in the ever expanding vernacular of secular liberal piety.
Perhaps that's also why the scuffed gardens of the Edinburgh School of Art seemed so empty and listless on Sunday afternoon: after all, how much appetite does the ordinary citizen have to hear these sermons again and again? Do we each want to part with £14 to be reminded that the bounds of progressive tolerance are pretty narrow and that we are somehow 'fallen' if we don't get with the programme?
So the assault on Rushdie at least allowed Barley to claim that the festival was now an 'act of defiance' on behalf of writers. But the idea that freedom of expression is a tiny and flickering flame bending in the winds of a barbarian hurricane (in the shape of one crazed knife wielding lunatic in New York) is just ridiculous. Never have there been so many books, literary festivals and prizes for writing. Never have editorial jowls wobbled so mightily in defence of the 'freedom of expression' in the printed and broadcast media. Never has it been easier to get a platform for deeply consensual views that are eagerly marketed as 'transgressive'.
On the contrary, the attack on Rushdie has provided a diversion from the fact that the assault on the freedom of expression is generated almost entirely from within the literary and academic establishments that purport to defend it.
To sit in on the panel discussion about Bloomsbury was to see this paradox in all its po-faced glory. Marketed as a 're-imagination', the session was anything but, as the hour was used to re-heat all the old tropes about Woolf, Grant, Bell, Strachey, Garsington, Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. The main point of the show seemed to be to allow the panel to give its lengthy benediction to Bloomsbury's 'queer aesthetic', 'flamboyance' and something called 'campiness'. Category errors abounded as the myriad of Modernists that reached far wider than the bitchy little caste at Garsington were presented in the round as the literary vanguard of Gay Pride and gender fluidity.
That some members of Bloomsbury were gay is beyond both dispute and, surely, interest. It was, however, a stretch to imply the full literary, critical and artistic output of the Modernists (of which Bloomsbury was a small if influential outpost) was driven by this dynamic. Apart from a very tangential reference to the photography of Cecil Beaton, it was not even made clear how same-sex attraction was handled in the writing and art of some of Bloomsbury's gay exemplars.
A woman called Nino Strachey, a descendant of the waspish (but hardly 'flamboyant') Lytton Strachey, reminded us of the 'repression' that Bloomsbury had to endure under the Tory government of the 1920s. But this was also a decade punctuated by two Labour governments, whose social conservatism and adoption of prevailing Liberal orthodoxies are matters of fact. It was also, shock horror, a Conservative government of the period which lowered the voting age for women. Yet apparently, men could only dance together in the upper stories of buildings where the street level plods couldn't see them. Whatever happened to curtains?
By contrast, the Bloomsbury guests of Garsington certainly seemed to have a high old time of it, with male acolytes 'dressed as nuns yesterday morning and as shepherdesses in the afternoon today'. One member of the audience wondered why, if the 1920s were so repressive, Duncan Grant, Stephen Tennant and co were able to exercise their transgressive behaviour 'in plain sight' much as the paedophile Jeffery Epstein had done more recently. For this 'sordid comparison', the poor woman was roundly ticked off by the moderator and she fulsomely apologised. Her question was primly ignored.
Yet she was surely on to something. The received wisdom of the show, that the sexual mores of Bloomsbury were thrillingly avant garde, is just nonsense. As Noel Annan and Martin Green have revealed in their brilliantly discursive books about the period, Bloomsbury was very much of its time rather than ahead of it. Early Modernists like Wilde and Forster really suffered for their gay sensibilities. Wilde went to gaol, yet neither man received more than a passing reference from the panel.
By contrast, Bloomsbury was able to surf the wave of revulsion at the culture of toxic masculinity that had caused so much death and disfigurement in the Great War. In the backwash, homosexuality became something of a cult that was ultimately to chisel out deeper public acceptance. The earlier images of a doomed and beautiful youth captured in photographs of the likes of Rupert Brooke and Wilfrid Owen resonated in the extraordinarily popular output of Beaton. Whatever the then Tory Home Secretary might have thought, the pacific Eros of same-sex love seemed far less threatening than the testosterone-fuelled carnage of recent memory. Bloomsbury happily mined this sensibility, but it was Forster and Wilde who had more boldly sunk the original shaft.
Of much greater interest would have been more discussion of Bloomsbury's attitude to other differences such as race. The habitual references at Garsington to 'frogs' and the like are matters of record as is the anti-Semitism of TS Eliot, and should surely have prompted more of a 're-imagining' than was on display at this festival session.
Shola von Reinhold, erstwhile Monegasque princess and scion of the Grimaldi family who is now non binary and here sported a five o'clock shadow, razor pointed nails and a long bottle blonde wig, was invited to read from 'their' novel Lote
. This Shola did at great length and speed, yet with greater emotional engagement than did the others from their own works.
sounded like a brilliantly imagined tale, constructed around the slenderest of evidence of a young black poetess on the margins of Bloomsbury. Von Reinhold's point was that this did not signify Bloomsbury's inclusivity so much as the reverse, and that white admiration of black culture was very much confined to its contribution to the jazz age, surely the ne plus ultra
of democratic Modernism.
Most tellingly of all and despite the focus on Mrs Dalloway, there was no mention of Virginia Woolf's essential feminism or even her literary legacy. What she would have made of Shola's transformation as well as the modern literary fetish for a conforming 'queerness' really would have been worth hearing. As likely as not, she would have said something politely 'inappropriate'.
Which is what made her worth reading in the first place.
Jonathan Cobb studied History at Edinburgh University. He held a commission in the British Army until 1988, after which he pursued a career in investment management. He was awarded the Ministry of Defence Bertrand Stewart Award and received the Bloomberg/Daily Express International Fund of the Year Award in 1997. He now lives and writes in East Lothian