This year, the Edinburgh International Book Festival returns, with real live actual writers. What a delight! It has moved from its home for many years, Charlotte Square, to Edinburgh Art College and its surrounding grassy gardens, but the line-up of writers speaking there is as varied as ever.
Howard Jacobson, talking in the Sculpture Hall, in conversation with the award-winning translator Daniel Hahn, is no stranger to the Book Festival, though this was the first time I had heard him talk. He turned out to be a fascinating speaker, full of humour, often self-deprecating, his jokes almost always at his own expense. For example, from a young age, his parents said he would be a writer. Why did they say this? Because, Howard said, he spoke to them in sentences. When he was a child he thought it was a compliment, but now he realises that they found it disconcerting and they thought he was weird.
His latest book, Mother's Boy
, is a memoir. He didn't have a plan to write a memoir – he'd already started it before lockdown. It wasn't because of lockdown, after all, he said: 'I live in lockdown; my life is lockdown!'
As a boy, he revelled in collecting books (at prices he could afford) and he once went to a market stall and bought the complete set of books by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for a penny. He had to explain to his father (who, he said, never read a book in his life) that you don't just read books, you have them, because you might need to look things up, to do research.
By the age of 36, he realised that if he wanted to be a writer he would need to get started – he was fuelled by desperation, by a feeling that his life was a failure. He was teaching English to hairdressers on day release at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and decided to write a 'campus novel', although Wolverhampton didn't even have a campus. However, after writing his first novel, he has written many books since then, including the Booker prize-winning The Finkler Question
, and has become a popular writer – as well as a popular speaker – the audience clearly loved him.
Kirsty Bell, writer and art critic, in conversation with the award-winning poet and novelist Helen Mort, discussed and read from her book The Undercurrents
, about the city of Berlin, where she has lived for over 20 years. There is an element of memoir in her book too, as she includes her own personal history, her reactions to her adopted city, as well as her own explorations and discoveries. But she also includes historical and literary research, and writes about it, she said, from a different perspective.
She starts small, beginning with the view from her apartment window which looks out on the Landwehr canal. It was like deconstructing the view, reading it as if it was a painting, she said. From there, she develops a different relationship with the city, instead of simply needing to go from A to B, she begins to really look, which requires a shift of attention. She explored the city on foot, her two favourite walks being along the Landwehr canal and following the path of the wall, where the wall used to be. Sometimes this path disappears, the visible traces of history have gone.
She consults a feng shui expert who says her flat is inhabited by the past. She begins to research Berlin's past geographically as well as historically and culturally. She is also interested in Rupert Sheldrake's idea of morphic resonance, where traces of the past remain in landscape and buildings.
In her research into the city's origins, she discovered that Berlin was built on a swamp (which is not very positive feng shui energy). In addition, developers in the 1860s made bad decisions, which were good for the sewage systems, but not in terms of the lay-out of the streets, which are not architecturally beautiful or exciting.
There is also, she said, a particular mood or atmosphere in Berlin during the winter months, one of lethargy, a kind of grey monotony which Berliners describe as 'Fruhjahrmudeskeit', which translates as 'early year exhaustion', so, she said, you have to be very self determined, to gather your own momentum, to counter this lethargy.
She was at first surprised by the empty plots of land, open spaces left since the war, overgrown, not trimmed and tidied. But she later came to appreciate them. She particularly enjoyed researching the lives of Rosa Luxembourg, the revolutionary socialist who was assassinated in 1919, and Gabriele Tergit (1894-1982) who successfully escaped the Nazis in 1933 and ended up living in London. Gabriela wrote her first article for the Berliner Tageblatt
when she was just 19 and was told by the editor that had he known she was so young (and a woman) he would not have published her article. Gabriele went on to write regularly for the paper, despite the difficulties for women journalists at that time, and later she became an acclaimed novelist.
When Kirsty Bell was asked if writing this book had changed her view of Berlin, she said it had indeed, through engaging with the city, she came to understand it. It is an abrasive city, she said, but she has made peace with it, and developed compassion for it.
Many people are fascinated by Berlin, myself included, and I immediately headed for the book signing tent, and bought a copy of The Undercurrents
Morelle Smith is a poet and writer