I don’t have many aspirations in life and those I do have are reasonably specialist: I’d like to be the most famous person in the world named Jan Carson. I’d like to be Northern Ireland’s leading expert on BBC medical dramas and I’d like to, one day, hold the Guinness World Record for coordinating the most people simultaneously tea-dancing in the same city. I’d also really wanted to read at Edinburgh Book Festival, just once, properly, with at least five people in the audience, (not including myself, the interviewer and the sound technician). I was pretty sure I’d feature in the Guinness World Record Book long before I made an appearance in the Edinburgh Book Festival Programme. However, on Thursday of last week I got to read in Edinburgh, (not once, but twice), to at least two dozen people.
I don’t know what sort of helpful jiggerypockery went on behind the scenes in order to make this happen, but I am very grateful to whoever ultimately took a punt on me. I hope they weren’t disappointed. I read the story about Bon Jovi. (It’s always safest to go with your big hit when faced with an unknown audience). People seemed to like it, (though, in fairness, the audience was largely made up of the Northern Irish diaspora, Edinburgh-based and most likely they’d have been similarly enthused with the Yellow Pages if narrated in a genuine Ulster accent). It was a pretty magical experience, probably never to be repeated and anyone who has the misfortune of crossing my path in the next few weeks is going to hear me recount the same five or six anecdotes ad nauseum. The basic gist of what I’ll be telling anyone willing to listen is, “EIBF is so brilliant, it is like heaven in medium-sized marquees AND they even look after your hand luggage.” Listed below, just in case I don’t get to evangelise you personally, are my very favourite things about Edinburgh Book Festival.
- There is an author’s yurt where you can hide from your hordes of fans or, if you don’t yet have hordes of fans, sit quietly, sipping free orange juice and trying to work out if the person opposite you is familiar because they are a genuinely famous person or just because you’ve walked past them three times already today.
- There are separate author toilets. They are clean and, as far as festival toilets go, smell very nice. They have soundproof stalls. This is good if you are nervous and need to have a last minute practice run of your reading without looking like an eejit in front of the other authors in the author yurt. It’s also good for singing to calm the nerves.
- As previously mentioned, there is a left luggage area for housing your pull-on suitcase etc. All items of luggage are efficiently labeled with your own name, thus avoiding the possibility of an author accidentally lifting another author’s briefcase containing a yet-to-be published manuscript or really good idea for a crime novel, (this is what I imagine would happen if EIBF was an early 90’s kids’ movie). I was, however, quite surprised when I collected my backpack at the end of my final festival day, only to discover my label had been switched with the poet Alice Oswald’s. I briefly considered stealing her identity and becoming a poet, then remembered that I do not know the difference between a sonnet and a couplet and decided to continue being myself for the time being. It’s nice to have options though.
- They give you free stuff in a free bag: chocolate, books, fancy hand cream, a bottle of rhubarb lemonade. There wasn’t a single pack of free Tayto crisps in sight; further proof that I’d finally made it to a not-in-Northern Ireland festival. I have given my dad the free book hoping he thinks I have actually bought him something nice from my holidays.
- They treat all their authors the same. Same hospitality, same welcome and same lovely hotels with white fluffy bathrobes and Eggs Benedict for breakfast whether you’re a three time Booker nominee or a just-beginning-slightly-over-awed-with-everything young author. The impact of this should never be underestimated. Writers feel like the words they write matter, if they are treated as if they matter. Good work EIBF.
- They have their own paparazzi team who set you in front of a large white sheet and take rapid fire photographs at high speed from four different angles. Click. Click. Click. Click. Until you forget how to hold your mouth in a smile. Later, the best of these photos, (or the ones which look most like stills from one of the edgier Marks and Spencer’s adverts), are printed out on high quality tea towels and displayed around the festival village so you are confronted by Ian Rankin or Kate Tempest or your own mug, grinning inanely, every time you emerge from the author’s toilets.
- There is a bookstore. It is large and, as with all aspects of EIBF, staffed by people who seem to genuinely like books, who will take time to comment on your purchases and recommend other books you might like, even if there are many, many other people in the line behind you, all trying to buy signed copies of the latest Alexander McCall Smith. In hardback.
- Which leads me to the staff, who are both remarkably efficient and also unbelievably friendly/approachable/normal. Everything I attended seemed to start on time and end on time and be appropriately mic’d and social media’d, (good job Colin). There were thousands of bookish people, possibly millions, swarming all over the festival, (some very elderly, some very young, others, like myself, just easily confused which comes with its own set of needs), and yet I never once saw a staff member look harried or too busy to stop and chat or offer to fetch more free orange juice, (I did discover an enormous cave like stash of pure orange juice behind the pull-on suitcases in the left-luggage room and subsequently began to wonder if orange juice is to EIBF what certain banned substances are to other, more rock n’roll festivals).
- They also had people in the audience who ask daft questions: mumblers, i won’t bother using the microphoners, stander uppers, “it’s not really a question but I’m asking it anyway” types, and many, many, “would you ever get to the point” types. I was delighted to realise that inane questions from the audience is not a problem particular to Belfast. Wherever there are literary events in the world there will always be people in the audience compelled to stick their hands up and wave frantically before they’ve thought of anything to say.
- The guy from The Charlatans was there. He looked exactly like himself, or Damon Albarn circa 1994.