As more towns add book festivals to their event calendars, it’s an exciting chapter for Alexander McCall Smith
Book festivals are springing up across Scotland to the delight of Alexander McCall Smith
About ten times a year I pack my bags and go off to a book festival. The festivals may take place in very different places, but the formula, and the authors, are usually quite familiar. There is a well-used circuit in the literary world, and authors are accustomed to meeting one another all over the place. I have made friends with people whom I only ever see in that context. There are some authors, indeed, whom one sees at just about every literary festival. They are condemned to travelling between festivals in a never-ending loop, staying just one step ahead of repetitive strain injury in the hand they use for signing books. The growth of book festivals over the last twenty years has been remarkable, and there are few selfrespecting towns these days that do not have a book festival or are not thinking of having one. Scotland is full of them, ranging from premier league events, such as the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Borders Book Festival, or Glasgow’s Aye Write, to tiny delights such as the Colonsay Literary Festival, founded and directed in its early years with such enthusiasm by Dilly Emslie. Some of these have become specialised, concentrating on a particular category of book. Bloody Scotland, which takes place in Stirling each autumn, is a festival of crime writing. There is a great appetite for that sort of festival. People like reading about murder, for some reason, and relish meeting the usually rather well-behaved and innocuous people who write about that gory subject. Some years ago I was invited to a crime fiction conference in the United States where the audience, mostly mid-Western ladies, sat through hair-raising discussions of blood-drenched doings while – and this was an astonishing thing – they did their knitting. Mind you, there were the tricoteuses… Some of the international book festivals are very lavish. The superb Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai involves significant entertainment, including trips into the desert for participants, and authors brought from the four corners of the globe. Then there is the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, one of the guiding spirits of which is the much-loved Scottish author William Dalrymple. Willy and his colleague Sanjoy Roy succeed in putting on what is probably the most interesting and varied literary festival in the world. People flock to this festival in their hundreds of thousands, and it remains free. Wonderful conversations are to be had with the audience, and in the evening there are parties on a magnificent scale. There are painted elephants and camel-mounted troops; there are fireeaters; there are fireworks and irresistible Indian bands; dancing breaks out spontaneously. And of course there are books, and discussions about books, all conducted with that special enthusiasm that makes Indian occasions so rewarding. On one occasion at Jaipur I was waylaid by an earnest, but entirely charming young man who asked me whether he could recite to me a poem he had just written. I agreed, and sat for 20 minutes in the Festival’s venue, the ancient Diggi Palace, while he intoned, from memory, his poem about Ludwig Wittgenstein. Such meetings might not happen in Colonsay, but are precious and wonderful. And now Tobermory – an obvious place for a book festival – is getting in on the act. Late October will see the first of the West over Sea festivals. This festival, which at present concentrates on non-fiction, has been dreamed up by the Edinburgh publisher Hugh Andrew, along with Duncan Swinbanks, the Mull bookseller, and Hugh Raven, of Ardtornish. Duncan’s shop in Tobermory, Tackle and Books, sells, well, fishing tackle and books. It is always a good sign if a business has a name that reveals exactly what it does. Any festival taking place in Tobermory is bound to be good, and I am looking forward to hearing the speakers and going to the literary dinners that are planned. Adam Nicolson, author of that recent masterly study of sea birds, The Seabird’s Cry, will be speaking. Other speakers include Paul Murton, the television presenter and author of The Hebrides, and Colin MacIntyre, also known for his musical career in The Mull Historical Society. There will be a whisky tasting (official and tutored) and, one assumes, several unofficial ones as well. No painted elephants or infectious Indian bands, but there is always next year.
The growth of book festivals over the last twenty years has been remarkable