Malaysian publishing house FIXI sent The Daily Seni over to Scotland to scope out the Edinburgh International Book Festival and other happenings which have traditionally taken place throughout August in the capital city. This is part of a series of reports on arts and culture in Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is a huge deal.
Here, renowned authors of fiction and fact from the United Kingdom and the rest of the world congregate for the public’s advantage. Discussions, readings, signings, meetings go in hand with music and golden sunlight in Charlotte Square Gardens for seventeen days in this year’s edition.
The Book Festival was formed in 1983 as a biennial, expanding into a comprehensive annual event in 1997.
Taking place within Scottish capital each summer, this is the largest book festival of its kind in the world. Scores of participants fill out makeshift lecture halls and performance studios in the garden even as city-wide arts and culture programming in conjunction with summer winds down towards the end of August.
Despite its scale and ambition, the Book Festival is almost fully self-funded through sales of books on festival grounds — no surprise when it attracts over 220,000 visitors per year.
It makes about 80% of its operating cost, while the rest come from a large number of benefactors and sponsors such as universities, trusts, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Scottish Oil Club, and the People’s Postcode Lottery.
Reading is fundamental
This installment’s standout designs resulted from a collaboration between Glasgow branding agency Tangent and illustrators Craig & Karl. Drawing from sixties psychedelia and this year’s festival theme of “imagine better”, the festival has never been so vibrant.
Now in its final week, momentum is steady. Opportunities to hear straight from the authors are still snapped up days in advance, while long queues which extend around festival grounds are not an uncommon sight. The festivals lineup of over 800 writers also boasts Ghassan Saktan, Irvine Welsh, Sophie Kinsella, Shirin Abadi and Mark Haddon among many other celebrated figures in literature.
It’s worth noting that the Book Festival is heavily frequented by everyday Edinburgh folk, which makes for an encouraging sight and an affirmation of Scottish pride in culture. There’s inspiring diversity and heavy traffic within the festival; common sights include smiling, beer-chugging fathers, elderly couples hobbling out of sold-out events, and school kids in their uniforms buying ice cream. Weekdays see the older crowd form the majority while weekends mean families and young adults arriving in droves and staying until nighttime.
This year’s themes are as varied as its participants. Some recurring subject matters are migrant stories, power dynamics and the Middle East, made just that bit more serious with Amnesty International‘s presence at the festival.
Every afternoon in a cool and airy tent north of the garden called the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre — strictly no pictures but discreet Tweeting will be tolerated — Amnesty International pools together acclaimed authors to read writings from the marginalised and the oppressed, from brave souls in prisons or innocents on death row. It’s often a harrowing reminder of the privileges afforded to many of us.
There’s an honest desire for betterment of society in response to recent world events. From programs aimed at understanding the history of Islam and Muslim communities, to a political science analysis of the UK Independence Party, every matter is approached with knowledge and a hunger for quality, credible information.
But you know what sort of behemoth the Book Festival goes against every single day?
Theatre here there everywhere
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a 70-year old event which has the distinction of being one of the largest arts program around the world. The Fringe is an open access festival, which means practically any show can pay for a spot in the festival program.
Last year, the Fringe brought over precisely 3,314 shows to the city across 25 days. These performing arts showcases promising music, theatre, cabaret, stand-up comedy, experimental art and many other treats resulted in over 50,000 performances in 313 performance spaces around Edinburgh.
The smartest thing to do upon encountering the Fringe is to dive into its whirlwind of performances, listings, posters, flyers, offers and reviews.
It’s impossible to escape the Fringe — there are half-price ticket vouchers in The Scotsman, the nation’s leading paper — but for comparison’s sake, imagine if there was an event so big in Malaysia that The Star had to publish 20-page pullouts on arts and culture which include six-page listings (font size: five) of every event happening from eight in the morning until two hours past midnight.
Rather fascinatingly, theatre is one of more mainstream interests which means getting tickets at the door, even for smaller productions, is a bit of a gamble. In fact, the 430-page Fringe catalogue has a whopping 96 pages dedicated to theatre, with anywhere between six to twelve shows listed per page. This comes only second to stand-up comedy at 132 pages. There will be references to current issues, particularly British politics this year.
Due to the festival’s nature, there’s no moral policing on subject matter — slap on a 16+ warning and you’re free to explore practically anything from terrorism to the gay meth epidemic.
Its creatives don’t take any of this for granted. Under the scrutiny of reviewers and the public, content creators must deliver to survive. Shows rated highly by the press thrive, though many visitors insist theatre is too subjective and it’s not impossible to find impressive two-starrers.
As such, sitting and writing about it is a poor choice compared to experiencing the scale of the Edinburgh Festival — there is still much history to celebrated, conversations to be welcomed, and differences to be embraced.
Excuse this writer’s leave for now, but trust he’ll be back to report on more findings very soon.