Sturgeon Makes Headlines, a Father Mourns His Son, and the Fight to Get an Iranian a Visa

By Barley, Nick | New Statesman (1996), August 25, 2017 | Go to article overview

Sturgeon Makes Headlines, a Father Mourns His Son, and the Fight to Get an Iranian a Visa


Barley, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


There is something about the opening moment of the Edinburgh book festival that is magical--I take a deep breath and pause to watch authors and audiences come pouring in through the gates, stopping to enjoy the musical entertainment before heading into their first event. This is the moment when the organising team put all the agonies and frustrations, tears and laughter and a year of hard work behind us and step out into another 17-day rollercoaster journey through the ideas that are shaping this strange new era. And then, suddenly, I'm torn out of my reverie as a colleague taps me on the shoulder to remind me that in five minutes I have to go on stage and introduce the 2008 Man Booker prizewinner Aravind Adiga.

Scotland set free

It was 1984 when the phrase "work as if you live in the early days of a better nation" was published on the front cover of an Alasdair Gray novel. Even though Gray didn't coin the phrase, it's often attributed to him and used as a rallying cry by supporters of Scottish independence. Writers and artists have been prominent in the discussions around Scotland's constitutional question, but some are arguing that the independence movement is splintering. There is, however, another undercurrent. Andrew O'Hagan is one writer who has argued that the UK government's response to Brexit--and what he sees as Theresa May's cavalier disregard for the devolved nations--has effectively shattered the Union in any case. For O'Hagan, the time has come to imagine a Scotland tethered by neither unionism nor nationalism --with a new definition of what it means to be a country in the 21st century. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Nicola Sturgeon herself admits that she wishes her party didn't have the word "national" in its name.

Live and learn

Sturgeon's comments--made at a discussion with Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and young Scottish publisher Heather McDaid dominate the media headlines, and I get frustrated that there's less attention given to our programme for children and young people, imaginatively created by Janet Smyth. Authors like Julia Donaldson and Kristina Stephenson are perennial festival favourites, but it was very special to see a theatre packed with young women hanging on the every word of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and to welcome several authors writing about gender and identity, including Juno Dawson and CN Lester.

There has been much talk in Edinburgh this year about moving or extending the summer festivals to accommodate Scottish school holidays, but the book festival always embraces the start of the new term. Our schools programme welcomes more than 13,000 primary and high school pupils from across Scotland and the north of England. Many of them have never visited a book festival or met an author before.

Literature and loss

This year I was especially looking forward to seeing Israeli author David Grossman, the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. …

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