EIBF 2015 Preview: the opening weekend

The Edinburgh International Book Festival programme flopped through the door last week, and hopefully you all have yours too, because it’s quite a line-up. The really good stuff has a habit of clustering around the final weekend, presumably to ensure there’s been enough time to sell them out, but there are often gems lurking among the among the hubbub and rush of the EIBF 2015 opening weekend, too, that could easily be missed.

Saturday 15th

The big names on the opening day are David Mitchell, Antony Beevor and Ali Smith, but one event that shouldn’t be overlooked that combines three more big names is The Female Gaze: Classics by Women Writers, featuring Jackie Kay, Maggie O’Farrell and Sarah Waters, picked by guest selector Lennie Goodings (Virago’s editor and publisher).

The authors have each picked a favourite writer published by Virago Modern Classics — Rebecca West, Molly Keane and Zora Neale Hurston — to highlight and discuss, which should lead to a spirited discussion on feminism and insight on the influence these women and the have had on the authors’ own work.

Goodings has also chosen Marilynne Robinson who, while hardly prolific — having published only four novels since 1980 — has been garlanded with the Pulitzer, the Orange Prize, Booker nominations and many more awards. It’s the first time she’s ever been to the EIBF, so expect a lot of interest and book early.

A lot of the news these days focuses on the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and while it’s easy to point at the recent chaos caused by our invasion of Iraq, historian Ian Rutledge is here to remind us that the roots of the trouble go much further back. He’ll be discussing Enemy on the Euphrates, in which he explains that mismanagement of the region by the British a century ago and the rush to convert the navy to oil over coal in the run-up to the First World War sowed the seeds of the current mess.

And though it might be a coincidence, this has an echo in a later event focusing on Marcus O’Dair’s biography of Robert Wyatt, whose version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding became a symbol of protest against the Falklands War. In Different Every Time O’Dair charts the singer-songwriter’s fascinating life and his collaborations with, well, pretty much everyone. Wyatt is still working and, who knows, might he turn up himself? Radio 4 did a serialisation of the book earlier this year, which isn’t currently available, but there is a 2012 profile, which you can listen to here.

Over in the children’s programme, there’s the usual quality mix, and I’m picking Knight in Training with Vivian French and David Melling as Alex took a brilliantly daft picture of Vivian the other day at the Borders Book Festival.

Sunday 16th

On 13th June it was WB Yeats’ 150th anniversary and today there are a couple of events celebrating his legacy, one a reading workshop with Kate Hendry, the other features Robert Crawford, Paula Meehan and Dan Mulhall reading Yeats’ work and their own inspired by him.

The First Book Award thread often throws up writers of interest you might never have heard of before, but who are quickly building a following. One of these is Denmark’s Dorthe Nors, who apparently went down very well at Hay a couple of weeks ago and whose collection of short stories, Karate Chop, has just been published in English. She’s in an event, Throwing Away the Literary Rulebook, with Stuart Evers, whose collection Ten Stories About Smoking made a big splash in 2011 and returns with his new book Your Father Sends his Love.

It’s a big day for big names, including Ali Smith (again), Louis de Bernières, Carol Ann Duffy, Joanne Harris, Ben Okri and Alasdair Gray (always good for a bit of controversy and laugh), but I suspect one event that could also be packed out is Ronnie Browne’s The Corries and Much More Besides. Among much else, The Corries were responsible for Scotland’s de facto anthem Flower of Scotland, so it will be interesting to hear his take on the fact it’s still somehow being sung after last year’s referendum.

David O’Doherty is a perennial Fringe fixture with his charming ways and daft wee songs and he and illustrator Chris Judge have joined forces to create Danger is Still Everywhere, a silly survival handbook for kids. I’ve not seen their show but I can’t imagine it’ll be anything less than brilliant. Book now.

Another big name (yes, Jacqueline Wilson will be packing out the main tent, as usual) is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has written many great films and TV shows (and one of the worst recent episodes of Doctor Who, but we all have off days) and has recently started writing for children, including a series of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang books and his new one, The Astounding Broccoli Boy.

Oh, and Miffy will be wandering around celebrating her 60th birthday. Just don’t bring up that copycat Hello Kitty.

Monday 17th

The star name today is undoubtedly Paul “is it a dolphin in the bathtub” Merton, whose memoir Only When I Laugh details his ups and downs, the loss of his second wife Sarah Parkinson to cancer, and his own “manic episode”. Despite the fact that his HIGNFY schtick has worn a bit thin he’s still a fiercely intelligent and funny man, so this will probably be a highlight, and likely to sell out fast.

In the wake of the Scandi Noir invasion of recent years, Denmark’s next big thing in the UK is likely to be Helle Helle, who is a big name there and her novel This Should Be Written in the Present Tense has recently been translated into English, and is therefore eligible for the First Book Award. Could be very interesting and I have to note that she is a stunning subject for photographic portraits.

Those interested in matters closer to home have a choice of two interesting perspectives on the landscape of Scotland. First is John Lister-Kaye, a naturalist and conservationist and vice-president of the RSPB, who runs the Aigas Field Centre near Inverness, which has featured on Autumnwatch. His new book is about the animals and, especially, birds of the region, Gods of the Morning. He explores our growing disconnection from nature.

The second is Andy Wightman, a campaigner for land reform and Green Party MSP candidate, who will be looking at what the Smith Commission might mean for the future of land ownership in Scotland. His 2010 book, The Poor Had No Lawyers, looked at how land ownership became concentrated over time in the hands of the rich and powerful at the cost of everyone else and whether the Scottish Parliament has had much success in righting the wrongs.

And in the evening a favourite of crime aficionados, Stuart MacBride, also looks at the wilds of Scotland, as in his latest Logan Macrae novel The Missing and the Dead it’s out in the Grampians that the grisly crimes are committed. The chair for the event is Brian Taylor, and you can catch up with Taylor’s musings on politics and literature through his famously voluble Twitter account.

Over in the children’s programme one event that fair jumped off the page was John Fardell’s Monsters and Baddies. Fardell is probably best known to adults for the long-running Viz strips Modern Parents and The Critics, but he’s also written and illustrated loads of kids’ books and is a veteran of touring schools, so should be well practised and very good value.

Another anniversary this year was the Gretna Rail Disaster of 1915, recently commemorated with poppies stencilled on the streets of Leith. Catherine MacPhail’s book, The Stars Shall be Bright, tells the story of the worst rail disaster in British history, which killed around 226 and injuring 246, mostly soldiers from Leith on the way to the Western Front. She’s joined by Tony Bradman, whose Anzac Boys focuses on another great disaster of the period, Gallipoli.

More highlights tomorrow.

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