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For any obsessive reader, Edinburgh is a great place to be in August. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, now the largest of its kind in the whole world, transforms Charlotte Square into a different world. Or different worlds really as the subjects covered are so varied. Several years ago I was having a discussion with someone about travel and they were surprised that we hadn’t been to lots of different countries as a family. My reply included the observation that I had been to a whole host of countries, at least in my imagination, thanks to reading books set in those countries. Stephen King (you can either like or loath what he writes about, but he’s an extraordinary writer) summarises what writing is about in his book On Writing as “writing is telepathy”. Great writers take you to that different place, that different time, and you come away with a different perspective on something.
This year’s Book Festival was a bumper one for me. There are always going to be some events where it just doesn’t quite work. I find it helps if the author attending actually wants to be there, or gives some indication of being interested in the subject which, given it’s normally something they’ve written about, shouldn’t be that difficult. You would think. Fortunately that was the first event I went to this year and I’ve been to enough to know that some are better than others. The final day was probably the one which stood out for me, both for the quality and the variety. The common link I took from the three events I went to (who says Mondays are the worst day of the week?) was the theme of change.
It started with Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel laureate (economics), adviser to Bill Clinton, on more committees than I could even have imagined existed. And such a big name that the press were there in force, putting rather more weight on some of his comments than on others. What attracted me to his session in the first place was his premise that technology has not made society better off. But the main point I took from him was that the economic benefits of technology have increasingly been flowing to a very small elite rather than being dispersed more widely, increasing the inequality in society that we can see all around us. Think of the now billionaires who started Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. The obvious (his judgement) point is that if the population as a whole does not benefit from the value created, the non-elite have less money to spend, therefore can buy less, therefore everyone loses. My practical conclusion – next book in the “I need to find more time to read all this stuff” pile. And yes, I do get the irony that I include a link to the book on Amazon.
Next up was the event I had been most looking forward to. Currently, if I had to do a Desert Island book, it would be Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory Maclean. I read this book in not many hours just before I went to Berlin in spring and was struck by the variety of ways he tells the stories of Berliners over several centuries, mixing fiction and non-fiction forms beautifully. But it was much more personal than that for me. I think he recognised two things. He wrote about people who have imagined a Berlin which did not exist at the time, or – while living in Berlin – themselves as someone they were not yet. They were not all born in Berlin, but they are all Berliners. And he sees the power of change that Berlin not just represents, but is. The city has reinvented itself – sometimes of necessity – so many times and it continues to change. And there is something in Berlin that can allow those of us who spend enough time there to change ourselves as well. My favourite factoid from the book (I know, I’m trivialising it somewhat) – the GB team in the 2012 Olympics entered the stadium to David Bowie’s Heroes. A song that Bowie wrote in Berlin while he was reinventing himself. And a song that is about the Berlin Wall. Yes, I really can find a connection to East Germany in anything… (helped this year by going to hear Maxim Leo talk about his book about his family growing up in East Germany, with stories that you wouldn’t believe if they weren’t true).
And what better way to finish than with Michael Rosen talking about why books are important. For me, books help me to gain a new perspective, a different point of view, to see things through someone else’s eyes. And they help me to change.
The other change this book festival brought with it was the absence of Derek Landy, and the first time in years that we haven’t been able to get the next instalment in his Skulduggery Pleasant (if you have to ask…) books before its general release. But hey, it’s out on Thursday – and goes straight to the top of the reading list. At least when the girls go to bed and I can get it off them. I should have taken a holiday on Friday…
I have just had my annual mildly traumatic experience of wandering along to the Edinburgh International Book Festival at lunchtime to sit in one of the deck chairs in the sun and write for a few minutes, only to find the sign reminding me that it’s over for another year. There is a sense of loss each time. I will write some thoughts about the events I went to this year later, but something else was on my mind today. Sometimes we read something and it prompts us to do something. Often it’s not something earth shattering, occasionally it is. And yet there is then that space between the inspiration and carrying out the act into which many an intention disappears. Recently, I was reading random blogs on photography and was reminded by someone of the value of always having a camera with you. It’s not going to be an SLR with several lenses, but getting a photo is better than waiting to have the ideal kit with you and missing everything along the way. So for the last few weeks, I’ve always had a small camera with me, tucked into a pocket out of sight. And then at the weekend we were in Peebles, walking by the side of the River Tweed and I spotted a heron standing still with the water rushing by its legs. And then remembered that I had a camera with me. I’m glad I did. It won’t win any prizes, but I was able to capture a memory.
Today is exactly one month from the vote on Scottish Independence. I’m not going to comment on that issue itself where so much has already been written and said, some of it true and some of it helpful.
For me, an unease has been bubbling underneath the surface of the independence debate for a long time now. One of my obsessions is East Germany, now almost 25 years extinct, but within the living memory of my generation, and something we grew up with without (in my case certainly) knowing very much about it, other than the Wall which cut across Berlin. One of the things that state demonstrated consistently was the impact of ideology.
East Germany was a country ruled by a generation of men who had experienced the brutality of the Nazi regime against those who opposed it (as well as those it simply decided to target, another lesson in ideology). Some had spent the war in exile in the Soviet Union. Ironically, they found a different type of repression there, including within the ranks of the committed communists. Those who returned to Germany after the war were the survivors. Others fought in the war and saw first hand where fascism could lead. These were the men who founded East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, of which the “German” part was true). They returned committed to fighting fascism, expanding that to include capitalism and the West in general. But they took this personal commitment to extremes, convinced that not only was their ideological commitment correct but that how they implemented it was also the right way. In doing so, they created a number of fictions which they held out as fact. For example, they argued over and over that there were no former Nazis living in East Germany, that they were all in the West. There could not be any fascists in their socialist paradise, so they simply said that this was the case – and believed it to be true. The facts were made entirely subject to their ideological conviction. The principle was “we decide what is true and what is not true”. One of the famous East German songs even included the line “The Party is always right.”
We can look back on this and wonder what the people were thinking of. The general population knew (in part thanks to having access to West German television and radio) more than they were supposed to, and they certainly could see the difference between the reality they experienced every day and the country which was presented in their media. But the lies which kept East Germany going for forty years were supported by the constant threat of force, experienced in East Germany in June 1953 and in the better known intervention by Soviet troops in Prague in 1968.
So what is the excuse for the ideology trumping facts in the Scottish independence debate? There is no threat of external force being applied, no Wall to remind people to stay where they are. And yet there is a clear line being taken by the Yes campaign. It will all be fine, trust us. Anyone with a contrary view, or putting forward facts to highlight an issue, are accused of, variously, bullying, threatening, or simply being wrong. No explanation necessary, they are just wrong, because it’s not what “we” believe to be true.
In this country and this century, I don’t think there is any excuse for being unwilling to enter into a rational discussion of the issues, particularly by those whose job it is to present the voters with the options. And their opinion, of course. But it seems that, in this case, opinion has become too contaminated by ideology, and there the rational debate ends. You cannot argue with ideology. For its proponents, it is unassailable. But the rest of us have a choice.