rory maclean

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Festival Time!

The Festival(s) programmes are simply getting too big. At the rate they are going, we will need people to spend a day just going through them and filtering them to a manageable number of offerings that might interest us. Every year when the Book Festival (yes, I know it’s the ‘Edinburgh International Book Festival’ just as the Simpson’s was the ‘Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion’ but really, not every time I want to mention it and see, now I’ve lost my train of thought) … oh yes, whenever the Book Festival programme arrives, I have this sinking feeling when I have a cursory look and immediately think there is nothing of real interest to me. I then pick it up again on the following weekend and discover that there is in fact a huge variety, and this year was no exception. This year, though, I also went to a number of events in the Fringe, the programme for which really does require several hours of searching.

Unsurprisingly, we saw a few dance shows, starting with a combination of ballet and juggling where timing seemed to be everything, and was executed brilliantly. There is always something about seeing two art forms combined and what is then created. Balletronic was a Cuban dance troupe with a small orchestra (I’m sure there is a technical term for it, but the inclusion of electric guitars and drums might complicate that), a singer, and music which wouldn’t normally be associated with ballet. The dancing itself reflected the energy and pace of the music but still managed to look effortless.

Going back to combining different disciplines – how about maths and comedy. Not maths as I remember it though. We didn’t ignite gas to show wave forms, or hold hands to complete a circuit to listen to music, and we certainly didn’t predict the exact time of a baby’s birth by extrapolating from the frequency and duration of contractions. It was probably rare that a bunch of finance guys were the target audience for a Fringe production. My experience is more likely to be that I’m the person walking through Edinburgh (admittedly in a suit sometimes) who nobody offers a flyer to. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And then there was the Book Festival. You have to be there pretty late to see it like this:



First up was Kate Mosse (note the ‘e’, this was not the other Kate Moss without the ‘e’). I found her thoughts on writing, rather than her books themselves, particularly helpful this year. For example her analogy that when she starts writing a novel, the characters are waiting in the wings, waiting to show themselves. And she has to be patient and not rush them out onto the stage until they are fully ready.

I mentioned Rory MacLean’s brilliant book on Berlin last year. This year he was back with a new, and decidedly more bizarre subject. Transnistria is… well it thinks it’s a country, even though the rest of world doesn’t, and doesn’t recognise the fall of the Soviet Union, even though the rest of the world does. This was going to be strange then. We stood for the Transnistria national anthem. The tune was not memorable. And then he took us into this surreal world of a non-country with a president, a range of ministers, many of whom are young, female, and appear to be in a relationship of sorts with the president. Lenin is a frequent appearance in statutes and pictures. And the country is a refuge for former Red Army generals, KGB officials and ammunition dumps which were left over after the Cold War and have since found themselves in conflict zones around the world. It really is a place you wouldn’t believe could exist today, and yet there it is. And you can get there (and back out again) by bus from Moldova, to which Transnistria legally belongs. Tempted?

If maths geeks were happy with the Fringe show I went to, translations geeks were in their element at a ‘Translation duel’. We all read translations of books where we don’t know the original language, and the work of translation is itself a skill where there is rarely a right or a wrong answer. Understanding the words of the source language is only part of the task. You also want to reflect the rhythm, the register and the overall sense of the original. And then there is the cultural associations. For example, how would you translate cucumber sandwich – if you’re from the UK, you will have an immediate picture of the type of bread, the cucumber slices, the butter, and probably even the types of event where you might expect to see them. We were given the source text (the author of which was also there), and two translations (both translators were also there). And then they discussed how they had translated the text. Well, the first sentence anyway. That took half an hour. It started with ‘why did you put a comma after “During the day”’? There was none in the original. Progress was really only made by stopping before any conclusions were reached. What amazed me most was that the tent was almost full, I was sure I was in the wrong queue for a while because it stretched back so far and I couldn’t believe anyone else would want to sit through an hour of detailed consideration of how to translate a text. But it’s as much more an art form than a technical exercise.

I translated part of a German novel a few years ago for fun when I was wanting some stimulation. It was by Armin Mueller-Stahl and I was surprised that it hadn’t already appeared in English as he is a well known actor. I wasn’t doing it with a view to it ever being used and certainly didn’t get close to finishing it, but it was good to engage with the detail of the two languages for a while. And it still hasn’t been translated into English. No, I’m not going there…

And there’s still another week of events to go… it’s exhausting!


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…