If you are under the age of twenty and not a bookworm, it is perhaps unlikely you will have heard of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Why go to a boring book thing when you can go to the Fringe or the new Byron? However the speakers here are not just authors; they are sportsmen, journalists, actors, photographers, politicians, businessmen and more. Each has a story to tell, or a collection of life experiences they are willing to share, and only at the Book Festival can so many fascinating and often funny speakers be heard at once.
Presenter of Springwatch and lifelong wildlife enthusiast/expert/campaigner Chris Packham is one such speaker, and his was the talk I most enjoyed attending, an interview which inspired guilt about how rarely we take the time to appreciate nature. His newly published autobiography describes animals and landscapes with excruciating beauty, and his passion for animals is exemplified in his love for his pets.
“A dog won’t lie to you or let you down.”
Packham is on the autistic spectrum, and he talked of the social difficulties this has presented him with in the past. As a young adult he struggled with depression, at one stage turning suicidal, but has since made the effort to integrate himself socially with others. Though harrowing, his willingness to talk about such problems shows an encouraging raising of awareness about issues often swept under the rug.
In fact, Packham is well-known in wildlife circles for his avid campaigning, most recently against grouse shooting, and one of the most refreshing aspects of this is that he bases all of his views off scientific evidence. He supports the reintroduction of the wolf and lynx in the Highlands, and strongly opposes the badger cull.
“Our response is to kill everything, and that’s disappointing really.”
He has also taken up positions in many charities, for example he is President of the The Bat Conservation Trust and the Hawk Conservancy Trust amongst others, and Vice-President of the RSPB. His memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, describes the early days of his interest in all things insect and avian, and it comes as little surprise to see how far his unrivalled passion for wildlife has propelled him.
Also on offer at the Festival was a talk with Alexander McCall Smith, a lesser known author to young people but renowned in the older generations for his books based in Edinburgh. Formerly a professor in Medical Law, McCall Smith has since written a seemingly never-ending list of novels, his most famous series entitled The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and another called 44 Scotland Street. This was a more typical Book Festival talk, drawing from his experiences as a writer and trawling through a pile of books for publicity.
The setup of a talk at the Festival is more like that of an interview than a speech, which makes it far more engaging than a practised lecture. McCall Smith decorated his answers with anecdotes amidst claims that his novels are based on real life, with one of his latest novels, My Italian Bulldozer, based on the time a rental car company could only spare him a bulldozer. An event certainly worth writing a novel out of.
Gregor Fisher and Melanie Reid appeared together at the Festival to talk about their combined writing of Fisher’s biography, The Boy From Nowhere, delving into Fisher’s backstory as an adopted child. Fisher is best known for his acting role as Rab C Nesbitt, also appearing in other films such as Love Actually, and he contacted Times journalist Melanie Reid to help with writing up his memoir.
The two made a comical pairing on stage, with Reid prompting each memory from Fisher, owning an apparently deeper knowledge of his childhood than he himself. Fisher, however, grudgingly complied, and often managed to elicit a lasting chorus of laughter with the retelling of a memory or childhood character.
Question time at the end of each interview allows the audience to ask any burning questions they have, and often this is the most enjoyable part, seeing how the speakers interact with the audience and respond to occasionally bizarre questions. Singling out the literary nerds and former English teachers is a hobby of mine, however sad that might sound.
Finally there is the rush towards the book signing tent as the event finishes, everyone clamouring for a signature and some personal celeb time. Adults associate teenage girls with being crazy silly fans of boy bands, but one need only compare the stampede towards the signing tent to sniff a little good-humoured hypocrisy.
Catch the last few days of the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival’s programme or scour next year’s catalogue if you missed it this year; with such a range of events and personalities speaking there is bound to be someone to catch the eye.
Image credit: Robin Mair
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