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Every few years I head to the Edinburgh Book Festival for a fun flying visit. Last time in 2013 was to see Neil Gaiman talk, and also the Iain Banks memorial event. This time I was there to see Ian Rankin talk about the return of Rebus, with a new novel, and a recent short story collection. Because of my MS-like illness, which means I need to use my wheelchair while in Edinburgh, it is easiest to drive down from Dundee. And because I need to rest after and before travelling it makes sense to stay in a hotel the night before and after. Which is costly, but we think is worth it for the treat. We make a real break of it.

So last night after Afternoon Tea at Edinburgh’s famous Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street we got a taxi to Charlotte Square, arriving at about 6.50pm. The site was packed, with people there to attend author talks, browse in the bookshops, and soak up the friendly atmosphere. Our first stop was to go to the two bookshops, where I bought a few books: one a Gaelic children’s book (I’m learning the language, slowly), and also two other books I’d been wanting to get for a while, on astronomy and the history of Edinburgh.

By 7.45pm we were waiting in the queue for people with reserved seats (mainly disabled people like me) and were in in good time before the event started at 8.15pm. As usual we had good front row seats, and a good view of the speakers: Ian Rankin, and Phill Jupitus who would be chatting to him for the hour.

Ian opened the event by reading an extract from his latest soon to be published Rebus novel Even Dogs in the Wild. This was interesting, and quite gripping, and made me want to read the book when it comes out. Indeed the whole event made me want to read more of the Rebus novels – I’ve read a lot of them, but not all – and also read (and reread where necessary) the short stories. I particularly liked the discussion after this opening read through about Rebus’s relationship with the gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, which Ian likened to Holmes and Moriarty. Coincidentally I’m currently reading Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty.

After this opening section there was a more general discussion. Indeed I was relieved that they didn’t just talk about the new novel, but covered a much wider range of subjects, including as the book festival entry for the event had indicated the recent short story collection The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories. As a big fan of short stories – partly for the form, partly because they are often easier for me to read due to memory and reading problems from my neurological disease – I was particularly interested in what Ian said about the joy of writing them, and seeing a new artefact as the end product in a pretty quick time, as opposed to the marathon many months writing that each new novel requires.

One of the most interesting sections of the talk for me was where Ian reflected on his breaks from Rebus, both more recently and in the past. His recent break was prompted by deaths in recent years of a number of friends, all at fairly young ages. So he didn’t sign a new contract for a new novel then, but took the chance to do fun things, including other types of writing – like scifi – that he normally doesn’t do, but likes to. This was picked up on to an extent in one of the questions at the end. It was a bit sad that even a very successful writer like Ian Rankin feels the pressure to write what will sell, and doesn’t have the time to write other perhaps more experimental works. But the benefits of his break were apparent.

I also liked his discussion of the writing process, both in terms of how many hours he works on the first draft of a novel, and also how he discovers plot and character through his writing. He spoke of an example where he had advance plotted a novel to great detail, and his agent loved the concept, but Ian felt no desire to write it after sorting out everything so much in advance! I don’t write fiction, but in my academic writing I often find that I am feeling my way through the writing process, coming up with new thoughts and ideas by writing, and it’s a process that I enjoy too. I could also relate to his reflections on the importance of getting away from modern pressures to write. He goes to Cromarty (“no wifi”) and finds that in a secluded environment the writing process can flow extremely effectively. He also knows of other writers who play white noise in their ears to chill out the sound of the modern world while writing.

Quite a large chunk of the talk was about Ian’s love of music, including his experiences being in a band. For quite a while there I thought Phill was going to try to coerce him to sing, but Ian dodged that, though he did share some of his lyrics with us – very dark and gloomy, and quite in keeping with much of his later writing as a crime novelist! He also shared some entertaining reflections on touring life from his brief experiences of that. And he mused on how he had been so tempted to buy a record shop …

Returning to the writing craft one interesting observation Ian made fairly late on in the talk was that he doesn’t like to over research books, to the extent of filling them with “look what I found out!” stuff in the say way that some other writers do, including in the crime genre. Though having said that, a constant running joke throughout the event was his struggle to keep up with the changing police situation e.g. current retirement age for police officers, location of CID units, even the terminology used. Phill joked that it was almost as if the Scottish police were deliberately trying to foil Ian’s writing.

There were only limited questions at the end, in the last ten minutes, but they were interesting, and all sparked off lengthy responses from Ian. Indeed during the talk Phill was a fairly gentle interviewer, typically providing a short starting point that Ian could use to explore an issue in more depth.

We skipped the signing at the end, though I’d brought a paperback copy of the recent short story collection just in case I decided to stay and get it signed. But we had a great time. And, as I said, I am very much looking forward to reading more Rebus on my Kindle (the main way I have to read now due to the brain damage and reading problems it causes). Though I think I’ll start with the short stories, because those are so approachable for me. Many I have read before, but a lot I haven’t, and should enjoy them all.

So thanks Ian! And Phill!

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I recently bought Eleanor M. Harris‘s historical map of old Edinburgh, and have now had a good chance to look through it. I developed a strong interest in urban history, and Scottish urban history in particular, thanks to my PhD supervisor Professor Charles McKean, and also the taught PG Masters course I did beforehand in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. Plus being born in Edinburgh I was always going to be interested in this map!

Layers of Edinburgh folded map

Eleanor did all the artwork and wrote the text, including the calligraphy work, herself. It’s impressive how much she has squeezed in. The map unfolds to open with a so-called “short history” of the city, but it’s full of detail, from the earliest dates through to the 21st century, and gives a good potted account of developments over time.

Layers of Edinburgh short history

But the bulk of the content is on the map proper, on the other side, accompanied with notes about specific places and people. The emphasis is very much on the Old Town, so there isn’t for example any content on the map from Princes Street and further north, the area developed so much in the 18th century. What is there though is generally well presented, with colour coding to show different dates of development, as well as numbers which can lead to further information in the notes section on the back of the map.

Detail of Layers of Edinburgh map

If I have one criticism, it’s a small one, but much of the text on the map is written at all different angles, which can mean you need to turn it around a lot to read the contents. But that’s sort of necessary, given how much information has been squeezed in. And I don’t think it would be a problem using the map in the field so to speak.

For anyone with an interest in Edinburgh’s history, or urban history in general, I strongly recommend that you get hold of this map. If you can use it on the ground, and explore the streets with it to guide you, all the better. Copies of the map are available from Eleanor’s Etsy shop.

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The Edinburgh International Book Festival is billed as the “largest festival of its kind in the world”. It takes place in August each year, in Charlotte Square at the west end of Edinburgh city centre, and is a concentrated venue for talks by numerous authors, as well as related bookshops, cafes, bars, signing tents etc. This year, the 30th anniversary event, saw apparently 225,000 visitors to the book festival over the space of a few weeks, and a rise in ticket sales over the previous year. By any measure it is a massive event.

For me the strength lies in the depth of programming. The printed brochure, or online version, is perused avidly by yours truly as soon as it is released each June, and there are always too many things that I want to go to. Even picking a day at random would probably find events of interest. As it is I have to plan my visit more carefully. Because of an MS-like illness I need to take my wheelchair to the event, which isn’t really much fun by train or pushing it about the streets of Edinburgh at the height of festival season when the pavements are jam-packed with hordes of tourists. So we end up driving and staying in a city centre hotel for a couple of nights, to give me a chance to rest after the journey and before my time at the book festival. So it’s costly! But I think it’s worth it, for the time there, and the memories and experience.

This year I booked us into two talks at the book festival. The first was with Neil Gaiman, who was speaking four times at the event, but I really wanted to get to his talk about his landmark Sandman series of comics and graphic novels. I read these for the first time a few years ago, and was blown away by the power of the storytelling. They’re not like most traditional comics, that focus on superheroes. Instead these are a rich tapestry of stories and ideas, and myth and legend. Quite magical. My husband hadn’t read them though, and I was a bit worried that he wouldn’t enjoy the talk so much, or might be spoiled for the stories. But he said go ahead and book it. He wants to read the Sandman in future anyway.

The other talk that I booked us into was the Iain Banks celebration with Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Ken MacLeod. I’ve only read a little of Iain’s work, but plan to read more. And I enjoyed the Crow Road TV version many years ago, and again more recently. I admire Iain’s writing skills and storytelling, and didn’t want to miss this event. The Iain Banks event was immediately after the Neil Gaiman Sandman talk, in the same venue with half an hour in between. That would be fine, and worked out really well. And because of my having a wheelchair and needing husband to help me we were able to get pre-reserved front row seats, and free admission for my husband. Fabulous. Thank you book festival!

So fast forward to August 24th. We travelled down. Stayed in just about the poshest hotel in Edinburgh – if you’re going to do this you might as well do it right! Lovely meal that first night, me rest the next day, afternoon tea, then taxi, with wheelchair, at 6.30pm to Charlotte Square. That worked out perfectly. The festival site is very well laid out, in a large square formation, with tents for talks around the edge. The walkways are good for wheelchair access, and it’s generally easy to get around. The central grass area is laid out with chairs for people to sit in and drink and/or read, usually the latter whether a drink or not. And it’s just a really cheery place for a book lover to be.

We browsed in the main bookshop for quite some time. As usual I bought too many books. So many in fact that we got a £5 voucher off future sales. Hubby wondered why they couldn’t have taken it off our massive spend already! But I said no problem. We’re going into the children’s bookshop next, we’ll spend it there. And we did. I found a history of the Beano, absolutely gargantuan, that I’ve read before, via university library copy here in Dundee, but was rather keen to own for the future. RRP £25, marked down to £10, then with our £5 voucher that meant this absolute brick cost just £5. Result!

Book haul from Edinburgh Book FestivalAfter that, lugging the heavy books with us, we wheeled round to the main theatre at the festival site, to wait for the Neil Gaiman talk that was due to start soon. Because of the reserved seats we could wait by the door. Most people were queuing all round the square. We’d seen this in previous years. It gets quite funny – and difficult to manage! – when the queue loops back on itself. Anyway the doors opened about 7.50pm and we were in at our reserved seats ready for 8pm.

The Sandman talk was excellent. It was chaired by Hannah Berry, whose opening question to Neil was “How are you?” Given that he’s nearly completed a many months international book tour for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and has been extremely tired, understandably, at times, it was really nice to hear how happy he was to be seeing the end in sight (this week), and buoyed up by this. And he was delighted to be talking to us about Sandman that night, which he hadn’t been talking about for months, so wouldn’t be going over the same ground, both for his own benefit, and for the audience.

Hannah was a very relaxed presenter, prodding Neil on where necessary, though he didn’t need too much encouragement. I’m not going to cover everything that he said, but it was a wide ranging hour’s talk, particularly about the background to the creation of Sandman i.e. how he got the gig in the first place. And how he learned – starting from absolutely nowhere – how to write for comics. Some of the stories were particularly funny, for example his tale of a school careers talk, where he said that he wanted to write American comics, and the careers advisor didn’t take it too well! Anyway the audience enjoyed it, my non-Sandman reading (yet!) husband did too, and it was a great success.

Sadly we had to miss the book signing afterwards because we were going to the Iain Banks event. And because of that I hadn’t brought anything to be signed, though I’d have brought The Graveyard Book if anything. Which meant that when Neil, on leaving, dashed up to me and said that he’d arrange for me to be at the front of the signing queue I was “Aarrgghh!” inside! Anyway it was extremely kind of him. Maybe next time!

As it was we had a prior appointment. And the Iain Banks event did not disappoint. It was chaired by BBC Scotland political correspondent Brian Taylor, who did an excellent job. And as well as the three author friends of Iain’s, all Fifers, by birth or residence, actress Valerie Edmond, who starred in the TV Crow Road, was there to read from Iain’s work. The event was tinged with sadness, but was ultimately a celebration. It covered both the mainstream writings, particularly The Bridge, and Iain’s science fiction work, which Ken particularly talked about. Rather amusingly Ian Rankin revealed that he can’t read sci fi. He’s tried. He tried again when Iain’s cancer was diagnosed. But he just can’t, though he buys Ken’s books for his son.

There was a surprise guest too. Neil Gaiman ran in halfway through, breaking away temporarily from his book signing next door, to tell us all a story about a drunken Iain antic at a world science fiction convention many years ago. The audience loved it, and Neil was really glad to be able to share the story at last.

In the closing moments we saw a clip from Iain’s final interview with Kirsty Wark. I’d watched this on TV, the full-length version broadcast in Scotland, and it was very moving and powerful. The clip they chose to show at the end of the book festival talk was Iain talking about how happy he was with the different types of writing he was able to do. That seemed like a perfect choice, and a very moving point to close on. Also throughout the talk there was the crow book sculpture that had been gifted to the book festival by the anonymous book sculptor in memory of Iain. That sculpture sat on a plinth throughout the talk, for someone who’d gone away the Crow Road too soon, and would be transferred soon afterwards to Stirling University, Iain’s alma mater.

Crow sculpture in memory of Iain BanksWe left the festival site shortly after 10.30pm and were able to pick up a taxi at the west end of George Street moments later. Then one more night in the hotel, and back home the next day. It was a wonderful trip. I’m glad I made it, and I have wonderful memories. It was also nice to see a good recap of the Iain Banks event in The Scotsman newspaper the next day.

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A TV series which I’ve enjoyed in recent years is Paul Murton’s Grand Tours of Scotland using an old 19th century guidebook as his guide. I bought a copy of the same guidebook, Black’s Picturesque Guide to Scotland, in my case the 1892 edition, and have been enjoying reading it. It has useful descriptions – often illustrated – of the main tourist destinations, as well as information on lesser-known attractions.

Edinburgh pages in 1892 guidebook

Although it’s hardly the main focus of the book I particularly like the series of advertisements at the back, many from Scotland, but some from other parts of the UK and Ireland too. These include adverts from hotels touting for guests. The one that really made me grin was the thought of buses transporting people from the railway station at Melrose to the George & Abbotsford Hotel. It’s only about 2 minutes walk round the corner! But I guess if you were a high-falutin guest you would not want to walk and get your shoes and clothes – especially skirts for ladies – dirty or wet.

Hotel advertisements from 1892 book

I used travel guides and similar books quite a bit during my year working as a Research Assistant looking at towns in Angus in the late 18th and early 19th century. Such books were a very useful insight into how the different towns were perceived by outsiders at this time. In a similar way I used travel guides in my postgraduate Masters degree in Cultural and Urban History, using them for an essay looking at urbanisation in the Borders, and specifically whether individual places were regarded at the time as towns (with all the appropriate trappings and facilities) or were the lesser-regarded villages.

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