This is not where I saw my career leading.
I am standing at the gates of the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square. To my right, a middle-aged Asian man is selling the Big Issue. To my left a woman is standing behind a trestle table offering a free book with every copy today’s edition of the Scotsman.
He shouts: ‘Big Issue!’
She shouts: ‘Get your Scotsman today, £1.20 with a fee book!’
I shout: ‘Stories, songs and an author going bonkers on the Fringe!’
Now and then, aware that I am not making much of an impression, I change my pitch.
I shout: ‘Writer’s block – the musical!’
Or: ‘Come and hear about writer’s life from someone who escaped from Charlotte Square!’
Or: ‘You’ve heard of the Singing Postman! Now, come and hear the Singing Novelist!’
But the others are blowing me out of the water. I can take being outsold by the Big Issue – he’s trying to survive, I’m selling a show on the Edinburgh Fringe - but the Scotsman? Both of them require the punters to dig into their pockets. All I’m looking for – and am signally failing to find – is a sympathetic ear, a hand outstretched for one of my little flyers
It is August in Edinburgh; basic standards of dignity and self-respect have been temporarily suspended. Trying to get people in to see me tell stories, talk about an author’s life and sing songs in a cabaret bar has been a toughening experience.
But visiting the book fair, where I have spent so many happy times in the past as a guest author, has without doubt been a regular low point. I find, rather to my surprise, that I am actually taking a niggling dislike to those who read books.
Over the past three weeks, I have spent time in Edinburgh Old Town in the heart of the Fringe. The place is heaving with people touting their shows, using any device to catch the attention of festival-goers, however humiliating and shameless. Through it all those on the receiving end – who sometimes seem to be outnumbered by performers – are generally open and curious.
The contrast with those who attend the book festival could not be greater. The people among whom I used to move now seem to me to be bizarrely self-absorbed and often downright snotty. It is as if they belong to a superior cultural class and that anything beyond their precious literary world is distasteful and embarrassing.
Is this an Edinburgh thing? I fear not. A certain snobbery, part social and part intellectual, attends books. It rubs off on those who work with them and is peculiarly in evidence at festivals. I find myself wondering whether this has always been on the case and that, having been on the inside – on a stage in Charlotte Square rather than outside its gates (those distributing flyers for the Fringe are banned from entering the square).
It seems surprising. Surely those who read books should be more open to experience and to new things than other people, not less.
But no. There is something disconcertingly superior about the vast majority of those who are attending book events, a glazed, impenetrable smugness as they scurry by with an irritated, I’ve-got-an-author-to-see expression on their intelligent, well-bred faces. Now and then a guest writer passes by, primped and shiny for his moment on the stage; one recognised me, and was hugely amused as he wafted by.
Putting on a Fringe show has introduced me, in a peripheral way, to the world of performance and drama. I have found that there is an openness there, a sense of camaraderie, which is rarely, if ever, to be found on the literary scene
How odd it all is. No doubt, I shall once more feel at home there at some point in the future – probably when my next book is published – but right now when I visit the very place where I should feel most at ease, a book festival, I feel like I am entering a cold, hostile foreign country.
My Village and Other Aliens is at the Zoo Southside, 117 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh until 26th August.