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Nick Barley's Diary: Nicola Sturgeon makes headlines, and a father mourns his son

The First Minister admits that she wishes her party didn’t have the word “national” in its name.

There is something about the opening moment of the Edinburgh book festival that is magical – I take a deep breath and pause to watch authors and audiences come pouring in through the gates, stopping to enjoy the musical entertainment before heading into their first event.

This is the moment when the organising team put all the agonies and frustrations, tears and laughter and a year of hard work behind us and step out into another 17-day rollercoaster journey through the ideas that are shaping this strange new era. And then, suddenly, I’m torn out of my reverie as a colleague taps me on the shoulder to remind me that in five minutes I have to go on stage and introduce the 2008 Man Booker prizewinner Aravind Adiga.

Scotland set free

It was 1984 when the phrase “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” was published on the front cover of an Alasdair Gray novel. Even though Gray didn’t coin the phrase, it’s often attributed to him and used as a rallying cry by supporters of Scottish independence. Writers and artists have been prominent in the discussions around Scotland’s constitutional question, but some are arguing that the independence movement is splintering.

There is, however, another undercurrent. Andrew O’Hagan is one writer who has argued that the UK government’s response to Brexit – and what he sees as Theresa May’s cavalier disregard for the devolved nations – has effectively shattered the Union in any case. For O’Hagan, the time has come to imagine a Scotland tethered by neither unionism nor nationalism – with a new definition of what it means to be a country in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Nicola Sturgeon herself admits that she wishes her party didn’t have the word “national” in its name.

Live and learn

Sturgeon’s comments – made at a discussion with Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and young Scottish publisher Heather McDaid – dominate the media headlines, and I get frustrated that there’s less attention given to our programme for children and young people, imaginatively created by Janet Smyth. Authors like Julia Donaldson and Kristina Stephenson are perennial festival favourites, but it was very special to see a theatre packed with young women hanging on the every word of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and to welcome several authors writing about gender and identity, including Juno Dawson and CN Lester.

There has been much talk in Edinburgh this year about moving or extending the summer festivals to accommodate Scottish school holidays, but the book festival always embraces the start of the new term. Our schools programme welcomes more than 13,000 primary and high school pupils from across Scotland and the north of England. Many of them have never visited a book festival or met an author before.

Literature and loss

This year I was especially looking forward to seeing Israeli author David Grossman, the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. As the chair of the prize jury, I had the joy of reading his latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, four times and discussing it in great detail with my fellow judges. Abrasive, unexpected and eventually heartbreaking, it is a masterclass in characterisation and structure, and it beat off some exceptionally strong competition to win the prize.

Anyone who has read Grossman’s previous books will not be surprised to hear that in the flesh he is a man who is quietly assured, but at the same time living with a sense of loss – the death of his son, Uri, came in August 2006. While Uri was carrying out his military service, the Israeli army went to war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and he was killed when the tank he was driving was hit by a rocket. He and two other crew members had been trying to rescue soldiers from another tank.

In the years that have followed the tragedy, Grossman has channelled his grief into some of the most powerful and unforgettable fiction of the 21st century to date. Thanks to his translator (and co-winner of the Man Booker International prize) Jessica Cohen, we can read them all in English, too. A Horse Walks into a Bar is quite unlike any other Grossman book except in one important respect: it’s another masterpiece.

Bringing happiness

One of the most emotional moments of the festival this year was the arrival of the Iranian illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi. Each year a handful of international authors fail to secure a visa to visit the festival: it’s a problem that looks set to increase in this new era of travel bans and closed borders.

Even before the Brexit vote, an increasing number of authors were failing to pass the necessary tests and checks, but the denial of a visa to Abdollahi – the co-creator of a beguiling children’s book about happiness – was a case I couldn’t let go. As it was the third consecutive year we’d had an Iranian children’s author refused entry, my colleague Janet Smyth and I joined forces with Delaram Ghanimifard, Abdollahi’s publisher at Tiny Owl, and embarked on a campaign to get the decision overturned.

To our delight, the Bookseller ran a big story and the Guardian soon picked it up, prompting a wave of concern from the wider public. Then politicians started getting involved: the Scottish government made discreet noises behind the scenes in London, and Edinburgh MP Deidre Brock went public. A few days later I had a positive response from the UK’s ambassador in Iran, and within hours the visa decision was overturned. We’d had success this time, though many other festivals have not been so fortunate. I hope Abdollahi’s case stands as an inspiration for others: a demonstration that non-violent public protest can change a government’s behaviour. 

Nick Barley is director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs until 28 August: edbookfest.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.