Diary - Joan Bakewell

I'm staying at the same hotel in Edinburgh as Lynne Truss and Barbara Trapido. 

Challenging the Edinburgh Festival is like challenging Everest: it just won't budge. "Too many people," you may say, or "Other places are just as good." The fact is there is only one unassailable Edinburgh Festival, a world peak, irresistible magnet for performers and visitors alike who swamp the city with good humour. I am one such, fully prepared - sensible shoes, folding umbrella - just to stroll the streets, drop in here and there, take my fancy with whatever show catches my eye.

I am appearing at the International Book Festival and, like many of its writers - Barbara Trapido, Lynne Truss - am staying at the Channings hotel. I am in a position to tell you what festival folk wear in bed. A fire alarm around 2am brings a drift of authors downstairs. Red satin pyjamas, eastern kaftans, neat T-shirts. Some self-conscious souls stop to dress before descending. Some of the women clutch handbags: no one comes down hugging a precious manuscript. Soon there are groups in the street - it is a balmy night - casually exchanging festival chatter in their nightshirts and nighties. Me? Thank goodness I remembered the yellow silk dressing gown.

 

The Book Festival is celebrating its 21st year: 500 authors from 30 countries in 650 events. But that's just the numbers; the people are what matter. We congregate in the authors' yurt, a series

of bamboo-framed circular tents, laid out with colourful rugs and cushion-strewn divans. The first person I meet is Drue Heinz, cultural mover and shaker, founder and presiding spirit of the Hawthornden Literary Institute, which is one of the festival's sponsors. Among others are Valvona & Crolla, the legendary Italian delicatessen, whose name adorns our coffee cups. Alexander McCall Smith, on his home patch - Edinburgh, not Botswana - draws the crowds. But an audience for Latvian poets? No problem. Catherine Lockerbie, the festival's presiding genius, has neatly located them in a smaller tent, so their event is virtually as full as McCall Smith's. Scots writers are here in force. A L Kennedy teases her audience of Edinburgh ladies, "Health warning: I'm about to say 'cock'," then goes on to read, from Paradise, her new novel, a hilarious episode involving drink and semen in equal measure. The Edinburgh ladies queue to buy their copies.

 

I go walking in the sensible shoes. No need of the umbrella - Edinburgh is exotically hot. In St John's church hall I find an exhibition of "New Scottish Furniture". This is serious stuff, the project part-financed by the EU and the Forestry Commission. Sixteen furniture-makers have put on display a whole range of styles. Some of it is a bit knobbly and eccentric for my taste - a crazily convoluted bed surely destined for some gothic Scottish castle - but there are more austere looks on offer. I talk with David Samuels, one of the makers, who's taking the money on the door. My son is in the same business and shares many of his concerns. Mostly, how can they compete in price with the likes of Ikea?

 

The official festival traditionally opens with a grand concert at Edinburgh's Usher Hall. Time was when the opening programme was a grand, familiar masterpiece: Verdi's Requiem, say, or Rossini's Stabat Mater. Brian McMaster, the current director, plumps for the more adventurous - one year Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron; this year Honegger's dramatic oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au bucher. Earlier in the day I have heard a radio broadcast celebrating the 40th anniversary of what became known as the second D-Day, the Allied invasion of the south of France. It can be no coincidence that Honegger's oratorio begins with a dark and ominous prologue, added to the original 1935 work in November 1944, three months after the liberation of France; it draws a parallel between France's dark days under the Nazis and at Joan's time, under the English. This is a serious and complex work, involving 16 French actors, five soloists, chorus, children's chorus and orchestra. Paul Claudel - the High Gallic Catholic - wrote the libretto, and the following day the French actors are to present his 11-hour drama Le Soulier de Satin. Yes, 11 hours long! I demur. The oratorio is enough for me.

Thankfully there is a full translation in the programme. No one can accuse McMaster of not being serious. He is discreet, too. Having a drink with him before the performance, I ask casually about the dispute with the Scottish Opera Chorus. He falls silent. Discreet, but a give-away none the less. There's trouble brewing.

 

I meet up with Jim Haynes, ageing arts guru, one of the inspirational spirits behind the Fringe in the 1950s and a founder of the Traverse Theatre. To walk Edinburgh with Jim is to stop and talk, to meet and greet the numerous friends he has made over the years. He has attended every single festival and is currently patron of the Grid Iron company, whose show Fierce is playing at the Assembly Rooms. It's noisy and energetic, full of rap and break-dancing, a tale of youthful graffiti artists and their passion for what they do. Like the festival itself, really. By contrast, I call in to Old St Paul's Church to see the single painting Still, by Alison Watt, created to hang in the Warrior chapel there. It's simple and compelling and beautiful. A stream of quiet visitors comes and goes. Edinburgh contains multitudes.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The warlords of America