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21 August 2019updated 03 Sep 2021 11:47am

At Edinburgh Lit Fest, I worry for young people – and envy them for not worrying about themselves

My youngest, aged 17, breezed off to catch the train to the Fringe, relaxed and insouciant, “It’ll be fine, Mum”.

By Tracey Thorn

I’m on the train back to London from Edinburgh, where Ben and I have spent a day at the Lit Fest, which is like a mini-Hay, although I hope they won’t mind me saying that. The talks take place in large tents, pitched around a decked walkway which surrounds a central garden. There are deckchairs and coffee, a shop selling books and gin, and everywhere, a very grown-up crowd of “a certain age”. I mean no offence. I’m that age myself.

But the two of us can’t help noticing and remarking on it. As we queue we are surrounded by heads of grey hair, my own among them (I’ll tell you another day about how I’m going silver and loving it). We wonder, and worry, why are there no younger adult readers here?

Maybe book festivals are too expensive. Or just too dull. I think “ouch” as I write that, because I enjoy and appear at various literary events around the country, but in truth they are sedate affairs. There’s a gin tent, yes, but it’s also a library, and no one is obviously off their face (except for one of the writers, but that’s another story).

Still, during the course of the day we attend three wonderful events. Melissa Harrison talking about her new novel All Among the Barley, a tale of rural Suffolk in the 1930s which is both loving in its detail, yet also clear-sighted enough to see the pitfalls of revering the land in ways that can lead down dangerous paths, towards blood and soil ideology.

Kamila Shamsie and Jackie Kay discuss the Refugee Tales project, reading out a list of statistics about the indefinite detention of refugees in the UK, which make the audience gasp in horror.

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To finish the day, we see Jason Cowley – yes, our own dear editor! – who is engaging and funny, and talks about the New Statesman in such a way that I feel a warm glow of pride to be part of it.

But the real reason we’re up here at all is to see our youngest, aged 17, who’s taking part in the Fringe with a theatre group. He travelled up on the train a few days ago with a huge rucksack, plus a huge bass drum, complete with pedal and stool. I was worried about him – how would he carry it all? Where would he stow it on the train? – but he breezed off, relaxed and insouciant, “It’ll be fine, Mum”. And it was fine. And I remembered how I envy young people for not worrying about all that stuff. And for being at that stage in life where everything is fresh and exciting.

Ben and I go to see their show, which is a choreographed, verbatim piece about feminism and gender roles, and there are 15 people in the audience, and almost as many on stage, and it’s inventive and energetic, dramatic and witty, and I’m so proud of him up there. He’s a natural performer, unlike his mother. Brimming with stage presence, he is relaxed and comfortable in his own skin, but more than anything, what he radiates is joy.

He’s having the time of his life. Texts have arrived saying that he’s seen “a funny and moving silent clown show”, then “an Irish comedy trio who were hilarious”, a brilliant one-man show called WOLF, and one that simply reads, “I’m having the best week of the summer holidays!” No news can make a parent happier. Knowing that one of your kids is carefree, busy and energised by a new-found passion, is the dream.

I think of the time Ben and I came up to the festival in 1983. It was the end of our second year at uni, and we saw Rik Mayall, only six months after The Young Ones had started on telly. He seemed utterly of our generation: one of us, and taking the piss out of us. He made us see ourselves and laugh at ourselves, and, my God, I laughed till I thought I might injure myself, and I loved him unreservedly from that day on.

Back on the train, I have a small wine and look out of the window as we pass Berwick-upon-Tweed. My heart lifts at the sight of the sea, and I think about youth and the passing of time – and joy, and how hard we have to work to keep finding it, the elusive bastard. 

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