by Iqbal Ahmed
My invitation to the Edinburgh Book Festival came as a surprise but when I received a letter from Catherine Lockerbie, Director of the festival, in November 2006 I accepted without delay. I had always wanted to go to Edinburgh during the festival, not as an author but as a spectator. However, the prospect of finding accommodation there in August held me back. I had wondered how the organisers of the festival selected their very long list of participants until someone told me that Catherine visits various publishers in London as soon as the festival finishes to choose authors for the following year’s events. So it takes almost a year for her to see her hard work come to fruition.
The festival organisers offered to pay for one night’s accommodation but, given the chance to stay longer, I decided to book my hotel room for a second night. Since I myself work in the hospitality industry, I know that August is the busiest month. I requested a few days off work two months before my event. When I went to King’s Cross station to book a ticket in advance I found that it was cheaper to buy a ticket there than to book it online.
I would have liked to walk from Waverley Station to my hotel in Edinburgh but it was cumbersome to take a stroll carrying a heavy bag on my shoulder. I decided to take a cab. There were many people waiting at the rank inside the station. I walked up the ramp and saw two or three empty cabs nearby. I showed the address to the cabdriver rather than trying to pronounce the unfamiliar place-name. He drove to the end of Princes Street and then over a stone bridge before turning into a cobbled road in a quiet neighbourhood and stopped outside the entrance of the hotel. Charlotte Square is only a short walk from my hotel. I wanted to see the setting of the book festival and its various venues, which are referred to as theatres. The walk across Dean Bridge offered me a fine view of the New Town and I was tempted to stand on tiptoe and lean over to see the Water of Leith flowing under the bridge.
There were many people walking towards the entrance of a tented village in Charlotte Square. It was like entering the literary quarter of a City of Literature – no wonder this accolade has been given to Edinburgh. The residents of this quarter were very polite, except for Albert the Prince Consort, who wouldn’t get off his tall, bronze horse in the middle of the square. It was sunny, despite the weatherman’s prediction of rain. I took a seat at a picnic table to have a coffee and watch the festival-goers going to and fro. An Edinburgh lady who sat nearby struck up a conversation. She had already been to one of the events, she told me, and was waiting for the next one to begin. She then asked me which author I was going to see that
afternoon. I told her that the event I attending was taking place the next day. In the meantime, her phone rang and, to my amazement, she actually asked my permission to answer it. I was deeply impressed by her Edinburgh manners.
Since I wanted to say hello to Catherine and thank her for booking my accommodation, I asked for her at the festival office. She came around quickly and it was a pleasure to meet her.
It was by chance I found out that all the tickets for my event had been sold, contrary to my expectation, when first invited, that only a dozen or so would attend. At the festival I learned that 50% of the events were sell-outs. The Edinburgh Book Festival is run as a charity and it raises most of its money through ticket sales and sponsorships. Someone told me that all the authors, whether famous or obscure, receive the same fee for taking part in the festival. The Book Festival was open from morning until late evening seven days a week. It is marathon work for those responsible for its running.
A week before the Festival, I had contacted the Director of the British Council in Scotland, Roy Cross, who was hosting my event. I wanted to meet him the day before the event and suggested a restaurant in Edinburgh. He invited me for dinner at his home instead. I’d assumed he was a Scotsman but realized when I met him that he was a Yorkshire man. Roy came to the hotel where I stayed to show me way to his home. He didn’t live very far from the hotel. His flat was on the top floor of a house and offered panoramic views of the town. We were soon joined by a colleague who works with Roy at the British Council. It was a most enjoyable evening.
The following day, I went to Charlotte Square half an hour before my event. Roy came a few minutes later and recommended I try a brownie they were serving in a nomadic tent pitched at one corner, which was used as the festival office. There I was asked to pose for a Press photograph. I was expecting one photographer but found myself in front of a dozen cameras. I felt like telling them that they had got the wrong man.
It was my first encounter with an audience of people I’d not met before, my previous audiences having consisted of my friends and acquaintances. Most of the people here turned out to be from Edinburgh itself, rather than visitors, and I realized that I was in amiable company. After my on-stage reading and Q & A session, the sound engineer who wired me up came to shake my hand and said that he too was a keen cyclist. I felt very happy to be there.