The population of Edinburgh more than doubles during August—the local 450,000 being joined by 485,000 Festival-goers—and you can easily imagine the mixture of fear and disdain generally experienced by the perennials when the casts of, say, How To Be Successfully Mad, Osama Likes It Hot, and Whatever Happened to White Dog Shit? come marching through their beloved city banging drums and waving leaflets. The feeling was summed up rather brilliantly several years ago in the film of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his mates are sitting in a local pub nursing their pints as if nursing their wrath, when in walks an American tourist, a gentleman of a certain age wearing sky-blue shorts and a Nikon camera, asking for directions to the bathroom. The gentleman goes in, quickly followed by the pub regulars, who proceed to fleece the visitor of everything he’s got. A title appears on-screen: “The First Day of the Edinburgh Festival.”
Speaking of Ewan McGregor, there is some disgruntlement along the Royal Mile at the local-lad-made-good’s nonappearance for the premiere of Young Adam, a new film directed by David Mackenzie from the novel by Alexander Trocchi. McGregor—like former local milkman Sean Connery—is a big hit with the ladies of Morningside, so his being tied up in Australia with the new Star Wars came as a bit of a blow to organizers fighting a rearguard action against neighborhood resentment.
Irvine Welsh is here, though, and I spent some of yesterday with him in a curry house called Lancers, as in Bengal Lancers. That’s the sort of thing that happens with foreignness in Scotland. Chinese restaurants are called things like The Laughing Buddha or The Golden Lantern, just to meet local prejudices. I remember an Indian restaurant from my childhood called Ruby Murray’s, which has nothing to do with India or with the singer Ruby Murray, but is merely the well-known Scottish rhyming slang for curry.
The last time I saw Irvine was in Chicago, and before that in Calcutta, so it’s almost disorienting to see him on home ground. “I’m shagged,” he said. “A funeral yesterday. I’m needing to get the energy levels back up a bit.” Funerals in Scotland are the occasion for a kind of merriment that involves tears, or can lead to tears, so I could only express sympathy last night for the dearly departed appetites of my friend, who looked white and exhausted as he tried to sup at a pint of Guinness. I enjoyed the observations of his Chicago-born girlfriend, though. “It’s nice,” she said, “the way Edinburgh people just dump their bags of rubbish in the street for other people to steal. That’s kind of civilized.”
Over at the Book Festival, it was time for me to face an audience of book-loving day-trippers. The other day I told you how the British were obsessed with the question of who has the right to write about what and when; well, this discussion today (with two other writers) was typically elementary in that regard: Is a writer allowed to be influenced by a real-life event or person in the writing of a novel? Of course, the part of me that wanted to shout out “DUH!” was mainly eclipsed by another part, which tried to form arguments in support of some traditional truths about good writing that were as familiar to Shakespeare as to Gabriel García Márquez. Yes, my novel Personality was published in America last week, and people seem equipped to enter into its design, its interest in the interleaving of imagination and reality. It tells the story of a little girl from a small Scottish island who becomes famous and seems to lose herself in fame, and whose background and personal character seem to collude in that loss. Yes, it is a book about modern celebrity. Yes, it was influenced by the story of the singer Lena Zavaroni. A Lacanian analyst in the audience was enjoying the coverage of Personality, and was interested to know if I’d considered the symbolic nature of what I’d written. “Oh,” I said. “You’ve rumbled me. The whole thing is about me wanting to wear a dress and sing into a microphone.” The audience laughed, and so did I, and so did the Lacanian, but the discussion was basic. In the next tent, Mario Vargas Llosa, aided by South America’s instant intellectual empathy for the magic of fictions and facts, was talking about politics and history and his fictional portrait of the Dominican dictator Trujillo. No British-style category-mongering over there: just a developed taste for the unforeseen capacities of prose writing.
The other day I was contemplating the fields of Warwickshire in all their golden Monet-ness. Well, wouldn’t you know it—the biggest draw of the Festival is Monet: “The Seine and the Sea,” over 80 paintings from his time on the Normandy Coast, and I feel the light in those paintings offers an argument, too, about reality and imagination, about memory and geography. And so it was—armed with the themes of the week, and the sky above Edinburgh a swirl of blue ink—I walked back to my hotel and stopped on the way to look at the beautiful tenement, 17 Heriot Row, were Robert Louis Stevenson grew up and became a writer. Nothing very much had changed on the face of that house: the solid door, the lights burning inside the rooms, and Edinburgh and the world just a reality waiting to happen in the artist’s mind.