I’d watched a number of events online and it was frustrating seeing empty seats. It appears folk are still cautious, and, given the current fandango with international travel, who can blame foreign devotees for not flying in? But enough was enough, I decided it was time not to watch at a distance, but to attend in person, and reconnect with other festival stalwarts.
I did feel like I was betraying Albert, left to his own devices in Charlotte Square, but you have to admit (even if begrudgingly) that director Nick Barley’s decision to move to premises with indoor studios and easy broadcasting options is the right one. Besides for the last couple of years, things were too busy in Charlotte Square, despite the extensions into George Street. Once the Spiegeltent became a fully programmable venue, there was no peaceful place to chill down / warm up depending on the vacillations of the Scottish summer.
Not that this was an issue on the day I visited the new site at the Edinburgh School of Art in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Glorious sunshine, one of the handful of 26C days we get each year. As I walked into the courtyard, I met the big screen, on which selected events are broadcast to the onsite audience. Plenty of seating available to relax and enjoy: grass, seats, tables and benches for picnicking, covered areas for shelter from the elements, if needed. People were relaxing, enjoying just being somewhere again. I wouldn’t say the place was buzzing but there was a pleasant background hum in the air.
Now one of my personal pleasures at Charlotte Square was watching the trees on the site perimeter turn as late summer moved to early autumn during the festival fortnight. I was delighted, therefore, to find that I won’t have to observe the process from afar at the ECA, as the courtyard is populated by some rather magnificent trees. I can sit on the book sculpture, underneath the canopy, perhaps even indulge in a surreptitious tree hug or two. I have found my new happy place. 😁
Finally, before I move onto the core business, a word about catering. There are a selection of mobile caterers scattered around the site, but I made a beeline for the café. GF options? Cross-contamination risks minimised? Yes, and yes, even hot food, reasonably priced. Big improvement on Charlotte Square.
Now to the bookshop, located in the old firestation. Much smaller than before, but a dedicated space. Book signings had their own tent, and the cafe was also outside. It was possible to browse with pleasure, undisturbed by signing queues or cafe users with their trays of hot coffee and tea.
Because I’d already spent my book budget in recent sales, I had a purchase allowance of only one book, and it had to be one I’d discovered through the festival programme, not available at the library. I had all my bases covered. Then I spotted this.
The signed books section had been unfathomably absent during the last two years at Charlotte Square, much to the consternation of myself and many other regulars. So I was delighted to see them again, and immediately sent my purchasing rule packing!
Time now to attend a bona fide in-person festival event. There are two event halls, both in the college itself. 1 x 400 seater, 1 x 200. Queuing takes place alongside the building, taking the queues away from the courtyard, maintaining the relaxed vibe. Once inside, with masks on, we were ushered into our socially-distanced and very comfortable velvet seats. The tiers were higher than normal, something my 5ft self appreciated. It’s odds on that a 7ft giant always sits in front of me, but that made no difference here. There were a few sound issues at my first event – the launch of The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry – with Kathleen Jamie unable to hear the chair’s or audience questions. But everything else was fine, with captioning at the front of the stage. (Although it did opt out of captioning gaelic.)
As for my second event, a humdinger if ever there was one, a proto-adaptation of Denise Mina’s award-winning crime cum Glasgow gangster award-winning novel. I’ll say no more. Best that you watch it on catch-up here.
I’d call that a pretty successful reconnoitre, wouldn’t you? Obviously this is a scaled-back festival in transition, and some of arrangements I’ve mentioned are in place to be as COVID-safe-as-we-can-be. It will be interesting to see how things develop as the festival scales up, if the world returns to what used to be normal. The real test of the new site will be on an inclement Scottish summer’s day. Though it doesn’t look like that test is coming this year. It will come though. There’s always 2022 – for the elements and for me. The kiddies’ section of the bookshop reminded me that I’ve still to snag a souvenir picture with the Gruffalo. This is as close as I came in 2021. No hugs allowed … yet.