Thursday 30 September 2021

Edinburgh festivals Review 2021

Times of Change: “A year of Transition”

Its as if this year the festival is taking baby steps after our year of traumas and the set backs of the pandemic, and at its new location at the Edinburgh Art college at the heart of Edinburgh historic old town. 

I don’t know what to say about the new location, its very different, and also with the festival only running at a third of its normal scale because of Covid. This book festival is iconic and has taken place at Charlotte Square since 1983, for nearly 40  years now, so it’s a big change. There are many things I loved about the Charlotte Sq location, at the heart of Edinburgh’s famous Georgian new town. A concern might be that this new location is more out of the way, then again its close to Edina’s historic auld town – the Grassmarket, castle, university, Meadows and the High street.


**The festival is now hybrid with many events only online and authors on zoom. Some events have author and interviewers in person – Tom Devine and Alan Little; Douglas Stewart and Nicola Sturgeon; Jackie Kay and Susan Bonar; David Keenan, Tracy Thorn. 


TALKS – this year I attended talks by Satham Sangheri, Empireland; Jackie Kay, Bessie Smith, Gavin Esler, How Britain Ends; Samir PuriThe Great Imperial Hangover, Legacies of Empire; Ali Smith, Art in a time of Lies; 

AND ONLINE Tom Devine, Douglas Stuart, (Booker prize winner for Shuggie Bain).

David Keenan

Tracy Thorn


After Jackie Kay’s talk I have a great chat at the bar with two lady patrons of the festival. One lady had attended the book festival for decades and had met many famous authors from Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s Muriel Spark, to William MciLvanney. I speak of the famous faces I’ve met – Seamus Heaney, John Byrne, Brian Cox, Alan Cummings, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Edna O’Brien. 

**On entering the courtyard there’s a big screen showing the talks, with places to sit among several small tented marquees and fairy lights hung on the mature trees. Its not immediately obvious where the Press tents or cafes are, but I do pick up a plan. There’s no ticket offices or rows of pamphlets or EIBF books this festivals year, all on a smaller scale and after all everything is online. Covid has affected everything, from music concert bubbles, to sporting events with no audience at all. 

There are no crowds of school children either, although there is a play area. There are only a handful of photo shoots. So the usual buzz is a much more subdued one. 


The  Book festival is close to the Edinburgh’s auld town and the next day I have an interesting walk around Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, which is pretty busy with many outdoor cafes. The High street has performers and some crowds. George IV bridge has been closed to all buses and pedestrians all week, there has been a major fire at the Elephant house restaurant, where JK Rowling wrote her Harry Potter books, which has caused major disruption and no access for pedestrians or buses.  


**Edinburgh is a perfect city to walk around the back alleys and closes with their incredible views. I spent my student days around the Meadows and University union and Forest Road, and it’s busy with a buzz of life returning. On the Saturday I walk around historic George Sq and find young, eager and expectant graduates at their delayed graduations (so many memories) thronging around in front of Edinburgh university.

This is where I graduated too and had a photo taken for the papers! I visit the Pear Tree, which is where the blind poet Blacklock entertained the great and good of Edinburgh in 1780s, including one Robert Burns. Now its the hip and happening place for young people with large outdoor gardens and a large screen showing football, to my surprise. 


I go the Biblos restaurant for a meal as usual to find the menu changed! I order a chicken burger and wine and remember how much I enjoy Indy cafes and restaurants that play their own music playlists. Long live indy shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, to me that’s the future of the High Street. Local and greener and individually creative. (Good example is Castle Douglas high street which has no chains and not even a Greggs). Global homogenization is so BORINGly dull!


On the Tuesday I attend an excellent live concert with rock singing legend Chrissie Hynde.

at the Queens hall Edinburgh, the ideal venue with high ceilings and space. She sang Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and other songs, backed by an excellent top class band. 


After I think of all the young artists, writers and musicians trying to establish their careers. I hope all those grassroots artists get supported, because without them there is no creative future. They’ve been doubly hurt by both Covid and Brexi   the arts are crucial.  **Festivals offer something out of the everyday, a place to discover, interact, refresh, be inspired, take time out, break down barriers.  Every year I often have at least one great chat with people I meet there! Thanks to all those who organise the festival.  EDINBURGH FESTIVAL -

End of Empire, deliberate forgetting

Devine said “England ruled the empire and the Scots ran it”  and as a quarter of the Empire were Scots

 Recently I attended Edinburgh International book festival 2021, which was both in person and online, while on a smaller scale, it was excellent to see the festival return at its new home at the Edinburgh Art school. There were several themes – one theme was Blood Legacies: Confronting our Colonial Past.


Several authors spoke of the British Empire and also looked at the questions over Scottish Independence. One theme address was the general ignorance in the UK of History or Empire – in European countries history teaching is taught throughout high school, but in the UK History teaching stops at 14 years of age. Although the violence with which the BE was enforced was not discussed.


The former empire in disguise, hardened and cobbled together. Its important how history is taught, and to learn other nations views and to review history. The younger generations are more questioning, whereas the older generation are nostalgic for Britishness – unaware of the collapse of empire and the migration from Commonwealth. Imperial legacies and the physical remnants of empire, so much is Victorian. All empires come to grief, in the end.


Satham Sangheri and his book ‘Empireland’, and15K copies have been distributed to English schools and to several high profile politicians. He said it was shocking the level of ignorance about the empire; there was either negative views or rose tinted nostalgia. The BE lasted 500 years to the hand over of Hong Kong 1997, so it’s a vast and complex history. He said, those at the UK Home Office were ignorant that the Windrush Generation were actually British citizens – I had thought they just didn’t care. 


Broadcaster Gavin Esler also discussed empire in his book ‘How Britain Ends’. What is the future for the UK? And how has the end of the British Empire influenced its trajectory in recent years? The Union is about Protestantism, empire and war; coloniser or colonized and cultural imperialism.“It’s the endgame for Britishness. Brexit is drowning the Union…. ‘While the UK can survive Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, it cannot survive English nationalism.’ For Esler, the answer lies in a Federal system of national and regional government. However most feel this is unworkable.


He said we need people to people contacts: many never travel and there is so much stereotyping. Global Britain should look more to Europe. We have lost an Empire but not found a role, plus what has been fixed by Brexit? We must have a relationship of trust with our European neighbours


Eminent Scottish Historian Tom Devine discussed the emerging crisis of Britishness with loss of Empire, and that once the union was never challenged. Devine said “England ruled the empire and the Scots ran it” with a quarter of the Empire were Scots. In 1707 Scotland had leading scholars and 4 major universities; set up in the 1400s. by contrast it wasn’t until 1800s that English universities were established – (Manchester, Durham London). The empire came at a time of crisis and cultural revolution, industrialisation, agricultural revolution. Scotland became a place of heavy industry.


Recently Sunday National Gerry Hassan wrote of Empire State Britain which built statecraft, government and administration of military conquest, policing the world, protecting the UKs commercial interests and taking on aggressors and rivals. The UK, is heavily involved in making weapons of war. Therefore R & D is generally are geared towards weapons making.The City of London is the centre of this Global Britain – of finance and insurance and less concerned with sustainable manufacturing. “Thus the City of London has always been disconnected from the real economy being profoundly anti-industrial and about short-term, speculative capitalism.“  The focus of wealth creation is on increasing centralization and rising London house prices. 


The BE state also is a “partial’ democracy, which abuses the power of the Crown and the British parliament began before real ideas of democracy had been developed. The UK established one person one vote as late as 1949 and the 1950 election UK was the first without plural voting– under Johnson we are losing the right to protest; the right to a free press; the right to independent policing and our basic human rights.


In his book ‘Blood and Ruins, the great imperial war 1931 – 1945’, Richard Overy writes that the Second World war was in part due to the instability and desire to protect the BE from both eternal and internal pressures and also the desire of European empires to retain their power. Academic Nail Fergusson claimed, that Britain sacrificed her empire to stop Germans, Japanese and Italian keeping theirs.” 


The British empire was often enforced with extreme violence. “The Second World War became the triumphant last stand as bulwark of global liberty in the face of fascism, eliding Britain’s violent suppression of anti-colonial resistance (which included African extermination camps).“  In 1942, 66K Indians were in detention for political reasons. Police fired on dissidents and killed 1000 and militant nationalist were to be flogged in public.   


Britain’s First Sea Lord claimed 1934 “We have got most of the world already, or the best parts of it, and we only want to prevent others from taking it.”  And the desire of old European empires to retain their own hegemony over half the world’s peoples. In 1928 Leonard Wolf wrote. “ Imperialism, as it was known is the 19th century, is no longer possible and the only question is whether it will be buried peacefully or in blood and ruins.”


Plus NEW YORKER article Misremembering the British Empire Nov 2020. A recent poll found that a third of Britons believed Empire had done more good then harm to the colonies. More than a quarter of Britons want the empire back!! (Surely this means English people?) “And protect imperial status quo. The long Second World War from 1930s to violent post-war years ended not only a particular form of empire, but discredited the longer history of the term.”  The BE was a “selfish mission to spread democracy something ‘given’ or “granted” to colonies.”


The UK has fallen in it worldwide standing following the Brexit folly, failure dealing with Covid-19 and the huge death toll of 150K deaths. And now the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, while France planned months ahead to withdraw personnel, what was Britain doing? Hassan writes, “Brexit is an Empire State of mind – the idea of England as Britain and living in a nostalgic past that holds us back.”


The UK is the last multi-national state in Europe: the Ottoman empire, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, all collapsed last century. Unlike Spain, the landmass of Britain does recognise Ireland, Wales and Scotland as nations in their own right – well in theory anyway, if not in practice!


History of Scottish Home rule

Dr James Hawes BOOK ‘Speak for England’– LINK interview Independence Live

Hawes expects Scotland to be independent in 5 years after the hard Brexit. In the late 19th century there were pressures for Scottish Home Rule, which were debated 7 times between 1886 and 1900, House of Commons by the Liberal party. 

Home Rule for Scotland has been pursued since 1889, with many debates in the House of Commons. The Scottish Home Rule bill was passed in 1914, just weeks before the start of the first world war, by the Liberal party – it was recognised that most English politicians had little interest in Scottish affairs. 


In May 1914 – Westminster passed the second reading of the Government of Scotland bill 1913, supported by 85% Scotland’s MPs and passed by 204 votes of 159 – the bill established a Scottish parliament with greater powers than at present at Holyrood!

The Scotland Bill 1927 Bill cedes on the principle of self-determination. It proceeded on the basis of Scotland being a sovereign state. The most important reason, lack of interest by English MPs.

It included powers over pensions, national insurance, employment, broadcasting (only defence, Post Office, foreign affairs and coinage would remain under Westminster (real Devo max promised a 100 years later)  A few weeks after this bill passed the First World War broke out and the bill was never implemented. After the war new bills were presented 1920s, but failed because of Conservative opposition.


Of the multi national European states, 19th century – Austria-Hungary, Russian, Ottoman empires – only the UK remains. Multi-national states are unstable (except Spain that only recognises Basque and Catalonia as historic nationalities.


Wednesday 8 September 2021

Chrissie Hynde sings Bob Dylan and other songs Queens Hall

‘Hippy stuff much easier than rock!’

Hynde sang an effortless, heady mix of folk, jazz and rock – which draws the audience in with her great blues voice.

The Queens hall, Edinburgh, was the perfect size for a socially distance audience in the middle sitting at small round tables. Edinburgh was honoured to host one of the most popular female rock singers of our generation! 

These acoustic concerts showcased songs from Hynde’s recent album: 'Standing In The Doorway’, Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan’ which was recorded in lockdown by Chrissie and her Pretender’s band mate, guitarist James Walbourne, by text message. James recorded on his phone and sent it off to Chrissie to add her vocal, before the tracks were mixed by renowned producer Tchad Blake. 

Hynde was backed by her expert, high quality band enjoying themselves greatly! The Bob Dylan Quartet of James Walbourne guitarist of The Pogues and The Pretenders, Carwyn Ellis keyboards, Danny Williams double bass. 


She opened with the song ‘In the Summer Time, Sweetheart like You, Don’t Fall apart on me Tonight, Every Grain of Sand, Time is a Jet Plane, Desolation Row, Tomorrow is a Long Time’ - Hynde’s song choices from Dylan’s extensive catalogue were unusual. 


And included a brighter change of tempo with the songs - ‘You’re s Big Girl Now’ from Blood on the Tracks (1974); two songs from ‘Shot of Love’ (1981) from Dylan’s religious period, and three from the Infidels Sessions (1983); ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’, a moving love song from the Freewheelin’ session(1963), and ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ from Bringing It All Back Home (1965) .


A highlight was her insightful interpretation of Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’ backed by a wonderful interplay of instrumental lines. Her choice of a couple of Ray Davies of the Kinks, songs were also popular – ‘I go to Sleep’.

Later in the set she stood to perform which changed the vibe totally – and sang Stuck in the Middle, I get along without you, Crying in Public, For her encore Hydne performed the unexpected and expertly woven treasure the French song “Que reste-t-il de nos amours”, Chauliac-Trenet classic from her album Valve Bone Woe. 

Her voice gives goose bumps and is instantly memorable and magnetically expressive, with the distinctive depth and range of her husky tones that hug her lower register. My favourite Chrissie song is I’ll stand by you and I might have wished she would have performed a few more favourites for us all to sing along to. How wonderful to be back in a live gig though!

The Rails

**Hynde was well supported by the duo The Rails, Kami Thompson (daughter of Richard and Linda) and James Walbourne (guitarist with The Pretenders) previous winners of Best New Artist at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and I enjoyed their song, ‘Breakneck Speed.’ 

A companion film called 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time', which details the recording of the album, is also available via Sky Arts.

Monday 6 September 2021

Gavin Esler How Britain Ends & Samir Puri Legacies of Empire, Edinburgh book festival 2021

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler discussed his new book, How Britain Ends, at the Edinburgh international book festival 2021. Esler tells us he is Ulster Protestant and European. What is the future for the United Kingdom as a political entity? And how has the end of the British Empire influenced its trajectory in recent years?  

‘It’s the endgame for Britishness… Brexit is drowning the Union,’ says Esler, ‘While the United Kingdom can survive Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, it cannot survive English nationalism.’ For Esler, the answer lies in a federal system of national and regional government. (However many now question that Federalism is not realistic and will not be supported by England)

He discussed where does power lie? The Teutonic plates of the UK are moving in different directions and with different politics. There is confusion over identity and the great imperial hangover.


Samir Puri

Samir Puri, is a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. He also discussed the lasting legacies of empire in his book ‘The Great Imperial Hangover’ in which he writes, “India is called a British colony, Scotland is not called an English colony.” 


Its important how history is taught, and to learn other nations views and to review history. The younger generations are more questioning, whereas the older generation are nostalgic for Britishness – unaware of the collapse of empire and the migration from Commonwealth. There are imperial legacies and the physical remnants of empire. The former British empire is now in disguise, hardened and cobbled together and so much is Victorian.


The Union is about Protestantism, empire and war; coloniser or colonized, and cultural imperialism. The Empire lasted from the Tudors 1590s to 1997 and the hand over of Hong Kong to China.


Esler commented that since Brexit, Global Britain has less influence in Europe and less influence worldwide – Brexit was about nostalgic pessimism, and that things were always better in the past. We should move forward rather than looking back. Cecil Rhodes wrote, “ Ask any man what they’d rather be, he’d rather be an Englishman.” Well maybe not a Scotsmen or an Irishmen!


Where is the strategic vision? What does nationalism mean in an inter-connected world? Option – reinvent Britain/ federalism/ or a more extreme form of independence. Indy 2014 was mild – same currency, same head of state, same defence. All empires come to grief, in the end.


The English question and the resentment of the dominance of Westminster or with more power of the local. Independence for Scotland will have a bigger impact on England -  with loss of 32% of land mass/ where to store nuclear weapons/ and questions over EU border/ 


We need people to people contacts and many never travel and there is so much stereotyping. After World War one, 12% of Germany was lost. The UK lost 22% of its land with Ireland, and 1921 was really brutal. To muddle through is not realistic. Global Britain should look more to Europe: plus our voting system is unfair. 

We have lost an Empire but not found a role, and what has been fixed by Brexit? We must have a relationship of trust with our nearest neighbours. Why is our country not more united? Does Esler speak to doubting No voters? 




The trouble is the Tories don’t believe in devolution, the contrary, they believe in more centralization by the Palace of Westminster. I’m not sure where this path will lead us all, but it doesn’t seem a healthy or productive direction, when the opposite is the direction of travel across the world, where smaller nations and more local control is the direction. So I’m not sure what the Tories are trying to prove, when their destructive Brexit, their mishandling of the Covid pandemic with the highest death toll of 150K and now their bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan – has all shown the world their lazy, ignorant and incompetent form of 'partial' democracy. 

Sunday 5 September 2021

Jackie Kay Fearless Blues Woman Bessie Smith, at Edinburgh International book festival 2021

Jackie Kay 

Acclaimed jazz and blues vocalist Suzanne Bonnar sang some of Bessie Smith’s best-loved songs. She began with the song ‘Nobody Knows you When You’re Down and Out’.


Poet and former Scots maker, has written a quality and inspired biography of the legendary Blues singer - her book 'Bessie Smith' was first published in 1991 and the time is right now for its reissue. 

Bessie reflected her times. Her first album sold 750 copes and she was rich. Then in 1931 suddenly blues was out and jazz was in and she was poor again, in. In 1937 she had a car accident. She collided with racism of the times and the blues were considered too rough.


Kay said her father bought her Smith’s album when she was only twelve and she remembers the cover – the front had a smiling Bessie Smith and the back her sad face - which in a way told the story of her life.


She was a chronicler of her times, with the Blues oral history and counter culture. On the day of her last recording, Billie Holiday came in later for her first recording. 

This event was chaired by artist, feminist and co-founder of the Glasgow Women's Library Adele Patrick. 


Bessie Smith

‘Bessie Smith showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.’ And Janis Joplin was certainly not the only person who fell in love with the Tennessee blues singer’s unforgettable voice. As a young Black girl growing up in Glasgow, Jackie Kay found inBessie not only an inspiring singer but a complex, sensuous, extravagantly generous woman with whom she could identify. Now of course, Kay has gone on to become one of the best-respected British poets of her generation, herself an inspiration to others. 


She joins us to discuss her extraordinary book,Bessie Smith.

It isas much a quest for emotional truth as for biographical fact, mixing poetry and prose, historical record and fiction. At times Kay enjoys imagining what the singer might havethought, orspeculates about the contents of the trunk in which she kept her most beloved possessions. It all adds up to a towering monument to one of the 20thcentury’s most influential singers.