Yesterday I headed back to the Edinburgh Book Festival to attend a couple of events. In the morning, I saw Maddie Mortimer, Tanya Shadrick and Catherine Simpson chaired by Casi Dylan. In the afternoon, Stuart Kelly was chairing Rev Richard Coles in an event entitled The Canon of Crime.
Our Bodies, Ourselves saw three authors discussing their books “in which women encounter death and re-evaluate the bodies in which they live.”
Tanya Shadrick’s memoir The Cure for Sleep, tells how she determined to live life to the full after almost dying post-childbirth. For her, this physical emergency was a turning point which made her re-evaluate her life. Married with a very small baby, she explained that she couldn’t go off on a grand adventure as some authors have, such as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. She had to consider how to change her life in smaller but no less meaningful ways. She explained that her book also looks at the time before the near-death experience and shows how her early life impacted on the person she was when the crisis happened.
Unlike the other two books being discussed, Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer is a work of fiction. It has been long-listed for the Booker Prize 2022 and is the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2022. It charts a woman’s journey towards death and looks at the relationships with others in her life. It sounds like it is very beautifully written for such a dark subject and the author commented that she wanted to work with language that felt as alive as possible. She said that the idea of proximity to death, sharpens ones awareness and appreciation of life.
Catherine Simpson explained that she felt the rug had been pulled from under her feet when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had felt that she was quite blasé about death, comfortable talking about it or writing about it and was planning on organising her own funeral. When the diagnosis came, she felt she was staring into an abyss and amongst all the literature about cancer, could not find anything that spoke to her experience. And so she wrote her memoir, One Body, where she charts her lived cancer experience as it was happening while also looking back at her life as a girl and woman.
One thing which links the three writers and their books, as expressed by the chair Casi Dylan, is that they are all responding creatively and poetically to threshold moments of life: birth, serious illness and death. I have only read Catherine Simpson’s book (which is excellent by the way) but am now very keen to read the other two. That is one of the great things about going to see a panel event at a book festival. You may go because you are interested in just one of the authors or you may have read them all. But you can discover all sorts of other writers and books which interest you. One of the authors (forgive me, I haven’t noted which one) said that language has a life of its own. We increase and broaden our world when we increase our language. Some of that language should include words like menopause, periods, cancer and death and we need to be better at talking about those subjects as well as listening to others. I thoroughly enjoyed this powerful and thought-provoking session.
In between my events today, I took a short walk into the Tollcross area to get some lunch. There are places to eat at the festival site should you prefer to do that. I had a delicious croque monsieur from a café called La Viola which also had amazing looking scones, cakes and pastries but I resisted that temptation!
The afternoon session was a more light-hearted one with Rev Richard Coles talking about his debut novel Murder Before Evensong. This book features a crime-solving clergyman, Canon Daniel Clement. Chair of the event Stuart Kelly asked about the name noting that biblically Daniel means ‘God is Judge’ and that Clement has links to clemency. Richard Coles said this was very deliberate and that he had wanted a character where judgement and mercy came together.
This was a very popular event in a big venue but it’s fair to say that the seating was quite cosy – not much space between each chair! Stuart Kelly asked how Richard Coles felt about the term ‘cosy crime’ and why it was quite so popular just now. Coles replied that there is nothing cosy about murder! He explained that he likes to deal with serious issues but with a lightness of touch. He feels that people enjoy this type of book because they see an orderly world, suddenly disrupted but put back together by the end. This can be reassuring to readers in anxious times, such as those we have been experiencing recently.
There was much discussion about why clergy feature so often in books. Coles felt this was because a minister (or priest or vicar) is at the heart of a community. They are a confessor, someone people can go to for non-judgmental advice, there’s a relationship of trust. Like a detective, clergy can cross boundaries in society, talking to addicts, parish members and aristocracy all in the course of a day, in the line of duty as it were. Even in these days where fewer people attend Church or seem to have faith, Church buildings can still be seen as a place of sanctuary, a place of peace and acceptance. Tourists often visit Churches because they are seen as places with standing and values in a community. When asked if he thought there would still be a Church in ten or twenty years times, Richard Coles said that yes he thought there would be. He wasn’t sure what it would look like but there can be no rebirth without death and the current decline is not the end of the story.
Murder Before Evensong is the first in a series featuring Daniel Clement. The second has been written and Richard Coles has plans for a third. He revealed that the TV rights had been sold so he hoped to see Canon Clement on TV before long. He said he had an idea of who he would like to play Daniel but wasn’t going to reveal it!
This was a really entertaining event with quite a few humorous anecdotes as you might expect. As well as talking about the book, the author shared his views on parish ministry and the joys and challenges it had brought to his life. He was very honest about his views on Church life and answered questions in a considered and reflective way. Questions from the audience showed that many had already read the book and enjoyed it. I haven’t read it yet but am very much looking forward to finding out more about Canon Daniel Clement when my copy arrives.
My thanks to the Press Office at Edinburgh Book Festival for my press tickets. The festival is on over the weekend until Monday 29th August. Access to the site is free and some events are live streamed onto a big outdoor screen. There is a book shop on site too which is lovely to browse in. If you do attend any events, there is a special signing tent where you have the opportunity to meet the authors and get your books signed too. Tickets still available for many events. Have a look at the festival website for more details: Edinburgh International Book Festival