I started on my first day in Edinburgh with something on the Fringe, and something in the main Festival, so, of course, it was only right to begin Day 2 with a trip to the International Book Festival. We went to listen to Sarah Churchwell, a Professor at UEA talk about her new book Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby.
I picked this event because Gatsby is a favourite book, it’s somehow back in the Zeitgeist because of the recent Baz Luhrmann film, and I’ve seen Sarah Churchwell on review programmes on the television and she seems like a knowledgeable person of strong opinion. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d come away from little tented village which hosts the book festival with a copy of her publication, but I found the talk and discussion so interesting that I followed her to the book shop and had my newly bought copy signed.
What was so interesting about the discussion was that it is the story of the story. Churchwell has researched the events that were in the news at the time that Fitzgerald was writing the novel, written in 1924 but set in 1922, and she has questioned every trope of what we presume we know about the 1920s. Were the women wearing short skirts? No. Were they dancing the Charleston? No. Did a green traffic light mean Go? Not necessarily, but sometimes.
During her research she came across reports of a notorious double murder in New Jersey in the early 1920s, which evidence indicates that Fitzgerald did read. There were startling points of overlap between titbits in the news reports and details in the novel. Using the news reports as well as other contemporary material, Churchwell has built a factual story of the times in which the novel was written, Fitzgerald’s writing process and the novel itself.
That she has interrogated every assumption that we have about the period, the roaring 20s, those images which we now accept as the shorthand for the era, and has found that they are not accurate, is what I found so interesting, as it is those details which create the pictures in our mind’s eye and the richness of the tapestry of we weave when we are immersed in a good book. I’m looking forward to reading her work so that I can repaint those pictures.
After an afternoon spent chatting, I went to the Summerhall to see HeLa, written and performed by my friend Adura Onashile. I’m still buzzing from the experience, and it needs a blog post all of its own, which will come(!). Afterwards I had a drink with Adura and I had what I’ve been told is a ‘true festival experience’ of having quite a major conversation with the people with whom we shared the table in the bar. We heard what they’d seen, and we showed off what we’d seen, and discussed our wish lists and future bookings, given the randomness of the encounter and the sheer number of things that are on, had a surprising amount of overlap – and of course took the opportunity to impress upon them the importance of their seeing HeLa before the end of the Festival.
Another day has dawned, and with it sunny blue skies, so I am optimistic for another fun day, and maybe today I will see a unicyclist!