There are many good reasons for being in Edinburgh in August, when the population doubles and nobody looks twice if you walk down the street in a sequinned basque with a man dressed as a leopard on a leash. One of those reasons is a certain kind of lunch — an assortment of natives augmented by visiting actors, writers, journalists and any other good talkers who happen to be passing. And so to the elegant New Town flat of journalist Katherine O’Donnell with campaigner and memoirist Paris Lees, actor Rebecca Root, novelist and journalist Ben McPherson and human geographer Jo Sharp. The first question is, of course, ‘What have you seen that’s good?’ Because that is the only question on everyone’s lips during the festival. We’re all desperate not to miss the good stuff, and with getting on for 3,000 possibilities, the only way to be sure is word of mouth.
So I head up to the book festival for my first visit of the year, head brimming with possibilities. My first encounter is with the best-read man in the Borders, literary editor Stuart Kelly. The most tense time for any author falls immediately before publication, when you have no idea how your book will be received. I practically fall at Stuart’s feet when he reveals that he’s just finished my new book, that he loved it and, even better, he’s reviewing it. Now I can stop feeling faintly sick.
I walk through early morning streets full of people dragging suitcases and small children, before the madness proper begins. It’s a three-tier asylum, the city centre. The Royal Mile is al fresco insanity, Princes Street determined chaos, George Street a more measured throng. As I walk, I make the calculation of every Edinburgh festival day. If we go to see author A, we can sprint along the street to catch the one-woman show of B, and if that finishes promptly we’ll have time to rush across town to catch comedian C. ‘But when will we have time for dinner?’ used to be the plaintive cry. These days, the answer is simple. The city is crammed with street-food vendors. Everything from traditional fish and chips to Korean noodles via Polish dumplings and sushi. In St George’s Square gardens, there’s an Aberdeen Angus burger stall with the name ‘Well Hung and Tender’ and a pizza van called ‘So La Ti Dough’.
The day begins with coffee and a scone at the authors’ yurt at the book festival while I wait to meet a journalist. I love the tented city in Charlotte Square where for two weeks thousands gather to celebrate books and ideas. There’s a last-minute panic when Kate Mosse hasn’t appeared for her 10 a.m. reading. The festival director Nick Barley’s desperate eye alights on me. And so I have the golden opportunity to impress someone else’s audience with one of my short stories. Thankfully, nobody walks out. The day ends with some necessary preparation for my own book festival event when, in a few days, I’ll be interviewed by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. I have been told she’s a fan. I’m suddenly conscious of having written a book with the title Union Jack.
I start the next morning in the BBC’s Edinburgh studio to talk with Woman’s Hour’s Jenni Murray and the author Nicola Upson about the exceptional Josephine Tey, a crime writer who forms the bridge between the Golden Age queens of crime and writers such as Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith. When Tey writes a woman character, she makes her the heart of the action, not just the helpmeet. Then to North Queensferry, in the shadow of our latest World Heritage site, the Forth Railway Bridge, where I am interviewed for a TV documentary about growing up gay in Scotland. I feel a proprietary interest in the bridge; my great grandfather worked on it as a riveter. And finally to Stark’s Park, the home of the mighty Raith Rovers FC, for a board meeting. On Saturday, the Rovers play Alloa Athletic at home. We win three-nil.
A day of pre-publication interviews, then it’s time for my first programmed event at the book festival. I’m discussing forensic science with Professor Niamh Nic Daeid of Dundee University. She’s an expert in fires, explosives and drugs, and is someone I’ve exploited — I mean, consulted — more than once for my novels, as well as for my non-fiction book on forensic science. The last time we spoke together, at the Royal Society in July, we were dubbed the ‘forensic femmes fatales’.