My journey through the 2011 Edinburgh festival scene began a week ago with the first of many visits to the Book Festival in Charlotte Square. Walking from my bus stop to the festival site I had to run the usual gauntlet of folk handing out fliers for Fringe shows. It reminded me of this:
So to the Book Festival itself, and the opening event of the adult programme (as in not children's, not as in X-rated) which was Alasdair Gray. He had been invited in part because it was the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of his first (and best-known, also probably best) novel Lanark. He hadn't wanted to talk about Lanark particularly though, so was doing a talk "A Life In Pictures" concentrating mainly on his parallel career as an illustrator and mural painter.
Evacuated from Glasgow to avoid the blitz, he grew up as a small child in Wetherby (Yorkshire) where his father was a leading light in the new Youth Hostel Association. Returning to Glasgow after the war he found that it seemed enormous and unsettling. He studied at Glasgow College of Art. His painting tutors, though, found his style too post-impressionistic (he liked bright colours), so suggested he concentrate on mural painting instead. An early (unpaid) commission as a student was to do a mural for the Scottish-USSR Friendship Society, which he duly did (a contemporary reimagining of the Crucifixion set in Glasgow, it is now covered up like so many of Gray's early murals). He showed a picture of its unveiling which was attended by the treasury Minister Anthony Cairncross, who later turned out to be a Soviet spy in the same ring as Burgess and Maclean. Later on, when he was a struggling artist living by subletting his council flat illegally and painting murals for The Ubiquitous Chip for which he was paid in food, he was asked by the Glasgow People's Palace museum to do some painting documenting Glasgow's streets, at a time when there was much slum clearance and redevelopment taking place. This work, eventually running to nearly forty pictures, was funded by the government as part of its Job Creation Scheme. This meant that Gray had to sign on as unemployed, something he'd never previously bothered to do. He told his delighted audience about his interview at the Employment Exchange when he was trying to explain to a civil servant how he was presently living, as well as explaining that he had a job lined up and was only signing on to enable him to take it up. (You can see where that might get confusing....) Gray also told us about a mural he had painted of the Book of Jonah (apparently he had made a stain of some kind on a friend's living-room wall at a party, and this was his way of covering it up!) His hilarious description of the story of Jonah culminated in his summary that this showed the God of the Old Testament beginning to grow up.
I had a few hours to kill before my next event, so wandered down to Great King Street to take in the International Exhibition of Photography hosted every year by the Edinburgh Photographic Society. This is one I always go to, and every time there are a few truly brilliant pictures. For example, this one, this one and this one (a few others from Anne Greiner were in the exhibition too). A couple of enigmatic picture from China caused much discussion among viewers: Dangerous Way 01 by Huiyi Liu showed a large number of dead bodies in combat gear being watched over by a gas-masked figure in slightly differently-coloured combat gear (you could tell the recumbent figures were dead by the blotches beginning to appear on their skin), while Jiangho Wang's Through The Poison Zone showed a group of gas-masked soldiers advancing though a whitish mist and appeared to have been taken at a similar time. I have no idea what incident they relate to. But that's the thing with this exhibition, you keep getting surprising perspectives.