Today was the best day, for me, so far in the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Yesterday I went to see Owen Hatherley give a talk about ‘Building the Perfect Beasts’, in support of his book, Landscapes of Communism. I felt that I didn’t have enough background knowledge of the topic to really appreciate all of what he was saying. He made several points. One, I think, was that whilst we all have images of dreadful, impersonal tower blocks housing hundreds of workers in the cities of Communist Eastern Europe, and these of course do exist in abundance on the outskirts of many centres there, such developments were not built during Stalin’s time, but mostly much later, and in fact smaller but similar concrete hulks were constructed in the west at about the same time. Some of Stalin’s buildings were actually quite grand, and partially based on American skyscrapers of the 1920s (though no-one could admit this fact at the time). Another point was how many of the centres of cities in Eastern Europe were preserved during the Communist era. This is why, nowadays, tourists and others can enjoy the architectural pleasures of Prague, Tallinn, Vilnius and elsewhere.
This afternoon I went to a double show. Andrew Duff and Piers Moore Ede talked at a presentation entitled Out of India. Piers is virtually a dead ringer for Fat Mac about thirty years ago, before he went to seed. I’m almost convinced that Piers did ten seconds of ‘ra bliss’ when he came on stage and sat down, before he began his talk about Varanasi (also known as Benares), where many people are cremated and their ashes thrown in the holy Ganges. Piers spent a year there, living in a very small concrete cell, surrounded by death and ghats, gurus and pollution. He went down well with the audience at the Book Festival, one of whom, during the question time at the end of the presentation, remarked upon how peaceful he seemed within himself.
The audience also lapped up Andrew Duff when he spoke, and showed a couple of short movie clips, about Sikkim and his book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom. Well, I read about this book last week in the August 2015 edition of Literary Review, and I’m hooked! It has all the necessary ingredients – a handsome widowed crown prince (Thondup Namgyal) meets and then marries a beautiful starry-eyed American nineteen-year-old girl called Hope Cooke, at a splendid wedding where Thondup’s gorgeous sisters Kula and Coocoola almost steal the show, and later he fights for his inheritance against the diminutive anti-monarchist Kazi Dorji and his venomous Scottish wife, the Kazini of Chakung – and it is all fact, not fiction, and also from our own time. I’ve ordered a copy of the book. At the end of the presentation, one of the questions from the audience was from a woman who had trekked in Sikkim in 1952.