Edinburgh, City of Literature

Edinburgh Edinburgh International Book Festival Edinburgh

I have saved one of the most important topics til last: Edinburgh as a City of Literature. As you may know, Melbourne is a City of Literature now too (as is Iowa and Dublin), so I was interested to see what the UNESCO designation meant for Edinburgh.

The first thing to note is that Edinburgh has an independent trust set up to administer city of literature activity – named, aptly, Edinburgh City of Literature Trust. So what do they do? In their words:

The City of Literature Trust is an independent charity which works to promote literary Edinburgh, champion Scotland’s literature and develop international literary partnerships. We facilitate, animate and enable organisations to work together to promote literature and reading.

But what does that mean, really? Well, the two people who run the trust – Ali Bowden and Anna Burkey – are really literary ninjas who do a whole bunch of things and bring people and organisations together.

For example, they do ‘clash planning’ among all the literary organisations in Edinburgh to make sure its events are timely and spread well across the calendar and that there are no major clashes. They run a monthly literary salon for people in the literary industry (publishers, agents, writers, booksellers, funders etc) to get together socially. They have produced an excellent walking tour of Edinburgh map and other walking trails and audio tours. They speak to journalists and students about Edinburgh as a City of Lit. They promote literary tourism. They have agitated to have huge poetry banners put up on a disused building in Poetry Square. They run annual reading campaigns, including the awesome Carry a Poem and the upcoming Let’s Get Lyrical campaign. They help other organisations lobby for literary activity and funding. It goes on…

To use the Edinburgh Book Fest as an example, this year the City of Lit programmed a ‘new writers’ stream into the fest in conjunction with the Festival. So, they managed a daily Story Shop, where each day an emerging writer did a free ten-minute reading in the bookshop. They ran an Unbound night, Dragon’s Pen, where six emerging writers pitched their books to a panel of literary professionals. They programmed two Writing into the future events, where eight new writers read excerpts from their manuscripts. And to tie it all together they held a networking lunch with all their Ed Book Fest new writers and industry professionals such as established writers, agents, publishers, funders, programmers etc.

They also hosted a civic reception for the British Council Bookcase Conference, bringing together a whole bunch of important literary people, and they set up an Edinburgh City of Literature info stand in the entrance of the Book Fest so visitors could get info, maps etc about literary things to do during their stay. More info about their Book Fest activity here.

As Ali Bowden said to me, the City of Lit Trust considers it their role to try and see what is happening in Edinburgh and fill in the gaps with what is needed (either themselves or inspiring other organisations to) or bringing people together to help make it more cohesive. All this is done by two staff – the amazing, energetic, and enthusiastic Ali and Anna, who were fantastic hosts to me while I was in town.

Edinburgh Edinburgh International Book Festival

Literary ninjas, Ali & Anna

So… I got very enthusiastic about the City of Literature concept while I was in Edinburgh. I was interested in it before, of course – thanks to Melbourne’s designation as City of Lit we were blessed with the Wheeler Centre, which does great programming and also houses the EWF office. And earlier this year I hosted an online discussion with Ali from Edinburgh City of Lit here.

But being in Edinburgh made the City of Lit possibilities very tangible to me. It made me question what is happening in Melbourne. The Wheeler Centre is obviously marvellous but what other City of Lit activity is there – or could there be? If I wanted to talk to someone about the City of Literature, who would I call? (Arts Vic, Wheeler Centre – someone else?) Is anything being done to bring all the literary organisations and people who work in them together? At a very basic level, there is no website that pops up when you type ‘Melbourne City of Literature’ into google (this is the first result).

Because of it’s very tangible literary history, Edinburgh is a very different kind of City of Lit to Melbourne, I think. As is Iowa, Dublin, and the other cities who are currently bidding. So it is not a case of comparing what we do to Edinburgh. And of course, our designation is very new whereas Edinburgh has been doing it for five years. But I am excited about the possibilities of what Melbourne City of Literature could mean for those of us who live and work there – and for visitors, of course.

What is Melbourne, City of Literature – and what could it be?