Today, the Edinburgh International Book Festival ends. Many of you were there, either in the Yurt of all Yurts, or else (if you were lucky) reclining in glorious sunshine, eating ice-creams and watching the booky world go by, or (if you were unlucky) suddenly finding yourself stranded in a sea of mud.
It's been a record-breaking year. I don't know all the figures yet but I know that the first day saw record footfall (over 15,000 pairs of feet); the first weekend saw record book-sales; similarly ground-breaking figures for ticket-sales and, incredibly for a recession, a 10% increase in sponsorship.
The book is not dead. Nor are readers. In fact, here are some:
THE YURT OF ALL YURTS
The Yurt (or Yogurt) is a strange place of peculiar smells and unpredictable experiences. It can make any author feel either unexpectedly important or shatteringly small and worthless. You see people you've only seen on the telly, and you find yourself sharing a drink with them or explaining where the Highland Park is hidden; you experience your navel being gazed at by a politician wanting to see if you're a name worth talking to, or you could all too easily trip over a carpet and find yourself on the lap of your literary hero.
In case you haven't been, here are a few images, carefully taken with no identifiable people.
Below is the hospitality table with, remarkably, no one there. It took me a very long time to catch that.
I do often find myself gazing at the roof, not because I spend a lot of time lying on the floor but because it's rather lovely:
Each year, the Yurtish smells bring back memories of other years. First thing in the morning, when the thin sun slices through the opening, you can imagine that the staff slept there, wrapped in yak blankets, and then unwrapped themselves and washed their faces in dew just in time for the appearance of the earliest authors - did you, Roland? Oisin? Lois? As the day wears on, it's essence of coffee and Highland Park, chocolate brownies and goats' cheese wraps, ground into the carpets by shoes of all descriptions. (Including mine, which have achieved a reputation for pointiness and getting caught in carpets.) And in the evenings the woodchip burning stove is lit and it's the dry sweet pininess of a sauna. As the night draws closer, more Highland Park, more wine, more wine, more Highland Park. And the rising laughter muffled in the folds of the roof, disappearing like the smoke from a Mongolian fire.
Just to show that I don't always wear pointy shoes, here are my feet on a day off:
One author told me yesterday of how he couldn't enter the Yurt when he arrived this year. Panic swept over him as he contemplated, remembered, envisaged the sounds of bursting egos. Like a child at a party who is so afraid of the balloon as it is blown up that he puts his hands over his ears and runs from the room.
Others love it. Love the possibility of meeting just anyone, of being on a level with the biggest names in literature. I have loved it and hated it but I go there in anticipation every time. My favourite moment (not this year) was of meeting Michel Faber and feeling suddenly compelled to do that fan thing.
"Excuse me," I said, "I just have to tell you that I adored The Crimson Petal and the White. And as for Under the Skin ..."And he knelt at my feet ... Sorry, I have to say that again. HE knelt at MY feet. Red trousers he was wearing, and his eyelashes pale and soft and his face open. I asked him what he was writing now and he said he couldn't write at all any more, that his creativity had been damaged by his horror at the Iraq War (as I say, not this year) and he didn't think he could ever write again.
But he has, of course. And I've read it. We talked for ages about creativity and inspiration and integrity and I'm just so glad that it all came back to him. I'm so pleased that I met him, that he gave that time to talk to me, which of course he won't remember. And that I dared be in the Yurt that day and dared tell him that one thing that all writers, from the most famous to the least, need to be told,
"I just loved your book."
That's what book festivals, all of them, are about. Just loving books and having moments of magic when readers meet authors and the connection is story, words, imagination, truth.
There's one thing I know is magic (and if you believe otherwise, please stay silent): the disappearance of the Yurt into thin air when the festival is over. Because of course it's not stored in some dull lock-up somewhere. It couldn't be. And obviously it can't be used by anyone else. Besides, you can't just fold away miles of canvas that has soaked up the hopes and fears and dreams and passions of 750 writers and several bottles of whisky and wine; you just can't. It has a soul: you can't wrap that up. It disappears, I know it does. You wake up the next day and it's just not there, only a pale patch of grass that is far too small to have held so much.
But it will be back, next year, by magic again. Meanwhile, it is nowhere. Or at least not in this world.