Every trick in the 'buke'

''IT'S showtime,'' a busker on the Royal Mile roared and the crowds cheered yet again. When wasn't it showtime in Edinburgh in August?

You couldn't go out the door without tripping over a fire-breathing, sword-swallowing juggler in a kilt. You couldn't walk down the street without meeting a satyr, a man-size baby, a lassie covered in piercings or a spaceman on stilts, all shoving leaflets at you about their latest shows. You couldn't get to the pub without weaving through African dancers or a brace of punks pogo-leaping to Scotland the Brave.

This was Edinburgh's wild festival fringe, a huge event with hundreds of acts that turned the grey, rainy city into a non-stop carnival. Over at the tents in Charlotte Square Gardens, in the city's genteel north, things were a little less frenetic, but still buzzing.

Here the literati flocked to the 2012 Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world's largest public celebration of the written word, attracting more than 800 authors and a record 225,000 visitors.

Under the benign gaze of Prince Albert's statue, we plodded gamely around the duckboards laid over the sodden grass, past startling images of famous authors pulling faces (the work of photographer Chris Close) and congregated in the tents to revere, as the local accent has it, ''bukes''.

Ian McEwan told us that when he was writing his novel Saturday, about a neurosurgeon, he did his research in the operating theatre: ''I rather liked the sight of myself in scrubs.''

He was amazed at the disgraceful state of the men's changing room. Nobody knew he wasn't a doctor, and when a couple of medical students humbly asked him to explain an operation, he obliged. ''I've always wondered how they did in their finals.''

Historian and novelist A.N. (Andrew) Wilson explained how he came to write his historical novel about the Wedgwood family, The Potter's Hand, after growing up with a father who worked as managing director for the Wedgwoods. ''My brother and I sometimes look at our hands and realise they are the first hands since the

18th century in our family that are not potters' hands.''

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy said she'd had a poem banned 25 years ago, ''when Meryl Streep was prime minister''. An invigilator for a school examination decided she had written it to incite knife crime among the young, so the poem was replaced in the anthology by a blank page.

Duffy responded with a poem she read to us - it was a series of exam questions, all drawn from the use of knives in Shakespeare's plays.

John Lanchester wondered what would happen when his novel, Capital, was published in Germany, where it has the oddly familiar title Das Kapital.

''I'll turn up to events and they'll say I look remarkably well for someone 193 years old,'' he said.

And there was more … an earnest Zadie Smith in a watermelon-coloured turban; Howard Jacobson complaining that winning the Man Booker prize spoiled his plot; Pat Barker on the price of war; the prolific Peter Ackroyd forgetting the conclusion of one of his earlier books.

I'll write about them in coming columns. But my abiding memory of Edinburgh is the lugubrious Will Self. He was delightfully cheeky to his chair, Stuart Kelly, (musing on metaphor, he managed to call Kelly ''spinsterish'') and then read an excerpt from his novel Umbrella about firing a machine gun called Vicky, while the nightly Edinburgh Tattoo fireworks boomed in the background. It was a fitting way to celebrate the buke.

■Jane Sullivan was a guest author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Janesullivan.sullivan9@gmail.com

The story Every trick in the 'buke' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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