It is difficult to discuss Allan Foster’s talk, Edinburgh: A Literary City, in division from its glorious venue: the ostentatiously oddball Hendrick’s Carnival of Knowledge. This oh-so-Boho salon - packed to the rafters with cocktails and curios - is a glorious little gem, tucked away within towering Newtown streets. Before even entering the exquisite parlour in which our discussion is held, an atmosphere of conviviality and camaraderie is automatically established (aided quite considerably by the complementary G&Ts proffered upon arrival).
It was appropriate, given such an amiable atmosphere, that Foster’s talk took the form of a stream-of-consciousness wander through the streets and stories of the city. Our speaker allowed himself to meander between fun facts and anecdotes - spanning from legitimately literary tidbits telling of the real-life Holmes and Watson as doctors of the university; to the grisly story of the sea of corpses buried below Edinburgh’s very own Holiday Inn; to his own tales of grumpy pub landlords living below literary landmarks, who shut up shop and move away during the throes of the Fringe. His talk is not only enlightening, but often warm and humourous.
Foster’s tour through a bibliophile’s significant sites in Edinburgh works best for those with a working knowledge of the city; he reels place names off the cuff and looks to us for confirmation that we follow him there. However, if you take your notepad and pencil (gratis) in hand, jotting down this jumble of locations will provide plenty of places to visit and enjoy during the festival.
This aforementioned anecdotal approach, as well as the assumption of locational awareness as given, does have its drawbacks on occasion; it evidences as tendency for the talk to form more as Foster’s own subjective experiences of the city, as opposed to a comprehensive tour about all things fictional. There are omissions both relatively minor – such as discussion of Alexander McCall Smith, writer of the beloved series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – as well as glaringly major: James Hogg’s seminal novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, for example. Upon requests from the audience that he shed a little more light on these neglected texts, Foster can essentially only apologise.
Nevertheless, the feeling of familiarity that such a personal talk generates among the audience almost makes up for these blind spots, and it is certainly still enjoyably educational. If you’re up for an involving hour and a cheeky little drink, head on down to the Hendrick’s Carnival.