A tale of two literary festivals

Last week was spent between literary festivals. After a weekend in Karachi I was all set to head to Lahore, wondering whether Pakistan could really support two events so close together on the calendar, when I stumbled across this review in The New Statesman…

Like the rivalry between England and France, each city’s sense of its own superiority is undermined by the nagging recognition that the other has advantages it cannot honestly proclaim for itself. Beneath parochial assertions of supremacy lurks a quiet sense of occasional inferiority.

Of course it is not about Lahore and Karachi at all but about Scotland’s great metropolitan rivalry…

Edinburgh folk, in an honest moment, might admit to envying Glasgow’s chutzpah and energy; Glaswegians, in return, might acknowledge that Edinburgh is rather more than a museum piece.

I used to live and work in Glasgow. When I told my colleagues I was moving to Edinburgh they were horrified and assumed I was being punished – not promoted. When I returned I was careful to understate Edinburgh’s charms, saying only: “Oh, it’s not like Glasgow”. A few complaints about the number of soft Englishmen in the pubs there seemed to keep them happy.

Anyway, the review reminded me of one of the many spats between the two cities. During my time there, say 2003, Glasgow unveiled a comedy season in August, a sort of fringe of the fringe thing, showcasing some of the best stuff on offer down the road. Glasgow was immediately accused of muscling in on Edinburgh’s territory while Edinburgh stood accused of some sort of cultural imperialism. Surely, the argument ran, anyone who wanted to watch this kind of thing could make the 50-minute train journey to the city I stoically refused to ever call Auld Reekie?

But of course the truth was that few of my friends in Glasgow visited Edinburgh for festival season. Maybe that’s changed. Anyway, the point is this: They were and are two fantastic cities with different characters, peoples and attitudes. One might be a giant industrial port city, once a hub of empire, and the other might be a rather more genteel setting but both are world-class cities capable of hosting world-class events; and there didn’t seem to be a lot of shall we say cross-pollination.

So I was not surprised to see some of the same nose-wrinkling which accompanied the announcement that Lahore was to have its own literary festival. And only a week after the Karachi Literature Festival too.

The snipers sniped. You know the sort of thing: Lahore won’t be as good; it’ll all be the same people; Pakistan isn’t big enough to have two of these bashes.

And, you know what? They were wrong. Both weekends offered top notch entertainment. Yes, there were a few of the same speakers but the two festivals were as different as the two cities themselves. Lahore had a more studenty audience; Karachi seemed to be more of a family day out. Karachi viewed “literature” more broadly – including journalisty discussions as well as films – than Lahore which felt a bit more writerly. Lahore tended to stick to English literature, while Karachi had more going on in Urdu. Karachi’s event was by the sea, while Lahore’s was smack in the centre of the city.

So, two great cities. Two great festivals. Here’s to 2014. There’s definitely a place for both. And I will never, ever tell you which one I preferred.

One thought on “A tale of two literary festivals

  1. Was born in west of Scotland in 60s. Have spent many years in both Glasgow ( went to uni there) and Edinburgh: Glasgow’s like putting on your comfy old slippers; Edinburgh’s like lovely new shoes that never really feel fit; Glasgow has a ‘gallusness’ that Edinburgh will never have; Edinburgh is breathtakingly beautiful; both cities are wonderful in their own way.

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