One of the major themes of this years Edinburgh Book Festival is ‘Freedom’. It’s a critical question of the day in a country where bookshops are attacked, fascists deified and human rights trampled on.
It does sound like the issues of writers and authors who have had problems with their visas being refused to attend the Book Festival, has now been resolved. But they do enter a Brexit Britain convulsed in a Hostile Environment, culturally illiterate, cutting itself off, and building walls against dissent and thinking. The book ban and the burka ban are part of the same story.
The racism spewing out of our former Foreign Secretary’s mouth is unexceptional. The realities of being tied to a state turning in on itself against the world, normalising racism and enthral to dark forces is becoming clear, and had even threatened to penetrate the leafy tents of Charlotte Square.
Nick Barley had said:
“It is Kafkaesque. One was told he had too much money and it looked suspicious for a short trip. Another was told she didn’t have enough, so she transferred £500 into the account – and then was told that £500 looked suspicious. It shouldn’t be the case that thousands of pounds should be spent to fulfil a legitimate visa request. I believe this is happening to many arts organisations around the country, and we need to find a way around it.”
Barley called the situation humiliating, adding: “One author had to give his birth certificate, marriage certificate, his daughter’s birth certificate and then go for biometric testing. He wanted to back out at that point because he couldn’t bear it, but we asked him to continue. Our relationship with authors is being damaged because the system is completely unfit for purpose. They’ve jumped through hoops – to have their applications refused.”
Writer Val McDermid asked: “Could we find a way to better diminish our cultural standing in the world?”
It seems that, after a lot of work the issues have been ironed out.
Nick Barley from the Book Festival updated the situation this morning:
“We are enormously grateful for the support of politicians from both the Scottish and UK Governments, senior members of the British Council and Ambassadors from countries across the Middle East and Africa who have helped us to ensure that a dozen authors facing visa challenges are able to attend the Festival. This has obviously taken an extraordinary amount of time and work on behalf of a relatively small number of authors.”
If the incident is resolved it also gives us a brief glimpse into the daily reality for many people travelling to Britain on entirely legitimate business. None of this environment would be possible without a coterie of apologists and enablers slavishly and unquestionably backing statements that only a year ago would have been throughout disgraceful in public discourse:
“Je ne suis pas Boris” says Daisley, in the Spectator.
“There’s something inherently illiberal about trying to gag him” says Fraser Nelson, in the Spectator.
“It’s illiberal to gag Johnson” (or something) says Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator.
Sharp-eyed readers might have spotted a trend here.
We’re told that a “permit-free festival visitor visa is available to artists appearing at 45 approved cultural events, including Womad and the Edinburgh Fringe, which means they do not require a certificate of sponsorship and only have to show bank balances for three months. However, the book festival is not on the list.”
The question arises why is the Edinburgh Book Festival not on this list?
But it also raises a recurring theme of exceptionalism.
Shreyas Royal, who has been dubbed as Britain’s “greatest chess prospect in a generation” is just one in a long line of ‘talents’ used to distract from the mainstreaming of deportation, ejection of asylum seekers and the brutality of Britain’s detention regime. People shouldn’t be allowed to stay because they are good at chess, a good athlete, speak Gaelic, or have some unique talent. It’s a weird postcode lottery of a system egged-on by a media complicit in framing a racist narrative about immigration. To that end the issue is not about ‘art’ or literary festivals – but about human rights and the state we’re in.
If the writers ban had remained in place, the writer Alastair McIntosh had argued that this was: “the British state sabotaging the internationalist culture of the Scottish nation.” He promised: “As a Birlinn Books speaker in this year’s book festival to make a short statement to guests from the stage in protest “.
This is a welcome declaration. But it’s also a hilarious irony in that Hugh Andrew, managing director of Birlinn, is also a key player behind the Scottish Business UK group and a keen supporter of Scotland in Union. In 2013 Andrew issued a warning about the impact of independence on the publishing industry in Scotland. Andrew said Scottish writers faced being seen as “foreign” in the rest of the UK in the event of a Yes vote.
Instead the Britain Andrew backed is one where the Home Office threaten and obstruct people coming to Scotland to take part in a cultural event.
The Book Festival have (rightly) refused to name the writers involved. Let’s hope that the festival goes ahead without state interference.