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A Chat with Andrew Lownie


Author of
The Edinburgh Literary Companion

By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, U.S.A.
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Q: This is a wonderful book. How long did it take from your initial research until publication? What other books have you written, if any? If you do not mind sharing with our readers, what do you have planned for the future regarding your next book?

A: I suppose I’ve been researching it for over thirty years! I was at boarding school in Edinburgh in the 1970s from the age of 10 to 18 as my parents lived in Bermuda and I had family in Edinburgh. I grew to love the city and to spend much of my free time, whilst my contemporaries were at rugby matches or shopping, exploring the city. It is a magical city because quite rough country such as Arthur’s Seat is literally at the foot of the High St and you never know what wonderful vista you will find as you turn a corner. I still haven’t walked every narrow alley in the Old Town. Much of this exploring was done on foot, but during my last year I secretly kept a bicycle which allowed me to explore further a field. A few houses had plaques showing a famous person had lived there, but otherwise I would stumble across an association in the course of reading history books or novels and felt that association should be better known.

When I returned to Edinburgh after Cambridge as a post-graduate to study American Espionage (but that’s another story) I decided I would write a different kind of travel book about the city of my youth. One that was about the people who lived there, how the city had affected them and how the city had been described in fiction and non-fiction. After several rejections by publishers who felt there was no market for the book, The Edinburgh Literary Guide was published in 1992 by a small Edinburgh publisher called Canongate, received some good reviews, sold its modest print run and went out of print.

I forgot about it as I pursued a career as a journalist, set up as a literary agent and published other books on American spies and the writer John Buchan. In the late 1990s, I noticed a publisher had a series of literary companions to cities, such as Dublin, and asked if they would be interested in adding a book on Edinburgh to their series. They were and I quickly updated the book. Much had changed in literary Edinburgh in the intervening eight years, not least Ian Rankin and Edinburgh becoming the fictional crime capital of the world. The book was published in 2000 as The Literary Companion to Edinburgh and I was invited to talk about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

This time, I saw it might have a longer term future as an alternative guide to Edinburgh and something residents, visitors and expatriates might equally enjoy. I sold the book on a limited licence and was therefore free to again update the book following the city’s successful bid to become the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. For the third edition, published in July 2005 and now called The Edinburgh Literary Companion, some three hundred novels set in the city were added to the existing list of two hundred and fifty, the Richard Demarco line drawings dropped in favour of moody photographs and maps redrawn. Six months after publication, I’ve already built up a large file of new material to be added so it shouldn’t be long before there is yet another edition if I can think of the right title.

I’m now writing a life of the British spy Guy Burgess, another subject on which I’ve been collecting material for a very long time.

Q: You mentioned in an email to me that your father has written a book on Edinburgh. Please give us a brief comparison of the two books as to emphasis and divergence?

A: My father’s book Auld Reekie: An Edinburgh Anthology, his first at the age of eighty and with an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, was published just before Christmas 2004 and has had extremely good reviews and sold well. Whereas my book is arranged as a series of walks and concentrates on Edinburgh’s literary associations, his book has a much wider appeal. It is a portrait of Edinburgh seen through the eyes of residents, visitors and well-known exiles such as RL Stevenson and Muriel Spark. Some extracts are a few lines, others several pages and he wittily juxtaposes his quotes to show how even the same experiences or events in Edinburgh can elicit very different reactions. The book moves from ‘First Impressions’ to quotes on well-known ‘Places’, ‘People’, ‘Visitors’ and, to my mind, the most original and memorable section ‘Everyday Life’. His quotes give a picture of Edinburgh enjoying itself and in adversity and also looks at the various institutions which determine Edinburgh’s make-up - Parliament, the Church and various professions such as the Law and Medicine. He is now writing a book, though nearly blind, on the Scottish feudal barony.

Q: What does working as a literary agent entail? I think our readers would enjoy hearing your answer.

A: Every day as a literary agent is different. I represent over a hundred authors ranging from academics such as the new Professor of History at Edinburgh, Tom Devine, who has written the acclaimed The Scottish Nation and The Scottish Empire, to historians, such as Michael Fry who has just published a revisionist book on the Highlands and delivered a book on the Union of 1707, to young journalists such as David Stenhouse whose book describing the Scottish takeover of England over the last three centuries has generated a lot of debate. And that’s just the Scottish authors. Add the memoirs of actors such as Sir John Mills, Patrick MacNee and David Hasselhoff, the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English and Oxford Classical Dictionary, Mind, Body & Spirit books and literary fiction and you have some idea of the variety. You can read about a ‘typical’ week on my website www.andrewlownie.co.uk.

Q: Your book is chocked full of bits and pieces of information about those who have walked the streets of Edinburgh in days of yore. What process did you use to cultivate all this information on so many people?

A: Reading, walking and checking. The information comes from a variety of sources - novels, histories, memoirs, newspaper accounts, interviews on websites - but it then has to be double-checked and then I walk the route repeatedly for every edition to make sure everything I describe is as it was. The Internet, Google Alert, Abebooks and emails from readers all play a crucial part.

Q: One particular person you quote a good bit is Sir Walter Scott, a true Edinburgh resident. I have noticed distinguished authors like you, Magnus Magnusson and Arthur Herman have quoted Scott quite extensively in recent books. Have you noticed a “comeback” for Sir Walter in recent years as to his popularity?

A: I don’t think Walter Scott, like my hero John Buchan, ever went out of fashion but it is true their books are now more widely available, readers are attracted by their sharply drawn characters, intricate plot lines and strong narrative pace, television and film have discovered the filmic qualities of their books and their important role championing and popularising Scottish history is increasingly being recognized.

Q: Some of us in America are not as familiar with one of your “own particular loves,” namely Robert Garioch. Can you tell us more about him to whit our appetites enough to check him out on the Internet or in bookstores?

A: I probably quote more Robert Garioch (1909-81) in the book than any other poet, simply because he writes so evocatively and powerfully about Edinburgh life and his poetry is so accessible, witty and memorable. He saw himself in the tradition of his predecessors Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson (is that why I called my son Robert?) and deserves to be as well known. His poetry is now widely available and I’d encourage you to read him and Norman MacCaig, Stewart Conn…

Q: How difficult was your self-imposed goal of trying to appeal to local residents of Edinburgh and first time tourists?  Do you feel you achieved your goal?

A: I will leave the residents and tourists to judge but clearly the level of knowledge and interest does vary and one can’t please everyone. I’ve tried to include lots of quirky and less well-known information, have lots of anecdotes, keep the narrative moving along and let the quality of other people’s prose carry the book but to also offer through the footnotes the chance to find out more detailed information on particular subjects of interest.

Q: You mention in the preface of your Edinburgh book that “…over 500 novels have taken the city as their backdrop - a hundred of them published in the last fifteen years…” Why, in your opinion, have there been so many people writing so many books about that city? Does the same hold true of Scotland’s other major city, Glasgow, or “the capital of the Highlands”, Inverness?

A: I think Edinburgh is unique because it was both the capital and with its university a great European city; it was always seen, as now, as part of any tour of Great Britain and it was a place of literary pilgrimage, not least for European writers such as Hans Christian Andersen who came to pay homage to Walter Scott. It is a divided city with extremes of wealth and poverty, a paradoxical and subtle city which appeals to writers and a breathtakingly beautiful one. It is also a small and intimate city so more easily known than larger metropolises and its fortunes throughout history have of course been inextricably linked to the fate of Scotland.

Q: My wife, Susan, and I were in London this past September (2005) and were guests of the London Burns Club for a rather remarkable luncheon at the Caledonian Club. Since you live in London with your family, are there other clubs or attractions for those of us who visit London where we may enjoy meeting with Scottish people?

A: I think the best way to meet Scottish people in London is through the two Scottish churches - St Columba’s, which I attend, and Crown Court. Both are very friendly and a wonderful mix of regulars and visitors, young and old. Perhaps also clubs such as the Caledonian but you have to be a reciprocal member of another club or at a rugby match for London Scottish. David Stenhouse in his book on Scots in London, On the Make, shows how easily the Scots assimilate and that there are few Scottish ghettoes but does list a few places where Scots may be sighted en masse.

Q: I notice that Robert Louis Stevenson is another of your favorites. On my trips to Scotland, I have not seen a statue, cairn or plaque in his memory. I know from the eighty or so books I have on Stevenson that he greatly impacted Scotland with his writings. On page 74 on your book, you mention “the (Princes Street) Gardens have several literary memorials including one to Stevenson - a grove of birch trees designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay…” which I plan to seek out on my next trip. Why do you suppose there are so many memorials to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott (more so on Burns) but not to Stevenson?

A: Stevenson had a rather ambivalent view of Edinburgh, though one of the best books on Edinburgh is his Picturesque Notes, and Edinburgh repaid the compliment. He perhaps was seen as too critical of the city of his birth and someone who left it as a young man rarely to return but that is all changing. North Berwick are holding a literary festival in his honour this summer and I suspect he is now more widely read and remembered in the city than Burns or Scot.

Q: Not many people are aware of the two trips Benjamin Franklin made to Scotland. It is said that Franklin received the Freedom of the City Award from George Drummond, Provost of Edinburgh, and was recognized as a Guild Brother. I notice you mention Franklin in your book and wonder if, in your research, you came across much information on Franklin’s trips to Scotland?

A: Here’s a good example of someone else knowing much more than I do and I will investigate further for the next edition. I’m also planning to add more on the visits of Jules Verne, Hans Christian Andersen and Washington Irving about which I wrote very little.

Q: You write that “the three most important writers connected with Edinburgh” are probably “Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.” I am surprised and pleased that you include Burns since he was only there twice as a visitor while Scott and Stevenson lived there. Does Burns impact the literary history of Edinburgh so much that in 2005 he is listed by you before Scott or Stevenson?

A: The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh is devoted to Burns, Scott and Stevenson so I’m not alone in my assessment. All three wrote some of their best work there, were inspired by their time in the city, have written vividly about it and are recognized as writers of international note. Burns’ visits to Edinburgh were instrumental in bringing his poetry to wider notice and one might say the same of a writer who deserves to be as well-known – James Hogg author of that haunting classic on Calvinism Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. My book lists almost a hundred ‘Edinburgh Literary Figures’ and that’s not all of them - I was criticized for not including JK Rowling. There are now plans for a new and expanded literary museum and perhaps the emphasis of the three will fade.

Q: Your book is a good read. I would have loved spending an afternoon on the second floor of the Princes Street Starbucks viewing “the castle” across the street, with a cup of cappuccino and your book. It couldn’t get much better than that! So, thank you for your courtesies to me. Is there anything you would like to say to our readers as a parting word?

A: Thank you for the opportunity to tell you a little bit about my book and my beloved Edinburgh. I hope you enjoy both and I’m always interested to hear from others about the city’s literary associations.  (FRS: 1-31-2006)


Return to February/March 2006 Index page  |  Return to Frank Shaw's Page

 


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