Peter Burnett

Deliberately Thirsty

Edinburgh is known for its literary phenomena. We’ve got million-best-sellers, out and out rebels, small publishers, big prize winners, grassroots writing enterprises and every conceivable type of author tucked away somewhere.

What is most surprising in all this endeavour, is that there is still room for a lot more, so that when Thirsty Lunch launched during the Fringe Festival of 2004, it was able to do so knowing that it had a good chance of selling out its 28 days of readings, book launches, author appearances, discussions and music sessions.

burnettp01pic5.jpg Sell out it did – if a free event can be said to sell out. For all of that August in the Meadow Bar, Thirsty Lunch featured what Scotland on Sunday reported to be ‘A Fringe treat, as some of Scotland’s most innovative writers gathering to provide readings and comment in a convivial atmosphere.’ In all, over 60 writers appeared over those 28 days, all of them published, and several of them household names. All the events were free and all were conducted in an intimate and entirely informal setting.

Why would writers want to appear at these maverick events and why should the public want to come and see them? burnettp01pic4 At a time of year when average audiences are 7 per show, Thirsty Lunch was packing them in, reaching a record (fire-regulation busting) 65 people for Orkney poet Alison Flett, one wet Tuesday lunchtime.

The reason is probably because, as I’ve suggested above, Edinburgh’s cup floweth over. There are International Book Festival events and there are Book Festival Fringe events, and there are author readings in the city’s bookstores. But there are still hard-working writers and publishers out there, who for whatever reason are below the public radar, and yet who can draw a good crowd.

With literature booming, therefore, there is an enormous pool of talent to be showcased – and there are books to be sold. The first time I met Duncan McLean (I use him as an example) the great man was porting a box of his own books across the café of the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen, and I wondered why on earth someone of his fame would have to not only sell his own work, but carry it too. burnettp01pic3 No one really appreciates the fact that many writers (and poets in particular) rely on reading events to sell their books. What authors really like to see are their books in peoples’ hands – it tickles them more than you can ever know – and this is where Thirsty Lunch has really come through. Authors not only read at Thirsty Lunch, but have the opportunity to meet the audience if they wish, and can usually be guaranteed to sell 10 or 15 books there and then.

It isn’t the cut-throat world of stand-up comedy, and there isn’t the pressure of a hefty price ticket and a row of literati staring you down. It’s just 50 minutes of profiling two or three writers, introducing their work to our audiences, who are usually 500cals (funnily enough, often on their lunch break) and 50 per cent tourists. Your books are there beside you on the table, not in a distant shop or adjacent room. Many writers take this opportunity to try out new material, as Chris Dolan and Hannah McGill both did in 2004. Others are pleased to read out favourites in front of new faces, enjoying the face to face good fun of the experience.

In 2006 Thirsty Lunch appeared at the Jazz Bar in Chambers Street, and for two weeks 6-20 August scheduled one or two free events each day. Featured writers included: Eddie Gibbons, burnettp01pic1 Gerard Rochford, Alison Dunne, Judy Taylor, Rita Ann Higgins, Alison Flett, Sheena Blackhall, Rab Wilson, James Roberston, Jenni Daiches, Donald S Murray, Hector Macmillan, James Kelman, John Herdman, William Sutton, Alasdair Gray, Rodge Glass, James Wood, Craig Gibson, Angus Calder, Andrew Crumey, John Aberdein, David Kinloch, Colin Donati, Joe Bradley, James Macmillan, Jack Withers, Jim Carruth, Brent Hodgson, Simon Crump and Owen O’Neill. And as we like to say in our programme: those are just the ones we know about.

Featured Scottish publishers included Koo Press, Kettillonia, Luath Press and Argyll Publishing. In addition, Thirsty Lunch has approached fifth and sixth formers from Edinburgh schools, and introduced Sadie Ryan as part of an ongoing project involving the Arts and Learning department of the City Council.

For details please consult – and remember, there’s no such thing as a forgettable lunch!

© Peter Burnett 2006