Gerry Farrell: Going by the book is worth it

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When the culture vultures descend on the Capital, I get scunnered. As if lousy bagpipers aren’t enough to bear, suddenly all the bars and restaurants put their prices up, you can’t walk down the High Street without getting flyered by somebody dressed as a lizard and celebrity-spotting is the new game in town.

But last Saturday I was gazing out the window at the rain hissing down, feeling sorry for all the Festival-goers getting drookit. Suddenly, the notion of the Book Festival popped into my head.

My wife asked me what I was thinking about, I told her and she gasped and said “So was I!” Well, it was either that or Hibs v Morton, so off we went.

We bought tickets for one of my favourite writers – the gorgeously-named Louis de Bernieres, who wrote Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. We turned up to see him speak the next day.

With a pint of cold Kronenbourg, I sat at a table in the sunshine where a grandma was quietly reading to two wee ones. Looking around, I could see other children with their noses in books.

“What’s that enormous queue?” my wife asked me. Five minutes later we were standing in that same queue ourselves. Inside the Baillie Gifford tent the atmosphere was excitable, like waiting for a rock star. There must have been 400 people squashed inside. Wild applause greeted the arrival of the famous author, a balding man with a round, kind face, in a sand-coloured jacket and maroon trousers.

He was here in Edinburgh to publicise his new book, The Dust That Falls From Dreams. He looked a little uneasy as Sara Davies from BBC Radio 4 began to interview him, but once he began talking his nerves vanished.

He was full of stories. Every so often he would begin to wobble like a jelly, huge chuckles shaking his body as a new tale bubbled out of him. Like the one about his great-uncle Dick who became convinced by the legend of the Ogopogo, a lake monster in the Okanagan Lake in Canada. Keen engineers, great-uncle Dick and his pal built a white submarine in the basement of the house. When they finally levered it out, it actually worked. The trouble was that the lake wasn’t terribly clear so they tootled around underwater for weeks, seeing nothing but algae.

He read passages from his own novel that made him cry in front of us. He explained that he wanted to write about the First World War but from the point of view of the women who were left behind with nothing to fill their days but anxiety about their menfolk. Rosie, one of the characters, gets engaged to Ash, her childhood sweetheart, when she is 12 and he is 13, with a brass curtain ring. Before they can marry, he signs up as an infantryman in the euphoria that followed the outbreak of the war and dies like so many others. A comrade who survives tries to explain life in the trenches to Rosie, describing the screaming of the innocent horses who keep trying to stand up, not realising their legs have been blown off.

Asked about the film of Captain Corelli, he said his only compensation for the fact it was a bad movie was getting to hang out with Penelope Cruz.

When asked if he was a disciplined writer he said he was the opposite. He only wrote when it became an obsession. He described writing as “a particularly well remunerated form of insanity”, echoing the great Canadian novelist Robertson Davies who once observed: “There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book or else go mad and die.”

Tablet du chocolat? I’ll take the rough with the smoothie

It isn’t only women who get fed up seeing stick-thin models in magazines and adverts telling them to get “beach-body ready”.

I used to be as lean as a whippet. When I ran around our city’s streets, naked from the waist up, humphing giant metal dustbins on my shoulder, my workmates nicknamed me the “The Match” thanks to my skinny white body and red head.

So when I flick through a copy of GQ at the barber and I’m faced with tanned male models displaying what the French like to call a “tablet du chocolat”, or bar of chocolate, their term for a six-pack, I feel somewhat deflated. Unfortunately, despite carrying out an inch-by-inch search of my body, I can’t find a valve that would actually deflate me. My own tummy is composed largely of good things like bars of Dairy Milk but it doesn’t look anything like a tablet du chocolat. It is beach-body ready for a Scottish summer like the one we’ve just enjoyed because it has a one-inch layer of subcutaneous fat all the way round, like a peely-wally wetsuit, so that I’m able to swim off Portobello beach without feeling any pain in the icy swell.

Our own body image is very deceiving. The picture of me I carry in my head is distinctly different from the one reflected back at me from shop windows. In my mind, I’m a dapper chap with a flat tummy and broad shoulders. So it never fails to shock me when I catch sight of my true self in the mirror, my trendy Ben Sherman T-shirt accentuating the swell of my belly.

I stood on the scales this morning and endured the stab of horror as the needle whipped round to 17st 3lb. That was when I made The Vow. No more 16-inch pizzas from Origano (the best pizza in Leith). No more pies, steak bakes or fish suppers. No more sweets. No more cheese. No pints. No wine. No cheesy-heel doorstep sandwiches.

For breakfast I threw mango, kiwi, ginger, lime, strawberries, raspberries and banana into the Vitamix and whizzed myself a smoothie. That was at 9am. It’s 12.30 now and I still don’t feel hungry. So far, so good. I’ve managed a whole three hours.

I may never have a tanned tablet du chocolat but if I work at this, I may soon be able to look down in the shower and count my toes.


That’s enough moaning about litter in Leith. Let’s do something about it. Today we set up a Facebook page called Leithers Don’t Litter. Please like it and share it. Our aim is to make Leith the most litter-free neighbourhood in Edinburgh. If you see litter in Leith, report it to the council or pick it up yourself. We’ll be organising a Leith clean-up soon. Watch this space.