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A heady mix of politics, poetry and rock'n' roll

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is usually a good place to go in search of the unusual and the exotic, but this year Scotland is the unusual and the exotic.

The eyes of the world are on us apparently and independence referendum sessions are the order of the day, even if man cannot live by indy-chat alone.

First up was Iain Macwhirter, Sunday Herald columnist and designated pro-independence hitter whenever the No camp pitches one of its nasty fast balls.

The Union, he said to a packed main theatre on Saturday, was a partnership and Scotland was never a colony. His audience became positively giddy when he transferred this to the present and claimed that threats over currency had broken the spirit of the Union and destroyed the notion of equal partnership.

The traditional Q&A plea for questions rather than speeches fell on deaf ears. One fellow started with the German invasion of Norway in 1940 until cries of "What's the question?" eventually produced "When Putin brings nuclear weapons, what is the Scottish Home Guard going to do?" Channelling his inner John McEnroe, Macwhirter said: "You can't be serious." Outside the Book Festival precincts, chants of "Free Palestine" were being directed at Bute House, the First Minister's residence, which helped to put the whole thing in perspective.

Whether Jim and William Reid of The Jesus And Mary Chain have declared themselves on independence I know not. The question didn't arise at a session with the band's biographer Zoe Howe. In their heyday, The Jesus And Mary Chain divided opinion with two-string bass guitar, feedback and violent concerts.

The brothers formed the band in East Kilbride in the pre-devolution 1980s, a place the irrepressible Zoe had "looked into". She concluded that it "wasn't too bad" but living there made the brothers feel "bored and alone", conditions they relieved with drugs, alcohol and music. For some reason this conjured up a recent survey that found 700,000 Scots "could" leave Scotland after independence.

I am not sure how many left East Kilbride with the Reids, but I was once a denizen of a new town on the other side of Glasgow. If asked 30 years ago who would leave Cumbernauld if they could, the answer would have been "everybody".

If Rowan Williams was asked for his take on the Jesus And Mary Chain when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, he didn't mention it. His session turned out to be a reading of his own poetry rather than the one on social justice that I had anticipated.

Williams's poetry is underwhelming and a sequence he wrote in honour of poets "greater than I" begged the question why those poets weren't left to speak for themselves. Comeuppance duly arrived courtesy of an audience member whose question began: "The ideas in your poems are very trivial ..." Williams didn't get where he is today by being flappable and responded with a soothing sermon on the balance between ideas and words in poetry. A couple behind me were so moved they started to cry.

Anyone expecting evidence that Alex Salmond was crying after his alleged "pounding" by Alistair Darling would have been disappointed. At another packed session in the main tent, Salmond looked relaxed and healthy though no more so than a tanned Sir Tom Devine, with whom he was in conversation.

The two exchanged questions and gags ranging from Darien to the relative merits of being a politician or a historian. One of the more interesting questions didn't take. Devine asked Salmond if he had a plan to get people out on September 18 who don't normally vote. Answer "Yes". "Would you like to share it?" "No."

Painter Alexander Moffat and Scottish literature professor Alan Riach don't think there is much to distinguish Salmond from Darling as far as culture is concerned. The two of them never mention culture, according to Moffat, either because they don't know anything about it or they think the ordinary punter isn't interested.

Moffat and Riach claim that culture isn't just an argument for independence but the only argument. Cue a fascinating discussion enhanced by a kind of triangular dance. Moffat is a laconic Father Ted-like figure and Riach all rubicund nervous energy with a habit of jumping to his feet, declaiming from the book they co-authored and yelling "That's the answer tae yer question" into the microphone.

The session that started out burying politicians ended up praising them. Moffat read a statement from a meeting of culture ministers which put culture at the head of all political policy. Someone just needs to tell Salmond and Darling.

Herald literary editor Rosemary Goring introduced Graham Swift as "one of the greatest writers of our time". He started by referencing the audacity of coming to Edinburgh this year with a book entitled England And Other Stories, and then read a wonderful tale, about a British-Indian doctor, which owed something to India's own independence. The main theatre was half-empty which made me wonder, albeit hypocritically, where the balance is now between literary fiction and politics at the Book Festival.

It is understandable that in a referendum year politicians and political commentators would be to the fore but that doesn't explain why it was this way last year too.

Perhaps something to consider once the excitement dies down.

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