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Book Festival: writers search for answers in bitter conflicts of history

The Book Festival's opening weekend was charged with a new intellectual energy fuelled by the independence referendum, the Commonwealth, the First World War centenary and the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid. The power of words to link past to present has rarely been so apparent.

CONFLICT:   Carol Ann Duffy drew on wartime history.
CONFLICT: Carol Ann Duffy drew on wartime history.

Art also has a role to play. The Swiss art curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, of London's Serpentine Gallery, has long had a fascination with the history - and purpose - of his profession. In fact, it's fair to say he has a fascination with lots of things, as became evident during an electrifying opening session on Saturday.

Talking almost non-stop at breakneck speed to a good-humoured full house, he acknowledged the notion of curating had changed - viz the ubiquitous use of the word in modern parlance, from Obama being chief curator of the Bush legacy to celebrity chefs curating food trucks and Egypt curating the Middle East crisis - while throwing in the idea that art curating is especially important now, since amnesia is at the core of the digital age.

With the proliferation of art centres, installations and exhibitions, it's important to create shows that slow us down to allow their message to sink in.

Curating follows art; it should not be the art. "The role of the curator is to be a catalyst, a trigger of the artist's ideas." Obrist is attributed to coining the phrase "The Glasgow Miracle" after encountering the new generation of contemporary artists in the city; he told his audience that the experience gave him a completely different perspective on London when looked at from Glasgow. "It's not a miracle; it's a lot of hard work," he said. Can contemporary art help us reconnect with the past? "We invent the future with fragments of the past, and artists are the conduit. It's important in the 21st century to keep on making more connections with the past."

The fruit cakes, tarts and scones taking centre stage at Sue Lawrence's event showed it's possible for a Scottish home-baker to curate her own show. Here, in another format, was tangible proof that it's possible to merge the past with the future: traditional Scottish recipes have travelled all over the Commonwealth, ever since the ousted crofters of the Highland Clearances took oatmeal with them to Canada to continue making oatcakes. All over the Commonwealth, traditional recipes have been adapted with local ingredients: Ecclefechan tart a la Canadienne is called Homstead Pie and contains pecan nuts instead of walnuts; in South Africa cloutie dumpling is made with dates rather than dried fruit. Despite the cupcake and muffin parvenus seen so often on the Great British Bake Off, traditional Scottish baking has never gone away and indeed is experiencing a bit of a revival. Lawrence - unfortunately dubbed "Scotland's Mary Berry" by her interviewer - has found a way of contemporising her own art form with haggis flatbreads, individual Dundee cakes "without ten feet of icing", Partan Bree tarts, Cullen skink bridies. Like art, food can span time and place.

The metronomic delivery of Carol Ann Duffy's solemn commemoration of First World War soldiers during the brief ceasefire on Christmas Eve 1914 was accompanied by a live rendition of the Last Post by musician John Sampson and painted a vivid picture of that extraordinary evening, where the frontline troops played football surrounded by the unburied dead. Each precise word seared the brain like an unexploded bullet. The mood of the Poet Laureate's memorable reading of new poems then swung to exuberant, to waspish, to angry and, finally, to tender, ending in her aching heartbreaker, Premonitions, an imagined walk back in time from the moment of her mother's death to when she was in full health. Yes, poetry also remembers.

Reading from his new retrospective collection The Touch of Time, Stuart Conn's astute and jaunty observations of the everyday proved this to be true. The early poems by the son of the manse from Kilmarnock - and Scotland's first makar - imparted some deeply affecting spiritual insights into hillwalking, the birth of his grandson, an encounter with a three-legged collie dog, and the virtues of restraint in upholstery.

By contrast Hugo Williams, who has kidney failure, is understandably preoccupied with his illness and the gruelling routine of thrice-weekly dialysis. Needles, veins, fistulas and blue plastic trays feature like recurring ghosts in his searing 18-poem sequence entitled From the Dialysis Ward; they made uncomfortable listening, but his sympathetic audience was utterly transfixed.

Why exactly Europe went to war on August 4, 1914, is an impossible question to answer, said the pre-eminent war historian Margaret MacMillan to her sell-out audience. Her book The War That Ended Peace (so-called to remind us that Europe had enjoyed a long period of peace before the perplexing decision to change that was made). In a powerful 30-minute reading, she managed to distill the miasma of circumstances that led us there - no mean feat, given that 30,000 books have already been written on the subject. One thing's for sure: the war was not inevitable. So why did we do it? If we don't find out, we're in danger of doing it again. "We don't ever learn lessons from history, but it can offer helpful suggestions," she said.

At least MacMillan's book isn't banned in her own country, unlike Jung Chang's new biography of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the concubine who modernised China. Wearing an antique silk kimono from the period, the author didn't actually read from her book, but she did deliver a powerful portrait of the remarkable woman who for 47 years was absolute ruler (albeit from behind a screen) of a third of the world's population and had her adopted son poisoned when she herself was on her deathbed in 1908.

It was a weekend of new meanings for the immortal words Lest We Forget.

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