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Fringe reviews: Book festival

Jeremy Paxman

HARUKI MURAKAMI: Answered questions about his 1994 novel The Wind-Up Bird.
HARUKI MURAKAMI: Answered questions about his 1994 novel The Wind-Up Bird.

Jeremy Paxman

JEREMY Paxman had been on stage for roughly 12 seconds when, for the benefit of any audience member who had urgent business elsewhere, he courteously summarised his conclusion on the matter at hand, the First World War - "It is the event that made modern Britain," he said.

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Part of me longed to see ­someone take him at his word and leave the auditorium there and then, uttering murmured apologies as he squeezed along his row. How would Paxo react? Alas, we will never know.

The former Newsnight presenter has been winning admiring reviews for his solo comedy/spoken word Fringe show, but yesterday we saw another side to him: the kind of bloke who has been obsessed with the First World War "ever since I was at school", having come to it, like most people, through poetry rather than history.

On a screen behind him there came up a photograph "that has accompanied me throughout my life": a group of young men among whom was his great-uncle Charlie, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who died in Gallipoli in 1915.

Over the next hour Paxman, who earlier this year presented a superb BBC series on the war (there was a related book, too), touched knowledgeably on aspects of Britain's involvement in the war: the fallacy of the "lions led by donkeys" view of wartime generals; recruiting posters, pals' battalions, conditions in the trenches, and the role played by women.

Britain's decision to observe the terms of an 1839 treaty to defend Belgian neutrality was, he said, a matter of honour, realpolitik and amour-propre.

On the latter, he noted: "Britain was at the time the pre-eminent power in the world ... and as Obama discovered in Syria and is now being tested with the Islamic State, if you are the world's pre-eminent power, there are certain actions that are expected of you.

"You must not draw red lines or make ultimatums if you're not prepared to honour them, because no-one will take you seriously as the greatest power in the world any longer."

His talk over, Paxo spent 45 minutes signing books for his fans. One enterprising man left with signatures not just on the war book but on two other Paxman titles as well.

Haruki Murakami

ALMOST 24 hours earlier, the same near-600 capacity Main Theatre had been filled by fans of the internationally renowned author Haruki Murakami.

He was introduced by The Edinburgh International Book Festival's director, Nick Barley, who said this was a session "I have been working for many years to bring about - the arrival of an author who represents a highlight of this festival - in fact, the highlight, possibly, of my time as director".

Murakami, who rarely gives interviews, is the kind of author who can sell more than one million copies of his new novel in its first week of publication in his native Japan, yet still be in the running for the Nobel literature prize.

This was the first of two Murakami sessions (the second was scheduled for last night).

A Guardian Book Club event chaired by John Mullan, it focused on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the luminous 1994 novel that made Murakami an international name.

He answered Mullan's questions in English, though for some audience questions he conferred with his interpreter - who, it emerged, used to waitress in the Toyko bar he and his wife once ran. He was playful, frank and, now and then, enigmatic. He sometimes expressed polite surprise - "Really?" or "I don't remember that" - when asked about aspects of, or characters in, his book.

He said his lifetime dream was to sit at the bottom of a well; he doesn't like writing about sex or violence, but has to, for the story's sake; and his imagination "is a kind of animal - what I do is keep it alive".

Asked what he liked about being a novelist, he was forthright: "no commuting, no meetings, no boss."

It was somehow appropriate that the hour had a certain dream-like quality.

The audience was entirely gripped. And afterwards, it headed for the bookshop to buy Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Blake Morrison

LATER, Blake Morrison, in conversation with Robyn Marsack, reminded us what a skilled poet he is by reading selections from his latest collection, This Poem … .

All of the poems are witty and concise (and, indeed, begin 'This poem …'), and each reflects an aspect of contemporary life: phone-hacking, super-injunctions, Jimmy Savile, offshore tax havens.

The one about call centres went down particularly well.

Then Morrison briefly became serious to read, from his iPad, a poem entitled Redacted, about the death, in Afghanistan while on army service, of the friend of Morrison's son.

The dead man's mother had written a book about her struggle to comprehend why and how he died. A weighty MoD document, heavily redacted, formed the basis of the inquest.

The poem itself is written like a coroner's report, with names redacted.

How to indicate this verbally? Morrison's response was to use a sliding gesture with his thumb and forefinger at the appropriate moments. It was a poignant reading.

The poet also spoke of his admiration for Larkin, "one of the greats of the 20th century", and about the difficulties inherent in writing about other people's secrets.

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