James Naughtie

Mark Fisher & Joyce McMillan

Patrick Gale

Review by Rosemary Goring

It was, said chair person Magnus Linklater, "a tour de raison". Not one given to demonstrative displays, he did his best not to slap James Naughtie on the back after he spoke, unscripted, for 20 effortless minutes on the subject of the changing British political landscape. "And by golly it has changed", said Linklater. Naughtie's period was the past 21 years, during which time he has been a presenter on Radio 4's Today programme, a role he is to swap at Christmas for a roving brief across the station.

With barely pause for breath, he described the recent changes that are making the governing classes quake. "Old systems are breaking down," he said, sounding like Noah warning that the weather was about to turn nasty. Yet the picture he painted was not one of apocalypse but opportunity. The days of the two-party state are long gone, he said, refusing to accept Linklater's suggestion that the current fragmented, unpredictable climate is a mere blip. "Everything is on the agenda," he added, cheerfully, be it the Scottish question, or a form of federalism, or Europe. The idea palpably thrilled him.

Almost too full of energy for a stage to contain, his informed, often droll analysis was delivered at the speed of a Gattling gun. The present unsettling situation has been brought about by a combination of deepening scepticism about our political leaders, and a burning need for something to believe in, he suggested. Add to this the advent of social media, which means "the political system is struggling to cope with this sort of scrutiny", and we are witnessing little short of a democratic revolution.

When psephologist John Curtice asked a question from the floor, Naughtie beamed with pleasure. What was it, Curtice asked, that made politicians like Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn appeal to voters? The broadcaster had no hesitation in replying: "They don't appear to be part of an establishment that hasn't delivered." How long that will continue, and what direction it will take us in, however, nobody - not even Naughtie - can predict.

There was a high-octane performance of a different order when theatre critics Mark Fisher, of the Guardian, and The Scotsman's Joyce McMillan addressed the subject of the "crisis in arts journalism", speaking as fast as if an autocue had been overwound. If that's what a life of on-the-night reviewing does to the synapses, medical science should take note. It was certainly impressive, as was their optimism about the future of theatre criticism in a time of declining newspaper circulation and budgets, and the rise of social media and citizen critics. Discussion of the theatre reviewer's role was broadened out by McMillan, who believes that "the act of criticism is under-rated in general.... Critical intelligence is a vital part of citizenship. The more people can be critical, the more healthy your democracy will be." The only thing missing in this otherwise invigorating session was the absence of a single word about book reviewing, despite this taking place at the largest book festival in the world, and several of the plays they discussed - Lanark, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour - being adaptations of critically acclaimed novels.

It takes no great leap of imagination to foresee that Patrick Gale's dramatic novel, Winter, might one day be adapted for stage or screen. Seasoned novelist though he is, Gale has never before written a historical tale. Only the mystery behind the black sheep of the family, fondly known as "cowboy grandpa", set him wondering why his wealthy Edwardian relative had left his wife and child and become a homesteader in the Canadian prairie. The only reason that made sense to him was in some ways outrageous. ""I basically gayed my great grandfather", he confessed. Using a cache of poignant letters between his granny and his mother, and a pair of bearskin gloves from a beast grandpa had killed and skinned himself, Gale allowed himself complete artistic licence. The result is a heartfelt romance and tragedy, from which he read with feeling. It did not require a psephologist or an exit poll to predict that the book would soon be flying off the bookshop shelves.