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Michel Faber

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850–1894 <em>Picture: Ana Quiroga</em>

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850–1894 Picture: Ana Quiroga

Come the spring, what more could a television audience ask for than to sit down midweek and ogle the BBC’s new costume drama? The Crimson Petal and the White, adapted from the book by Scottish-based author Michel Faber, details the trials and tribulations of a Victorian prostitute known as Sugar.

As is almost always the case in 19th century depictions of prostitution, the novel is set in London, a place that appears to have – at least in literature – exclusivity when it comes to bordellos and whores. Even Robert Louis Stevenson set his novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London, as if to confirm that vice could never stalk the presbyterian streets of Scotland.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and you can find houses of ill-repute, streetwalkers and harlots out and about and soliciting for business in Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh from pretty much around the time that man appears. Stevenson himself frequented the most sordid of brothels whilst he was meant to be studying law at Edinburgh University, and it can’t be too much of a stretch to suggest his inspiration for Hyde was born in those dingy backrooms off the Royal Mile.

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Surprisingly little has been written about prostitution in Scotland, but what small glimpses there are reveal that it has always been an entrenched problem. In the 17th century there was an acknowledged need for a new jail, eventually built on Regent’s Road in Edinburgh, to imprison the ever-growing criminal population. The 1829 book Modern Athens reveals that Edinburgh had “become, as it were, the common receptacle for the strolling poor, lazy beggars, idle vagrants and common prostitutes”.

In Glasgow, right up to the 19th century and beyond, the Fair holidays, with their street tables and penny theatres, led to an abundance of cheap entertainment, too much alcohol and – inevitably – prostitution. The Fair, which had begun as a religious festival in the 15th century, was by then “reduced to a day or two celebrated in blind drunkenness”.

During the plays, young women cavorted in cutty-sarks, in their own inimitable version of Tam o’ Shanter. Another theatre-owner was even less subtle, using a prostitute to perform “unspeakable acts” as a way of drawing the crowds. A newspaper at the time suggested that there were upwards of 200 brothels in the East End of Glasgow.

According to the modern historian Judith Walkowitz, a British city would have on average one prostitute per 36 inhabitants. This eventually led across the United Kingdom to an outcry for something to be done to stop this “Great Social Evil”. By the middle of the 19th century, the UK government was compelled to introduce the Contagious Diseases Acts 1866–1869 to address the problem of the spread of venereal diseases. At that time, it was thought that one in three men in the British Army needed treatment for VD.

Glasgow opted not to enforce this Act, having decided to tackle the problem earlier. There, the Glasgow Police Act of 1843 had improved things enormously with Alexander McCall, the city’s chief constable, writing that before the Act “you could scarcely walk any distance without some woman putting herself in your way or getting hold of you”.

After the passing of the Act, McCall concluded that “you will not find a city in which there is less of that upon the public streets, or less temptation in a general way to lead young people astray than you find in Glasgow.”

His claims are given greater credence when you investigate the records from Glasgow’s Lock Hospital, an asylum set up to specialise in the treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis, where the number of women treated for VD decreased over the years after the introduction of the Act.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, William Tait – whose 1840 book Magdalenism offered an in-depth study of prostitution in the capital city – estimated that £200,000 a year was spent on prostitution, and that there were at least 800 prostitutes at work in the city. He traced them to a number of different establishments, from: “Genteel houses of assignation” (of which there were three), licensed taverns (ten), ginger-beer shops (25) and brothels – which he rated from Genteel, second-rate, through to very low.

An illustrative example in Tait’s time of how the trade followed the customer is offered from 1839, when the Earl of Eglinton produced a massive mediaeval re-enactment event in Ayrshire. Over half the prostitutes in Edinburgh were said to have travelled west, many staying for months, and putting a great strain on the brothels they left behind.

It was not just in the bigger cities that the vice held its grip. In Dundee during the 19th century the dramatic rise in VD was said to mirror the increase in street- and brothel-run prostitution. At that time, prostitution was thought to be gravitating to the housing schemes on the outskirts of the city. In the Police Superintendent’s Annual Report from 1876, we see that 123 prostitutes were arrested for “loitering and importuning”.

Through the 19th century, there grew a greater understanding of the need to offer help as well as punishment for prostitutes. The Contagious Diseases Act did necessitate the examination of all known prostitutes, but was seen by a growing number of civil rights activists as an invasion of privacy. By the 20th century, there were numerous attempts to deal with the issue – with Edinburgh, for example, opting for a number of years for a tolerated red-light area.

Today it is estimated that globally the annual revenue generated by prostitution is over $100 billion. With such enormous sums, it is unlikely that this “festering sore on the body of society” (the Scotsman, 1959) will be dealt with any time soon.

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<em>Picture: Mind On Fire</em>

Picture: Mind On Fire

Without wishing to be churlishly pedantic, it’s hardly an auspicious start. “The Edinburgh International Book Festival unveiled its 2010 programme this morning with a plethora of prize winning authors,” declares the accompanying press release – the Oxford Concise Dictionary definition of “plethora” being “an excess of”, rather than a synonym of “lots”, or “an abundance”, as it’s commonly misused. And if you can’t be pedantic in the context of a book festival, when can you?

The festival’s new director Nick Barley displayed a similarly interesting linguistic imprecision following his appointment last October, while defending himself against allegations of incompetence in his previous post as executive director of The Lighthouse, Scotland’s national architecture and design centre in Glasgow, which went into administration in late August with the loss of 57 jobs.

Despite claiming in newspaper interviews that “I take full responsibility for what happened,” Barley went on to state that “no-one was to blame apart from the recession” and “circumstances conspired against it [The Lighthouse],” indicating rather less than dictionary-level exactitude in his understanding of the term “full responsibility”. Others have observed that the application deadline for the Book Festival job was at the beginning of August, nearly a month before the Lighthouse hit the rocks, suggesting that Barley was seeking his escape-route well in advance.

“This is in the past and does not have any bearing on the book festival,” was the official spokesperson’s short-shrift response – as if less than two months’ interim was sufficient to turn preceding events into dim and distant peccadilloes. (Apologies again for the pedantry, but such semantic elasticity, from those appointed to uphold the art of using language well, is just asking for it.) Still, let’s follow that official line for now and turn to Barley’s maiden programme – for which the headline on that aforementioned press release is “Book Festival Explores New World Order”.

The New World Order, though – being a phrase primarily associated with the first Bush presidency, the end of the Cold War, and the first Iraq war – isn’t exactly new any more, especially by the above-cited standards of measuring contemporary relevance. Couldn’t they at least have added “Revisited”, or something?

The various events scheduled under this strapline do take in such current hot-button issues as China’s rise to superpower status, climate change, America under Obama, the war in Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and the power of the internet. But they also cover a disparate selection of additional topics, including the state of the Arctic, David Cameron’s Big Society, the future of publishing and the global domination of English.

Somewhat confusingly, too, while Barley is quoted in the publicity as linking the New World Order theme to “the USA’s place in this world”, and thus to this year’s focus on US writing – a wholly welcome element in the line-up, with nearly 50 Stateside authors headed by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Lionel Shriver and Amy Bloom – the programme also features a separate strand headed “America Now”, under which most of these events are billed.

Further dissipating the post-Cold War theme is yet another strand, “After the Wall: The New Europe”, which again seems distinctly behind the times.

None of which carping about categorisation reflects on the quality of individual events, nor will it stop the Book Festival’s large and loyal audience – totalling over 210,000 visitors last year – finding their picks from among the 17-day festival’s offerings. But given that two of Barley’s key stated aims for the festival were to renew its programming while improving the design impact and user-friendliness of its brochure, and especially given what he needs to prove, these outward signs are less than ideal.

Now, let’s have some good news for a change, shall we? The new Guest Selectors initiative looks like a sure-fire winner, especially given the calibre and diversity of its inaugural guests, each invited to devise or curate their own event or mini-strand, according to personal predilection. Not so mini, either, in the case of recent Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry winner Don Paterson.

Patterson has worked with the Scottish Poetry Library to lay on a good dozen events featuring such stellar names in his field as Seamus Heaney – giving a foretaste of his forthcoming new collection Human Chain – Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage, Jo Shapcott, Kathleen Jamie and Robin Robertson.

Ruth Padel, Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaugher and biographer, has chosen the theme of parent/child relationships, while poet, author and Scotland on Sunday literary editor Stuart Kelly tackles The Future of Fiction. The mighty Steve Bell, meanwhile, has opted for a one-on-one with his US counterpart Gary Trudeau, exchanging their thoughts on “The Political Cartoon and Its Place in Journalism.”

Also spotlighting connections and common ground among writers – albeit in a different direction – is the Literary Pioneers series, examining the enduring legacy of late greats as varied as Beckett, Burns, Burroughs, Shakespeare, Scott, MacDiarmid and Woolf, in company with an array of contemporary experts.

Another fine innovation, and a boldly far-sighted one on several levels, is the commissioning project Elsewhere, whereby 50 brand new stories and essays by Scottish, UK and international authors will be published on the Book Festival website between now and March next year. The first five, by Louise Welsh, Michel Faber, Eleanor Thom, A.L. Kennedy and Allan Radcliffe, are already up. Among those still to come are contributions by Alasdair Gray, Alan Garner, Michael Morpurgo, Amy Bloom, Ali Smith, Roddy Doyle, Alan Warner and Denise Mina. Some will feature as readings during this year’s event, and the whole caboodle will form an anthology later in 2011.

For a book festival to be actually generating as well as championing new writing to such a copious extent, to be testing out new publishing strategies and maintaining an active online presence year-round, is a cracker of a concept.

An early highlight in the making is the opening-day encounter between Philip Pullman, who recently rewrote the Gospel narrative into The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and ex-Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, now Dean of King’s College London. Other prospective red-hot tickets among the 750-plus writers taking part are Candia McWilliam (launching her first book in a deacde, having recovered from two years’ blindness), Fay Weldon, James Robertson, DBC Pierre, Alistair Darling, Heather Brooke (who first unearthed the MPs’ expenses scandal), Lydia Davis, Mark Billingham, Michael Frayn and Will Self.

The perennially popular children’s programme incorporates an Australian showcase, with Garth Nix, Simmone Howell and Isobelle Carmody flying in, plus 2010’s Illustrator in Residence, Tohby Riddle. Another focus is on those often tricky young-adult tastes, catered for by a seasoned line-up including John Green, Michael Grant, Patrick Ness and Louise Rennison. Overall, it looks like a festival combining strength, depth and breadth; let’s hope those initial – and, arguably, partly superficial – wobbles and glitches prove to be mere teething pains.

The Edinburgh Book Festival runs August 17-30. Tickets are on sale from June 26