Jura Unbound: From Cutting Teeth to Cutting Edge

Six years ago, the improper child of the Book Festival proper was born. So to celebrate an eventful journey and introduce 2015, we share some wine and words with Roland Gulliver, the man we must all thank and blame

Article by Alan Bett | 02 Jul 2015
  • Roland Gulliver

So, you’re in the Spiegeltent, sipping a cold beer on a warm summer’s night as laughter ripples around you. You’re watching a team of Britain’s finest performance poets, dressed ridiculously in superhero outfits, locked in a three-way rap battle in a homemade wrestling ring. But while you’re taking in this curious scene you suddenly notice the real show. A front row table of unsuspecting elderly ladies, trapped in place by the sheer force of the crowd, mouths forming exaggerated O’s at the delicious vulgarity of the salty insults spit on stage. Scurrilous slurs aimed at girlfriends and mothers. Claims of indecent acts performed upon each other’s… erm… pillow cases. This is most certainly not turning out to be the free Book Festival poetry event they expected it to be.

This is Jura Unbound you see, which each year bares its teeth in smile and snarl. The real fun in life always begins when the sun sets, as proven true in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens for sixteen eventful nights each August. This is where a glorious combination of words and melody meld as a gang of the world’s top writers and musicians let their hair down for an audience’s entertainment.

To 2015 then, and in vino veritas. So, in the bowels of the Book Festival HQ, wine is poured as Roland Gulliver explains himself and Unbound, his baby, born six years ago to reflect Scotland’s burgeoning live literature scene. Between then and now Unbound has grown into a strong and healthy (bastard) child of the festival proper. And uniquely for Edinburgh International Book Festival it places performance on the same high pedestal as word. “Offering the opportunity for authors to do different things,” Roland says. “Particularly musicians who have written novels or memoirs, giving them a space to be musical and perform.” For example Nile Rogers in 2012, treating a lucky audience to a rare acoustic show. It was an evening which added a skill set to Roland’s CV. “It was quite bizarre becoming Nile Rogers’ security to get him out of the Spiegeltent, and then two years ago having to do the same for Neil Gaiman.” Gaiman simply popped up one evening as surprise judge for the Literary Deathmatch – these things happen at Jura Unbound. “Some of the nights are programmed in completion very early on, but with some others we deliberately leave space for people to be added in or for the audience just not to know what they’re going to come and see.” It just might be your favourite author or performer skulking at the back, swigging on a beer, perhaps even deciding to take to the stage. “Stewart Lee doing a little set was really good,” Roland says, adding with a smirk born of the memory, “He recieved the worst heckle ever.

“It’s quite funny the Book Festival being challenged by heckling,” he adds, neglecting to elaborate on what said heckly was. “It’s so alien. It’s like ‘we don’t do that here.’” There are many things Jura Unbound does that the main festival programme would never dream of. “There’s a change from during the day,” Roland agrees, “when there’s these quite intense and intellectual events, to where you can come and have some fun and enjoy storytelling and not have that stereotype of books being heavy and dull. You can be entertained,” a pause, “…and have a pint.

“There’s more performance, there’s more storytelling, there’s more music,” he continues. “One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that although it’s all about having storytellers it’s always nice to finish with music.” A task made simpler by a natural convergence of word and song on the Scottish cultural scene. “That connection between the Scottish indie music scene and Scottish writing is so close. It’s trying to get those audiences from King Creosote or who go to Born to be Wide nights to come and just flip over into Book Festival nights which have similar themes to those they’re interested in.”

“One of the brilliant things is how musicians have responded to coming in and being part of the Book Festival, so people like Stanley Odd [the Edinburgh hip hop crew contributed to a notable 2014 Empire Café event, challenging Scotland’s colonial past] came and discovered the Book Festival, and having Willy Vlautin perform last year.”

An essential ingredient to Jura Unbound is the setting itself, the majestic Spiegeltent. “People warm to being there and being part of it,” Roland suggests, “Particularly at night – it has a quite magical atmosphere.” And it has hosted and witnessed many things, especially one fateful evening celebrating the life and work of a certain Scottish poet. “The Paul Reekie tribute night was a seminal moment, but I think that the lesson there was not to programme on the same day as a Hearts v Hibs derby match,” Roland says, remembering an evening of raucous revelry in a tent bursting at the seams. Also, “The James Yorkston, Vic Galloway, King Creosote granny joke has gone down in history.” He winces. “I think it’s probably the rudest joke ever told on stage.” We can't possibly divulge the details in print, but Roland will happily relate it to you should you succeed in tracking him down come the Book Festival. 

But for all this painting of Jura Unbound as an unruly child – challenging preconceptions of what a book festival event can be – it remains intrinsically linked to the valuable and vital subject matter discussed during daylight hours. “It’s exploring the same themes but in a different way.” Roland says. It holds a carnival mirror to the festival proper, distorting its concepts into delightful forms. A night of debauchery might be followed in the programme by one of quiet contemplation. Some manage both. “One of my favourite events was when we had Scottish and Iraqi poets reading each other’s work. At the beginning it was personal and political and quite moving, really amazing poetry, and then it finished with everyone dancing around the Spiegeltent in a joyful celebration. That for me encapsulated what Unbound can do.”

Come along day or night and you will also discover the lush green Charlotte Square Gardens, hidden in plain sight in the centre of this beautiful city; surrounded by cafés and bookshops.  A place to soak up the the sun and atmosphere while you languidly turn a page or tip a glass. We really shouldn’t neglect to mention that although the programme boasts talents of the very highest order, these performances won’t cost you, the audience, a single penny. Jura Unbound is a gateway drug. A free taste offered up to unsuspecting fans of music and verse – soon to have you hooked on £10 hits of hardcore literature in the full festival line-up, mainlining Martin Amis. “It’s trying to break down that barrier of ‘Oh the Book Festival’s not for me because it’s formal events’ but actually you can come along and enjoy amazing international, Scottish and British writers and artists in a really informal setting, all for free.”

It’s a parallel offering of international writing on a Scottish stage combined with Scottish writing on the international stage of Edinburgh in August, including our home-grown heroes seen elsewhere throughout the year “…grinding away in cold wet Novembers and doing brilliant stuff, like Neu! Reekie! and Rally & Broad… we as a Book Festival are really lucky because in August most of Britain is looking north and the rest of the world sees what’s happening here.” But geography is irrelevant in the grand scheme; storytelling is a timeless and universal art form. “Storytelling is in everything,” Roland agrees. “It’s in music, it’s in film, it’s in theatre, it’s in The X Factor… quite an important part was showing that you can go out for a night and have a drink and be entertained but not lose that literary storytelling element.”

It’s easy to wonder, with all its antics, just how Jura Unbound has been accepted by the main body of Edinburgh International Book Festival, being as it is that little bit dangerous, naughty and late night. Ask anyone at the Book Festival about Jura Unbound and they say ‘That’s Roland’s baby, it’s his fault.’ Roland looks up, takes a gulp of wine, slowly nods his confession. “It is all my fault.”

Unbound, Charlotte Square Spiegeltent, 16-31 Aug 2015, free http://edbookfest.co.uk