A return to cafe society and the revival of debate as opposed to policy tournaments are among the aims of the Institute of Ideas. The organisation responsible for major conferences on culture and literacy has now summoned the spirits of Sartre and De Beauvoir to Charlotte Square Gardens for a series of debates on The Big Questions.
Forthcoming Big Questions include "What Does it Mean To Be Human?" (August 21), "What Can We Learn From History?" (August 22) and "What Makes An Ethical Society?" (August 23), but first came the biggest one: "What Shall We Teach Our Children?" To think for themselves, to know what to do when they don't know what to do, to be uncertain without being insecure was the broad consensus from the panel: Guy Claxton, professor of education at Bristol university, writers Linda Grant and Maureen Freely and youth worker Stuart Waiton. And it's not all the teacher's job: parents and wider society have key roles to play.
"Talking to strangers" should be on the list too, said Waiton, who argued that more children are threatened by an excess of protection and lack of unsupervised play than by paedophiles.
Even anti-bullying policies and "preoccupation with peer group pressure" were decried by some members of the audience as "imposing adult fears on children". Linda Grant's case for helping children survive the playground "culture of conformity" was lost in the pressures of too many speakers in too little time: "It is very hard for children to find their individuality. What is the effect on those who can only survive by not being themselves?" Jean-Paul and Simone would have applauded. They would also have approved of Grant's comment the next day, "The failure of idealism is one of the most tragic things in the world." This time she was referring to her Orange Prize-winning novel When I Lived in Modern Times, set in the 1940s in Tel Aviv as the founders of the state of Israel looked to the future. Her lunchtime session with Helen Dunmore was a delight: try to catch A L Kennedy and Niall Duthie in the same series on August 27.
More failed idealism, an excitin literary treasure hunt and a perilous journey in Joan Lingard's new novel for children, Natasha's Will, in which the high-born Natasha escapes from St Petersburg in 1917, ends her days amid a contemporary Scottish family and leaves them a mystery to solve. Natasha's Will was launched at the book festival and is at the centre of a schools event next Tuesday. The children's programme generally is enticing (Anthony Browne, Brian Jacques and Susan Price are among the highlights of the next few days) and some is oversubscribed. Tickets for some events are available daily, but get there early.
Charlotte Square Gardens is an oasis amid Fringe and "grown-up" festival mania. No flyers are allowed and everything happens within a few yards of the (sometimes damp) patch of lawn which is the only place left to sit down in Edinburgh. Everyone's spiritual home lies in one of the marquees, unless they're looking for the culture of conformity. Homecoming, displacement and "transgression of boundaries" were explored by Caryl Phillips in a mind-expanding contribution to The Bigger Picture series on the contexts within which writers work. "Everyone has to question what they think of as home; people are bing increasingly displaced out of their sense of comfort and stability," he said.
Matthew Fitt is one first-time novelist who does know where he is at home. He was one of the Scots language writers whose event was squeezed in before Norman Mailer. "By scrievin science fiction in Scots," his blurb reads, "He hopes tae blooter the glaikit idea that Scotland's mither tongue is auld and foostie." James Robertson, whose novel The Fanatic is partly written in Scots, says Fitt will "do for prose in Scots what Hugh MacDiarmid did for poetry in Scots". Now But'n' Ben a Go-Go from Luath Press is held up at the printers, and even the tantalising extracts are hard to get hold of, but the tale of Nadia, "stane still inside her Omega Kist", is going to be a cracker.
Programme details: www.edbookfest.co.uk Bookings: 0131 624 5050, free entry to the site in Charlotte Square Gardens until August 28