By the time I read this I shall be back from two weeks on the Edinburgh Fringe and starting to catch up on two weeks of lost sleep – a trip to Edinburgh provides the most extended form of cultural jet lag known to man, and perhaps the most enjoyable. It’s an experience which, rather like the Notting Hill Carnival or going through Heathrow, cannot adequately be described in words or conveyed to someone who has never done it.
One misconception should be cleared up, though. We talk glibly about going to the Edinburgh Festival. There is no such thing. There are only Edinburgh Festivals. I don’t just mean the division between the official Festival and the Fringe – though I find to my surprise that although I have been to nearly a hundred Fringe productions in the last ten years, I have never seen an official event – I mean that there are lots of festivals going on at the same time, which only intersect by accident.
There is the Film Festival, for instance. There is a folk festival going on at the Aal Centre, which was not so called, as you might think, to get first place in the alphabetical listings, but comes from an old Scottish word for old. Actually, they only came second in the listings; first place went to a production called ‘ Aaaaargh! ‘ which comes from an old Scottish word for pub closing time.
There is also a jazz festival, sponsored by Drybrough’s Beer, and it’s nice for once to come across a sponsor whose product is intimately concerned with the cultural event in question. Dozens of bands, mostly trad, have been performing at dozens of pubs round the city and round the clock, turning the place into a sort of Georgian-style New Orleans. The best group I caught was the Fred Hunt Trio backing Jim Galloway, a marvellous Scottish soprano saxophonist now resident in Canada, and the rapt attention of the beer-clutching crowd would have done credit to a mime audience on the Fringe.
(More than credit, in fact. Mime performers this year have added a lot of sound to their acts. I have even heard complaints that some cabarets are inaudible and some mimes are far too noisy, which is an interesting cultural development.)
I don’t suppose that many jazz supporters have been to mime shows, or vice versa, and I don’t suppose that either of them have been to visit the Television Festival. I asked one television visitor just what was so festive about the television festival and she replied, quite honestly: “Nothing – it’s just another conference. This is the one week in the year when we can get together and think about what we are meant to be doing in television.” The honesty lies in the clear admission that during the other fifty-one weeks they don’t think about that kind of thing at all.
But even outside these festivals there are plenty of other events to attract a sated crowd. There was a spectacular fireworks display at the Castle last Thursday, sponsored by Glenlivet Whisky (another alcoholic sponsor – good old Scotland), which turned Edinburgh briefly into Beirut without any of the nasty side-effects. There is the Edinburgh Marathon, taking place over the most cobbled and hilliest terrain you could want. There was even, one Sunday at the Calton Studios, a Dr Who Appreciation Convention, lasting all day and costing £9 admission, except to a mother and child who drove all the way from the Peebles thinking it was free and got in for two quid. £9 seemed a lot to me for a day pretending to be a Dalek, until I learned that it cost £12 to get into the Television Festival for a day and listen to politicians talking about TV election coverage, and pretending to be pundits.
In the years when I don’t come to Edinburgh for the Festival, or should I say festivals, I read about it from a distance and wonder what all the fuss is about. When I do come, I wonder why life can’t be like this all the time. A kind of perpetual high, where the good seems very good, the very good seems unbelievably good and even the disastrous has a special aura of unmissably disastrous about it. There are other things which have this sort of addictive aura: skiing, Wagner, trips to China and making your own wine come to mind. But all these activities seem to have a sectarian interest. I can’t imagine anyone in the world not liking Edinburgh during festival time.
Most people in the world, in fact, seem to be here during festival time, and I have almost come to dread turning corners for fear of bumping into someone else I haven’t seen for twenty year, or two weeks. It will be nice to get back to staid old provincial London, and the quiet life.