THAT’S EN­TER­TAIN­MENT?

Kevin McKenna deigns to sub­mit him­self to the Fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ence

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

OF all the excursions and surprises I’d ex­pected to en­counter dur­ing my day out at the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val they didn’t in­clude this. Gor­don, the pho­tog­ra­pher, has ca­joled me into climb­ing on top of one of the se­cu­rity bol­lards that have been in­stalled half­way up the Royal Mile. I am to af­fect a thought­ful pose look­ing over the throng and up to­wards Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle. My stout Glaswe­gian re­serve at any­thing that might be con­sid­ered flam­boy­ant can just about sur­vive in cir­cum­stances such as these. Af­ter all, there is a bac­cha­nal hap­pen­ing around me, for this is the time when old Ed­in­burgh slips off its re­serve and is pos­sessed by some­thing wild. My or­deal, though, has just be­gun.

Gor­don spots a lively-look­ing chap wear­ing a blue se­quinned leo­tard who is hand­ing out flyers for his show. It’s called Mein Camp. Of course it’s called Mein Camp. Hans in his leo­tard doesn’t need to be asked twice. In one leo­nine and sinewy move­ment he swings up be­side me. He can sense that I am an en­tire con­ti­nent out of my com­fort zone.

“Hello sweetie, what’s your name? Will

you come to my show tonight? I re­ally hope you can make it.”

When he says, “I re­ally hope you can make it,” he gives me an ex­trav­a­gant wink and the sort of look that ought not to be al­lowed be­fore 9pm. Then he thrusts a shapely thigh into my arms. At this point, I find my ret­i­cence has evap­o­rated and I must sim­ply go with the flow. And I dis­cover with a de­gree of as­ton­ish­ment that I am en­joy­ing my­self im­mensely.

In the 10 years or so I worked in Ed­in­burgh for the Scots­man I al­lowed the Fes­ti­val and Fringe to pass me by. On count­less oc­ca­sions plans to watch a show dis­in­te­grated in the tav­erns of Flesh­mar­ket Close; the drama of putting out a news­pa­per amid all our scream­ing egos eclipsed any­thing we might see on the stage. And so I tried to jus­tify my Fes­ti­val-eva­sion by nur­tur­ing a Glaswe­gian re­sent­ment at the self-re­gard­ing os­ten­ta­tion of it and the amount of space we ac­corded it in the pa­per. “Come to Glas­gow,” I would tell vis­i­tors, “there are fu­ner­als hap­pen­ing right now that are more en­ter­tain­ing than any­thing you’ll see here.”

On other oc­ca­sions I’d an­nounce that Glas­gow had cul­ture 24/7 ev­ery day of the year and that we in the west didn’t need to man­u­fac­ture an er­satz cul­tural jam­boree to con­vince our­selves we were all hav­ing a good time. But it was al­ways a bit of an act tinged with a de­gree of re­gret that my city sim­ply couldn’t com­pete with all this. Per­haps, in­stead of com­pet­ing, I sim­ply needed to chill and join in. And so, last Mon­day I took the train to Ed­in­burgh once more to join their Fes­ti­val and not merely to ob­serve it with de­tached be­muse­ment or to en­dure it sto­ically.

WALK­ING up through Flesh­mar­ket Close past the Jinglin’ Ge­ordie and the Half­way House and on to Mar­ket Street I soon re­proach my­self for never hav­ing fully ap­pre­ci­ated the grandeur of these old build­ings even as I worked among them. Still, up on the Royal Mile it takes me some time to ad­just to the gai­ety of the streets and to dis­re­gard my in­ner churl. I no­tice, for in­stance, that there must be up­wards of 50 shops sell­ing tar­tan and whisky and cash­mere. Is that re­ally the best that Scot­land’s grand­est boule­vard has to of­fer when the world pitches up on its an­cient doorsteps? And I’m dis­mayed that the spon­tane­ity and rib­aldry of the street the­atre hap­pen­ing all around has been di­min­ished a lit­tle by the cor­po­rate pres­ence of Vir­gin Bank­ing, whose gar­ish red liv­ery hangs be­hind mini-plat­forms up and down the Mile.

The jour­nal­ist and au­thor Alan Taylor is as Ed­in­burgh as a fruit scone and a dis­puted bill and is to be found most years in­tro­duc­ing au­thors at the Book Fes­ti­val on Charlotte Square. Lately, though, he has been spend­ing much more time in Glas­gow and though he still loves the Fes­ti­val he has be­gun to tire of it a lit­tle. “It’s sim­ply be­com­ing too big,” he says. “At what point do they say ‘we’re happy with what we have here’ and sim­ply let it be. In­stead there seems to be a de­sire to add more an­cil­lary mini-fes­ti­vals and to ex­pand it. And as for the street the­atre, you’ll en­counter far bet­ter mu­si­cians and en­ter­tain­ers on the streets of Glas­gow any day of the week.”

Yet, as I walk up to­wards the cas­tle my resid­ual cyn­i­cism at all this ar­ti­fi­cial hoopla is be­gin­ning to melt, for there is noth­ing much con­trived about it at all. It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter if the fal­ter­ing show­man do­ing tricks with a Ru­bik’s cube isn’t re­ally cutting the mus­tard; the crowd is warm­ing to his en­thu­si­asm and his cheek and a de­cent line in pat­ter. And any­way, if you don’t fancy that there is a lunchtime recital hap­pen­ing in nearby St Giles Cathe­dral fea­tur­ing two bril­liant young French pi­anists per­form­ing four-handed con­cer­tos.

As the morn­ing gives way to af­ter­noon the acts seem to have im­proved too. There is a South Korean dance troupe and bab­bling Ja­panese clowns. Over there on the other side of the road wee Yoda from Star Wars is stand­ing four feet in the air serenely sur­vey­ing the crowds with no vis­i­ble signs of sup­port. Chil­dren are get­ting their pic­tures taken with Darth Vader and there are out­breaks of com­mu­nity singing at street cor­ners among groups of vis­i­tors from those Latin-Amer­i­can coun­tries who don’t re­quire to be howl­ing with the bevvy be­fore break­ing into song. Big Hans in his blue leo­tard is camp­ing it up all over the shop and I’m find­ing it dif­fi­cult to say no to all the smil­ing peo­ple from all the dif­fer­ent coun­tries thrust­ing flyers into my hands.

Here you can have Bach for break­fast and Mozart for lunch

On a cor­ner up by the Lawn­mar­ket, Tom Ward is play­ing clas­si­cal gui­tar very pro­fi­ciently to an ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence hud­dled about him in de­fi­ance of the rain. Ward is from Tas­ma­nia and has been per­form­ing on these streets at the Fes­ti­val for the last seven years. “I’ll al­ways come back here for as long as I can,” he says. “It pos­sesses a magic you don’t get in other cities. In Ed­in­burgh the peo­ple give you space and time to play your mu­sic and they’re ap­pre­cia­tive of the sto­ries be­hind the mu­sic. The other street mu­si­cians who come from all over the world will tell you the same.”

Baroness Vivien Stern, from Lon­don, who sits in the House of Lords, and her hus­band Pro­fes­sor An­drew Coyle, the renowned prison re­form spe­cial­ist, have a home in Ed­in­burgh’s New Town and have been Fes­ti­val devo­tees for the past 12 years or so. They sim­ply can’t imag­ine Ed­in­burgh or their own lives with­out the Fes­ti­val and will brook no un­tu­tored crit­i­cism of what it’s all about.

“Some­times it’s an event in it­self just watch­ing peo­ple from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries run­ning be­tween the events. They start early in the morn­ing with a con­cert at the Queen’s Hall and later that night you’ll still see them clutch­ing on to their rain hats try­ing to fit in the next event on their itin­er­ary,” says Stern. “It’s lovely to see the cathe­drals and churches full of mu­sic. Here you can have Bach for break­fast and Mozart for lunch at the Over­seas League.

“We have school teacher friends from Texas, who take a group of chil­dren who have all saved up through­out the year to be here to find a hall and ac­com­mo­da­tion for them and their par­ents so that they can per­form. They’ll be de­lighted if even around 20 peo­ple or so drop in to watch them.”

Yet, is there not a nag­ging thought that all this cul­ture is ex­clu­sively the pre­serve of an in­ter­na­tional elite whose spend­ing power doesn’t trickle in to some of the city’s dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties?

“Look,” she says, “ev­ery bed is booked; ev­ery lit­tle B&B is full; ev­ery lit­tle sand­wich shop does enough busi­ness to keep it go­ing for sev­eral months af­ter­wards; ev­ery restau­rant; ev­ery cafe; all the lit­tle shops that sell sou­venirs: they’re all ben­e­fit­ting. I’m not sure it will ever al­le­vi­ate poverty in out­ly­ing ar­eas but it cer­tainly doesn’t add to it. Lots of peo­ple come here on a bud­get and there is suf­fi­ciently nu­mer­ous high-qual­ity but in­ex­pen­sive events to cater for them. It’s not as ex­clu­sive as you might think; a lot of it is lewd and funny and up­roar­i­ous.

“Peo­ple want to come here and see what other peo­ple are do­ing. Any­one who’s in­ter­ested in drama, per­form­ing or watch­ing, comes be­cause they know they’ll meet thou­sands of like-minded peo­ple. And they meet Kore­ans and South Africans and Rus­sians and Tai­wanese. What other city can at­tract that sort of in­ter­na­tional cross cul­ture? There has to be a very good rea­son why they’re com­ing.

“It’s an in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val which hap­pens to be in Ed­in­burgh. And it’s not by ac­ci­dent that it’s in Ed­in­burgh be­cause it’s just the right size. Why would you not want peo­ple to come from all walks of life and ages and races and gen­ders to share ideas about cul­ture and mu­sic?”

BACK down on the Royal Mile a group of drinkers are sit­ting out­side Dea­con Brodie’s Tav­ern watch­ing the world at play. Among them is Gor­don Jack­son QC, the Glas­gow lawyer. “I love all of it,” he says. “This is my work­place and it never gets in the way. All this colour and drama just out­side my of­fice, you can’t help but get caught up in it.”

Some years ago, when I re­turned to Glas­gow to work at The Her­ald the pa­per tried to bring all the main stake­hold­ers and im­pre­sar­ios in the city’s cul­tural and arts com­mu­nity to­gether. We wanted to re­vive the much-loved and dearly de­parted MayFest event. Why couldn’t Glas­gow with its the­atres and churches and verve and drama, which we all liked to boast about, stage its own fes­ti­val? Surely we could stage a cul­tural ex­trav­a­ganza that would siphon some of Ed­in­burgh’s fes­ti­val-go­ers and per­form­ers – and their dol­lars – and bring them here? There was a lot of talk­ing but the idea sim­ply dis­in­te­grated among agen­das and fief­doms.

An­drew Coyle is not sur­prised. He is a na­tive of the west of Scot­land and ap­pre­ci­ates Glas­gow for what it is but he sim­ply feels it would be en­tirely un­suit­able to host a cul­tural fes­ti­val on this scale. “One of the main rea­sons the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val works is be­cause Ed­in­burgh is just the

right size and phys­i­cally the right shape. Glas­gow is sim­ply too big and not just phys­i­cally. Glas­gow’s gal­lus and it can over­whelm you. Glas­gow couldn’t do the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val be­cause Glas­gow’s too Glas­gow. Ed­in­burgh is small enough that it can be in­ter­na­tional; Ed­in­burgh can ab­sorb all this but Glas­gow would smother it.

“Per­haps we should just be thank­ful that this truly in­ter­na­tional event is hap­pen­ing in Scot­land and is recog­nised as the global gold stan­dard for arts fes­ti­vals. Why don’t we just ac­cept it in­stead of find­ing fault with it? Ev­ery church, ev­ery hall and ev­ery cel­lar is be­ing used for some type of cre­ativ­ity; it’s truly mag­i­cal. And while it’s hap­pen­ing on an in­ter­na­tional level it’s also hap­pen­ing at a fam­ily level.

“There is chil­dren’s the­atre and chil­dren’s book events at the Book Fes­ti­vals and world­class au­thors who are de­lighted to talk to chil­dren and sign their books. In Scot­land the schools go back half­way through the Book Fes­ti­val and so en­tire classes in the schools around Ed­in­burgh all have a half morn­ing off at the fes­ti­val. You can’t put a price on that.”

ON the Royal Mile jug­glers have re­placed the dancers, but they’re not just jug­glers; they’re painted and se­quined and they shout at each other and they fix you with their grins even as they ca­vort. I’ve been here for nine hours and have be­come im­per­vi­ous to the rain and to my in­tro­spec­tion and self-ob­ses­sion. A fam­ily on a bud­get could spend an en­tire day on these streets and be en­ter­tained and cap­ti­vated in ways they might never have imag­ined. And it’s all free.

In other cities when a World Cup or an Olympic Games comes call­ing so too does a slick, multi-bil­lion-pound dic­ta­tor­ship which causes lo­cal traders and street busi­nesses to flee be­fore it un­less they can pay ex­pen­sive trib­utes for the right to sell their wares. In Ed­in­burgh at the Fes­ti­val an­ar­chy reigns and no­body is in over­all charge. There is no one to say: “You can’t do this and you can’t go there.” No­body is de­mand­ing money with men­aces.

In this but­toned-up city of high fi­nance and pri­vate schools, of ex­clu­sive golf clubs and Scot­land’s most ex­pen­sive homes, a sort of cul­tural so­cial­ism reigns dur­ing this un­ruly month.

And it’s glo­ri­ous.

Why would you not want peo­ple to come from all walks of life and ages and races and gen­ders to share ideas about cul­ture and mu­sic?

Kevin McKenna amid the crowds on the Royal Mile. ‘This is the time when old Ed­in­burgh slips off its re­serve and is pos­sessed by some­thing wild,’ he writes

Clock­wise from op­po­site page: McKenna breaks into a smile af­ter be­ing urged by Ger­man en­ter­tainer Hans to at­tend his show Mein Camp; the over­lap­ping of the Fes­ti­val and school hol­i­days means many chil­dren are ex­posed to the gamut of cul­tural events; and McKenna ac­cepts a flyer from a per­former from one of the 50 coun­tries rep­re­sented at the Fringe

En­ter­tain­ers from around the globe de­scend on the cap­i­tal dur­ing the Fes­ti­val, in­clud­ing Ja­pan, Tas­ma­nia and the US

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