Kevin McKenna deigns to submit himself to the Festival experience
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;...
Entertainers from around the globe descend on the capital during the Festival, including Japan, Tasmania and the US