An August evening in Edinburgh & three Englishmen step into a black cab on Princes Street. I pull the door closed behind me with a resounding clunk & ask the cabbie if he can drop us at decent Bar in the Old Town. He cogitates and after a lengthy pause replies wth a single word in an accent as thick as a bowl of lumpy porridge: Aye.
Destination fixed the Cab lurches into life, three Sassenachs*: me, my son & a friend of a friend on a boys night out at the Festival.
We’ve just had an early dinner at a rather swanky Edinburgh eaterie, a Bangladeshi Restaurant that we find by chance, my son and I walk through the foyer into a pastel painted palace of food, an ancient pedal rickshaw stands inside the front door, no doubt the rickshaw-wallah didn’t have a padlock and the streets of Edinburgh are mean, so he parked it inside, he’s probably tucking in to some dinner right now. I take this as a good sign, if a Bangladeshi Rickshaw driver eats here then it’s good enough for me.
At the booking desk we are greeted by the Maitre’D – I know he’s the boss, because on top of his desk are photos of him & celebrity diners in gilt frames. Pride of place stand two pics, one of Prince Charles & another of Princess Anne. If I were a Scot this would not be a recommendation. To be honest these two are not my favourite people, neither of them have had to do a days work in their lives, one good for nothing beyond sitting on a horse, the other destined to be the future Monarch, but best known for saying he wanted to be reincarnated as Camilla Parker-Bowles tampon*.
Putting aside my anti-royalist views I’m hungry and the menu looks fab.
We take a seat and my son rings the friend of a friend and tells him where we are for dinner, he sets off from his hotel to join us. The menu is too enticing for us to wait for his arrival, so we order a few starters, just to keep us going, along with cocktails. We polish them all off with gusto.
When friend of a friend arrives I am somewhat dumbstruck as he is now wearing an eyepatch, he didn’t have one when I met him earlier in the day. I can’t let my curiosity go unvoiced so I ask what the eye patch is all about. He mutters something about an eye problem earlier in the year, then changes the subject quickly. Clearly he doesn’t want to talk about it.
We have a fabulous dinner, we talk and chat for the best part of an hour, friend of a friend explains that he lives in Malta, there he has left a son & a wife, or a soon to be ex wife.
Patch the Malteser spends most of the meal waxing over how lovely the waitresses are. Rarely have I met a chap with a propensity to ogle women more than I do, but he does. With the conversations we have I put this down to him being in his early forties and somewhat unhappily single, his Ex looms in the conversation as mother of his son & a monster. I imagine that the reality of the later is somewhat different to his attestations, but recognise in him an unhappy man, who blames his ex for his woes. But I’m only half listening to him, what fascinates me most is the eye patch, it looks kind of cool and I have to admit I’m just a tad jealous of the pirate vibe.
But then think that losing an eye is a rather draconian way to get to wear an eye patch, and that wearing one as a fashion accessory a bit too lame, so reluctantly I let my eye patch envy go.
We enjoy the meal but the dramatic highlight of dinner is provided by one of the waiters. All of the serving staff are young women, except one chap & who is as camp as Christmas. All the staff sport silk scarves hanging from their belts, a kind of ethnic/glam/ambience thing, well this one particular waiter happens to catch his scarf on a candle at another table, in a moment it ignites, he flips, theatrically running around in flames, there’s a general panic, screaming & then he’s doused in water. The waiter is thankfully unhurt, but a pall of smoke hangs in the restaurant and then the smoke alarms go off, cue more commotion.
At this point it seems like a good time to make an exit, so once the alarms are off we call for the bill & depart, our first show of the night already under our belts and we didn’t even need tickets.
Our taxi driver deposits us outside a Pub. I look up towards the sign, The Captains Bar. A chalk board advertises Folk music and for a moment I imagine some old Scottish farts with pints of flat beer and grey beards wailing out dirges about highland clearance & what shits the English are, but what the hell in we go. The Bar is packed, a Spanish Guy is singing and playing his guitar, this is a time warp of a bar, wooden floorboards, a heavy oak bar, old school style bar stools, old fashioned hand pumps for old fashioned ales. I’ve not been in a pub like this for bloody years, and its rather fun. I get in the drinks, Patch & my Son both go for a beer, I without thinking but rather aptly order a Captain Morgans, spiced rum, straight with ice. I’m clearly channeling the Pirate theme.
We talk to a couple next to us at the bar, they’re French, from Reunion island, in Edinburgh for the Festival. You have to take your hat off to the French, I love it that Reunion an island 6000 miles from Paris is part of France & in turn part of the European Union. All the time achieving this whilst floating in the southern stretches of the Indian Ocean. I love that French Fuck you – it’s our Island & if we say its part of France, then France it is.
Leaving my companions to the entente cordiale I sneak out of the bar for a cigarette, outside stand a crowd of smokers as one finds outside every bar, partaking of their preferred form of nicotine. Two Scandinavian blokes smoke & chat, Norwegian I think by their speech. These two have the best beards around, the kind of beard that steps off a trawler after three weeks fishing in the North Sea, the kind of beard that can only be grown in gale force winds and salt spray.
One is in ripped T shirt, no doubt torn on heavy machinery, or drift nets. From beneath his T shirt pour tree trunk arms entirely inked in Nordic Runes. For a moment or two I fantasise about being fifty-six & ripped, how nice that might be, but then the reality of the effort required is less attractive, after all I’m a lazy git so I turn to check out some of the other outside smokers.
Two women, one Japanese the other mixed race are draped around each other, in undeniably amorous fashion. I quickly find my thoughts floating off into another fantasy so instead look down the street and watch the stream of people pass in both directions, all on their way to a show or out on the town. As I sip my Rum and draw on the last of my cigarette it occurs to me how much I like Edinburgh at Festival time, the hustle and bustle, the different people, ordinary, extraordinary, creatives, crazies, dreamers, travellers, and of course normal people like me, all jumbled together.
We head off from the bar towards our evening show, we are early and have another drink outside the venue which is in an old town square flanked with pop up bars of micro breweries and spirit emporiums, then it begins to rain.
Fuck me Edinburgh in August can be bloody cold. My son brought plenty of pairs of shorts for his summer month here, he’s been here three weeks and never worn any of them. Summer in Scotland is a strange creature indeed. We sup up & join a queue for the show which snakes from the venue doors three hundred metres down the road, its a sell-out.
We take our seats in the Spiegel tent* and the next hour and a half flies by, entertained by beautiful creatures, guys & girls with sculpted bodies doing aerial acrobatics, nuns doing unspeakable things with ping pong balls, tap dancers with the coolest act in town, a compere with a filthy line in delivery, staged fights in the aisles between the cast & ringer audience members, its a fab show. At one point it’s explained that the cast are using Edinburgh as a kind of dry run for their next engagement, a resident show in LAs Vegas. I’m sure they will go down a storm there.
We wend our ways home at close to midnight. I for one am knackered, but happy.
Come morning I arrange to have breakfast at the City Cafe with my Son, its an American Diner kind of joint just off the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare of the Festival which is crowded with festival goers & street theatre acts, people handing out flyers for 1001 shows, men in kilts playing bagpipes, junkies begging for change.
I get there early, order a coffee and sit outside in the rare morning sunshine. The seats around me are soon taken up by others, first to my left a youngish guy with a green beard takes a seat, a little later to my right a woman dressed entirely in pink, ra-ra skirt, pink love heart ring, pink ribbons in her hair. I talk to the guy first, he it transpires is a sword swallower. Now I don’t know a lot of sword swallowers, so the opportunity to talk to one is unmissable. How did you start sword swallowing I ask. He takes this rather literally and explains, I started with a wire coat hanger, practiced getting that down my throat and went from there, once I’d mastered the coat hanger it was easy to move to a sword.
I can only think of saying Wow to his explanation and then turn to the pink lady on my other side, How about you I ask, what brings you to Edinburgh?
J Pop she replies, in an Lancastrian accent. I really love Japanese pop music, so I’m busking on the mile, I sing and dance to Japanese Pop songs in English so people can understand the lyrics.
& how did you get into that I ask. She explains she studied Japanese at Uni & then spent a year in Tokyo as part of her course, there she discovered J Pop.
As we talk I learn that she’s in her late twenties, she works in an office job that she loathes, but she loves J Pop, so she’s taken time off from work to busk at the Festival. She’s from Preston, married to a boy she met at Uni. Does he like J pop I ask. No not at all she says, his thing is Military History. And for a moment I marvel at relationships, how two people with such diverse interests can be together, love is indeed a wondrous thing.
Another character in the growing little throng outside the cafe is a middle aged Aussie, sporting steam punk glasses resting on a felt top hat, he is a circus entertainer. He complains of being the oldest fella on the block and too long in the tooth for this racket, he grabs at his shoulder as if to demonstrate the reality of a worn out body, but I fakin love this life he says, the itinerant entertainer goes on to wax lyrical about cops in Argentina, about over zealous mall security men in LA & how best a Street Entertainer can avoid being hustled & moved on. But man he says, there’s nothing anywhere like the Edinburgh Festival, nothing in the fakin World.
But fack me I’m tired, I’m looking forward to getting back to OZ, then I head off into the Bush, two hundred miles from the nearest town. I will be teaching aboriginal kids in the outback, circus skills, man those kids have fakin nothing, nothing he repeats to add gravitas. I love working with them, just the best he says. My breakfast buddies leave me convinced that if I had my time again I would have run away & joined the Circus.
I spend five days at the Festival and have a routine or ritual kind of flow to each day, a stroll along the Royal Mile, then breakfast with my son, a lunchtime show, a wander through the streets, taking in street theatre or just sitting at a cafe and soaking it all in, talking to strangers and sharing tales of our own personal Festival time. One moment I rather liked was walking from one venue to another during the day and being struck by sunshine ( there really wasn’t much during my stay ). Walking towards me was a lady, I pointed up to the sun and said out loud to her, what’s that pointing at the sun, she stopped, looked up, and replied in a fine Scottish accent, I don’t know, not seen it before, I’m from Edinburgh.
Each evening dinner with my Son & a show or two, then close to midnight I head back to my Hotel & stop at the bar opposite for a nightcap, one large spiced run, with ice. Each evening at that Bar there are usually Festival people letting their hair down after the working day, they talk animatedly about the events of their day, about the audiences, about missed cues, and also about exhaustion, they are three weeks in to the Edinburgh run & it’s beginning to tell.
On my last evening with my last nightcap I’m outside smoking and drinking my spiced rum when I overhear another chap sitting on one of the benches close by on his phone.
Yes Mum he says, yes not going so well he says, ticket sales are really slow. He chats for a while to his mother, throughout he sounds a little deflated but not terribly so, and then once he hangs up he places his phone in his pocket and puts his head in his hands, The poor guy is clearly desperately down about his Edinburgh, the call to his Ma was all about putting on a brave face.
I later learn that it costs at least £8000 to put on even the smallest show, and the majority of those doing so will lose money, passions are expensive when you bring them to Edinburgh. So many of the people that come to the Festival with dreams of sell out shows & success find something else entirely, just a fraction of the young people performing here now go on to develop careers that they can sustain themselves in, let alone thrive. But year after year they keep coming, keep trying. That I admire.
The last official figures for the Festival from a few years back are quite astonishing: Three million people came over the month of August to see 21,000 performers entertain them at 2500 shows.
This mind you is just the ‘official’ figure, add to this thousands of Street Entertainers.
Big is not always beautiful & Edinburgh in August means the Streets are packed, the Hotels bloody expenive and the weather is usually shite. But come all the same & be part of the Planets greatest Arts Festival, sure not every show is good, some are truly awful, but you will find shows that enthral and excite, that make you think & that have you in tears of laughter, you’ll find dance & music & comedy, meet people that interest you & maybe some that will inspire you.
As for me my third visit over too quickly I head back on the train to London, pockets emptier, but richer for my stay & already having made myself a promise, Schwarznegger style, I’ll be back.
Sassenach: Gaelic term ( derogatory ) for a Saxon or Englishman
Prince Charles & ‘Tampongate’ – This really is worth reading!
Charles: He was a bit anxious actually
Camilla: Was he?
Charles: He thought he might of gone too far.
Camilla: Ah well.
Charles: Anyway you know that’s the sort of thing one has to beware of. And sort of feel one’s way along with – if you know what I mean.
Camilla: Mmmm. You’re awfully good feeling your way along.
Charles: Oh Stop! I want to feel my way along you, all over you and up and down you and in and out…
Charles: Particularly in and out!
Camilla: Oh. that’s just what I need at the moment.
Charles: Is it?
Camilla: I know it would revive me. I can’t bear a Sunday night without you.
Charles: Oh, God.
Camilla: It’s like that programme Start the Week. I can’t start the week without you.
Charles: I fill up your tank!
Camilla: Yes, you do
Charles: Then you can cope.
Camilla: Then I’m all right
Charles: What about me? The trouble is I need you several times a week.
Camilla: Mmmm, so do I. I need you all the week. All the time.
Charles: Oh. God. I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier!
Camilla: (laughing) What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers?
Camilla: Oh, You’re going to come back as a pair of knickers.
Charles: Or, God forbid a Tampax. Just my luck! (Laughs)
Camilla: You are a complete idiot (Laughs) Oh, what a wonderful idea.
Charles: My luck to be chucked down the lavatory and go on and on forever swirling round on the top, never going down.
Camilla: (Laughing) Oh, Darling!
Charles: Until the next one comes through.
Camilla: Oh, perhaps you could come back as a box.
Charles: What sort of box?
Camilla: A box of Tampax, so you could just keep going.
Charles: That’s true.
Camilla: Repeating yourself…(Laughing) Oh, darling I just want you now.
Charles: Do You?
Charles: So do I!
Much of the subsequent conversation consists of arrangements to meet surreptitiously, followed by a long exchange of declarations of love and goodnights. The transcript ends thus:
Camilla: Bye, Press the button.
Charles: Going to press the tit.
Camilla: All right darling, I wish you were pressing mine.
Charles: God, I wish I was, harder and harder.
Camilla: Oh, darling.
Charles: Love you.
Camilla: (Yawning) Love you. Press the tit.
Charles: Adore you. Night.
Camilla: (Blows a kiss)
Camilla: G’night my darling, Love you.
Main source and further reading:
The entire transcript is available at http://aca-vnt.mcc.ac.uk/ScrapBook/camillagate.htm