I’m just back from a few days in Edinburgh, enjoying the Fringe, the International Book Festival and just the vibes of that brilliant city. Kath and I hadn’t booked any shows in advance as we’d been unsure whether we’d be able to go until the previous week, so it gave us the freedom to improvise once we got there. That means choosing between thousands of events. I spent a train journey back to London from Kings Lynn last Sunday poring through the Fringe programme, trying to pick out shows that looked really interesting. I was exhausted by the time we pulled into Kings Cross!
What do I love about Edinburgh? Obviously during the festival it has a youthful vibrancy which won’t be there in quite the same measure at other times. (Whether the locals feel quite the same I wouldn’t like to say – the place is overrun.) But at any time there are few other cities in the UK that can rival it for spectacular beauty: the view of the castle from Prince’s Street or the top of Castle Street; the Scott Monument (which still reminds me of Thunderbird 3) from just about anywhere; the views of and from Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill; the undulating streets and the way that Cowgate lies below the surrounding streets, crossed by bridges, its buildings built tall to reach up to the same heights as those around them. And as well as the way it looks, it’s culturally rich (as befits a capital city), the food is great and it stays open late. And I like the people and love the accent. I could live here, no doubt at all. Maybe it’s that celtic soul again.
But, to the festival. Rather than go through each thing we went to in sequence, I’ll take it by a few themes, starting inevitably with comedy, the lifeblood of the Fringe.
We saw six comedy shows, none of them the biggest names, but three sold out on the day, and all excellent. Three were women, and they all had plenty to say about men and the world that still favours men. Ella Woods’ theme was sport: how she hated it at school (especially netball, with its social hierarchy) and how women’s sport is still denied the respect and coverage it deserves – although it is a bit better than it used to be. She really struck a chord with a few of the younger people in the audience, who may have shared her experience. A very engaging show. Joanne McNally is an Irish comedian and gave an excoriating account of her experience with men which had some of the young women in the audience whooping with laughter. She was pretty brutal – not just about men, but about herself and life generally. And brilliantly funny. One of those shows when you think, thank God I didn’t get asked a question! Flo and Joan we saw last year in Edinburgh too. They sing very sharp and amusing songs, with some intricate wordplay, and stick the knife into the things they don’t like – which could probably be summed up as the Daily Mail worldview and misogynist men. One of their songs took the example of one of their abusers on Facebook, whose public profile showed he was a married man with two young daughters. So how could a man like that be writing “F*** off and die” to two twenty-something women because they have something to say? The song was addressed to his daughters and was cutting and poignant at the same time. Brilliant.
Flo and Joan’s show was sold out, as was Ivo Graham’s. He had a scattergun and self-deprecating delivery that made an obsession with Chiltern Railways really funny. No macho male, he – half the show was about his inadequacies as a romancer and now partner. He outed himself as having gone to Eton. At the Fringe, I suppose you have to and then almost apologise for it. The British obsession with class, I guess. Lad humour probably doesn’t get to much of a look-in at Edinburgh – except maybe late at night when everyone’s a bit pissed and anything goes? Matt Ewins’ show bore that out. Another sold out show. It was a manic mix of rapid fire gags, gestures, smut and videos. The videos were clever – real time compositions in a lot of cases, involving members of the audience. I found the first half absurdly funny, then started to feel a bit exhausted by the whole thing. Maybe just started to feel my age, because it went down a storm.
The last thing we saw, at lunchtime on Friday, was an improvised show by Racing Minds, four comedians who are doing lots of other things on the Fringe. Tom Skelton, Douglas Walker, Chris Turner and Daniel Nils Roberts with improved musical support from Dylan Townley. It was great! They got the narrative from audience suggestions, some a little hesitant and therefore not that coherent. And then off they went – pretty daft, but very clever and highly entertaining. Suffice to say that if anyone ever mentions the west of Kenya to me in a conversation in the future I shall probably start to laugh, and they will look at me, bemused. But I will be thinking of a diplomats’ party that goes horribly wrong!
Last thing we did before getting the train back to London was pop into the City Art Centre, which is on Market Street near the station. I’d recommend this place to anyone visiting Edinburgh. It’s a lovely modern space, with always has some interesting exhibitions, together with the permanent collection. And it’s free. Right now there’s an exhibition of Scottish photographers, and a collection of paintings by the artist Edwin Lucas. The latter was the main attraction for me. Lucas never got much recognition in his lifetime – 1911-80) during which he worked for the civil service, would you believe? He even gave up his art for thirty years while he focused on family life and his work. His early work, mainly in watercolour, was nice but nothing amazing, but during the 1940s he got into surrealism and an expressive approach to landscapes which anticipates the vividly colourful scenes someone like Hockney painted later. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, which might not have helped his acceptance into the art establishment in Edinburgh. When he returned to painting in later life his work became even more abstract and interesting. Eventually his family were able to get the attention of the Scottish National Gallery and it acquired a number of his works. He is now viewed as a key twentieth century Scottish artist. Shame it didn’t happen in his lifetime.
We saw three things that, in different ways, brought out the fascination of language and how we use it. First up was the poet Luke Wright, whom I’ve written about a few times before, including in my review of Latitude this year. He gets called a performance poet because he puts so much into his delivery – it is a performance. His use of language is amazing, a torrent of words, mashed up, bashed out, hammering at his theme. His set at Edinburgh was essentially the same as the one at Latitude, but I managed to see the whole thing this time. One of the standout poems was one in which the only vowel he uses is the letter “o”. He managed to weave an absurd story about some London boys who go to Bolton. (See, I can do it too, at least for seven words.) But the best of all was “Respect the W***” which is such a brilliant defence of being different, pretentious, creative, the antithesis to the norm, the Daily Mail norm, the Brexiter norm, the stultifying, conventional norm. Funny, visceral, essential. Punk poetry.
We went to three events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Two concerned language. The first was a late evening collection of polemics about a range of issues. We only caught the tail end of Q&A about the first, which seemed to be about the NHS. A couple of the others were quite interesting talks about copyright and data protection (really). But the really fascinating one was about learning languages. An academic called Dr Thomas Bak argued that knowing more than one language meant you had less chance of developing dementia. He had lots of facts at his fingertips to prove it; but the most striking thing about his talk and the way he answered questions was his passion for the subject. His belief. That was quite inspiring. The next morning we were back in the Spiegeltent for a fascinating session on how novels are translated from one language to another. Two renowned translators of French into English, Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne, had translated some passages from a novel by the French author Edouard Louis called “Qui a tue mon pere”. We were given handouts of the original and the two translations. They were intriguingly different. The host, Daniel Kahn teased out some of the differences, the nuances. There was even a discussion of the use of an “and” at one point! But it was very relevant. I felt like I was in a lecture, but a really interesting one. I made notes. They say that Ros Schwartz used words to help the reader locate the opening in time and context, whereas Frank Wynne’s primary concern was to convey the voice of the author, and a desire for concision. Both approaches equally valid; but a reminder that when we read a book in translation, it’s not just the thoughts of the author that we share, but those of the translator.
We saw a couple of plays – both by friends of mine. People I worked with in the past in the civil service. A hotbed of creativity, you know? The first was called “A Beginner’s Guide to Populism” by Andy Moseley. It’s essentially a transposition of the rise to power of a dictator like Hitler or Lenin (or a would-be one like Trump) to a small town somewhere in middle England. Opposition to becoming part of a new town mushrooms into a declaration of independence, which then spirals completely out of control, with the thugs taking over. All very pertinent in these Brexit-crazed times; though I guess I would have had the would-be MP who, with her agent’s encouragement (or manipulation) exploits the mood, stay in control rather than succumbing to the thugs. But that would need another half hour.
Second was “Fan Girl” by Eddie Coleman. No politics in this one. It’s the story of a woman from London who is obsessed by a fantasy series, not unlike “Game of Thrones”, who goes up to Leeds for a fan convention. It’s a monologue, performed superbly by Karen Whyte, who takes us through her anxieties, her highs and lows at the convention, and her encounter with the hotel barman. It’s at once amusing and poignant. More of a happy ending than I’d expected when I saw it first time, in a pub in Islington (as you do), but it made sense to me this time. An ordinary but extraordinary experience.
So, big shout out to you both, Andy and Eddie. A great achievement.
Last and never least, the music. Not the main thing you go up to the Fringe for, but it’s good to have a few musical interludes. We managed three, all on Thursday. One was completely unexpected…
First, in the morning we went along to the National Museum of Scotland to see the “Rip it Up” exhibition, a celebration of a Scottish pop and rock music.
A wonderful journey through time, so many of my favourite bands and songs through the ages: Nazareth, Rod Stewart, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the Rezillos, the Skids, Big Country, Altered Images, Orange Juice (makers of the great song “Rip it Up”), the Associates, Simple Minds, Eurythmics, Jesus and Mary Chain, Texas, Deacon Blue, Idlewild, Primal Scream, Soup Dragons, Teenage Fanclub, Chvrches, Young Fathers and many more – that lot are just the ones I like best. The Bay City Rollers were in there big time too. And so they should be, though I hated them with a passion in the 70s. Honeyblood snuck in with their first album on the wall of album covers at the end. One day….
The band that seems to have become most emblematic for Scotland is the Proclaimers. The dramatic live montage at the end on some big screens began and ended with them. “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)” of course. It wasn’t the last time they came up that day. I’m pleased to say Chvrches got a look in at this point too, with footage of “The Mother We Shared”.
After that exercise in pop nostalgia – an exhilarating couple of hours – we headed for the dignified surrounds of St Andrew’s and St George’s West church to listen to some beautiful sounds from Papagena, five women who sing unaccompanied. I must admit this show caught my eye because of the title: “Nuns and Roses II”. They sing a wide ranges of songs, from early classical, through folk music from around the world to more modern artists, including Joni Mitchell, Imogen Heap and… Guns’n’Roses. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” no less. Their voices, the harmonies, the intricacies, were stunning. The sheer beauty of it was pretty moving at times. They had some nice humorous touches too. An uplifting experience.
And then the surprise. Kath enjoys crime fiction, so we went along to the Spiegeltent at the Bookfest for a evening gathering of some top crime writers, including Val McDiarmid, Mark Billingham and Stuart Neville. The show was called “Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers”. We were expecting a couple of hours of entertaining discussion about crime fiction. Wrong! It was a band, playing some great covers. As the strapline on their postcard said: murdering songs for fun. When they launched into the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” and Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” after a solo folk opener from Val McDiarmid, I knew we were in for a good evening. It was a hoot! One highlight was a great version of the Sweet’s “Blockbuster” which segued into “Jean Genie” of course, and featured a funny rant from bassist Doug Johnstone, protesting against all the songs being from the 60s and 70s, when he wanted to play Britney Spears! He got his chance in the encore, when he came on with an acoustic guitar and played “Baby, One More Time”. His colleagues joined him half way through. At one point, another group of female crime writers all came on to do the oo-oohs on the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. Most of the songs were related to crime or evil, including a really rousing version of the Kaiser Chiefs’ “I Predict a Riot”, which opened the second half of the show.
And guess what the very last song was, after the Britney interlude. Yes, of course, it was the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. That got everyone off their seats. The unofficial national anthem?
Three great musical experiences – as joyful as any of the excellent comedy we saw. There is something for everyone at Edinburgh.