The Edinburgh Festival as a stranger in a strange land

This article is from 2008.

Andy Field's festival blog

This year The List has asked several writers to blog their Edinburgh Festival experiences.

I’m on the train up to Edinburgh. Some of you probably know the one – Peterborough. Doncaster. York. Onwards.

It’s a good train. I’m racing through fields, all golden brown and delicately framed by hedges and trees. The sun is going down and the sky is showing off, filled with hazy vanilla-coloured clouds. We’re half a bottle of absinthe down and there’s an hour and a half till we pull into Waverley.

I like to arrive into Edinburgh after dark, it’s when the festival’s at its best. The flyerers have scuttled away to the safety of venue bars and only the hardiest buskers survive, juggling fire in the streetlight. Ghost tour guides wander up and down the Royal Mile followed by a train of punters, spinning out improbable stories about grave robbers and plague streets and from almost every pub comes the sound of someone murdering a Radiohead song. The Spiegeltent will be overpriced and overcrowded, Underbelly will be a catastrophic fire incident waiting to happen and the Gilded Balloon will be full of people trying to get into the VIP bar.

Walking up the ramp out of the station carrying too many bags, the anticipation will have my stomach fizzing.

I used to live in Edinburgh and that’s a very different experience of the beginning of the festival. Edinburgh in July is brilliantly placid. While tourists pinball back forth between the Castle and Holyrood the rest of the city remains really relatively laid back. The Meadows is full of people reading books and playing football. Business people and shop assistants on their lunch breaks wander through Princess street gardens and the voices screaming drunkenly across the Cowgate all have Scottish accents. The Ghost Tours are all a little smaller and a little quieter.

There’s no denying that the festival is an alien body, a technicolour parasite that attaches itself to the ageing city, suffocates it with flyers and journalists, and then disappears again as the cold weather starts to arrive. The fringe was never an Edinburgh thing. It began as a group of eight theatre companies who turned up at the official festival uninvited, like looters on a battlefield, knowing this was their chance to show a captive audience what they could do. It was spontaneous and daring and hopeful and exciting, but it had very little to do with the city itself. These days almost all the major venues are run by people who roll up in town from Hammersmith or Soho or wherever. People who have never seen Edinburgh when the rain’s coming down icy and horizontal in the middle of January. People following the same train tracks I’m on now.

And I suppose I’m no different. I’m not from Edinburgh. Even when I lived there it was only for university and only for three years. At Forest at least we have a connection with the Edinburgh of the rest of the year. One of the lovely things about the place is that the Forest Café itself doesn’t change in August; love it or hate it, it’s undeniably the same as it is for the other eleven months of the year. It’s familiar, anchored. It is itself. That’s possibly why it feels like such a haven from the mania that infects most other places.

The Pleasance Courtyard for example for the rest of the year is a lonely, half abandoned societies centre occupied only by the occasional group of wargamers or a student theatre company eating curly fries while some football match plays quietly in the background. No wonder in August it never quite feels real.

Andy Field is programmer and co-director for Forest Fringe, a new experimental venue outside of the official Fringe programme. The rest of the time he is a theatre-maker who creates strange experiences for unusual spaces. He has recently worked at BAC, the South Bank Centre, the Brighton Fringe Festival and the Eigse Festival in Ireland.

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