Lloyd Evans goes in search of culture on the rain-soaked streets of Edinburgh
The crunch. That damn credit crunch. It hurt Scotland hardest of all. A worldwide reputation as a financial powerhouse? Gone. Dreams of independence? Severely truncated. Last year the Edinburgh Festival bore prophetic signs of imminent poverty, of homelessness, of doom. Free shows abounded. Bribes of wine, whisky and sandwiches were being proferred to choosy punters. This year I’m here on an austerity awayday, a recession quickie, a pared-down and stripped-back three-day in-and-outer. My accommodation meets the brief superbly. I’m in a dive, of the deep-sea variety. You have to hold your breath. The showers are communal. So are the loos. There’s no lift, not even one that’s broken. The carpetless staircases are lit by wildcat lights that stop working 30 seconds after you’ve switched them on. At check-in I have to leave a deposit for the door key and pay in advance for any extra facilities I may want to use like the internet or the fire escape. The towel I’m given is a dishcloth. My soap is a contact lens. My sheet is a moth club. My room is a priest hole. And my breakfast is non-existent. But at least the place is centrally located so I’m never far from the festival’s all-night ululation, its incessant thrash and hum.
The money’s gone but the energy’s still here. Each morning I wake up and venture out to seek art, and I come home at night, replete with culture, saturated, all resistance gone. I lie down in my lightless cell and the rubbery mattress curls up to embrace me. Bleating door-hinges and the parp of corridor floorboards keep me awake until the tiny small hours when my plastic window frames, overlooking the granite canyon of Cowgate, begin to rattle and echo with the sound of great creative minds, great writers and great actors, vomiting and making love. It’s the theme tune of Edinburgh, the festival’s national anthem. Some things don’t change.
Like the rain. When I arrive at Waverley Station I’m air-kissed by sobbing drizzle. It likes me. It clings to me. Scottish rain has qualities that stir the admiration. It’s as dogged and resourceful as Scottish engineering. It refuses to accept the boundaries of physics. No matter what the rest of the weather is up to, it will rain. When it’s windy, when it’s sunny, when it’s misty, when it’s snowy. Brilliant blue skies will suddenly splatter you with handfuls of skull-prodding dice. It can even rain when it’s just stopped raining.
I crave facts as an antidote to artful fiction. Beneath widowy skies, I joined a walking tour of Edinburgh’s old and new towns, and I was thrilled to disover that Scotland invented civilisation. According to our guide the physical, scientific, economic, architectural, poetic, literary, literary-historical, literary-poetico-historical, anatomical, jurisprudential, medicinal and sporting universe that we know was invented between 1600 and 1900 by Scotsmen. How thoughtful of them. They also invented marmalade and floral clocks. The last two I found more endearing and less easy to question.
And there were plays to see — I almost forgot — free plays on the fringe. More Famous Than God is a bitchy tussle between two pushy mums backstage at a kids’ talent show. With Arms Outstretched is a nine-handed sitcom performed by four heavily overworked actors. To say these plays were indifferent would be unkind. They were in different locations, let’s say, and leave it at that. Meanwhile the vibrant and ultra-real human theatre unfolds along the Royal Mile. It’s anthropology in action. Scotland’s fourth plinth. There’s a teenager sprawled on the cobbles feigning death with a flyer in his mouth. Here are five mermaids playing a Schubert quintet. Look at that kilted beardie juggling with a chainsaw. And there’s Julius Caesar, marble-white and as still as the grave, standing on a milking stool. And, oh my God, it’s a Japanese Spiderman playing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on a kettle. It’s mayhem. It looks like the end of the world but no one’s panicking. This is a licensed upheaval. (Clipboarded supervisors hover discreetly.) It’s a rite of healing, it’s homeopathy. The abandonment of convention to make convention more acceptable. A temporary chaos that reinforces the comforts of order. And to my eyes the ogled exhibits look far less bizarre than the oglers, the tourists. Leaving home for a fortnight seems to foment a stylistic insanity in the average bourgeois traveller. He, she (or it) dons a paranormal costume of eye-popping tastelessness which flouts every conceivable standard of appropriate dress. The upper body is swaddled in a storm-resistant foldaway jacket and the lower limbs are ventilated by cotton trousers, always 12 inches too short, and a pair of humanely slaughtered eco-sandals. It’s a walking paradox, an outfit for two adventures at once. Top half, Everest. Bottom half, Bermuda.
But hang on. What about the festival? Oh, all right. Best thing so far, A.L. Kennedy performing an hour of autobiographical stand-up at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, 4.50 p.m. Kennedy wins lots of literary prizes and at the ceremony she’s always besieged by reporters. ‘So, Al, how do you feel?’ Journalists ask this, she says, because they’re very emotional people. Her writing career originated in mere exhibitionism. After learning to walk she affected a limp to make herself look interesting. Aged four, she wanted to dress entirely in black but Mothercare had no Junior Goth range. On leaving university she worked as a puppeteer at children’s parties but was hounded by miltant sprogs laying siege to her kiosk. ‘You can’t punch a toddler with your hand up a squirrel. They won’t feel anything.’ Years of rejection paid off and she eventually secured a book deal. Her London publisher took her out for a posh lunch of avocado soup. ‘It was cold, wet and salty. Like drinking a stranger’s snot.’
I’m a huge fan of A.L. Kennedy even though I haven’t read any of her books. Her live act is a matchless combination of charm, allusive wit and unexpected farce. Book tours horrify her. ‘You’re so clever,’ said one wonky-faced fan, ‘I want to kiss your brain.’ The show might work even better in a boozy joint at around midnight. Rowdier, riskier, perhaps more rewarding. And her quasi-religious peroration — ‘Words can make you shine!’ — seemed a trifle earnest but I emerged from this show in that rare Edinburgh mood. Refreshed, calm and discreetly exalted. And the sun — glory of glories — had come out. The world was boiling suddenly. Those triple-strength rays warmed and nourished me. Beyond Waverley Station and its sparkling geometries of rail and roof I could see Arthur’s Seat burning like a crown of gold. And it started to rain.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 15, 2009