EDINBURGH FESTIVAL: All aboard the festival express

The Edinburgh Festival opens its 50th birthday season this weekend. In an extract from his new novel, `No Laughing Matter', Peter Guttridge savours the flavour of life on the festival gravy train

Bridget Frost and I were both going up to the Edinburgh Festival. The Bitch of the Broadsheets, Bridget was loud, pushy, opinionated, grudge- bearing, drunken, vindictive and tacky, but she had her good points. Actually, those were her good points.

She was doing some stuff on the Fringe, which this year was bigger than ever, with around 10,000 performers and 1,200 shows. They were the kind of statistics you got in the press pack. The press office had fun expressing figures in colourful ways: for example, if all the Fringe groups formed a human tower by standing on each other's shoulders, they would exceed the height of the world's tallest building by 14 kilometres. Well, yes, I do find that interesting.

I was going by train, Bridget by plane. Depending on your point of view, four hours on a train in the company of a bunch of writers may or may not count as a good time. But, if you're freelance, you don't turn down a free first-class return ticket when it's on offer. The Edinburgh Book Festival had two first class carriages, stacked with free food and booze, reserved for London's literary folk on a Scotland-bound Intercity 225 leaving King's Cross.

The trip was intended to be a party. My ticket even had a "plus guest" on it. But I was travelling alone. Sad, eh? I had thought of inviting Bridget to travel with me but putting her in a sealed carriage with a bunch of literary types was like giving the fox a den in the henhouse. Fortunately, she preferred flying.

I've always found it best to keep booze away from writers. The history of drunkenness in literature teaches us that it's the poets you have to watch, but children's authors can be pretty tricky too. I envisaged that the combination of free drink and artistic temperament meant friendships springing up by Peterborough could be legendary feuds by York.

The trip was, however, sadly uneventful. People table-hopped along the aisles. A couple of film crews for those cable channels that no one ever watches shot footage with the look of people in whom hope was battling with experience. PRs ferried journalists to and from the handful of celebrity authors. As the bottles of wine and whisky circulated, things got a little raucous but, as an attractive American woman pointed out to a group at the table next to mine, there was no shagging in the aisles.

The train was on time into Waverley Station. A tall, strapping man in his fifties was standing on the platform in a kilt and sporran, as if to assure us we were indeed in Scotland. I immediately assumed he was a laird, whatever one of those was, but I overheard someone else saying he played the bagpipes on street corners for loose change. When I looked closer, I saw that, although he had a dirk tucked down one stocking, the effect was spoilt by the quarter-bottle of whisky tucked down the other.

That evening I went into Charlotte Square to the Book Festival. Edinburgh was undergoing an untypical heatwave and the tents in which the festival took place had their doors open to let in air on the sweating hordes within. I listened from the doorway as Joanna Trollope and Michael Dobbs, looking slightly indignant, defended TV adaptations of their works.

I went into the spiegeltent, a wonderful 1920s Austrian beer tent, and sat with my beer in one of the wood and glass booths around the outer rim. Sipping my drink, I looked through the Fringe brochure. Irvine Welsh was still hip and omnipresent. Six different versions of Macbeth. A musical history of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Not my thing really. Oscar, the Hypnotising Dog, now that was more like it.

Half-a-dozen musicians were milling around on the small stage, fiddling with microphone stands and amplifiers. When they started up, a woman sitting a few yards away started getting into it - legs bobbing, fingers snapping, head shaking. I wouldn't have minded but it wasn't exactly the birth of the cool. Just a bunch of middle-management types in candy-striped waistcoats, beer guts and straw hats playing Dixieland. The woman clapped out of time.

Bridget slid into the booth beside me.

"Been to any shows yet?"

"I've been down at the Film Festival," I said. "Got talking to a director from Iceland - probably the only director from Iceland - about a comedy he'd just made there. He told me it reflected the fact a good proportion of the people are suicidally depressed in winter, merely suicidal come spring and alcoholic all year round."

"Sounds a laugh a minute." Bridget scowled at the musicians. "I've been to two. I don't understand why they always seem to put the noisy shows right next-door to the quiet ones, with only a cardboard partition between. They might as well put all the noisy shows together and let them fight it out like a psychotic Battle of the Bands."

"What'd you see?"

"I saw a musical about Robert Burns. I thought I was seeing one about Rasputin but I went next-door by mistake. The accents of the actors were so thick it took me 20 minutes to realise. It was only when Rasputin started reciting a poem to a haggis, I twigged something was amiss. I'd thought the kilts were making a statement about universal experience."

The band struck up another dire tune from the good old days of Dixie.

"They should be on a paddle steamer on the Mississippi," I said, grimacing.

"Preferably one that's sinking. Why don't we go outside?"

Edited extract from `No Laughing Matter' by Peter Guttridge, published in hardback at pounds 16.99 by Headline Book Publishing and available from all bookshops, or by credit card - at the special discount price of pounds 12.99 - from Bookpoint on 01235 400414 (lines open 9am-6pm Mon-Sat)

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