Edinburgh Diary

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The Independent Online
It was a character in Tom Stoppard's play Jumpers who challenged the assertion that Edinburgh is the Athens of the North, claiming that it was in fact the Reykjavik of the South. It's a description I warm to, if that isn't a contradiction in terms, as Edinburgh is the one place where my fingers once went numb in August.

"You're lucky it was just your fingers," mutter Edinburgh residents dourly when I tell them this story. Presumably they have in mind the oddly inappropriate bacchanalian revels that descend upon this elegant city every August and make it the Gomorrah of the east coast.

I maintain the festival is now the only place in Britain where the casting couch still operates. It is a crowded, sweaty, beery casting couch, but nevertheless, throw together scores of young actresses and established directors and venue managers in the all-night bars at the arts festival, and the M people from the television festival, and the W people - the wild and willing delegates from the Young Person's TV Festival in the George Hotel - and an acute observer could cast the minor parts in a dozen shows and sitcoms for the following year.

One man, who is too old, too married or too sensible for all that is William Burdett-Coutts, who has run the premier fringe venue, the Assembly Rooms, for 15 years. With his mixture of pragmatism and passion, one could not imagine many better candidates for arts minister than the member of the Coutts banking family who has been a mainstay of the fringe and now also runs the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith.

Burdett-Coutts points out some of the woeful inefficiencies that make life needlessly difficult for the punter at the Edinburgh Festival. There is no central ticket selling point, not even by phone, where one can get tickets for festival, fringe, book festival and film festival. Four separate trips are necessary. Ticket prices are too high (pounds 8.50 is common on the fringe) because of the high rents the council charges for venues; hotel prices are a monument to greed with pounds 160 a night not unusual; the fringe should be campaigning for cheaper rail packages to bring more visitors to Edinburgh. "We need to become more professional," he concludes.

To prove his point, leaving the Assembly Rooms I see people queuing in the rain for the Assembly Rooms box office round the corner, while the box office actually inside the Assembly Rooms is, at the council's insistence, devoted to selling tickets for the international festival. It is completely empty.

The book festival provides some memorable moments, not least when Garrison Keillor runs off from his signing session to hear the massed pipes in Princes Street, He is pursued by fans desperate for a signature, who are pursued by festival staff desperate for their still unpurchased books back, who are pursued by a small boy who gets his head stuck in the railings trying to see what all the fuss is about. Inside the book festival there are one or two diverting insights into how authors work. The American editor Robert Gottlieb describes how Len Deighton goes to extremes to avoid making changes in his books. Told that a character on page 348 had been shot dead on page 152, Deighton replied: "He was shot almost dead." And Liz Calder, publishing director at Bloomsbury, shows that working titles can lack the romance of the finished product. Joanna Trollope was currently writing a book based on a farm, she said. The working title: Udders.

I decide to take a break from culture and sample an Edinburgh tourist attraction. I go on the ghost tour, the titillatingly titled walk down the Royal Mile at night. Our costumed female guide stops at the point where convicts used to be tortured. She selects an American tourist, takes a whip from her handbag and whips him lightly 39 times (talk about killing time). "Now," she says, "what do you think is the worst thing that could happen to you next?" The American turns round, leers and replies: "Being released." Her blush lit up the night sky.

Blushes, too, at the Assembly Rooms Club Bar, where the comedian Lee Evans, known for his hyperactive style and manic waving of the arms, waved them a little too manically when he leapt across tables and punched a man who had insulted his wife. Bystanders were treated to a wonderful example of luvvyism as he was restrained by his agent, Addison Creswell and fellow comic Nick Revell, shouting: "You're too talented for this, you're too talented for this." Admonished thus, he ceased. Inner-city police forces take note.

There are a number of notable performances on the fringe this year: Sue Glover's deeply affecting all-women play about Scottish farm workers before the industrial revolution; the Kinks' Ray Davies doing a solo song and prose show; a rare - perhaps unique - comedy show by scientists, Modern Problems In Science, in which three guys from Chicago prove within 40 minutes any proposition from the audience, for example: "Dinosaurs became extinct from watching too many nature programmes on television." And with a nod at the 50th anniversary of publication there is a stunning one-man version of Animal Farm by Guy Masterson, Richard Burton's nephew. He slightly spoils it by having a recording at the end of a speech by Margaret Thatcher. Misguided at times she may have been, but Thatcher wasn't evil or Stalinist. The tendency still exists among the arts in Britain to try to paint parallels here with totalitarianism elsewhere, and it never quite washes. Which is why Orwell used allegory in the first place.

To balance the frivolity of August in Edinburgh, there are morning workshops and conferences, both at the arts and television festivals. The fringe, with bad timing, gives advice to aspiring actors on how to get cast, on the last day of the whole shebang. The TV festival comes up with a debate on a little known statistic, namely that 53 per cent of women over 40 in television don't have children.

My favourite moment at one of these seminars came a few years ago when the then arts minister, Richard Luce, had begun nearly every sentence: "Because the arts are important ...." A woman in the audience threw him by asking: "You keep saying the arts are important. Why are they?" A remark that questioned the whole purpose of the Edinburgh Festival left the poor minister spluttering. You think it should have been easy to answer? OK, you have 30 seconds starting from now.