The witches of Edinburgh - Poles apart

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The Independent Online
When I first arrived in Edinburgh for the Festival, I overheard two people in the Assembly Rooms talking. One said something rather cynical or pretentious, and the other one said, "I think we're having one of those Fringe conversations, aren't we?", and they both laughed. But talking and swapping of gossip does take up a lot of time here - looking back to see what I have done at the Fringe, I find that, like many other people, I spent a lot of my time in the Pleasance Courtyard discussing a very important topic, ie, what we would be doing if we weren't having a pleasant time sitting in the Pleasance Courtyard.

During the rest of the year it is just a quiet university backwater - on my first day here I met a middle-aged man staring mournfully into the merry maelstrom of outdoors tables and drinkers and saying to himself, "That's my parking space in there!" - but for the Fringe month it is a place to drink and jostle and talk.

Or rather, to listen. Two weeks ago, for instance, I was asking Ralph Oswick of the Bath Natural Theatre Company what he had seen on the Fringe that was good.

"Well, I've seen the travelling Polish version of Macbeth."

"How was it?"

"I was disappointed."

"Not good?"

"Oh, no, it was good enough, even if you know no Polish. But I was disappointed because when I went in, there were three very big ladies going in in front of me, and I just knew from the look of them that they were going to be the three witches. They sat in front of me looking very threatening and I was waiting for the moment when they would leap up dramatically on to the stage, when I heard one of them say to another, 'Oh, dear - I didn't know it was going to be in Polish...!'"

But it's not just the Fringe - it's real life as well. We were having dinner one Saturday night in a nice little restaurant called Keeper's, with a big room off to one side that was full of a noisy American party, which we could hear but not see. They all fell silent at one point for the leader to address them as follows.

"All right, can I just talk to you about worship tomorrow morning? Now, in the church we're attending I don't know if they will be using ONE large chalice or several small chalices pouring into smaller cups, so if any of you has any problem with either approach, please let me know..."

Weird. Even notices that I have jotted down have a slightly odd flavour. There was one I spotted in the Royal Commonwealth Pool when we went for a swim: "No Access To General Purpose Room". There was a blackboard I noticed in Portobello, outside a pub on the beach called The Tides Inn, which was the sort of blackboard that normally says something conventional like "Lunch served from 12 to 3" but which in this instance said pleadingly, "NORMA - DON'T FORGET YOU'RE WORKING TONIGHT!"

I also copied down some graffiti in the gents' loo at the Botanical Gardens, partly because some of it was in Gaelic and partly because it was the gratifying sort of graffiti that begins with one line and is then added to by other people. It went like this:

1. "Saor Alba! Free Scotland! Thigar la..."

2. (In a different hand) "This Canadian heartily agrees with this."

3. (In a different, scornful scrawl) "Oh yes, back to the old clan and feudal system..."

I must go back at the end of the week and see if the debate has continued.

Even our own little show, "The Death of Tchaikovsky - a Sherlock Holmes Mystery" (advt) has produced useful comments. A microbiologist came to see it one night and left a note with the stage crew saying: "You might tell the cast that you catch cholera from a bacterium, not a virus". The script has been amended accordingly. And one night my old music master from school, Noel de Jongh, came to see the show (in which I briefly play the euphonium) and could be heard saying to his neighbour, "I used to teach Kington music, you know!", then adding, "Not that you'd know it."

Actually, it was Noel who came up with my best overheard remark at the Fringe. Afterwards in the Pleasance Courtyard I heard him saying to someone: "I had an aunt who smoked so many cigarettes that her voice went deeper and deeper as she got older. Towards the end of her life she could easily manage the bass chorus part in The Messiah".

Now she would have been a wow on the Fringe.