The secret joys of the other Edinburgh

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Earlier this year, in spring, my wife and I went to Edinburgh to see a play in which her daughter was acting. ( Uncle Varrick , by John Byrne. Very good. Starring Brian Cox. Very good. With Isabel Brook. Very good.) You can't spend all weekend in a theatre, however, so we got out and about, doing a lot of walking, from Valvona and Crolla in the east to all those modern art galleries in the west, along the Waters of Leith, where the bluebells were just going over. And as we walked, something slowly dawned on us. There was no festival going on.

My wife has directed many a Fringe production, and I have been on stage in the Fringe often enough, so we have both been to the Festival often. We thought we knew Edinburgh. But of course we didn't. We only knew Festival Edinburgh.

This place was very different. Nobody stopped us in the street to give us leaflets. Nobody tried to affix posters to us, if we stood still for a moment. There were no clouds of flyers whisked by the wind along George Street, no immobile figures painted silver, no bagpipe buskers, no Festival newspapers, no pavement artists, no nothing.

Just a big city going about its business, occupied by the natives. The Scots. When we went into a pub, it was filled with Scottish people. When we went into a shop, we were served by Scottish people, even if many of them were Asian. There were no marquees in Charlotte Square and the Assembly Rooms were just, well, assembly rooms.

Valvona and Crolla was strangely different, too. This wonderful delicatessen at the top of Leith Walk is run by Philip Contini, who suffers from showbiz ambitions, so in Festival time he teams up with an ace storyteller and writer called Mike Maran to put on delicious Fringe shows in their tasting room. Most of their shows I have seen, and I wish I had seen all of them.

This time, however, we went in there just to buy food, and to have lunch in the shiny new bistro at the back. There was absolutely no performance going on at all, and no performers having lunch at all the other tables. It was an Edinburgh I didn't know at all. I rather liked it.

Right now, you will have noticed from your newspaper, the Edinburgh Festival is in full swing. Reviews appear daily of shows you will never see, and speculation rages about the Perrier winner, even though nobody south of Dalkeith cares who wins it, and radio shows run by people like Mr Ned Sherrin decamp to Edinburgh, and for a minute it seems as if Edinburgh is the centre of the known world.

Which it is, if you are there. But if you are not there, it is impossible to understand this fixation with the place.

During the Festival, the world is divided into those who are at Edinburgh and think that nothing else matters, and those who are not there and couldn't care a fart. There have been some years when I have been performing in a Fringe show at night, and writing for the paper by day, and it was the Fringe show that felt real and writing for The Independent that seemed make-believe.

I remember being told that there would be a game of rounders in the Meadows for Fringe performers, and I turned up with several dozen other hung-over performers to hear the comedian Arthur Smith saying: "OK! I'm going to divide us all into two teams! Those who think Ben Elton is funny, and those who don't." Then a pause, and then: "Come on! There must be somebody who thinks he's funny!"

And, yes, at the time I thought this was hilarious, and what life is all about, and I felt glad that I was there playing rounders with the people who matter, and that life would never be more fun than this. I was an Edinburgh person!

But of course I wasn't an Edinburgh person at all. I was a migrant, an alien, part of a flock of arty starlings which settled on the capital for three weeks, chattered importantly, and then flew on, leaving its mess everywhere.