“Do you want to see something dangerous?” the man shouts at the crowd of onlookers. They clearly aren’t impressed with what they’ve seen so far: they barely muster a mumble. He tries again. “Do you want to see something really dangerous?” When he brandishes three flaming sticks at them, they perk up “Yes!” they roar back.
At this point I become interested, too. But because there are so many people, and because so many of them are taller than me, not only do I not see anything dangerous, I don’t see anything at all, except the occasional flash of flame above the press of the crowd. So I move on.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s one of the world’s most famous arts festivals in one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities.
- Even outside the Festival and Fringe period, Edinburgh is stunning.
- Great for exhibitionists and extroverts. You can walk around in your pyjamas or your underwear and no-one will care — just pretend you’re in a show.
This is Edinburgh at Festival time, where the best and worst of the city are on display. On the debit side there are the crowds — tourists stopping to consult their maps in the middle of the pavement; couples or families hand-in-hand forming a human chain across the pavement; and (let’s face it) locals huffing and puffing at the whole thing, maintaining possession of their streets by dint of sticking out their elbows and holding their shopping bags as far away from their bodies as they possibly can.
But the best of it…well, for three weeks each year Edinburgh sheds its (slightly stuck-up) respectability and restraint goes walkabout. Yes, it means crowds — but so what? Embrace it. That’s what I’m doing. You can join in just about anywhere you like – some like to hang out at the George Street Spiegeltent, others think the University’s the place to be. But for me there’s only one place to enjoy the best of Edinburgh and that’s where I am – at the top of the city’s Royal Mile.
Reclaiming the High Street
The Royal Mile is one of the most famous thoroughfares in Scotland, if not farther afield. Outside the Festival it’s always pretty busy as visitors flock to the many historic sites – the haunted Mary King’s Close, for example; the 500-year old high-rises in the Lawnmarket; St Giles’ Cathedral; the Heart of Midlothian; and many more – including, of course, the castle, right at the top, on Castle Hill.
Today I’m not interested in those. Instead I’ve come in search of that strange beast, the Festival Fringe. Begun in 1959, the Fringe is the Edinburgh International Festival’s anarchic little brother. When mum and dad are away, the Festival might host a dinner party: the Fringe would hold a rave. The Festival might try to shock with a few (multisyllabic) rude words: the Fringe just takes its clothes off.
And that’s the appeal. The Festival is highbrow and very staid: its performers are the best in their field, invited to perform at the best venues. The policy of the ever-expanding Fringe, in the words of its organisers the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, is “that the Society [is] to take no part in vetting the festival’s programme.” In other words, anything goes.
Since its inception the Fringe has grown, bursting out of the city’ theatres and church halls into the streets Each year hundreds of stars and would-be-stars, from household names to school drama groups, turn up in Scotland’s capital to show off their talents and hope for a good review or a professional break. The High Street is at the heart of it.
The municipal authorities close the street off for these three weeks and it turns into a maelstrom of humans, many of them apparently off their heads. (Yes, you, the man who’s spent days standing in the same spot with your trousers round your ankles).
This is where the Fringe ticket office is and so it’s where the marketers gravitate. “No thank you,” I say politely as stranger after stranger, many of them in costume, thrusts flyers at me for shows I never want to see. “Not today,” I tell the burlesque dancer. “I’ve already seen it,” I lie to Jack the Ripper. (I think I’ll be forgiven for that.)
The Fringe for Free
Because of the laissez-faire ethos, if you don’t know what you want to see, buying tickets for a Fringe show can be a rather expensive lucky dip. I’ve had lollipops from it and I’ve had lemons. But the beauty of the High Street is that it’s the Fringe for free: the performers showcase their talents on some of the mini stages, and audiences can get a taste of the fare before parting with good money for it
I slalom past a man standing on a bollard doing tricks with an umbrella and a woman wearing a dress made of advertising leaflets. I get caught up in the crowd as people flock to see the man with the flaming brands, who’s finally caught their interest and who is now impossible to see at all. And I realise that the English language has failed me: We need new words to describe the noise, the sights, the smells, the whole serendipitous cacophony of the Royal Mile at Festival time.
After a while I’ve had enough of the pressing crowds and the noise. (Some of the street theatre is accompanied by ear-popping amps.) I consider my options – drop down the many narrow alleyways, or ‘closes’, which will take me down towards the festival venues of Princes Street on the north or the Cowgate to the south, or just put my head down and charge through the crowds.
I opt for the latter. When I reach the bottom of the High Street, where the crowds begin to thin out, I’m surprised to find that despite my policy of refusing every leaflet offered I’ve managed to acquire a sheaf of the things. I scan them but nothing appeals.
Outside Starbucks, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell are watching a group of students performing a satirical song. The Hooked One gives his ethereal cohort a bemused look. “Tinks,” he seems to be saying, “life’s so much more down-to-earth in Neverland”.
Dead right, Captain. This is Edinburgh at Festival time. Welcome — and enjoy!
- The High Street is just one of the streets that make up the historic Royal Mile, which stretches from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
- The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of the world’s largest arts events, takes place over three weeks in August every year, alongside the city’s International Arts Festival.
- Edinburgh at festival time is very, very busy: there are street closures and parking can be a problem. It’s best to avoid driving in town and use the excellent bus network.