Fringe benefits

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The week has passed, cheering Mo Farah to the rafters, but keeping just enough breath in its lungs to propel a hearty boo towards Justin Gatlin.

I have decamped to Edinburgh, where I will spend the next week waving my arms at these people in the hope that coherent sounds will appear. On the basis of the first evening’s activities, they’ll manage fine without me, so I’m tempted just to bunk off and spend my time at the Fringe.

Funny thing, the Fringe. Every year it threatens to engulf itself with the sheer mass of activity, but every year it just about manages to hold its unruly shape. I get the feeling that if you added just one more comedian, juggler or experimental pop-up culinary balloon sculptor, the whole thing would explode like the containment unit in Ghostbusters, showering the surrounding hills with a cascade of creative talent. The hills, meanwhile, would shrug their great and beautiful shoulders and get on with the serious business of being hills. They’ve seen it all.

Yesterday, as I walked up the Lothian Road towards our rehearsal, a bicycle rickshaw sped past, its passenger using a traffic cone as a megaphone through which to bellow an unrecognisable ditty at the passers-by. I’ve been coming here for a while now – seventeen years, I realise with a jolt – so am used to the ubiquity and strangeness of street performers, but I still wasn’t quite sure if he was a pissed idiot or an undiscovered genius trying to drum up an audience for his innovative one-man show (***** ‘Hilarious and naughty’ – The Scotsman), Arsehole with Traffic Cone.

At this time of year, the whole town is a theatre. A few years ago I came across a suitcase on the pavement. It was your standard suitcase, brown leather, snap clasps, lightly battered, the kind of suitcase you feel Lord Emsworth would have been comfortable with. The only aspect of it that might have taken that confused peer of the realm aback was the single male human leg sticking out of it. It was a nice leg, as legs go, and as legs go, it didn’t. It was adorned at its end with a foot, and the foot was in turn elegantly clad in a brown brogue and a dark grey ankle-length cotton sock. The foot seemed to sense my presence and gave a little waggle, as if to reassure me of its bona fides. I wondered briefly how the owner of the leg had managed to cram himself into the suitcase, then how he was going to get out of it again, and then why exactly he would do such a thing. Part of me wanted to pick up the suitcase and walk away with it, just to see what would happen. After a couple of minutes I realised that the sole purpose of this admittedly impressive feat was to make people like me stop and wonder why anyone would do such a thing. The leg – and therefore, I presume, its owner – had therefore justified its existence with a graceful elegance available to few.

It doesn’t do to ponder these things for too long, so I moved on, nimbly dodging the efforts of a peripatetic gamelan-playing, chainsaw-juggling, unicycle-riding, elephant-taming troupe to give me the flyer for their show Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagggggh We’re Trying To Be The First Show To Appear On The Listings.

My annual August reacquaintance with Edinburgh has become a kind of ritual, almost like a homecoming. I walk the streets, getting the feel of the place, allowing its sights, sounds and smells to infiltrate my being. The darkened sandstone, somehow both austere and warm; the reassuring rumble of car tyre on cobbled street; that hoppy, yeasty, malty brewery whiff, carried to my nose by the same changeable breeze that will turn a sunny morning into a sudden downpour.

The walk takes me along the Water of Leith, a miraculous haven of peace just ten minutes from the bustle of the city. A heron stands on the bank, its unhurried demeanour in stark contrast to the fast-moving water. It shifts slightly, prehistoric-looking, crest and straggly beard giving it an air of wisdom – Albus Dumbledore with a dagger bill. I’m always glad to see a heron, but it’s not why I’ve taken this scenic diversion. I carry on, glancing down amongst the shadows, hoping to catch a glimpse of movement at the water’s edge, the bobbing of a tail, a flash of white.

Two bridges down, I’ve had no luck. I have to leave. Never mind. I’m here, as they say, all week.

And there it is, obvious, standing on a rock in the middle of the water, its stillness in plain view admonishing me. How come you didn’t see me? Here I am. Now watch me.

The dipper (for it is he), somehow both portly and nimble, gives me a minute of its time, searching in the shallows for food with nervous bobbing movements, stubby tail twitching. Then it flies with whirring wings low over the water and out of my sight.

Edinburgh in August. Traffic cone arseholes, legs in suitcases, dippers on the water.

I bloody love it.

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  1. An American who has never been to Edinburgh. Somehow I think I have been remiss after reading your delightful post! And somehow I also suspect that the time best time to be in Edinburgh is now. Thank you for your delicious word pictures!

  2. I feel “homesick”! Edinburgh is about the same size as the city I live in here in Downunder. We also have a Festival and a Fringe which threatens to take over. We have a Writers’ Week and there is a great deal of “arm waving” at musical events…. and so I went to Edinburgh and I felt completely at home there. I think I am jealous, you lucky man!

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