How to be a Fringiste
Michael Conway's guide to Edinburgh during Festival time
There are umpteen feStivals in Edin- burgh at this time of the year. The saddest is the grandaddy of them all, the Edin- burgh International Festival. Founded in 1947 by Sir Rudolf Bing as an antidote to post-war Crippsian depression, the Festival has tottered from success to tragedy, from the heights of musical and dramatic achievement to the depths of the 'hole in the ground', the much-promised and never-delivered opera house. Fine arias and exquisite recitals are usually accompa- nied by an equally well-known sound in the drama of the arts world — cold steel in bare back; but despite meanness from Conservative councils and cries of elitism from the city's present Labour administra- tion, it just keeps rolling along. The other festivals, if the various hangers-on can be called that, also have their troubles. The Tattoo, by far the most Popular, is (depending on your view) a magnificent showcase for ancient Scottish traditions or a ludicrous mixture of Harry Lauder and Bonnie Prince Charlie, with as much artistic significance as the lid on a box of shortbread and as much relevance to present-day Scotland as a 'Made in Hong Kong' Highland poppet. Anyway the Americans love it, and ringing tills make more noise in Edinburgh than airy-fairy talk about good taste. Mr and Mrs Wharton came all the way from Malibu to enjoy this strange attrac- tion, a sort of gathering of the clans meets the bazooka. 'Michael,' he said when we met, 'it was a pleasure to watch your Tattoo. Mrs Wharton and I, when we go back to California, will always remember this visit. Do you want to know how?' Of course I did, he was paying me. Mr Wharton produced a battered old tape-recorder from his holdall. 'After din- ner at our Malibu home I often ask Mrs Wharton where she wants to go. It may be Florence or Athens, and now Edinburgh is added to our extensive list of European cities.' He played the recorder. All I could hear was traffic, wind and Mr Wharton's voice singing the praises of Auld Reekie. `Edinburgh! Capital of Scotland, and here we are on the beautiful Princess Street.' More wind was apparent at the highest point of the castle rock where Mr Wharton had cannily bought the cheapest seats.
In their Malibu beach house, between the whistling wind and a faint hint of bagpipe, Mr and Mrs Wharton might at this very moment be listening to his voice on their aide-memoire: `. . . Here we are at the famous Tattoo . . .' Perhaps they have invited the neighbours to hear the authen- tic noise of Scotland, although the roar of the traffic in Athens and Florence is of presumably more interest to the folks next door.
The young couldn't give a hoot, they are here for the Fringe, and the whole three weeks are taken up with a running battle between performers praying for an audi- ence and an audience determined not to pay. To enjoy the Fringe on the cheap is very simple. All you need to do is buy a season ticket for the Fringe Club and it will come to you, free of charge as it were. Here, in the Scottish baronial portals of the Edin- burgh University Union, are cheap food, several bars open until four o'clock in the morning, this month's stars and lots and lots of desperate acts trying to entice you to a leaky church hall in Morningside to even better sketches. Don't worry. There aren't any. What they haven't shown you in the Cabaret bar isn't worth seeing, the com- pany or act having invariably put on their best stuff to get some kind of audience into their hideously expensive masonic hall or hired tent on the Meadows.
Not that everything in the Cabaret bar is worth seeing. Good God, no! While sexist jokes, anti-minority innuendos and various other political no-no's are out, the audi- ence still displays a modicum of critical ability outwith the usual parameters of fashion which rule these things in London. , In short, in Edinburgh, the trendies can tell a dud and it is an unwise performer who goes on with unsound jokes or insufficient preparation. If the act is not liked it will be heckled, then booed, then catcalled. If the hapless performer has not got the message within ten minutes the ultimate sanction is brought into play. From chairs, tables, the bar and most painfully the balcony, a' blueish rain of solid glass Tennent's ashtrays descends with force on the erring comedian. That usually does the trick.
This is all very well for the Fringiste who just wants to lounge around watching, but what if you are actually in the thing? Whether you are an actor, director, play- wright or one of those people who wander around with bits of scenery and screwdriv- ers, hard lines. The audience in Edinburgh is perhaps the most critical since the demise of the late Glasgow Empire, and with more than 2,000 performances they can afford to be choosy. That is, of course, if you get an audience. At a performance in the Bedlam Theatre attendance was so poor the cast cancelled the show and took the audience — all three of them — to the pub. The audience was apparently delight- ed, and a friend who was in the production said they would never fully understand how lucky they were. But perhaps you are just in Edinburgh to be seen. And with tickets at £4 a shot it might be the best idea to stick to the pubs. Scottish pubs are different from English pubs. They actually are old and decrepit, without any need for the special nicotine paint, garish-coloured prints and brand new wooden fittings which seem to be the stock in trade of the olde countrie pubbes being created in central London. The Café Royal, Bannerman's, Clark's and the Doric Tavern are highly recommended. Addresses are not necessary, merely ask any of the many people with big, red noses in the city where these howls are located.
Second-hand clothes are another of Edinburgh's specialities. Armstrong's in the Cowgate is filled with the knick-knacks of a surprisingly dandyish people, all at give-away prices. St Stephen's Street in Stockbridge has the most upmarket ver- sions of the genre, one junk shop having an owner who bears a remarkable resemb- lance to Harold Steptoe, complete with homburg, muffler, fingerless mittens, red waistcoat and an irascible manner.
Edinburgh's barbers sum up the mixture of madness and ultra-respectability which is a hallmark of the city's schizophrenia. Sandy, the barber in Broughton Street, is cheap and he actually cuts your hair without any of the flim-flam of hairdres- sers, who seem to charge £20 for a hair- wash and a bit of snipping. He has an established reputation among the universi- ty's public school set and a strong following in the pop world. Old Sandy, it is said, is barber to the stars at £3 a go. However, if he cuts your ear off, there is no discount. It is rumoured that another barber's shop in Raeburn Place is run by a septuagenarian East European. He has a 65-year-old apprentice who is not allowed to cut hair unsupervised and the older man refers to him contemptuously as 'the boy'. This might be just one of those apoc- ryphal stories that abound in the city, but there is every likelihood that it is true. Edinburgh, a city filled with both the strait-laced and the potentially strait- jacketed, is a curious place, worth a visit at any time of the year, but especially now when the old dowager has her annual knees-up.