Thursday, September 02, 2010

Edinburgh Diary part one

I went to the Edinburgh festival because I was offered a job playing accordion for a singer in her cabaret show. The band consisted of me, Sandy the bassist, who got me the job, and her boyfriend Luke, who played the drums. The singer, Gus, turned out to be the daughter of cabaret-comic Kit Hesketh-Harvey, of Kit and the Widow fame, and we spent a few days at their rather pleasant abode in Norfolk rehearsing. The set consisted of a couple of rock covers (Black Keys and Dead Weather), some French chanson (Francoise Hardy and Piaf), some covers of songs Amy Winehouse had covered, and some of Kit’s songs from a show he’d written about Rasputin, which were not really comic enough for him to do in his own show, and were decidedly odd even in our show. The rehearsals, and even into the run, were frequently livened up by father-daughter bickering over how she should present his material.

The train ride to Edinburgh was stunning, a journey everyone should get to do. From York onwards the north of England was bathed in a spectacular summer sunset: at top pace we passed the forests near Darlington, saw Durham cathedral, and went over the Tyne at Newcastle, before the sun set over Northumberland and we passed along the coast of Scotland in the gloom.

I got to Edinburgh around 10pm, and there in Waverley station, before I’d even found the exit sign, was a guy mooching about in full kilt get-up. I found the door to my digs a ten minute walk away, next to a Nepalese restaurant. The hallway looked like something out of Trainspotting, dirty and littered and smelling of a recent fire, but the 3rd floor flat we were staying in was pretty nice: pine floors, mod-cons, and big windows. It was student accommodation, which meant I didn’t get any bed sheets, there were empty bottles of beer in the bathroom and a nasty smell coming out of the toilet that didn’t go away in two weeks. But it was nice enough, and with the rent at £800 a month, it wanted to be. There were also a lot of Brazilians about, but they soon departed, although not before a couple of their number had gone to hospital after some close attention from the local Neds in a disco parlour.

We went for a drink in a nearby bar where I got my first look at the Fringe guide to all the shows: practically a telephone book of comedy, dance, theatre, cabaret, circus, poetry, and on and on. A completely overwhelming encyclopedia, with a daunting 2,500 shows to choose from, the vast majority of which you’d know nothing more than the short write-up in the book, and many of them charging £10 and up for an hour of entertainment (or not).

Anyway, at first, I had to prepare for my show, so I didn’t worry too much about going to see any others. We were playing at the Edinburgh Academy, which I thought was going to be something like the Brixton Academy, but turned out to be a posh school in a posh part of town some way from the main fringe arena. The most memorable thing about the place was the toilet’s acrid air fresheners, which were like being dipped in a chemical bath. It was a free show, which means that you seduce people in and then guilt-trip them towards the end and stand at the exit with a hat, collecting donations. A cunning ruse, as it turned out.

To break my show duck, the band squeezed in a visit to see Kit and the Widow, which was on at the same venue, although in a bigger, much more professional-looking room, with proper bleachers, lights, black-out material and no chintzy curtains. Kit and his piano-playing co-star present innuendo-laden satirical songs, much in the manner of Tom Lehrer, camp, frighteningly clever and often very funny. Fringe stalwarts, they’ve been at it in Edinburgh for the best part of 30 years, and have grown old with their audience – “the best education that money could buy and this is how we've turned out – playing for poofs and pensioners,” Kit said – who must know some of the older material by heart. They did a song called People Who Love Sondheim, which is on Youtube from 1992. But they keep writing up-to-date stuff, beginning the show with a song about the Tory-Lib-Dem coalition, about which, alas, I can remember nothing, and also one called Everyone Wants To Be Like Obama. The highlight was probably a song about Nando’s, to the tune of Abba’s Fernando ("There was something in the food that night/that wasn't right/at Nando's"). And Kit’s comic finesse almost overshadows his excellent songcraft, as shown in the quite beautiful song The Swan, and also in the songs which he gave to our show, which were aching with pathos.

With a couple of days until the show started, I wandered around Edinburgh a bit. A spectacular, unspoiled city, unblemished by bombing or modernism. In Edinburgh the so-called New Town was started in the late-18th century. The city groans under the weight of neo-classical buildings and monuments. Crossing over the North Bridge, over what once was a loch and now houses the train station, especially when the sun burst through after a few minutes of rain, as seemed to happen every day, gave you a sensational view of an array of incredible buildings through brilliantly clear air. I wandered round the Georgian squares of the New Town, happy as you like, only slightly concerned by the showers that would appear, unheralded, rain drops like silver coins, and then vanish, leaving beautiful sunny days.

I soon got tired of walking up the endless hills and tried to get my head around the arcane bus system, where bus routes intertwine in a Gordian knot. Scotland has supposedly the highest rate of obesity in the developed world, but not in Edinburgh, since to get anywhere you have to walk up some gratuitous incline and then when you arrive you have to climb four flights of stairs, so I actually lost weight. And despite being warned I'd have to survive on deep-fried pizza and fish and chips, Edinburgh is full of Italian restaurants and cafes, where you can get decent cheap food quite easily.

I'd been told the festival was “buzzing”, but initially I was unimpressed. My first visit to the epicentre on the Royal Mile was a huge disappointment: instead of street shows and buzz there were shonky buskers, an lot of drama students twatting around in dodgy costumes and about 50,000 people trying to thrust flyers onto you. There were in fact a lot of good street shows, especially down by Princes Street, where I saw the brilliant mime/street painter John Hicks and old school popper Julio “Klown” Santiago, but the vision I'd had of some kind of cacophony of interactive street characters was a strange pipe dream.

Chainsaw juggling street show in the Royal Mile

Do you need a chain saw licence for that?

For the first few nights I went out looking for the action, but this was a hit-and-miss affair. The festival is spread too widely, and I had too little info to go on to just breeze into the hot spots. Also a lot of the performers are on a mighty month-long slog, playing 26 or so days out of 28, so they’re not necessarily out every night caning it, a la Glasto (although a lot of them are). I met a pal from London who took me round a few bars, and got me thoroughly drunk, but by 3am we’d ended up in Cowgate, a alleyway of grimy student bars, where the drinks are cheap, the girls are cheap and the boys are angry. We barged into the Sin Club, where some radgy youngun sidled up to me on the dancefloor and told me several times in Scottish argot to “fuck off or I’ll run right over yer.” He leant on me, trying to get me to move. I wasn't going anywhere, and he wasn’t heavy enough to make me move, but I wasn't going to fight him, not least because there were about six bouncers nearby, who could be expected to take an at best indiscriminate approach to sorting out any trouble. So I told him to fuck off, more or less, but he persisted leaning against me, until I asked him: “Why are you coming on to me?” “I’m noh!” he protested, and stopped his leaning. “Go and chat to some girls,” I told him, and ruffled his hair, and he nodded and fucked off.

The next night we ended up going to several of the same bars – at one a bouncer eyed me up and said: “You’re not as drunk as you were last night.” – and at the Sin Club the bouncer refused to let me in, on the grounds that he’d let me in last night and I’d caused trouble, which was ridiculous, but I was feeling too old to be arguing with bouncers. A popular thing among bouncers up there seems to be judging how drunk people are as they walk up, and refusing them entry based solely on their gait. Which made me wonder: just how drunk do you have to be to get refused entry to a bar in Scotland?

It was only when someone pointed out that despite being called a festival the Fringe is not a load of action in a field that I managed to shift my expectations a bit. I came to realise that a large part of the festival’s charm is in its dilution in the ordinary Edinburgh sea. In fact it was when I stopped treating it like a “festival” – staying up all night, getting smashed and trying to blag into backstage bars – and more like a city break that I started to get the hang of it.

So I gave up chasing the festival nightlife to some extent, and settled into playing my show, having a few after-drinks and trying to find out from the people I met which of the 2,500 shows on offer to go and see, or at least which ones I could get into for free. Quite early on my mate got me into see Underbling and Vow’s ‘Ave A Banana, a time travelling knees-up, where a cockney gran and her 17-year-old granddaughter perused time and space on a converted mobility scooter, singing cockney favourites all the way along. A nice concept, nicely done, with great piano playing by Mr Cyril Millions, but a bit of better banter wouldn't have gone amiss.

One of the best ways to see what's going on is to catch one of the many “best of” shows, where a few performers pitch up every night and do a bit of their set. I got in to watch the filming of Edinburgh Tonight, a sort of fake TV show, which was actually streamed on the internet. Presented by the terrifyingly smiley Joe Simmons, who as a warm-up routine led us all in singing some ghastly Euro-house number, it was a slightly gruesome affair, but I did get to see a bit of one-liner merchant Gary Delaney's set, including his joke “I went to see Walt Disney on Ice the other day; wasn't very good, just a dead man in a freezer.” Also on the show was Kate Copstick, the famed Scotsman critic, who gave a good rundown on what shows she had liked, but would have probably been more entertaining on what she hadn't.

The obvious thing to do in Edinburgh is see comedy shows. Over the last 10 years or so stand-up has spread over the Fringe like a over-turned tin of syrup, and the streets are literally plastered with posters for comedians, many famous from TV. I decided to give most of the TV comics a wide swerve, on the basis that, well, you can watch them on telly; plus they all had a premium on their ticket price: about 30% on top. There’s an abyss between those who’ve had significant telly exposure and those who haven't, the difference being whether they'll be able to retire on comedy or not, more or less, but not by any means between being funny and not. The best thing about having seen a comedian on telly is that you can tell for sure if you really dislike them, and eliminate them from your list of possibilities. Beyond that it’s just lots of comedians you haven’t heard of, and whenever anyone recommends you a comedian you narrow your eyes a bit and think: “do you know anything about anything?” So, completely against my expectations when I arrived, I hardly saw any comedy, realising that one middle-class speccy twat moaning about his shite lovelife and that time he nearly got mugged, is much the same as any other. And in any case, the word is that cabaret is the new comedy.

There are about 260 venues in the Fringe, and they split into a few categories. The big four groups of venues – the Pleasance, the Gilded Balloon, the Udderbelly and the Assembly – dominate the bookings of anyone you’ve ever heard of, but their shows are generally expensive and often booked up and the stench of corporate slime hangs all around. The second tier includes the C venues and the Space venues, and features more cabaret and theatre gigs. Then there’s the free venues, joined together by groups like the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse, who co-ordinate free events across a plethora of upstairs pub rooms. Finally there’s the we’ll stick a venue in anywhere lot, as everyone else in the city crams 20 seats and a couple of stage lights into hotel rooms, closets and biscuit barrels and job's a goodun.

There was also the Forest Cafe, a hippy not-for-profit sort of joint, where there was a man in a astronaut’s suit climbing a ladder 43,000 times in an effort to cover the distance upwards of an orbital flight; perhaps missing the point but he at least made himself useful by sticking luminous stars on the ceiling at each ascent. I drank some heather beer made to a 16th century recipe, which pretty much confirmed to me that when they discovered hops they really were on to something. In the unisex toilets was a sign saying that the Forest Cafe “does not subscribe to binary notions of gender”; otherwise a nice place with a lot of free shows on.

The next day I did my laundry and an hour later did a passable impression of Munch’s Scream as I realised I’d left my £110 train ticket in the little pocket of my jeans. People comforted me by telling me I’d be able to sort it out at the station, that they’d have a record of the transaction and I’d be able to get a new copy and so on, but the rail staff soon disavowed me of that idea.

After our show Sandy and I went along to see Scottee’s cabaret show Eat Your Heart Out. Time Out’s performer of the year, Scottee, a drag queen who looks like, in his own words, a fat lesbian, unquestionably has the makings of a star, appearing in various fabulous outfits, including a lace body stocking and one that was a sort of disco Big Bird, and presents himself with a rare comfort in his unusual skin. The show, noted as a “menagerie of freaks”, was uneven, but included an excellent Japanese dancer, a Queen Elizabeth who stripped down to his England football kit, and a Northern drag queen who got annoyed with his own act and flounced off, but Scottee stole his own show, and really is one to watch. I met him a week later outside some dive bar, with an entourage about the size of Sweden, but he was friendly and gracious.


There was some proper celeb spotting: I saw Paul Whitehouse, Mark Watson and someone who looked like Ben Elton, although without the expected sign saying Cunt! pointing at him it was hard to be sure. I saw Shazia Mirza often enough round and about, counting her luck I'd expect; her poster had a quote from some idiot in the Metro calling her the Lenny Bruce of female stand-up, a far, far funnier thing than anything she’s ever said.

Read part two here