In which Justin and Jane nearly go insane through tests and trials of physical and mental edurance, but then find redemption through comedy Fringe acts and realise that other people are actually much more insane than they are.
Early on the morning of Friday 8th we leapt out of bed, grabbed our backpacks, and tootled happily off to Kings Cross station to catch the train up to Edinburgh. Trial no. 1 – we hopped on the 9am train and found seats, only to hear an announcement that Super Saver tickets (our ‘super cheap’ 100 pound a head tickets) were not valid on that particular train. We leapt off and harangued a staff member, who couldn’t explain why they were not valid, nor why it hadn’t said this when I looked up train times on the internet, nor why when I bought the tickets it wouldn’t let me book seats. (Sorry, I can’t help you, I just work here…) The upshot was that the 9am train left without us, we spent the next hour in horrible Starbucks, and came back to find seats on the 10am train – Trial no.2 – only to find that there were none. They were all booked, by people who are either much more familiar with the train booking website than I, or who paid an awful lot of money for the privilege of sitting down. So we travelled the 4.5 hour trip up to Edinburgh standing with 17 other people in the carriage entrance lobby, including a fundamentalist-christian-looking family with 5 demure children and a father standing over them reading a bible, another man who looked like the human incarnation of the father in the cartoon American Dad, and two little old ladies to whom nobody offered a seat until about Newcastle, ie 3.5 hours into the 4.5 hour journey. I suppose if I’d paid 800 pounds a ticket (which I had seen advertised) I suppose I might have been possessive of my seat too.
So we made it to Edinburgh by mid afternoon and bought food to eat in the Princes Street gardens for lunch – lovely! People everywhere, all getting into the spirit of the festival, people wearing aluminium air conditioner duct walking past you in the street, people with pink hair and eyebrows, people juggling etc etc. We checked in to our hostel (I left it quite late to book accommodation as I wanted to book the train tickets at the same time which only went on sale 3 months before the event, so we ended up in a four-bed dorm in a hostel) and then mooched about the city watching street performers including an Australian who could swallow swords, and then juggled a sword, a scythe and a fire torch, blindfolded, sitting on top of a 3m high unicycle. Now there’s talent. Justin was like a little kid, dragging me from one street performer to the next. We ate dinner at David Banns, a very nice vegetarian restaurant, then headed back to the hostel for bed – only to meet our roomies, a couple from Belgium. Trial no. 3 – the man snored. And snored. And snored. Loudly. I invented a new term sometime that night – ‘to Chain Snore’ which means to snore on the in and the out breath, in a manner which is as loud and annoying as a chain saw. From 11pm-1am we tried to sleep. From 1am-3am we listened to music on our ipods but could feel the snoring as well as hear it. From 3am-5am we got up, got dressed, left the room (we could hear him all the way down the stairs) and went for a walk around the city, knocking on the doors of large chain hotels hoping they would have a room free but to no avail. From 5am-7am we dozed on sofas in the communal area of the hostel (pity we didn’t find those sooner), but were awoken by early breakfasters at 7am. Fortunately we had to move dorms that day – so got to leave the Snorer, who didn’t even wake up as we packed our bags and departed the Dorm of Hell. We then went shopping for ear plugs and sleeping pills, just in case the second dorm was as bad… which fortunately it wasn’t.
So now our three trials are over, we passed, and now get to enjoy Edinburgh and the Festival! We were slightly light-headed for the rest of that day due to lack of sleep, but aside from that the rest of our stay was wonderful. Each day we went to the half-price ticket hut and bought tickets to a number of shows for that night, taking pot luck but mostly seeing quality entertainment, including a number of Fringe comedy shows and plays. We saw one play through the Festival as well, which was really good – The Tell-Tale Heart, by Edgar Allen Poe, put together by Australian director Barrie Kosky, and starring one actor and a staircase, with a pianist and piano also on stage doing the music. The lighting was fantastic, and the staircase took on many different appearances due to changes in the lighting effects. The actor’s performamce was superb and the overall effect of tension and incipient madness was amazing. We saw two plays through the fringe, one based on Alfred Noyes’ poem the Highwayman, and another amusing yet topical one called The Third Condiment, in which a young man invents a third condiment (better than salt or pepper) out of burnt pumpkins, and encounters difficult moral challenges about how to mass produce, market and sell it, raising many questions about producing in developing nations to supply developed nations, how advertising can play on the fears and hopes of the target market, the power of the consumer purchase to alter the way in which goods are produced, and whether a good end justifies a dodgy means. We saw two comedy acts, one of which was a scotsman doing a show about the top 50 Great Scots, with an audience of about 95% scottish people, many of whom had seen him in previous shows which we thought was a good recommendation – his show was quite funny although some of it went straight over our heads with our lack of local knowledge. The other comedy was called the Improphecy Chronicles, 5 or 6 guys doing improvisation sketches, using ideas or topics suggested by the audience. I normally don’t go much for comedy acts but I have to say that I rather like improv, they really think on their feet and are very quick and clever, it was a very enjoyable performance indeed.
Aside from the shows, we also spent half a day at the Palace of Holyrood house, where amongst other monarchs, Mary queen of Scots resided, and we saw the room where her italian secretary Rizzio was murdered by Darnley and his henchmen, and also saw a great exhibition of italian paintings and drawings in the Queen’s Gallery. We also did a tour of the new Scottish parliament building which had not been built when we were in Edinburgh previously. It was one of the last buildings designed by the genius architect Enric Miralles before he died at the age of forty-something I think. Very inspiring, especially the roof structure of the main debating chamber with its fantastic use of oak timbers and stainless steel connections. Unfortuately to do the whole thing out of scottish oak would have deforested the entire country so it’s mainly european oak but anyway it’s really lovely.
On our last day we took advantage of the lull in the wind and rain to climb Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags which was great, the scenery is wonderful with purple heather, grey green shrubs, golden grasses and dark grey brown rocks. It’s quite amazing to have such wild looking scenery right in the middle of the city. It’s part of what I love about Edinburgh, those grey stone tenements and little wynds and closes in both directions and up and down in bridges and underbellies, like a 3d multi-level tartan in shades of grey creating the city, with the ominous windswept mass of stone looming over it.
After the climb we made it down and across the city to the Castle in time for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Thanks so much to Dave and Alex for the tickets! We had great seats, so much so that the ticket checking person came and asked to see our tickets again, saying that people often try to sneak into our seats from other ones! It was a stunning spectacle, the castle was all lit up and looked fantastic, and it was much more lively than I expected. When you watch it on tv I think it tends to look quite formal and staid, but in the flesh it’s much more vibrant. The crowd gets quite pumped up beforehand and there was quite a bit of international rivalry as the different nations were announced, including a bit of cheering/booing. The performances were great, so very coordinated although the US contingent were a bit on the sloppy side – the baton-twirling girl in front of the band dropped her baton a couple of times, and two of the flag-twirling girls behind the band dropped their flags, and the band put down their instruments at one point and did random jiving on the spot. Pffftt! pathetic. Much better was a contigent of New Zealand marching girls with short skirts and impeccable timing (Justin’s favourites), and my favourite, the king’s guard from Denmark. I’ll swear it was actually one tall blond perfectly trained young man cloned 30 times. Sharing the same DNA would of course explain their shared mind, I like to think of it as the ‘hive’ mentality, kind of like bees, or ants, which enables them to do perfectly coordinated formations with their rifles and flags. They did amazing wave-like moves with each clone sharply spinning around or raising a rifle a split second after the previous one. Very impressive. I think they packed them away in rows in a segmented box after the performance, perhaps wrapped in cloth so they didn’t have to touch up their varnished rosy cheeks and shiny plastic blond hair for next time.
But it all had to end, so on the Tuesday morning we had one last dodgy youth hostel shower, packed up our things, marched up to the Waverley station and managed to get ourselves actual real seats for the return journey. Farewell to the lovely Edinburgh, until next time…