How do you love Edinburgh? I love it like this: in its past and its present glory, in fair weather and in foul. The city stands frozen in time by bleak winds that through countless winters have stripped it to its bare bones; yet even in nakedness Edinburgh retains its dignity. Discover the exposed Samson’s Ribs of Arthur’s Seat, a mausoleum cage housing the stone heart of an igneous giant (first live, then dormant, now dead). Bared by fingers of glaciers long gone, these rib lines are reflected in the city’s Old Town, in the straight backs of buildings that house spines of books dusted by fingerprints. Edinburgh Castle is the jewel in the crown of a former volcano, standing proudly on remnant rock. The whole city is living history. A visitor exploring Edinburgh’s streets could easily imagine turning a corner and meeting a resident from a past century. Edinburgh is easy to love and also difficult, because of its ferocious climate. That a city in such a bitter and defensive environment was the crucible for the heat and spark of a cultural Enlightenment is nothing short of wonderful. That must be the reason why people flock here each summer: to experience the heat and magic of the Fringe, an annual incandescence.
Edinburgh in August is ephemeral. This summer I worked at Black Medicine Coffee Co., on the corner of Nicholson Street and Drummond Street. By the end of July you could hear the whole city hum with the patter of one thousand approaching artists. The season turned on the first of August, when the winds of change blew open our front door, and let in this year’s gaggle of Pips, Olivias, Sophias: birds flying north for the summer. On vacation from the Big Smoke, they arrived in groups – a flock of theatre kids, a storytelling of comedians, the common leafleteer and the lesser-spotted street poet. You could identify the newcomers by their voices, as well as their clothes. On the first Monday of the Fringe I saw Rhymes With Orange: spoken-word in the dungeons of the Underbelly Cowgate. I watched the poets teeter on the tightrope lines they’d written, sweating under the jarring lights and spitting rhymes against an audience in the dark. They were marvellous, I said afterwards, my words jarring out in the Baltic biting air. Mum replied, but didn’t you notice? Not an och among them. It was true: we’d watched southerners speak. As we walked down the cobbled Cowgate it struck me for the first time just how much of London was in Edinburgh.
The Fringe brought more than just a change in the accents. The southern capital’s obsession for the new had become its northern brother’s affliction. Those cheerful leafleteers, handing you show flyers to be disposed of: they were really charity muggers in disguise, on vacation from canvassing for Greenpeace in Camden Town. A rash of pop-up cocktail bars appeared around the New Town, while an acne of posters luridly decorated Edinburgh’s walls, incandescent shrieks of newer, brighter, better, all pleading for attention. An adolescent scourge on a dignified city.
The people and the leaflets left after two fortnights, gliding home on the thermals of planes and trains and automobiles, leaving Edinburgh scraped clean. Now that it’s September, I recall the vivid pamphlets and travellers’ wild plumage in the orange leaves (briefly crisp) that scuttle through the Meadows; stern October will wipe away, with a sponge of grim grey cloud, the painted face that Edinburgh assumed for the festival; and the city will be eternal again, at least until next summer.
But here’s the thing: Edinburgh is for life, and not just for August. Why is it only visited then? To be enjoyed as a fun-park, as an amusement arcade by a certain kind of PYT (pretentious young thing), self-consciously different and indifferent, with septum piercing and mermaid hair and shiny iPhone on which they swipe ferociously and incessantly. When I was at the shop, serving these fair-weather friends of the Fringe, the script was always the same: placing a blithe order, dropping the change in my hand as if dirty, and then off chattering to their assembled flock about what was new, what was fresh, and what was most likely to have nudity in it – to the total detriment of anything that was actually worthwhile seeing for its own sake, the only requirement apparently being “weirder than 2015”. Even more irritating were those people who would come in to tout their own shows, which I was always assured had a chance of nudity and/or was wackier than last year. And I would smile, place their order, and think, Well aren’t you unique. Unfortunately, even the notoriously poor Scottish summer is warm enough to melt snowflakes – and in August they are so numerous that they´re not special at all. The Fringe is just an annual opportunity to them to imagine fame.
I know I sound like I’ve been embittered by the Edinburgh climate. Let me say that in myself, the Fringe inspires not hatred, but ambivalence. It delights and terrorises me, sometimes simultaneously. I agree that a city which saw an 18th-century artistic renaissance, that has influenced so many celebrated poets, authors, and playwrights, is the perfect location for the biggest annual arts festival in the world. And there are many things that I love about the Fringe. Many of the people I served in Black Medicine were inflamed by the festival. I always enjoyed serving those who had just seen an unforgettable event, which had them enthusing to me about their first time in this fair city. I love the ingenuity, the excitement, and how on the single sunny day of the month the Meadows were alive like never before with tumbling troupes, chatting students, smoke from barbecues and other sources. I would also contest the idea that the Fringe used to be better, because the complaints about the size of the festival, and the disruption it causes, probably held true a decade ago. But there is something I would like to say to the visitors. If you should come up again, and I hope that you do, I would urge you to do two things. One, if you come in August: seek out something that’s really worthwhile, something that someone has put their heart and soul and passion into, and not something that´s done solely to be different or shocking. Two: don‘t come in August. I promise that Edinburgh doesn’t vanish. There is an enormous amount of talent on year-round, and it is wonderful not to have to part people like the Red Sea in order to get a round in at the bar. Furthermore, we tend to put the good weather out in May, so that we can enjoy the guid city ourselves. Therefore you won´t be dispirited by yet another wettest summer on record.
But what do I know? I’ll certainly be in Edinburgh before next August, but it is likely I’ll return for the festival in 2017 – and since I won’t be working, I’ll be the one buying the coffee. To the person serving me coffee next year, I apologise in advance: I look exactly like the kind of pretentious art student you love to loathe, and I have come at the busiest time of the year. You will probably think I only know and care about Edinburgh in August, too. And you’ll judge me. Since this will inevitably happen, I’ll say now that it’s hypocritical of me, this year, to judge the PYTs too harshly: perhaps their intentions are better than appearances would suggest. This is a city, after all, not only of past and present glory, of weather foul and fair, but also of appearances that deceive, of the superficial sparkle and the dark underbelly. The Royal Mile and Mary King´s Close, the Rebus novels and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Edinburgh saying of “fur coat and nae knickers”– I love Edinburgh both for its darkness and its light, and my love wouldn’t be complete if it weren’t tinged by ambivalence towards its strange summer vacation and the people it brings with it. So I´ll try again: Edinburgh is for life, and also for August.