Edinburgh has some niche shops: a candle shop, a hat shop, a fossil shop and a shop devoted to women’s golfing wear, as well as Howie R Nicholsby’s 21st Century Kilts. But these are only a small part of what makes the city so wonderful. It is built, improbably, between a castle and a cliff so that almost any point in the city offers a spectacular view. Walking across North Bridge is always a reinvigorating experience – when feeling dispirited by a rubbish show, or tired of cultural enrichment, or momentarily forgetful of what a massive privilege it is to be there North Bridge, always battered by hefty cross winds, blows away those cobwebs and reveals clear views of the castle perched archly on a sheer rock face to the west and the green, damp slopes of Arthur’s Seat looming out of the east. That surrounding view is the city at its most beautiful and its most fierce, a city sitting somewhere between nature and civilisation.
Its many different zones have many different moods: New Town, high society, Frisco-esque hills that drop down to the sea; Cowgate, a grimy sub-city where there is always someone drunk and it seems always to be raining, or at least dripping; Summerhall and The Meadows, bright and clean, spacious and airy thinking spaces; on bright mornings or after a great show a spritely feeling takes hold and confronting the Royal Mile seems like a good idea – get a feel of the buzz of the Fringe, see some whacky flyering and weird street performers. After reaching the end the spritely feeling has gone, replaced instead with irritation. The progression from South Bridge to Nicolson Street to Clerk Street to South Clerk Street where every second shop is an independent café – even though you never seem to be near the place that matches your mood and appetite. Each café does one thing that is really good – Brew Lab’s Blondies and Lavender Fruit Rooibos tea are stunning, Turquaz does great French toast and the scones at Kilimanjaro are hefty affairs, even if they skimp on the jam – but it always feels like whenever I fancy a scone I’m outside Brew Lab. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Evening weariness is always brightened by seeing old people in ponchos coming back from the tattoo. Where do old people get the ponchos from? Having forgotten to pack a coat, jumper or umbrella I was tempted to get a poncho but resented the idea of paying for one. They seem like the sort of thing that should be free, since they’re just a big bit of cling film.
Then the shows and the reactions they can induce. There is the unparalleled stumble effect, of going into a show with low to no expectation and stumbling upon something amazing. There were ones that messed me up, that had me thinking and twisting my thoughts and crying and pondering for hours and days afterwards. The strange solitude of seeing so much stuff alone, writing about it alone. It is easy to get trapped inside your own head and lose perspective. The explosion every night of fireworks that’s audible in whatever venue you’re in.
An hour of poetry or performance can destroy you. What a weird thing. And to have it happen twice, maybe three times if you’re lucky, within a month is unbelievable. Complex, layered, profound and endlessly rich works are played to small audiences every day for a month in some clammy, smelly room in a building.
And some of the venues really are awful: C Venues are all stiflingly hot, clad in black curtains that don’t let any air in and make it an unpleasant experience not only for the audience, who’ve paid to be there, but the performers too who’ve paid even more and are certainly not making any kind of profit out of it.
But Underbelly is infinitely worse. Some of their venues may have grimy charm, but some are just dire. One long bunker (Delhi Belly or Belly Dancer or some other extension of their seriously laboured pun) has a small stage in the middle which can’t be seen from either end of the audience, who sit on groaning and sagging plastic chairs, and a vent from the bar spills music and chatter loudly into the space at night. Underbelly must be making vast profits – they are part of the same cluster as Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon. They take the performer fees, box office splits, bar revenue. I wonder how much they pay their staff. It’s a depressing commercialism, profiteerism that’s completely out of kilter with the otherwise democratic nature of the Fringe – that some person who’s never performed anything before can go up and be noticed and, if it’s good, be praised alongside the most established theatre or comedy groups in the country and in the world.