The Edinburgh Festival is the biggest arts festival in the world, so why does it always feel like a riot in a student dormitory? It may have smartened itself up a bit—replacing Benny and His Rectal Bazooka with, as it were, Daniel Barenboim—but it still looks like a monkey’s tea party sponsored by Miramax. For several weeks every summer, Walter Scott’s “ain romantic town” becomes Gin Lane; up among the cobbled streets and salty backcourts of the old town, soot-begrimed young hotshots with a headful of broken teeth slope through the tenements and make deals with black-hearted producers from London. The medieval castle lights up the moon; the sale of Budweiser goes through the roof; the little boy laughs to see such fun; and the dish runs away with the spoon. Edinburgh is at its best when it is just this: a celebration of pure nonsense. Here’s some more nonsense to get you in the mood.
My girlfriend has a great love of abbreviation (or ” ‘viation”), which I have grown in these past weeks to share, more through contagion than desire. But when I replied to her 8 a.m. “Ning, ‘ling! Do you want ‘kfast?” with a sleepy “Just ‘oast and ‘malade, please,” I felt that it had perhaps gotten out of control and that—having spent several weeks hidden away in the trees, giving full vent to this linguistic folie à deux—we should reacquaint ourselves with the outside world. This was a relief, actually, since I am expected to speak in Edinburgh tonight and would consider it (even for the festival) a bit risqué to translate my own dear magnum opus, Personality, into unintelligibly pygmified syllables.
So this morning we went to Chipping Campden, a ridiculously pretty Cotswolds village made of golden stone, where tour buses daily disgorge their heavy-footed hordes, a place where every house is so charming and chocolate-boxy that you half-expect Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin to come bustling to the door, tails swishing and aprons aflutter, to see what the world has in store today. We strode down the High Street, which recently starred in a BBC production of Middlemarch, in search of a church (or rather my girlfriend did—”Where’s a bloody ‘urch when you need one?”)—to light candles in aid of a poor soul no longer of this world. The church was duly found, unmolested by grinning ‘rists with digital ‘meras, and candles were duly lit (” ‘men,” she said, and ‘nuflected). This kind of onerous work makes you ravenous. Churches have that effect. “It’s no wonder,” my wise girlfriend said, “that Mass happens before lunch.” No it doesn’t, I said. What about 8 o’clock mass? “Before breakfast.” Ten o’clock? “Before elevenses, or an early lunch.” Six o’clock? “Before cocktails, obviously.” As you can see, we’ve been more or less by ourselves for a little while.
And so to Edinburgh, where bustle, noise, and swagger (or “bam, blam, and baalam,” as the Edinburgh poet James Hogg once wrote) fill the air and clog the airwaves. There’s always a headache-inducing level of free-falling anxiety in Edinburgh, so much so that I enter the town feeling like the Dalai Lama on Xanax, ready to shake the hand of every knitted-capped old lady waving a book in my general direction. The old ladies of Morningside—Miss Jean Brodies, no longer in their prime—are in fact the city’s great fashion leaders, refusing to remove their winter woollens despite temperatures close to 100 degrees. But don’t let the thermals fool you: The literary ladies of Edinburgh love a good fight (or “flyte” as they say here), and it wasn’t so very long ago that they booed Norman Mailer off the stage and hissed at William Burroughs whilst cheering the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid for calling them all “cosmopolitan scum.”
Despite my secret consortings with Squirrel Nutkin, I’m sometimes taken for cosmopolitan scum myself around these parts, having gotten myself into several scrapes with the happy-go-lucky executioners of the local press, who think I’ve spent too much time skipping around London and Manhattan and given too small an amount of my devotion to the deeper questions of the Scottish psyche. It being Edinburgh, a place of two halves, there are also those who wish I’d stop going on about the deeper questions of the Scottish psyche and go for a gargle of whisky along the Royal Mile instead. I love the Edinburgh audiences for all their aches and pains—they laugh out loud, at themselves as much as others, and they set their writers up high enough to make the fall worthwhile.
There’s a strong part of Edinburgh that is, despite its flytes and fancies, a very international place (it used to be known as the Athens of the North), and it has given so much to the life of the mind that you can get dizzy contemplating it all from the Salisbury Crags that overlook the town. Everybody is looking for a production that can repeat the success of Jerry Springer: The Opera, a hit of such vast proportions that it spread from a backroom at the festival last year to a sell-out run at the National Theatre in London. And more people are turning up at the book festival than at any time in its history. “Language! Language! Language!” squeal the lovers of literature. “Just mind your ‘guage and hurry home,” says my girlfriend.