“I just saw Donald Glover on the Royal Mile; he’s doing on open-air improv show.” I told them this when I met them in George Square. They responded by speaking at the same time; S. with, “Who’s Donald Glover?” and E. with, “Let’s go see him now.” It wasn’t Donald Glover, but it could have been. Nothing would surprise me for the next two weeks in this town when five of Edinburgh’s festivals continue to explode into one massive cultural conglomeration: The International Festival (when locals speak of ‘the festival’, this is the one they mean); The Military Tattoo; The Book Festival; The Art Festival; and The Fringe Festival. The combined effect of them taking place in Edinburgh at the one time is akin to Lance Armstrong on EPO at Tour de France: the city becomes super-charged, frenzied, wired, hyper, manic and winning. September is for sleep.
Apparently graffiti artists begin learning their art by spray-painting their name, signature or initials, which then becomes their ‘tag’. Once their tag is perfected they might graduate to bigger drawings, full gable walls, ambitious storytelling. For the month of August, I walk around this city and enjoy what I’ve come to see as human graffiti: people, maybe at the start of their artistic journey, presenting themselves as their own piece of unique self-styled graffiti, still working out their own personal ‘tag’ through how they dress and walk, what they carry or what instrument they play, how they dance or juggle, shout or sing, how they conjure and command a crowd.
On an afternoon of free festival fringe with K. this week, we took in the buskers on the Royal Mile. There were ineffective highwaymen – more pleasant than plundering; off duty Regency princesses slurping smoothies; Darth Vader and one of his Jedi leaning on bollards; four excited youngsters in white paint splattered body suits, limbs akimbo; shimmying girls in thigh-high, silver lame boots with matching leotards and mini skirts; a puppet playing drummer; a President wearing pink tights; a dandy in a navy velvet smoking jacket (though I suspect he wasn’t a performer).
Outside the John Knox House a woman, holding two long stems of artificial thistles high in the air, was giving instructions to her tour group. “Keep a wee eye to the thistle and should anyone get lost, the muster point is outside Deacon Brodie’s at six.” Good call. I didn’t fancy her chances in keeping them together in this throng. A young Japanese violinist in a flowing dress was playing her electric fiddle. K. knew the song: ‘How Far I’ll Go’, from Disney’s ‘Moana’. On the first stage we came to, a four-piece band of young Americans were singing Janis Joplin covers. Directly behind them a huge crowd had gathered around a man who was juggling, elegantly manoeuvring and spinning, a giant 3D open-sided metal cuboid structure. Strength and grace in space. Ah, space. There was so little of it on the jam-packed street, until, curiously, we came upon an open area, free from people. Had there been an accident? A man wearing a hospital gown was laid out, stock still, on the cobbles, a label attached to his left big toe. He was a silent advertisement for a show later that evening called, ‘Stiffs’. The rules governing taste at the Fringe are, one might say, relaxed. “You’ll be stiff all right after an hour on those cobbles,” was all I could think.
I watched a young man wearily leaning upon his cello case, sipping a coffee. Was he waiting for his girlfriend who was playing the accordion across from him, or was he just staring at her admiringly, hoping, trying to catch her eye? Beside him, a woman was industriously twisting sausage-shaped coloured balloons into hats and animals. A man with a dog (that wasn’t a real dog) had assembled a small crowd. “He doesn’t bite,” he assured them, “Stroke away.” Ten yards on was a man with a real dog that people didn’t stop to stroke. (Real dogs? Ten a penny!) A green-clad pixie, from his hood to his curly toed boots, was murdering a ukulele. Uncomfortably close to the pixie (and in stark contrast in terms of talent), a South American duo were singing ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ in two parts on their ukuleles. We walked on, through a troupe of men dressed as sailors promoting their show about Scientology (I couldn’t make the connection either). “We’re not Scientologists,” they repeated imploringly to a stream of gentle dismissals. Funny how, at a time when anything goes, there remains a certain skepticism about a Scientology show. There was a Spanish classical guitarist who held the guitar almost parallel to his body, balanced on a pole on the ground, the arm and frets alongside his face. We listened to him introduce, then play, a beguiling, stunning number called ‘Asturias’ that ended with him thrumming the body of the guitar below the bridge with pads of his fingers, horses galloping into the distance. A cowboy magician (why does that combination seem so wrong?) conjured huge pebbles from his Frye cowboy boots, but I didn’t see him pull a rabbit out of his Stetson.
And everywhere, off-duty performers were cajoling, begging, pleading, entreating us to take their flyer and choose their show above the 3,499 others that are running. This year’s Tour de France was cycled over 21 days. The Edinburgh Festivals run for 25 days; 17 more to go, including today. Come on Edinburgh, you can do it!