The atmosphere on the Royal Mile is electric. It’s the eve of the 69th edition of the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of the world’s largest arts festivals. Handbills advertising the most delectable smorgasbord of performances have sprouted everywhere, and the queues wind down many blocks. Cops stand about, alert of eye and stance, but unintrusive. The mehendi stall has upgraded itself and now the shingle reads: ‘Healing Henna’. I catch the eye of the sweet-faced Indian woman waiting for customers and we exchange smiles.
Last year’s Fringe saw some major records being set: 50,459 performances, 3,314 shows in 313 venues. All of Edinburgh has turned willing Fringers for the full three weeks of the festival. Theatres, the George Heriot’s School (the inspiration for Hogwarts), bars and restaurants, art galleries, bookshops, a few churches, the Craigmiller Castle, the Edinburgh Central Mosque, the beautifully manicured parks and gardens, even the Lush Spa, are all performance sites now. Comedy, stand-up, improv, tragedy, farce, musical, magic shows, shows for teens and preteens, there’ something for everyone. There’s hope in the air, too: many a theatre company’s fortunes take off with a sterling performance here.
Randy Writes a Novel, a stand-up puppet act, was infused with delightfully dry humour and involved picking on an happy-to-be-picked-on audience. Randy the puppet expounded on the perils of novel writing. Hamlet in Bed, a gripping take on the hapless Prince of Denmark, had just two actors, a man and his long-lost mother, who are staging a Shakespeare play. The issues of abandonment, commitment, betrayal, were all deftly delineated. It plays out on a bed was a a lot of fun, setting up audiences to expect a particular quote from the Bard and then subverting it.
The bathroom of Elephant House where J K Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter stories
Photograph by Sheila Kumar
We’d come into Edinburgh from the Lake District by train and as we crossed the unmarked border, a cheer went up from a bunch of students: “Hurray, we are now in Europe!” On the surface, Brexit does not seem to have affected the tourist inflow and Edinburgh is close to being uncomfortably full. Virtually every B&B has a ‘No Vacancy’ sign. But there are signs, if you look around carefully. The 88-year-old British Home Store (BHS) shut down its large departmental on tony Princes Street and the news dominated local channels. Here and there sit panhandlers, some holding dogs with melting eyes, one kneeling in abject silence in the middle of a road. Some passers-by drop a few coins, others walk on.
The city of Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark and Ian Rankin is now known as the birthplace of Harry Potter. The Elephant House pub is quite unremarkable but its loo isn’t: it’s full of scribbles from Dumbledore’s Army! We visit Tim Riddel’s grave, feeling sorry for the gentleman whose name J.K. Rowling tweaked and gave to the Sauron of our times, Lord Voldemort. As we exit Greyfriars Kirk, we come upon a plaque that reads: ‘In remembrance of the thousands killed by the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, on 3rd December 1984. Your friends in Scotland have not forgotten you.’
We are staying in the house of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows. It’s now a popular guest house with innumerable flights of stairs. A notice says: “I know there is a lot of stairs yet that’s the way I like it.”
The Eilean Donan Castle
Photograph by Sheila Kumar
Up in the Highlands, we notice small shoulders of road with a sign reading ‘Passing Place’. We were told that was where you came to a polite halt and let the oncoming vehicle pass. Needless to say, everyone did just that.
Again up in the Highlands, we visit the Eilean Donan castle, made famous in films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kandukondein Kandukondein, as well as many a Hollywood film, most recently The World Is Not Enough and Made of Honour. Our guide talks of a Bollywood shoot he saw recently up in the more remote passes, where a couple were embracing each other in the backdrop of the Munros, the modest-sized mountains of Scotland. He sounds equal parts amused and entranced by what he had seen.
There are lots of people from West Asia out and about, some of the men in baggy trousers, all the women in burqas. Most of them seem to be tourists but some look a little ragged at the edges and you wonder if they are part of the recent immigrant wave. Whatever their origins, they appear to be enjoying themselves in the bracing air.
We emerge from Edinburgh’s National Gallery to see four drummers setting up the most infectious percussion beat ever. Part of the Fringe? Who knows? It’s there for everyone to see, hear and enjoy.
Sheila Kumar is a journalist, manuscript editor and writer based in Bangalore
E-mail your diarist: kumar.sheila [AT] gmail [DOT] com