Tue 23 Aug 2011
One of the things about living in Edinburgh you just have to get used to is that there are always people who want to visit you in August. It is a curious fact that people you haven’t seen in ages, or hardly even know, will suddenly decide that they have to come and see you and that they have to visit during August. Why is this? Maybe it is to do with the F, oh dear, looks like I am going to have to use the F word!
I had thought of trying to write a blog post about Edinburgh in August without using the F word, but there is just no way around it. In the month of August Edinburgh is home to a, whisper it, festival, or more accurately there are several festivals running semi concurrently, which are referred to as The Festival. This leads to the rather erroneous view that there is only one festival a year in Edinburgh. This is definitely not true, “Edinburgh is the world’s Festival City”, there are festivals for all sorts of things throughout the year, and in August alone there are numerous festivals.
There is the original Edinburgh International Festival, this started in 1947 with the “vision of a Festival that could enliven and enrich the cultural life of Europe, Britain and Scotland and ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’.” The International Festival has an aim to present “arts of the highest possible international standard to the widest possible audience”.
So the Edinburgh International Festival is the first and core festival in August, but it is far from alone, other festivals have grown up around it. There is, for example, a festival for walking up and down, and this may, or may not, involve playing a musical instrument. This on is known as the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, or The Tattoo for short. I have to admit to having been to see the Tattoo and actually rather enjoyed it, but it tends to be the sort of thing you only do once. I had a friend at Uni, who wangled a job at the Tattoo in the lighting box. She said that the first night was really exciting, but by the end of the first week it was becoming rather a bore, and there were still two more weeks to go. To me, the highlights of this year’s Tattoo has to be the unique Dutch Army Bicycle Band, not that I have seen it other than on this video:
However, this is still not the full extent of the festivals in August, there is the Edinburgh International Book Festival, for those who like reading, or at least listening to authors flogging their books. There is the Edinburgh Art Festival, Scotland’s largest annual visual arts festival. There is even an Edinburgh Bike Festival. Then there is the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, if you are looking for a laugh. This is a relatively new development which grew out of the “Festival Fringe”.
Ah yes, The Fringe, this is the bit which many people think of as being “The Festival”, as it has grown to be the largest of all the festivals in Edinburgh in August. Indeed it can reasonably claim to be the World’s largest arts festival (beware of imitations). Certainly when taken together, all the festivals in Edinburgh in August do amount to the largest arts festival in the World. In the month of August the city receives over 500,000 visitors, the standing population Edinburgh is about 448,624. The Fringe alone sold almost 2m tickets last year.
So how did this come about? Well when Rudolf Bing, Henry Harvey Wood and a bunch of big wigs from the City establishment first established the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, they did so to “enliven and enrich the cultural life of Europe, Britain and Scotland”, and they intended that performances at the Edinburgh International Festival would by invitation only. This left a number of performers feeling rather miffed that they had not been invited, so they just turned up anyway and booked “performance spaces” around the fringes of the official festival. Over the years this has grown like wildfire and the other festivals have been bolted on to make up the numbers.
As a consequence of all this, accommodation in Edinburgh in August is at a premium, hence people you only vaguely know suddenly want to visit you. This isn’t always such a bad thing, when I was a student one of my flatmates announced that her brother in-law was going to sleep on the living room floor over the festival. He was just starting out on the comedy circuit and this was his first time at Edinburgh. The upshot of this was that we got free tickets to his shows for many years afterwards. He told me I had a laugh comics would pay for, but he hasn’t had a show on the Fringe for some years now. The last time I saw him he was reduced to acting with amateurs, things like this…
Well Omid, if you are back in Edinburgh for the festival and need a living room floor to crash on, just let me know, actually you can have the spare bedroom, if we don’t have other visitors.
There are downsides to being in Edinburgh in August, for those of us who live and work here it can get really tedious that you can’t get about town so easily. In some places you can’t walk down the street without some would-be actor handing out flyers for a show [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-14422594]. The visitors tend to forget that not everyone is on holiday. They forget that this is not their country and we do things differently, so if you don’t like it, stop whinging and go back to London.
Yes, we do sometimes go to the odd show, but we don’t all have money to throw away, and we do pay for the privilege of having the mad circus in town. The Edinburgh festivals cost the Scottish tax payers over £5m a year and more if you are also an Edinburgh council tax payer (it should also be remembered that more money is collected in tax in Scotland than is spent in Scotland in public spending, but that is for another post).
Another thing the “struggling” theatre groups from London complain about when coming to Edinburgh is the cost of renting a flat through August. Yes, it is more expensive than at other times of year, but there is a reason for that. As any experienced landlord will tell you, a group of thespians can do more damage in three weeks that a flat full of students will do in a year. No only that, they will leave it in need of a deep clean, before even students will agree to move in. So new landlords, think carefully before letting your flat out for the Festival.
There are advantages to being in Edinburgh in August (or at any other time for that matter), it is a safe city, there hasn’t been a riot in Edinburgh for 199 years, unlike, say, London or Manchester…