This is one of my favourite tea towels because it evokes so many memories over nearly 40 years, fortunately for any reader, too many to mention them all. It is good timing that it has come to the top of my airing cupboard pile in August, just as this year’s Edinburgh Festival has come to an end. My interest in the Edinburgh Festival has always been about the Fringe Festival, not the main International Festival. I have been to 31 Fringe Festivals since 1976 and in that time I have only attended one show in the International Festival, which runs alongside the Fringe. I have attended several Book Festivals, as well, because I do love a good book.
This is also one of my most stained tea towels; I don’t know where those stains come from although they look as though they are tea stains. I can assure readers that it is not dirty, just stained. I can imagine people asking “If you have so many tea towels why keep such a stained one?” The answer is simple. This is the only tea towel that relates to the Edinburgh Festival, regardless of which Festival, that I have found over a forty year period. Too many memories to get rid of my one tea towel relating to the Edinburgh Festival, just because of a few stains.
The first time I went to the Edinburgh Festival was in 1975 when a friend of mine, who lived in St Andrews was appearing in a Fringe show. I didn’t know anything about the Fringe but it was great fun. When I was there I found a copy of the whole programme for the month and suddenly realised what I was missing. Too late for 1975 but I promised myself that I would go the following year and spend a week there. The next year I went with Dave and we stayed in a caravan in Dalkeith with our friends from St Andrews. We didn’t have a tea towel in the caravan so I bought one in the Ticket Office for Fringe tickets; it was the only one and I have used it ever since. It’s not spectacular in design, muted and somewhat faded but well loved.
I think the Fringe Festival is amazing; it was amazing in 1975 and it has just got bigger and better. I love the crowds (and there certainly are crowds), the street performers where you can be entertained for the whole day for free, the crazy venues, some very odd shows, the craft work, the huge range of performances from Barber Shop singers, to musicals, to Shakespeare, to mime, to circus performing, to dance, to stand-up comedy, to comedy shows, to American University shows, to amateur drama shows from local villages to big name stars. A lot of university drama societies go, as well as youth drama shows. The Edinburgh Fringe is where unknown performers can become national stars; some shows have been launched at the Fringe and move on to the West End. I love the fact that some shows start at 9am and you can watch shows until 3 in the morning. A lot of venues also have a cafe or buffet bar so you can eat and drink all day and night. Not only do the performers come from all over the world but so do the audiences. I know when I first went, the access for disabled people was poor because of the nature of the venues but over the years it has improved greatly, although still not perfect.
For 15 years, the Fringe Festival was serious business for me. I’d get the programme at the end of June and plan a week’s holiday. We tried to pack as many shows in as possible, choosing some we really wanted to see and some that sounded whacky and would always try something different. The most shows we saw in a day was 7 but averaged about 5. I could have seen more in a day if I could have stayed awake beyond 11pm but I never had the energy. This heavy attack on the Fringe requires a lot of energy, energy that comes with youth. You have to be able to walk long distances, across the City, back and forth, often at high speed. You have to be able to climb hills and stairs, sit in uncomfortable chairs, be able to brave the weather. In addition to all this, you also have to be able to map read, something I am good at, thank goodness!!
If you read any of the guides to the Fringe, people would say you should always leave room in your programme for flexibility and suggest you read the critics to find some good shows. I didn’t believe in either approach; the planning was part of the fun and meant the experience lasted more than one week. Good planning means that you see as many shows as possible, you get to see shows which get to be sold out later on and you can balance your programme. I think reading the critics is a waste of time; some of the best shows I have seen were rubbished by the critics. Over the years the Edinburgh Fringe has moved towards more and more stand-up comedians. You can get to see a lot of big names who charge big prices. For me there is a limit to how many stand-up comedians I want to see in a short space of time.
Over the years I reckon I probably have seen 600 or more shows and in that time I have only walked out of two shows (although there were several others I might have liked to, like the one where I was one of three people in the audience and two leaving seemed a bit mean): one was Macbeth in Romanian, I hadn’t realised it was in Romanian but it was recommended by the Scotsman, and some ghastly Grecian tragedy which was so boring and badly acted.
As I use my tea towel, can I think of any highlights over the years? Yes loads. The absolute funniest shows I’ve seen were performed by the University of East Anglia, back in the 1970’s. I saw them three consecutive years. One of the shows was called Swingalongadante, the others Swingalonga….but I can’t remember what. There were four performers, one of whom was Arthur Smith who was unknown at the time but has become a well known TV performer and stand-up comedian. The show was hilarious with a lot of slapstick humour, some of which involved smashing tea trays on their heads. It was fast, energetic, with great one-liners, in a back street venue. Sounds a bit lame but you needed to be there all those years ago. The UEA shows were the only ones I have ever seen twice, too good to miss. I cried with laughter and I can still remember those shows so clearly. I saw Julian Clary in a tiny bar, off Leith Walk, with his small dog. If I had known who he was, and what his show was going to be like, I probably would never have gone because the venue was so small and intimate and audience participation was excruciatingly inevitable. But it was hilarious. Some of the American College productions have been great. I saw Ruth Rendell, Roy Hattersley and PD James at the Book Festival who were great. I’ve seen some amazing musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. The Reduced Shakespeare Company has always been a favourite of mine; the original run-through of the Complete Works of Shakespeare was probably my favourite but the Millenium appealled to my sense of history.
I love the Edinburgh Fringe and although I don’t have the energy for the intense programme I still enjoy going to lap up the atmosphere, see some spontaneous performances as well as a few planned shows. There are loads of places to eat but I used to go to Plaisir du Chocolat on the Royal Mile where I could eat delicious French pastries and drink one of 80 loose leaf teas. Unfortunately this has now closed but there are plenty of other places to make eating and drinking worthwhile, which aren’t vegetarian.