Chapter One – To Edinburgh
There is, I suspect, nothing more pleasurable in the entire world than travelling by train.
More specifically travelling in a massively overcrowded train where, against the odds, you’ve managed to find yourself in first class (paying only for a standard fare ticket) with a cold beer, tray of Bakewell tarts and the background drone of people analysing their lives and the lives of others.
I was on my way to Edinburgh, my first visit and the first during the Fringe Festival. I’d jumped on a train in Wigan, where after a minor delay I’d found myself stranded. There are worse places to be stranded than Wigan, but not many. The highlight of my two-hour stopover (a brutal condition of the low-cost ticket I’d bought) had been watching a workman on a rooftop opposite the metal bench on which I’d been gradually going numb, repairing a roof. He’d walk around the rooftop repairing tiles and examining guttering before looking longingly over the edge and the concrete car park below. I couldn’t blame him, to be honest if I lived in Wigan I’d have probably jumped long ago. The platform was packed with tourists who’d all had the misery of the train change enforced on their journey, clearly I’d chosen the wrong train to travel over the border on, but at least I didn’t have a suitcase the size of an obsese child or a group of friends who’d all invested in identical anouracks. It was hot onboard, unbareably so, and as we stood, sardine-like, the prospect of three hours stood upright, sweating into the three people around me seemed like the act of a madman. Yet fate was on my side as I, and another sardine traveller were ushered into 1st class as the rest of the fish looked on enviously before attempting houdini style escapology to remove excessive waterproof layers. Ah, first class, big seats, free coffee, all the wi-fi I could ever need and great company… Oh wait…
“I thought half of two hundred was one two five?”.
Is there anything more life affirming than a moronic American tourist? The tourist in question, a 19 year old girl with short denim shorts and blonde hair was swiftly corrected by her perma-tanned mother, “honey, i think it might be one hundred.” Think it might be one hundred? Clearly we have nothing to worry about in our education system when on the other side of the Atlantic basic division is such a major issue. I made a mental note never to let an American divide up anything, chocolate, money, families, or oil rich middle eastern states without proper supervision. The 19 year old returned to, well, whatever she was doing, certainly not reading. I’m not really sure what 19 year old girls from the States do (even when I was 19 it was a mystery), apart from challenge themselves mathematically and hum indiscriminately along to rap music.
Meanwhile American mother had turned her attention to her husband, trying to slumber in the seat next to her, talking at him with inane chatter to which he rolled his eyes and longed for the journey to end or train to crash.
“Did you bring tea? I’m not sure they have tea in Scot-land.”
I briefly caught the eye of the man sat opposite me and we smirked at each other in that smug but entirely non sexual way middle-class educated men do in England when confronted by idiocy. “Scot-land”, ah the beautiful method of separating two clearly connected words mixed with an inability to say “Scot” right (“Scoat” anyone?), clearly we were high on the intellectual mountain staring down into the valleys below. The husband rooted around in his day bag desperately searching for tea bags before relenting, apologising profusely and staring at the plug socket with the kind of longing a man ready to end it all can give. The man opposite, smiled, looking slightly confused and scared and picked up his book, Dan Brown, and I sighed. Clearly intellectual conversation on this trip was a long shot. Still, I had hummed rap to listen to, free coffee, four remaining Bakewell’s and free coffee, so I sat back to enjoy the scenery.
Despite the quite depressing beginnings at Wigan the journey North is one of the most relaxing and beautiful in all the country. If after the joys of Wigan you find yourself in dire need of reminding about our green and pleasant land then this is it. The train steamed through the rolling farmland of Northern Lancashire, dry stone walls breaking up fields filled with chilly looking sheep with babbling brooks flowing into river fords where landrovers pulled surprised Americans in people carriers from their watery dooms. Past Lancaster with its hauntingly dark brown river and shimmers of sunlight catching the castle and rooftops serenading passing observers. And then from nowhere we were in the fringes of the Lake District, Oxenholme Station (Gateway to the Lakes) filled with intrepid walkers wearing rucksacks the size of a house, carabinas holding containers and waterbottles (and undoubtedly tea bags should they stray beyond the border into the tea-free lands of Scoat-Land) and prestine walking boots that would never sample mud, rain or even grass.
The rolling hills became mountains where grass and sheep clung on for dear life and landslides eyed up the train in the valley below. As we passed an old viaduct in our air-conditioned, sterilised, speedy, and in 1st class plush train I was struck by how simple this trip had become. Making the trip to Edinburgh now was four hours yet nearly 70 years ago people making the same journey would have suspension free carriages, the perils of a ten hour plus journey as well as either blisteringly hot or tremendously cold temperatures to contend with. In the valley the white water of a river crashed against large boulders and I found myself convincing myself they’d been left from the last ice age rather than had recently rolled down the mountain above us maiming everything that stood in the way. Luckily the soothing tones of our train manager, Scottish accented with the soft tone of Edinburgh rather than the harsher “want a fight” flow of Glasgow came over the tannoy. It’s an accent one could listen to forever, so very soothing, even when informing about severe delays or the terrible consequences of smoking in the toilets. I imagine that if the train had been about to be hit by a particularly slow moving boulder then simply a softly spoken sentence would have sent us all to our deaths calm, relaxed and relatively happy. I’ve never quite understood why smoking has been banned universally, there are a few places, train toilets included where smoking would be positively beneficial. Imagine going into a nightclub (as we used to) and being able to smell smoke rather than vomit, or a portaloo and avoiding the experience of expelling bodily fluids from both ends as a result of the toxic odour.
I started to dose off as the train gently swayed from side to side so picked up the helpful travel guide. Sadly it wasn’t to help, other than to inform me that we were travelling at 125 mph (it felt a lot slower) and that they were undoubtedly very happy we’d chosen to travel in a Virgin train. I wonder whether society has gone badly wrong now that noone seems to chuckle at the name of a train company. When I arrived in Edinburgh I tried this on my friend Chris. “I came on a Virgin” I said beaming with my own hilarity. “Oh right, was it busy” he replied ruining my glee. I tried again, this time more pointedly, “I came in a Virgin” again beaming and supplementing it with an obligatory nod and wink. It’s safe to say the the following silence wasn’t the silence of approval.
To say I’d decided to go to Edinburgh on a whim would be, well, it’d be a complete lie. I’d been on a rather ill-fated holiday with an ex-girlfriend some five years previously and had fallen in love with the city. The holiday in question had been marred by several things and had led to doubts, not about the relationship, but about my ability to go on holiday. I’d managed to book the only ensuite accommodation in the city that had the ensuite part two floors away, past three other rooms and next to the dining room. This had become particularly disconcerting on the first morning where, while utilising said toilet I was able to eavesdrop on people dining on burnt scrambled egg and watery sausage. Admittedly it wasn’t the most entertaining conversations, apparently when you reach your late 60s you develop a preoccupation with finding the main outlet of the Edinburgh Woolen Mill (for all your woolen neeeds) and discussing the merits of low ceilings. It was only after wiping up (and flushing) that I emerged triumphantly from the toilet to be confronted by a series of appalled diners who’d clearly been able to listen as clearly as I’d listened to them to my bowel movements as they ate their breakfast. The holiday had careered from bad to worse as she’d (through no fault of her own) gone from bad to worse and become incredibly ill and with it removing any promise of a slightly dirty yet romantic holiday.
Anyway, that holiday aside I’d been take in by the architecture, the buildings clinging to hills entirely unsuitable for building, the views of mountains from every street and of course the lovely accent. I’d made a promise to return, to visit the festival and immerse myself in some sort of cultural pilgrimage to find myself and perhaps reinvigorate my artistic side so that I could make the leap from the mundanity of working as a glorified administrator to something exciting, respected and, well, artistic. Since the age of 14 i’d wanted to be an artist; a performer initially and then as a writer/director. I’d had ambitions; director of the National Theatre, actor with the RSC, a star of the little and big screens before marriage to one of the Friends cast and living out my days as a universally respected and much loved auteur. However life had got in the way and a part-time position in theatre marketing had led to a career with responsibilities, targets and expectation. I’d broken up (I was dumped) with the girl of Edinburgh holiday fame and after a mourning period of months (that gradually turned into years) i’d upped sticks and moved to Liverpool in a fit of whimsy. I knew I wanted to do something different but wasn’t sure what, so, after ringing my friend Chris, training in the army (mostly it seemed to do press ups and clean things), we’d hastily arranged a trip, during which, unbeknown to him, I would discover what I’d like to do with my future, meet lots of artistic types and buy a tremendous amount of highland shortbread for my girlfriend. It was a faultless plan.
The train was still crawling through Scotland with the hills and mountains subsiding into slightly barren looking fields with lonely bunches of decrepidly aged trees in ghostly siloquette on the horizon. The sunshine had gone as well and as I looked through the windows at the dark storm clouds hanging over Edinburgh I reflected that perhaps failing to bring either a coat or jumper had been a potentially fatal error, although at least it gave me opportunity to buy something covered in tartan to offends the locals, which, alongside my attempts to try an authentic Scottish accent might make me fit in perfectly, or perhaps more likely, look slightly racist.
I wandered through the daytime crowds of Edinburgh fighting against waves of weighty Americans, Spanish exchange students with matching backpacks and dour Scots lamenting this invasion of their home. I’d booked into a hostel at the far side of the city centre, a converted church on the edge of a valley amongst the architectural gems of Edinburgh. At least I wish that had been the reason I’d booked us in, in fact at £20 a night my tight fisted Yorkshire mentality had kicked in with no consideration for comfort, safety from violent death or sanitary hygiene. Arriving at the desk I signed in following a long conversation with the South African gate keeper over my failure to bring photo ID to prove who I really was. I’d love to know the people who are stealing other people’s hotel rooms, particularly rooms in a £20 a night hostel where running water could be considered luxury. She wasn’t impressed with my wit so I was sent off to the room, barely large enough for a single bed let alone the three bunk bends that currently filled the space and I secretly added the tagline “breathing room optional” to the hotel’s name. A stained glass window, lockers big enough for a body, six beds and a young nervous looking guy under my bunk. His name was Chris, and by virtue of having particularly thick rimmed glasses and a vast planner charting his exact movements around the fringe I warmed to him immediantly. I am a firm believer that glasses wearers are undoubtedly trustworthy (every seen a bespectacled Prime Minister?) so unpacked my belongings talking about comedy, the merits of hostels and the point of photo ID and our festival dreams. My friend army Chris (who is, unsurprisingly in the army, just to clarify again) would be flying in later so I took my leave (preparing my hilarious Virgin joke as I walked) and strode into the sun.
Three hours, two hundred flyers and an hour of religious comedy later I was back at the station cracking my joke (in my head now a classic) to an outpouring of distain and silence. I’d popped in (with my friend Rach) to see a show by comedian Bridget Christie, better known as the wife of acclaimed misery Stewart Lee. This is where comedy was at, in a tiny room the size of a snooker table with 40 people, stage, technician and comedian crammed in. We’d arrived late and been forced to sit on the front row. It’s important to know at this point that there is nowhere more dangerous than the front row of a comedy gig. From the start I was the chosen one. There are two methods of avoiding audience participation, both of which are severely flawed. The first, to avoid eye contact, contract your body, attempt to hide in plain sight, draws attention to your lack of attentiveness, which to the kindly comedian is an indicator to move onto someone else, however for the more aggressive comedian it’s a turn on, a marker of instant gratification, the role of schoolyard bully uniting the school against an unfortunate victim, simply on the basis of, well, at least it’s not me.
The second is more directly competitive and involves fixing the tormentor with the kind of icy stare Bruce Lee might fix upon a group of ninjas or perhaps a drug baron before unleashing Kung Fu of the highest order. It’s a game of who will blink first, the more forceful comedians will avoid lest to run the risk of an unseemly power struggle with a confident adversary while more softly spoken comics feel confortable breaking the ice with excessive pleasantness, compliments and general loveliness. So when I found myself the recipient of a call for audience participation I had to make a decision; ice queen or shy rose. I sadly chose both simultaneously and was dragged onstage in a Catholic priest confessional. I’d love to say I relished my tiny role, bathed in glory and produced a number of witty retorts and injokes that built an unsuppressable rapport between me, the performer, and them, the audience. It was not to be, failure, doesn’t quite sum up the level of misery I achieved. It was like a child being chosen to read for the first time in front of a large group of distant relatives (after being acclaimed as a “lovely reader”) before losing the bottle and nervously walking off in tears leaving embarrassed parents in their wake. The comedian helpfully compounded my utter lack of success noting that the 69 year old woman who’d been onstage the previous day had been much funnier. A great comedy event which, I had, against the odds, made substantially worse.
I left the show satisfied but slightly red faced and into the rarely seen Edinburgh sun. Along the slightly quieter Princes Street (opposed to the horrendous Royal Mile) in the direction of Leith, absorbing the novelty of street artists entertaining vast groups of excitable looking tourists. It’s remarkable how away from the festival we’d dismiss these performers and artists as an annoying distraction, an irritant, people we’d rather cross the road rather than listen to ukelele jazz or a rapped version of ‘Living on a prayer,’ but in the summer sun, the arts flowing through the air there seems nothing better than to idly watch a man create a painting using a toaster as a brush or perhaps juggling using flaming knife chainsaw grenades (at what point did balls and clubs become so last year?). The rest of the day was spent getting gradually more and more sunstroked, gradually less enamoured with the price of a pint and watching (and occasionally participating) in various shows of varying quality. There’s something incredibly exciting about seeing an unknown quantity, something unexpected where the idea of content is derived from a flyer that appears to have been drawn by a toddler on crack with their own faeses. I love the keywords and imagine there’s the possibility of Edinburgh flyer bingo, “Sex”, “never seen before”, “acclaimed”, “from the producers of” and “laugh-a-minute”, Bingo! We concluded the day on the fifth floor of an old university buildings in the fictional lounge of a young boys house with seventy other people. Holding hands and confiding our secrets with strangers, a lovely experience of sharing, far away from our isolated headphone led lives where communication with others is seen as an undesirable trait to be feared.
We walked home through near deserted streets dodging drunks with traffic cone hats, dis-guarded drifts of leaflets proclaiming praise and acclaim and along Princes Street towards the hostel. Sleep beckoned and the conversation turned observational and precise as we admired this great city. Sneaking into the hostel we tip toed along the silent corridors and into the room and suddenly with a peacefully sleeping twenty something sleeping in the bottom bunk I became acutely aware of the distinct lack of ladder with which to ascend to the upper bunk. I dived up the bed narrowly avoiding standing on the face of the lower bunk sleeper and dragged myself over the edge like a mountain climber at the top of Everest. I removed my contact lenses before scanning (in a now blurred manner) the room for new inhabitants. We’d been joined by three sleeping German students and there was one empty bed (me and chris taking the total bed count to six). I lay down and pondered the empty bed, maybe there had originally been four students and they’d murdered one, or perhaps one of the group had an invisible friend, or maybe, and most likely, one of them was out still. Something was missing, I could feel it but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. My eyes, blurred and squinted scanned the near pitch black room, Chris, fast asleep was obscured from view and snoring peacefully. How I’ve longed to be the type of person who can instantly sleep simply by yawning and a close proximity to a duvet and pillow. It was bothering me now, something was missing and i couldn’t get my head around it. I continued thinking as the door opened and we were joined by the final incumbant of the room, a tall blond guy with broad shoulders and a blurred Boris Becker or maybe Bjorn Borg look. I wished I’d left my contacts in to pass further judgement but the notion of putting used contact lenses in my already red eyes seemed less than appealing.
I lay back in the darkened room and as matress springs gouged into my head I realised my loss; I had no pillow. Struck by the terror of the situation I panicked and ran to ill formed opinions; what would I do? how would i sleep? would I sleep? I contemplated walking to reception to ask for a spare but I was trapped, trapped by the lack of ladder to make a safe descent from the top bunk, trapped by my appalling eyesight limiting potential and possibly fatal obstacles to a faraway blur. This was not good. Not good at all. Recriminations ran through my mind, who was the guilty party, who had committed this atrocity, the unthinkable, this act of pure evil. I considered standing on my bed, 12 ft in the air and in a booming voice casting my fury upton my roommate as I towered over them in only a pair of boxer shorts. However I resorted to attempting origami folding my duvet to make a rudimentary cover/pillow combination despite the duvet being the same size as a small hand towel. To say I slept badly would be an understatement. Shattered and increasingly frustrated I longed for comfort and for the pangs of sleep to overcome and comatose me. In those six restless hours I made mental lists of the room’s quirks and oddities that made it entirely unsuitable for human occupation. Adding to the ignomy of a pillowless bed, an ascent to the top bunk sans ladder without harnesses or safety equipment that could be described quite moderately as reckless and my Becker/Borg roommates light yet mildly disturbing snores; I am 6′ 2″ yet my bed appeared to be only 6′, meaning my feet poked through the bars at the bottom of the bed. Or at least they would have if the rungs had been an inch wider, as it stood my feet were slightly too big to fit through the gap, and frankly, pushing the issue would most probably have exasperated the situation. Above my head light poured through a crack in the ceiling and into my eyes. The hostel, a converted church had arched ceiling around which sound reverberated and amplified. In our side room when I closed my eyes and concentrated fully I began to believe I could hear the collective breathing of 120 under 30s, sighing restfully under one roof, I hated them all. Eventually I drifted to sleep, waking at 8am with drool (my own) running down my face onto my arm (playing the role of a pillow and entirely numb) with a strand I tackfully wiped away as I rose. I was tired, grumpy as as if to add insult to injury surrounded by a group of happily sleeping people soundly dreaming with their heads in the softest of pillows.
I fell clumsily from my bed narrowly avoiding the clutter of Fringe brochures and empty coke cans on the floor finding my glasses tucked securely in the pockets of my jeans and dressed quickly. Sighs of sleep induced bliss echo’d around the room and even Becker/Bjorn, who it turned out was not the giant hairy man I assumed them to be but in fact a dainty 5′ 2″ girl with severe nasal problems would not be rising for hours. I considered stealing their pillows and returning to sleep, or perhaps smothering them all safe in the knowledge that the culprit would be caught, although admittedly combined with the deaths of four innocents, unless they’d be working together, there’s a thought. But instead I wandered to the common room to grab an excessively strong coffee, toast and jam and adjust my eyes to the unnaturally bright light streaming through the windows. Despite feeling as though i’d been through ten rounds with a heavyweight my gloomy mood started to lift as caffeine flowed through my arteries and soon I was all joy and wonderment again, half jogging into the showers to make myself look human again. I wonder what happens to me when I sleep, having seen many films and experienced it first hand with a girlfriend or two I know for a fact that the hair of a waking person should, normally, look identical to the state in which it was when they went to sleep (even, in films following the most romanticised yet passionate sex scene recorded). My hair, and indeed face doesn’t agree with this convention however, my hair sprawls like a gorse bush indeterminately greasy or excessively dry in patches of random measure. Meanwhile I seem to always lie in a position that imprints a semi permanent scar on my face, the seam of bedding, or a button on a pillow, or, in one extreme and mistaken purchase, tiny cuts from the sequinnes that made it look so relaxing and quirky on purchase. Returning to our room, Chris was awake and with military precision (without a hair out of place, damn him) was ready to set out for the day. Looking at my watch, 9.30am, an unheard of time, perhaps this was the joy of Edinburgh motivating me onwards we prepared to leave on our arty mission, could this be the start of a new me?
We left the hostel turning right down into the valley and into Edinburgh’s Dean Village for a morning stroll to work up an appetite, discover the “real” city and rememnice about when we were 16 and, remarkably, less geeky (marginally) than we now found ourselves. As we descended into the valley we passed ancient stone cottages and former mills and crossed the girder-ed bridge into this small glimpse of heaven. Dean Village sits on the side of the river and was the site of many mills in the 1700s and 1800s, set against the steepest sides of the valley it went into decline until the late 1970s after which it was reinvented and now is home to some of the most beautiful homes in all the country. The criss-crossing streets, nooks and cranneys and meandering dead ends that lace the hillside create an idyllic scene with an Austrian feel as the rush of water can be heard from the waterfalls and the frenzy of the festival is left far behind. Walking down the side of the river, under the bridges that towered above us we talked about our lives and the different path’s we’d both taken. Passing a waterfall our true selves emerges, Chris the adrenaline junkie (that was why he joined the Army, there’s no denying it) challenging me to walk along the top of it. Now in the past this would have been all I needed, when in Scarborough we had regularly got drunk and ensured our safety by walking over iced over lakes, often stamping at the ice next to the other persons feet to raise the danger stakes. Admittedly it’d been on a lake less than two foot deep, but still, a thrill. However now I’d grown up a little and upon further inspection of the waterfall discovered that although from the top of the falls it look very passable, the fourteen foot drop at the other side didn’t quite agree and made my stomach turn. We walked on and emerged next to regal buildings, specialist deli’s and exclusive coffee shops where every other car was a BMW and the alternates were Aston Martin’s. The fresh air and quiet within the centre of a city was refreshing. Since moving to a city I’ve become accustomed to the background noise, the sounds of sirens, gunfire and drunks meandering home with the constant orange glow of the streetlights. Everytime I stay with my parents who live in the beautiful Scarborough, I struggle to sleep for the perfect dark and silence are slightly unnerving, especially when occasionally punctuated by the raw bleet of a sheep in the fields behind their house. We finally emerged from the nice Knightsbridge of Scotland and walked to our favourite comedy venue, The Stand to purchase our viewing for the day.
Over the following few days we absorbed a disgusting amount of comedy, seeing show after show, trapsing and often marching up near vertical slopes to reach the next tiny venue with five people in the audience, a fake moustache and (allegedly) a five star review. I began to commit to memory aesthetic styles of performers, how they acted onstage, drew us in, toyed with us before delivering (or sometimes failing to deliver) the killer punchline. Edinburgh is one of the few cities with a huge valley down the centre. The castle sit on a vast volcanic castle rock overlooking parks, churches and the station from which weary travellers emerge to the joys of all-you-can-eat Chinese, Edinburgh Ghost Tour and the prospect of more hills. The valley once home to a vast lake, severely polluted by the city growing around it was drained for parkland and the railways, taking with it Scotland’s Nor Lock. At the tail of the rock down the immensely long (and predictably lengthed) Royal mile sits the royal residence and the Scottish parliament building. We briefly visited the parliament building, a vast looming and somewhat disturbing looking building. An open plan building with confusing staircases leading from one strangely sized room to another all finished in a light wood veneer that makes you think of Sweden or another Scandanavian country, somewhere peaceful and placid rather than the occasionally brutal and particularly forthright Scottish temperament. I had imagined something altogether more intimidating, something to strike fear into the hearts of those attending so that you’d sit up straight in your chair and keep attentive and accurate notes. Perhaps something to intimidate the English Royal residing over the road. However I was somewhat disappointed, it felt friendly granted, comfortable definately, but it also had a look of a cheap designer Ikea style furniture store, with a main auditorium with all the elegance and class of a former polytechnic turned university lecture theatre. It quickly became apparent as we wandered through the looming buildings of Edinburgh that our lack of planning was at a cost. The vast planner that non-army Chris had developed clearly had a point, I imagined him wandering serenely from venue to venue, perhaps stopping off for an espresso on route or maybe a pain au chocolat before arriving early to shake the hands of the performers, God we hated him. We in the meantime had chosen venues at the linear opposite sides of the city, finding ourselves marching (or double-timing) mile upon mile of 1 in 2 steepness cliffs before rushing into the venues late puffing and wheezing like asthmatics at the end of a hundred meter sprint.
But we loved every moment of it, seeing the comedians who were aggressive and forced their personalities upon the audience like reckless boxers to the slow and cynical types who leered and snorted and even guitar wielding (should I say axe? That’s a more guitarist term?) groups playing songs of love and asking profound questions like “What would Jesus do” or “How many songs use the same 4 chords”. I was like a giddy child who’d been given too many sweets, filled with joy, excitment and suddenly it struck me, the reason I was here what had led me to this point, after all this time, what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be, who I wanted to be.
A chartered accountant.
No, but seriously now. I wanted to be the funny man in the room, the one telling the jokes, lapping up the success and having those awkward silences. I wanted to be performing to 5 people in the back of a pub, or even better to 500 in a converted lecture theatre. This would be my mission, to perform some comedy, or make people laugh, through whatever mean possible.
And with that, my first Edinburgh Fringe was complete.