David Howells looks back on his teenage years spent wandering the streets of Scotland’s legendary Edinburgh Fringe.
Central Edinburgh, the Assembly Rooms. A clunky mobile phone is thrust into my hands. I don’t know who is on the other line or why it’s been given to me. I say ‘hello’ and a similarly perplexed, yet familiar voice, responds in kind. I eventually establish that I’m talking to Phil Jupitus. He’s in a dressing room on the other side of the Assembly Rooms, about to go on stage to deliver the evening’s performance. We have a quick chat about the show and how his festival has been going, before he insists that he has to go, because his own show is minutes from starting. I wish him well and hang up the phone. Within moments of doing so, I find another notable stand-up comedian, who provided the mobile phone in the first place, crouched down beside me, running a finger along my thigh – I should add that I’m wearing a kilt (a Welsh kilt of course). I look down, passing the phone back, and give him a rightly quizzical look. He apologises, saying, ‘Sorry, just wanted to know if you wear these Welsh kilts properly or not,’ before jumping up from the floor and heartily announcing: ‘Right, we’ve all got to get over to the Pleasance.’ Off we went, and proceeded to spend the rest of the night huddled in a corner of the Pleasance bar, drinking with the great and the good of British comedy. It’s 1999 and I’m 17 years old, and this is my Scotland.
Between the ages of roughly 15 and 20, I made an annual pilgrimage to Edinburgh, specifically for the Fringe Festival. I was initially invited and hosted by my Scottish cousin Tim. He had been carving himself a niche as a critic for Radio Forth, which meant he was always well placed for free tickets to shows. For a young teen, this was certainly a formative experience. To plunge head first into an alcoholically driven sea of stage talent was tremendous. While my initial ventures were with my able and festival savvy cousin, it only took me a couple of visits before I became a seasoned professional at Festival engagement. I knew where tickets could be found for struggling performances, distributed by desperate actors in need of an audience, I mastered the very special art of attending ten different performances in the space of a day, and I became so integrated into the landscape of the Pleasance Theatre that internationally renowned comedians mistook me for age-old friends, who then proceeded to purchase large quantities of alcohol for a very underage drinker. These were great times.
Over time, the Edinburgh Festival experience became increasingly less to do with seeing a well-rated show, but about going to the theatre bars, and simply hanging out with people. I might have just been lucky, but for me, this is the Scotland that I came to know and love. Oddly, I spent time with very few Scots when I did visit, such was the melting-pot nature of the festival experience. Generally I would find myself drinking with a hearty mix of Anglos and Aussies, though the rest of the globe was frequently well represented. Sat most frequently in the Pleasance bar, we would congregate, a surreal mix of musicians, comedians, a smattering of press types, and then myself (utterly out of place, but maintaining my annual ruse of somehow blending in), musing over performances with pints.
Perhaps the most distinctive memory of my festival days though had more to do with Wales than it did to do with Scotland. As an excitable teenager, raised in a climate of frustrated Welsh nationalism (growing up near Chepstow afforded limited opportunity for such expression), I would usually mark my visits to Edinburgh with an assortment of pro-nat t-shirts and hoodies. On one soggy night, I ventured out in my ‘Owain Glyndŵr’ top, with the intention of trooping off to see the Japanese Beatles perform. On route though, a distinctively gravelled voice shouts out from the end of the street, while pointing excitedly ‘GLYNDŴR!’ The man from which the exclamation came, bounds up to me, restating ‘Glyndŵr yes, brilliant, Welsh yes? So am I! Do you like music? I’m off to play a set now with my band, you should come!’ There was no real discourse here, just an assertion that I should follow this figure to some random place to see a free gig. Such was the nature of the festival, that I turned to a couple walking past in the opposite direction, said ‘hey, here are some tickets for the Japanese Beatles, you should go see them’ (naturally, I had acquired the tickets for free anyway, so it was no financial loss). The couple happily obliged, and I wandered off with my new friend, who actually turned out to be an Englishman, raised on the border and seemingly assimilated, for a night of ‘Celtic’ folk rock. Okay, the band was not great, but the night was, though oddly, I never saw that enthusiastic Englishman again, not even in the band which he purported to be playing with.
This is my snapshot of Scotland. I cannot profess to have seen much of the country beyond the narrow confines of the ring of theatres which dominate the Fringe festival experience, but of all the places to which I have travelled, few have felt so homely and accommodating as the festival did back in the late nineties. This was cultural immersion of the greatest depth. The festival was a living entity into which you could climb and become cocooned, and in doing so, you would share it with the world. Any notion of class barrier or social status seemed to be left at the door. A young teenager with little sense of the wider world, could sit down next to a world-famous comedian or actor, and proceed to chat about nothing of consequence for several hours. My Scotland provided the heaviest dose of cultural engagement I think I have ever been prescribed. Yet this Scotland was also the most sociable and welcoming place I have engaged with. It’s a familiar story for many who make the same journey north, and come what may in the coming days, we can be confident that this Scotland will always be there.