Sep 16, 2015

Summer Travels, Part Two: Edinburgh Festivals 2015

Summer Travels, Part Two: Edinburgh Festivals 2015
I’ve been in love with Edinburgh since I first visited in December 2007. Part of it that it’s a beautiful city, of course, but at this point it’s also the fact that I have such amazing memories of all the times I’ve been there. The first time I visited I got beautiful, crisp winter days with gorgeous light; I got to climb Arthur’s Seat in the freezing cold and feel stunned that the world was so full of possibilities. After that I didn’t go back until 2011, for my first Fringe and Book festivals, and spent what was undoubtedly one of the most fun weeks of my life: I got a hug from Neil Gaiman and a handshake from Patrick Ness; I saw some of my favourite bands live, I watched a dozen excellent Fringe shows, I fell in love with the city all over again. 2012, the last time I’d visited before now, was just as great in its way.

And now I got to go back for a short visit that nevertheless managed to equal all those experiences. I’ll tell you all about the events I got to go to in a minute (four Fringe shows, two book festivals events and one International Festival gig in two days, which isn’t bad at all. Also a lot of walking around the city); before that, I just wanted to say that one of the things I like about going back to a place periodically is that you’re encouraged to pause and take stock. When I visited three years ago, I already knew I was going to move to my current location, though I had no idea what it had in store for me. In a matter of only about a month I would get the job I still have today and start the current chapter of my life. It’s nice to think that if I’d known then how things were going to turn out, I’d have been overwhelmed with joy and relief. A lot of awful things happened in the past three years, but it’s good to realise that the overall path of my life feels right.
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As I said, my visit was short this time around, but I still managed to pack a lot in. I flew to Edinburgh early on Saturday morning, and within an hour of landing I was hurriedly making my way to Summerhall for my first Fringe event: Daniel Kitson’s Polyphony. This was a play performed by Kitson and by voices coming out of the speakers pictured above, each one of which was held by a member of the audience. This being Kitson, there wasn’t really any danger that it would become a show with a gimmicky concept and not much content to go with it. I’ve seen over half a dozen of his shows by now and enjoyed them all. Polyphony isn’t one of my favourites (and to be honest, it would be hard to top the emotional impact of last year’s Christmas show), but all the same it was funny, sometimes moving, and full of great lines. It’s a very meta show (something he manages to do in almost all his plays without it thus far feeling stale, which is no small feat) about the elements of human connection behind the process of creating art and releasing it into the world, and it does what it sets out to do very well indeed.

One my way back from Summerhall (a “pretentiously obscure venue”, as Kitson put it) I stopped at Word Power Books, Edinburgh’s “radical independent bookshop”. I enjoyed browsing their large selection of political non-fiction, but what impressed me the most was their programme of events. I really wish there was a place like that near me so I could go to them all. Also, I’m sad that I still haven’t made it to The Edinburgh Bookshop (voted the UK Children’s Bookshop of the Year 2014), but it was out of the way and time really didn’t allow it. One day!





My second Fringe show was Ada, an experimental Edinburgh University Theatre Company production about — you guessed it — Ada Lovelace. To be honest, this was a play whose simple existence was bound to make me happy. I missed the light touch of Sydney Padua’s book about Lovelace (which the play references!) and thought that the portrayal of her complicated relationship with Babbage sometimes came across as too overwrought (you can convey that it was complex and emotionally intense without verging into melodrama), but overall I really enjoyed it. I especially liked the use of Lovelace’s own words for so much of the play, and found the scene that juxtaposes a flying choreography with quotations from her own letters about the possibility of building a flying machine lovely and moving.

After that it was time to make my way to the New Town for the International Book Festival. Charlotte Square Gardens looked as lovely as ever, and between my two events I had time to browse the bookshops and enjoy the space (I also debated buying yet more books so I could get this year’s festival tote bag, but decided against it in the end because it would mean hauling whatever I got around. Regrets!).



My first event was Caroline Lucas’, who was discussing her book Honourable Friends?: Parliament and the Fight for Change. The focus of the book, and therefore of her talk, was parliamentary reform: Lucas explained that she wrote it out of frustration with how dysfunctional the British parliament is, and went on to describe it as “a cross between Hogwarts and a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera”. She’s interested in reforms that would make it more democratic and increase accountability and transparency, and she explained she’s a proponent of electoral reform for the very same reasons. Lucas described “safe seats” as disempowering and bad for democracy and political engagement: people need to feel that their vote will make a difference if they are to invest in politics.

Lucas also talked at length about the need for more diversity in politics: parliament, she said, needs to look a hell of a lot more like the people it’s meant to represent. Other voices are desperately needed, and in order to make space for them we need to change the culture of politics. Lucas talked about her support for measures like all-women candidacy lists, job sharing, free childcare and a less combative and straight up abusive media culture to even the playing field.

Of course, the world being what it is, at the end she got a question from a man who was seething with outrage at the fact that she proposed all-women candidacy lists. “What if”, he wanted to know, “a man is the best person for the job but doesn’t get to be elected just because of his gender?” Yes, wouldn’t it be awful if we lived in a world where people with excellent qualifications are barred from opportunities because of their gender? The mere thought! Lucas handled the question very well, but I think my favourite thing about the whole exchange was that one lone jerk attempted to clap after that man’s question, and yet when Lucas replied the whole auditorium reverberated with applause. (Unfortunately this man isn’t even a clear winner of the “sexist jerk of the day” award: he’d have to fight the different man who raised his hand essentially just to call Lucas a “beautiful young lady” who “brightens up politics” for it.)

My second (and sadly last) event was Naomi Shihab Nye and Mark Dotty’s poetry reading: I know I’ve said before that I much prefer talks to readings, but the exception to that are the times when I really, really don’t. I’m not sure if I can convey how moving and perfect this was. Some of it might have been my mood, but I pretty much spent the whole reading tearing up. There’s a power to poetry read aloud, especially by a gifted reader, and both poets were extraordinary. Naomi Shihab Nye read, among other poems, “Arabs in Finland”, “Red Brocade”, and the extraordinary “Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things”, all of which hit me hard. She talked about how her childhood library was actually Ferguson, and how moved she was to see it be there for its community in the past year.

She also talked about her memories of being a child and thinking that poems were a “much better thing to do with words”: they struck her as an opportunity to offer up an experience and leave it to make its own way into the world. Also, she finished by reading “Gate A-4”, which is probably my favourite of her poems, and it was absolutely perfect: I may or may not have had to hide my face because I was crying an embarrassing amount. I mean, how could I not?
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
I got to meet her at the end and have my copy of her children’s novel The Turtle of Oman signed (which I can’t wait to read) — she was so friendly and open and warm. Her manner was exactly what you’d expect from someone who writes poems so full of hope, thoughtfulness and generosity. I feel so privileged that I got to be there.

(I’m kind of ignoring Mark Dotty because Naomi Shihab Nye affected me so much, but I will say he was a great reader too and the poems he shared made me want to seek out more of his work.)

Saturday was long and busy, but I’m so glad I made time (and managed to stay awake) for what turned out to be my favourite Fringe event: a late night performance of Mwathirika by Papermoon Puppet Theatre, an Indonesian group touring the UK. The title means “victim” in Swahili, and the play was dedicated to “the victims of political turmoil around the world”. The story is all about the circumstances in which vulnerable people are completely disempowered, and I found it deeply affecting. It takes place in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, and it’s about how two families are caught in the anti-communist purge that killed an estimated half a million people. Mwathirika focuses on three children — two boys who are siblings, and a girl who is their neighbour — and it’s as well-executed as it is harrowing. It’s a wordless play, but it uses images and light effects to tell its story in a stunning way. If Grave of the Fireflies was a puppetry play, this is what it would be like.

Sunday was all about walking around enjoying the sunshine and being ridiculously excited about the gig I was going to that evening, but I did manage to squeeze in one last Fringe show: The Bookbinder, a Gothic fairy tale all the way from New Zealand. This one-man show combines storytelling, puppetry, music, paper art and shadow play to tell the story of a boy who gets sucked into a mysterious old book. I’m not sure how impressed with the story I’d have been if I was just reading it, but part of the appeal of stage performances is that they add a whole new layer of magic. I especially loved The Bookbinder’s inventive use of paper crafts and writing props: pop-up books, paper figures, and a particularly ingenious and atmospheric ink-into-water scene. The use of sound and light were stunning, too, and helped conjure an entire world on stage.

This is what the Fringe is all about for me: surprise, delight, possibility. This year’s visit was over much too soon, and I didn’t have the chance to see The Cagebirds or The Girl Who Fell in Love With the Moon or Edith in the Dark. But you know, I think that would be true even if I’d spent the whole month in Edinburgh, and part of me enjoys knowing that the possibilities are never exhausted. The most difficult moments in my life were ones when whatever difficult thing I was grappling with tricked me into thinking there was nothing left out there to discover and to love. My time in Edinburgh was the opposite of that; I want to hold on to this feeling in whatever way I can.

Speaking of possibilities, I love how even after four visits the city still has surprises in store. When walking down to Holyrood Park on Sunday I came across The People’s Story Museum, which I didn’t know about despite it being right there on the Royal Mile. As before, the fact that it was unexpected made my visit all the better. The museum chronicles the story of Edinburgh’s common people, and also the city’s history of resistance and protest. It was lovely to see displays about marches against the Corn Laws side by side with trade union placards from as recently as 2012. A few pictures:





I’ll leave you with some photos of what remains my favourite city in the world:








Oh Scotland ♥


Saying hi to the Millennium Clock.


Gerard Manley Hopkins quote outside the Scottish Parliament.


Blackwell’s window display.








The real reason why I spent a week traipsing up and down the country.


The view from Calton Hill, where I climbed late in the afternoon on Sunday.




For a little while there everything was perfect.

I’ll be back soon for one final post about my adventures down south: more London, Brighton, Salisbury, and Bristol.

18 comments:

  1. AAAGGHH I want to go to Edinburgh! Definitely on my bucket list. At least I can look at these wonderful pictures, thank you.

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    1. I hope you make it there some day! It's just the best.

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  2. Wow, what a great couple of days! Ada sounds like it was great. And oh I made the mistake of reading the Naomi Shihab Nye poems you linked to while at my library's service desk and someone walked up about the same time I was getting choked up over Gate A-4. Thanks for linking that, I have never read it before and it is beautiful. I don't blame you for crying during the reading. I have been known to burst into tears during poetry readings too :) And thanks for sharing all those photos. Edinburgh looks like an amazing city.

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    1. I want to say sorry, but at the same time, isn't that the best feeling? That poem never seems to lose its power no matter how many times I reread it.

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  3. You know, I think my brain has been lately trying to convince me of that faulty idea that there will never be new things about which I'm passionate about, that there will never be new discoveries, that the "living" part of my life is over. I know it's twaddle, really, I do. But sometimes it's hard to shut off those faulty messages from inside your own head. Thanks for the reminder, Ana. *HUGS*

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    1. <3 It's hard to keep this knowledge present, even if as you say it's not really logical to think it's all over. I've been known to slip into that too, though.

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  4. Fascinating blog, I have been back reading and only reached this page today. Thank you for sharing your travels and books. I am really considering taking a side trip this Dec in my business trip to Frankfurt. Please do continue to share, I know it can be tedious at times, but know that you do reach a fair amount of serious blog readers, even as far away as Manila Philippines. :D

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    1. Glad you're enjoying it and thanks for reading!

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  5. Gah I'd love to go. Someday...

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  6. You do make Edinburgh sound fabulous! And I'm glad to know that Naomi Shihab Nye is as great in person as she seems in her poems. I hadn't read the one about the library, so thanks for that.

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    1. You're most welcome! And I'm sure you'd really enjoy the Fringe and everything it has to offer.

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  7. You do make Edinburgh sound fabulous! And I'm glad to know that Naomi Shihab Nye is as great in person as she seems in her poems. I hadn't read the one about the library, so thanks for that.

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  8. Polyphony sounds (PUN ALWAYS INTENDED) amazing. I always hear so much about the Fringe Festival, but your account makes it feel more solid and real. <3

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    1. I give your pun the thumbs up :D And it's good to hear I managed to make the Fringe sound more real to you. It's such an amazing festival, part of me still can't quite believe it really exists!

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  9. I am glad that you got all these good things; thanks for sharing!

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  10. What a wonderful trip. One day I would love to go to Scotland.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.