The stairs change as the staircase corkscrews down and down, towards the earth: colour, texture; both variable. Encased in sandstone, each tread is a slice of wildly spiced, exotic stone. Nothing is fixed; you almost bump in to rain soaked commuters as you concentrate on your feet. Is it twentieth century artwork or nineteenth century hubris? This is Edinburgh, so it is quite impossible to tell.
The dining room is packed full of silence. The revelry is internal, as the legion of gastronauts quest their way through a tasting menu of Scotland’s finest. Shellfish, rhubarb, crowdie. The waiting staff tend quietly to the ever-changing sea of faces, making effortless work of a shift of service. Nothing is too much. A famous face is spied fleetingly through the glass, his team mill about him like an orrery.
The gradient is too steep for revelry, but every year they come. The terraces hold host to sights, sounds and smells from a Christmas of times both gone by, and freshly upon us: cinnamon, orange and wax mingle with German sausage, chilli sauce and endless, endless soap. In the corner a stall sells Spätzle. Glittering orbs hang in the air while the screams of happy children Doppler below.
What then of the festival? A world class city of art, of history and of culture almost grinds to a halt of flamboyant exuberance for a month-long celebration of art, of dance, of song. And yet. And yet. The world knows only one thing of the Edinburgh Festival, and that can be summed up in a word: fringe.
The comedy festival which takes place in Edinburgh at the same time as the international festival, at the same time as the military tattoo, at the same time as the international book festival, is but one facet of the sprawling culture monster which subsumes this great city in revelry every August. Yet it is all we know: comedy careers, a bucketful of anecdotes and – hopefully – connections, are birthed here, and don’t the rest of us know it. For once, emerging talent has the opportunity to eclipse old.
City streets run with the vomit of the entertained; parties form, storm and norm, then move on to the next rented flat. The volume level never falls below ear-threatening thrum, and the sleep debt is something only September can cope with. Add in a cubic mile of mud, a differently sacred hill and a lot of colourful smoke and you’d have a Scottish Glastonbury. At least the Scottish toilets are decent.
Like all the best cities, Edinburgh is ancient and modern in equal measure. Even the seemingly older parts of the city are, in fact, modern additions. Each bears the name of a Hanovarian, and stands in military row, almost nodding to the passing tourists. Old Edinburgh has a seamier charm; a grubbier respectability: this is a city which has experienced and led life for centuries, and it’s going nowhere.
Like all capital cities, Edinburgh is a tourist trap and a place of home and work in equal measure. Streets filled with shuffling masses, trying to take pictures of the architectural mix. Weaving through and past them commuters race for buses, trains and trams: trying to get to work; trying to get home; trying to live their normal lives. The backdrop is not lost on them; they just don’t have time for it.
Like all of the worst cities, Edinburgh is rich and poor in equal measure. Grimy, gut-wrenching, heart-rending poverty sits on the same streets as both the gleaming glittering face of modernity and the stately, seductive face of the empire’s past glories. An old man rifles through the bin at Waverly train station, a great glass lift clicks cleanly beside him, jutting out of the Victorian concourse.
Grassmarket is sticky underfoot; the sun shines down on a puddle of Tennants, and fills the air with a truly Scottish fragrance. People smile as the music moves the feet, and hips sway to the rhythm. This idyll cannot truly exist, but the people are here for the duration, and they live it. This is but one face.
A respectable hall; a band of musicians tune up, ready to entertain: Percussion, violin, balalaika. The soulful stirrings of delta blues had filled this converted church moments ago: boys from Edinburgh to be followed by girls from Oslo. Folk pop psychedelia. And it isn’t even festival season: it’s December.
A man sits alone on a train concourse. He had been in the pub, but he ran out of money. It’s not that he has nowhere to go; it’s that the trains have stopped for the night. A Sunday evening in the 21st century and the trains have stopped running. The line ends here, boys! He shivers, waits for a lift.
A couple walk home from a meal. They’d never eaten in a Michelin starred restaurant before, but in this city they had the world of choice. The streets are slick as they walk off the excesses of the hours behind them. The taste of wasabi ice cream lingers on the palate as they walk past Wagamama.
Edinburgh has been in my life for a long time, but it is a city I have never lived in. I have spent the night, popped in for an afternoon, and passed through countless times on my way North or South, but I have never had the chance to live there. I feel like I’ve missed out. The history and weight of the city is something I never fail to enjoy: the oldest streets, buried beneath smell of the history of Scotland; a smell shared by the Georgian facades above. Even the modernity manages to welcome.
Edinburgh offers more opportunities to eat, drink and make friends than any city I have experienced: it’s likely that if you attempted to try and sample them all, a whole new generation of restaurant and bar will have opened up by the time you get to the end of the first lot. The Forth Bridge, painted in plates, glasses and song. Such generosity of spirit would kill most cities: not Edinburgh; not by far.
The city may be subject to frequent downpours, but my memories of Edinburgh are full of smiling faces. Rains pass, and sun shines, and normality is a state of flux. Edinburgh has faced down all of the myriad vices and virtues which humanity has the shame and pride of committing. And on it smiles.