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September 17, 2009

The Edinburgh Festival

Here it is September, and I’m just catching up with August – but I must tell you that at the end of the summer my family and I went to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time, and I’m still agog at how wonderful it was. I’ve been dying to write about it, so here goes:

For anyone who doesn’t know – I didn’t until recently – The Edinburgh Festival is really three festivals that are celebrated at the same time in Edinburgh during the last three weeks of August (and a little bit in September). First, there’s the Edinburgh International Festival, which consists of large-scale, prestigious productions of music, dance and theatre brought in from all over the world. Men%20in%20red%20small.jpgSecond, there’s the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is in smaller venues around the city and consists of lots of stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, rock bands, new playwrights and young performers trying out new material. (Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern started at the Fringe many years ago.) Finally, there’s the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which has wonderful guest speakers and everything else imaginable between hard (and soft) covers.

And because the city is teeming with visitors during August, street performers descend on the city en masse, which makes wandering through Edinburgh (already one of the most gorgeous medieval cities imaginable) a real wonderland of joy all day and all night. Girls%20in%20Green%20Wigs%20small.jpg

No, this is not a paid announcement sponsored by the Edinburgh Tourist Board. The fact is, it was simply glorious being there and I thought I’d pass it on. (If this act of kindness results in making it even harder to get a hotel room there next year, I’m going to kick myself.)

While we were there, we saw theatre and comedy and opera and dance non-stop for eight days and nights and here are the highlights:

First and foremost, we were lucky enough to get tickets to a recital by Bryn Terfel, one of the greatest living baritones (in my humble opinion). He sang songs from the great Vaughan Williams song-cycle Songs of Travel, as well as songs by Quilter, Schumann and others. It was one of the great musical experiences of my life and I’ll never forget it. Afterwards, my family and I went backstage and met with Bryn. He was wonderfully kind – and lots of fun – and took a real interest in my son’s voice studies. He’s a terrific man and I admire him enormously.

Papys%20fun%20club.jpgOn the Fringe side of things, there were three highlights: a sketch comedy group called Pappy’s Fun Club who were hilarious. They careened from sketch to another – the world’s tallest man, the world’s shortest woman, the funniest dinosaur ever born (his name was Danny) – just four guys and a lot of ingenuity and we all loved them. We also loved a rock group called The Magnets, who create their own back-up band with their own voices. The audience went wild. And we saw my friend Simon Reade’s one-man play called Private Peaceful, based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo about a soldier in World War I. It was very moving and beautiful.

statuesmall.jpgThe Book Festival? A tent covered all of Charlotte Square and it contained places to sit and commune with fellow book-lovers, so I was in seventh heaven. They also put up a bookstore, which ended up being about the best bookstore I’ve ever browsed. I left the contents of my wallet at the check-out stand; but I brought 19 new books onto the plane home.

I’m also grateful for discovering the poetry of Robert Burns in a big way on the trip. Burns is the national poet of Scotland and they rightly adore him there. I had read the standard poems growing up, but for the first time I realized what a complete genius he was. You should run out of your house immediately and go buy A Night Out With Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems, an anthology edited by Andrew O’Hagan (who adds terrific commentary). Then read “Green Grow the Rashes,” “Mary Morison” and “A Man’s A Man For A’ That.” It will change your life.

I could live in Edinburgh without thinking twice about it. It’s bulging with history, has the best castle I’ve ever seen and lives and breathes books and culture. I’ll never forget my kids climbing all the way up to Arthur’s Seat, which is a huge hill that overlooks the city. Meanwhile, my wife and I had tea at Holyrood Palace and waited for them. Alas for “sit mens sana in corpore sano” (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”). We sipped English Breakfast Tea and sunned ourselves while reading Burns.