“You’ll be glad when it’s over.” The old hands give me a knowing look. They have lived through too many Festivals for the approach of another to be anything more than a month-long inconvenience to be borne with as much good grace as possible.
Yet as the days of preparation go by, I find myself staggered at the transformation taking place in the city. Admittedly, the proliferation of road cones and other parking restrictions needs a United Nations treaty to regulate it. And, yes, it really does take twice as long to get anywhere. But, hey, the city is getting ready to welcome the world. Cut it a bit of slack.
Rubbish bins have popped up everywhere – as have cafes and bars. It is said that, if you try a different Edinburgh cafe everyday, it would take four years to get through them all – but that’s before the Festival hits town. Right now it’s nearer eight years. And – everywhere – lampposts, tree trunks, railings and walls have disappeared under the all-consuming show-bills. Each bears witness to months of creativity, hard work, excitement and – inevitably – the unspoken, unbearable possibility that theirs might be the show that produces a ‘no show’.
Mind you there are enough people to go round. The official Festival sells 400,000 tickets for 160 performances. But that is dwarfed by the Fringe, where some 50,000 performances are watched by 2 million people. It is a cultural monster which gobbles up everything in sight – halls, churches, lecture theatres, assembly rooms, courtyards, public gardens ….
With the clock ticking, I go down into our church hall (it sits, on the side of Castle Rock, directly under the church). It too has been consumed. Only two metal pillars (which helpfully hold the church up) cut through my confusion to assure me that this is indeed the hall I know. The rest is lost behind an acre of black cloth, a hundred yards of raked seating and a maze of lighting gantries. And all this is being repeated in 300 other venues.
Day one arrives and, as Jenny and I head off to our first show, the city has exploded. Yesterday the streets were just their normal busy selves. Today, they are choked, with the queues that snake along them. It is as if the monster has become a vast, tentacled Kracken. But the image cannot survive under the irresistible sense that this swirling mayhem of creativity (warts and all) is just so life-giving and joyous, so human and God-given.
Two nights later, the official opening event is to be the epic story of life on Earth, projected onto the south wall of the castle, with a mind-bending soundtrack to match. We leave our flat to join the 27,000 people who are standing in the street outside. Well, most of them are standing. Three have seated themselves on our porch. I ask where they are from. Rio! – they have swapped Copacabana beach and the Olympics, for the Edinburgh Festival and our doorstep!
The Earth’s story climaxes with the diverse faces of humanity lighting up Castle Rock. The Brazilians take their photos and drift away. Words, which spread across the castle walls, remain for some time: “Welcome, World.”
Job done, I would say.