My brother Saif and I hustle out of Waverley railway station to a rainy, blustery evening, the kind that made Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) flee his native Edinburgh, saying that it had the “vilest of climates.” But we two, here for the Fringe festival, aren’t fazed as we join the queue for taxis on Waverley bridge, looking up at the magnificent skyline of Edinburgh castle beneath gun-smoke grey skies as rush hour traffic whooshes wetly by.
Cabs arrive at turtle pace, and behind me I hear American voices wonder about a long wait. I turn to see an older couple; her anxious, him exuding avuncular bonhomie.
“Whaddya do?” I say with a shrug.
“W-e-l-l,” he drawls, “I keep telling my wife there’s a bar close by and we oughta wait for cabs there.”
Over the next few days I see them everywhere, Americans with Scottish roots touring the Old Country. Today the West directs its fury at immigrants, but nobody mentions the Scots, who are champions at immigrating—settling in the 15th century in Poland, Scandinavia and the Low Countries, taking over Ulster, leaving in waves for the Americas, England, and later, Australia and New Zealand. The exodus still continues—an estimated 825,000, out of a population of five million, high-tailed it between 1951 and 2006. But it is the non-white immigrants, people fleeing bombs and wars enabled by the West itself, who catch all the flak.
Family emergencies had delayed planning, so by late July all hotels in central Edinburgh were booked solid (the Fringe dates were August 2 to 26), so Saif had punted for an Airbnb, emailing me that it would be “…interesting. One room, communal living.”
When I landed in London he said, “It was either that or a park bench.”
“And you passed up on the park bench?”
But it’s within reach of the venues. He had bought tickets as well, picking shows at random from the Fringe’s bewildering maze of shows, venues, times, dates, performers.
Our Airbnb turns out to be student lodgings in an old, big terrace house partitioned into small rooms to maximize rental intake. We go past the bike rack in the foyer sporting a couple of nice Italian numbers, and up steep flights of stairs to the third floor with rooms, lounge and kitchen, and up again more stairs to our room. A bed. Table. Dresser. Skylight.
“Not exactly the Balmoral, eh?” Saif says. But, to our delight, the communal bathroom is king-size, Balmoral in its own way!
We hardly ever see the occupants, ghosts flitting in and out of rooms or clattering out in the morning on bikes, but then we two are no less spectral, out in the morning, back late at night.
We are late for our stand-up comedy at Pleasance Courtyard, with a festive crowd milling amid festooned old-brick buildings, and slip into our seats in the tiny Cellar midway through the first act on the trials of coming out of the closet. Knowing laughter. Next is Sarah Iles on the tribulations of the newly-single, older woman attempting online dating—Tinder swipes, uncomfortable sex! Chuckles. After which appears ex-President Obonjo of Lafta Republic, in full military duds—his is a sly parody of tinpot dictators, and we two, familiar with the type, laugh the loudest.
High Street nearby is all bright city lights, where we have dinner, and we walk back on dark streets between steepling old buildings, and just as I am about to fall asleep I see framed in the skylight a cluster of stars.
Mid-morning. We sit in a city tour bus, rolling through sun-struck streets.
Earlier, we had done a status review.
“So what’s the program?”
“We have tickets for ‘Fake News’ and ‘I am a Phoenix, Bitch’—2:40 pm and 5:30 pm.”
“Add a couple more?”
“Sure. And a bus tour.”
I riffle through the Fringe Guide—the Mahabharata of fest guides!—and pick Pete’s magic show (8:00 pm) and Aussie stand-up comic Ray Badran (9:45 pm). We walk down St Leonard Street towards Pleasance Courtyard looking for breakfast places among the student eateries, side alleys, a large police station and terrace houses. Something nags at me but I can’t put my finger on it.
Edinburgh from the bus is entrancing, with the Old Town—Castle Rock, Royal Mile, palace, historic roads, its wynds and closes (Scottish for the ollie-gollies of our Old Dhaka)—living up to its fairy tale billing, no wonder that in August the month of festivals, our tour guide says, the city’s population of 500,000 doubles to a million. It’s a literary city, naming its railway station after Walter Scott’s historical romance Waverley (of which our own Bankim was a fan!). Robert Burns, James Boswell, and a host of lesser lights. But there’s an underside to the fairy tale—seen, for example, in the junkies and chancers of Irvine Welsh’s runaway bestseller Trainspotting. In the rent boys, gangsters, druggies, human traffickers, dealers, gun runners and crooked politicians of the brilliant Inspector Rebus thrillers by Ian Rankin that, some years back I, like zillion others, got so hooked on I read the whole series published till then in one go—but hadn’t gotten around to the later ones, meaning Rebus had dimmed in my mind...
After lunch we walk through throngs of revellers and the colourful riot of street performers, to ‘Fake News’ at George Studios’ tiny stage, a blistering monologue by TV journo Osman Baig on the state of the current news media, but we were also expecting laughs and there are none.
“Needs to rework the material,” is Saif’s verdict, while I think it is an underappreciated gem.
‘I’m a Phoenix, Bitch’—in a proper theatre hall—is a genuine showstopper, with Bryony Kimmigns delivering a scorching multi-media show (props, pop video, art installation), about her year of near-clinical breakdown, from which, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she came out transformed. We all applaud madly.
“Never seen anything like it,” we say to each other.
We sit on benches in the courtyard beneath a bruised purple-red onion-skin sky, with cider and burgers, two brownies in a white-only crowd where we glimpse, like rare birds, a few Indians, but never in the audience of shows, though we now see posters of South Asian comics and performers (but can’t fit them in our schedule, ah, Dilli door ast!). They must be playing to white-only audiences.
Pete’s magic act is lame act of vaudeville tamasha, but Ray comes alive at the Cellar with his shtick of rugged Aussie bewilderment at life in the big bad city of London, where, hey man, he wears a shirt and a coat with his jeans, making it fourteen pockets total for a fella who never needed more than one… okay, two, tops!
After which we walk back—that nagging feeling again!—to our crow’s nest where it’s lights out the minute our heads hit the pillows.
We wake up to rain.
“So what do we have today?”
“Well, just one, blues at Henry’s Cellar at 7:30.”
“Right-O,” say I, opening the Mahabharata and ticking off ‘Monsoon Season’—anything monsoon should work, right?
Then ‘Nights’—hmmm, the ad says it’s a play about a jihadist wife—at 4:15. After which is blues.
Last is Reginald Hunter—big eye-catching ad of the black stand-up comic—at 9:40.
“Okay. And a boat cruise now?”
“You serious?” I point to the grey, wet skylight.
“Arre, dhur, this piddle?”
But by the time we get to the ticket booths at the bridge, the piddle is a pelter and we ditch the plan.
Trudging through wet, bleak roads around Princes Street, we finally hit The Filling Station and bustle in for toast and scrambled eggs. And decide (not wisely, my friend!) to grace with our presence not the National Museum nearby, but the Modern Art gallery that is at some distance so we cab it, check out an impressive collection, and are wowed by Laura Buchanan’s (category primary 4-7 so she’s between ages 7 to 10) lantern in the museum’s annual school competition. Then out to rain and no cabs within miles, and walk as the rain becomes a gusting mini-storm, and I think maybe Stevenson knew whereof he spoke—an Edinburgh where “the wind squalls, and the salt showers fly and beat”—until miraculously an empty cab hove into view and we tool back to our lodgings, change to dry gear and leave for ‘Monsoon Season’ at Cowgate.
And miss the show!
Cowgate (in medieval times the gate for cows to be led into town), is a super narrow wyld of bars and clubs, where we are early for the show at Underbelly theater, so duck into the pub opposite for lunch that soon segues to ‘Aye, me laddie, how no a wee dram’, which is fun times, but when we go back, the tall, pretty lassie at the door says we’re half-hour late, she can’t let us in.
What? Ah feck! Aye laddie, dafty, dinnae watch the clock, tricky thing this usquebaugh…
‘Nights’ at the lovely Gilded Ballroom, is ‘roobish’ (apologies to Boycott!)—a Jihadi-exploitation skit with a Times journalist yelling about Shamima Begum…
Henry’s Cellar looks promising, skiddy steps down to ill-lit grotto, but since Blues Law states that the quality of the music at blues dives is always in inverse proportion to the condition of their toilets, I go for a whiz-check and, man, is it grody, cheering me up no end. And indeed, Main Street Band is hi-quality, opening with Allman Brothers ‘Whipping Post’ and sliding on to Freddie King covers, making me lean back with Red Stripe cuz this is no time for the white man’s sauce…
The long queue for Reginald Hunter buzzes in anticipation of a good time and he, a transplanted American, delivers, telling it like it is on being black, on his father, on aging, death, women and other stuff I can’t put down on this family page. Reggie’s tight with the Brits—he’s drawn black university students too—and they hoot and holler and roar!
It’s late. We are hungry. On the walk back we look for eats, but the roads are full of beer only joints for kids out on Friday night, until we spy a hole-in-the-wall serving donner kebab wraps the size of small boats. Stuffed and bloated, we sherpa-climb the stairs and fall into bed.
Up early, we uber to Waverley station, stow luggage in locker and hop over to the station’s food place The Booking Office, where oldsters are downing pints at 9:00 in the morning!
We hike to the Royal Mile, duck into shops, hoof it back to the station, collect bags and stock up fast on pasta, chicken and salad at the M&S for the train back to London. Midway, something occurs to me—Oh God, was that… no, no way, I can’t be that dumb… but am not 100 percent sure, so on reaching home instantly Google, and yes, sweet Jesus, Rebus did work out of St Leonard police station, the one I walked past every day! That nagging feeling! So no photo of me outside it thumbs up, grinning like I won the lottery. And no timepass either at The Oxford Bar, where both Inspector Rebus and his creator Ian Rankin are regulars.
Aye me laddie, what if I had actually gotten to meet Ian? Shite!
So I do what Rebus does at these moments—listen to ‘Gimme Shelter’!
Khademul Islam is editor, Bengal Lights.