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In the last few days, I have fulfilled a long term ambition: to go to the Edinburgh Festival. It came about because I was asked to speak about my book, The Spirit of the Game, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. My wife, Caroline, and I decided we would combine the trip with an extended stay in Edinburgh, taking in the shows and events of the Festival we had heard so much about.

The book festival discussion, of which I was a part, chaired wonderfully by Ruth Wishart, was illuminating. It showed how much the London 2012 Games have had an impact on the country. The most interesting moment was when a P. E. Teacher from Perthshire (I think I have the region right) said that funding for sport inhis school had been cut from £5,000 to £1,700. At the end of the meeting, a businessman in the crowd offered him a donation. To think that a discussion on sport can have such an impact is wonderfully uplifting.

The crowd was, I think, nearer my age – I was born the same year that the Edinburgh Festival started, 1947. It was a similar age group the following afternoon at the Hub, when we attended a discussion on satire with a panel that included Martin Rowson, my old colleague from Financial Weekly days, and now entertaining us at the Guardian. Rowson was magnificent and made me laugh as he has always done with his brilliant cartoons. He also, in the process, educated me on Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, revealing aspects of the book I just did not know. Rowson’s fellow panellists were well chosen, in particular the professor who was an expert on Jonathan Swift. However, the third participant, a Romanian director who had made an adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels could have been a star, but he spoke so softly that we could hardly hear him. Sitting next to him was a woman we were not introduced to, but was presumably a translator for the Romanian.

An unintended satirical aspect of the show was that, on the screen in front of us, the words of the speakers were recorded verbatim. But often the words were incorrectly recorded, adding an unexpected comical twist.

The Hub made me realise that the Edinburgh Festival is a mixture of several festivals. So the Edinburgh International Festival, the one which was set up to honour my birth as it were, is the main one. A five minute walk from the Hub, over the George IV Bridge, brought us to the Fringe Festival, which has its own directory and administration

A word of advice to the festival authorities is to learn some lessons from the recent Olympics. The London Games saw 26 international championships taking place at the same time and in more or less the same city, sailing apart. The Edinburgh Festival, in its totality, may not have 26 different festivals, but it has several and it would help with an overarching authority like the London organising committee, providing one central guide and place to buy tickets. People in arts may feel sport has no lessons to offer, but this is one area where they could learn.

I was also surprised that, given all the talk of volunteers at the Games, I did not meet any volunteers to guide me around the festival. The local, I must say, were very friendly, but that is not the same thing. Maybe the festival authorities feel it is like the lotus flower of India that blooms without any external assistance. In the end, we consulted the official guides and those provided by the Guardian and other newspapers.

The charm of the Fringe is, of course, well known and we were certainly made aware of it by a young Australian who persuaded us to see a production called Hearts of Fire. It was when we were waiting for the doors to open that heard that we would have to sit in a tent in which the temperature might be very hot. The plot was based on a true account of a religious preacher in Arizona whose curious evangelical methods ended up with three of his disciples dying of heat. One review suggested that we might be subjected to the same intensity of heat. This made me nervous, and my wife suggested that, if things got too bad, she would whisper to me that she had had an urgent email summons and we would be able to leave.

This made the wait for Hearts of Fire to start quite the most theatrical experience I have had for a long time. But while we sat on hard benches in a room converted to look like a tent in the desert – there was sand on the floor – the show was by no means frightening. Interesting, even revealing, about how a scheming man can use a mixture of Christian and pagan customs to seduce the gullible into believing they can find a perfect world. The whole show was very well done with the actor who played the American guru quite spell-binding. But unlike the whole audience for the satire show or my book discussion, this was a very young crowd – not middle England or middle Scotland, and I doubt if any of them listen to the Archers.

A very different crowd was to be found at Usher Hall for the London Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms. This was very much middle Britain with middle aged women outnumbering middle aged men. Interesting thought: in my concert-going experience, there may be as many, if not more, women in the crowd, but where are the women composers? The conductor, many felt, did not quite convey the beauty of Brahms.

To round off our day, a kindly local gave us a lift to our hotel, and we celebrated in a pub listening to Irish music while the television bizarrely showed cricket from Sri Lanka.

On our final day, we saw two very contrasting productions: Sophocles’ Oedipus, starring the daughter of a friend, in a very dramatic production, and then a comedy about bad musicals, presented in great style and vigour in a place called the Night Club next to a bar called Library, and full of books, many of them on chemistry. I couldn’t sum up Edinburgh better.

And just to prove that amidst this culture, sport lives on, the taxi driver taking us to the train station turned out to be a Glasgow Rangers supporter. They may be in the Third Division, but he was proud that their match had attracted 49,000 supporters. A record, he said, for a third division match. How can the Edinburgh Festival match that?

      

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