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Issue 22 - The world's eyes on Edinburgh

Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005

 

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The world's eyes on Edinburgh

This has been an eventful summer for Scotland, what with the G8 Summit at Gleneagles Hotel and the accompanying demonstrations in Edinburgh, Stirling and Auchterarder.

No sooner had the streets of Scotland's capital begun to calm down again than the Edinburgh Festival was upon us, reminding me of that first Scotland-based international festival of music and drama held almost 60 years ago in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

In the early days of that post-conflict world, it took courage for the city fathers of this northern Scottish city to embark upon such an ambitious project, but the philosophy it embodied then, remains.

The primary purpose of the Edinburgh International Festival, as it came to be known, was to help heal the wounds of international conflict, a message symbolised by the flying white doves of its early logo, designed by the French surrealist film director Jean Cocteau.

That same ideology remains as poignant and important today as it ever was then.

In 1946, the dour old northern capital remained intact, its monuments and buildings blackened not by the effects of war but the coal fires of a presmokeless zone century.

Today, energised by its own devolved parliament and a new-found sense of purpose, Edinburgh sparkles as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My first Edinburgh Festival was when I was a teenager during the 1960s, and a group of rather over-confident, but nonetheless enterprising school friends decided to launch a weekly magazine. We called it Lens – A youthful Focus on the Edinburgh Festival, and it was available on the bookstalls. I don't know how many copies we actually sold, but I know that it broke even and for me, at least, it was an amazing baptism in to journalism.

Over that period I found myself interviewing the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, having breakfast with the television presenter David Frost, and going behind stage to be introduced to the living legend Marlene Dietrich. I wonder if any of them had any idea that they were kick-starting the career of the skinny kid they took the trouble to be kind to.

Thereafter, it became an annual pilgrimage. I spent an extraordinary night at a party held in the Playhouse Theatre drinking Scotch with the American actor/singer David Sole, met Peter Ustinov in the bar at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, and flew to Paris to write a report on ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev, who was bringing over the Paris Opera Ballet.

I took my mother to see Princess Grace of Monaco who was reading poetry, sat next to Burt Lancaster on a bus, took photographs of comedian Billy Connolly cavorting with a group of tramps in the Grassmarket, and ran into Sir Sean Connery and Kate Blanchet at the premier of the latter's film Pushing Tin.

This may just sound like a load of name dropping, but I hope it gives a flavour of what Edinburgh becomes each Summer.

For the past four years I have had the privilege of being a judge at the Edinburgh Festivals' Cavalcade, which precedes the tidal wave of events that follow. Awards are given for community and commercial floats, best walking group and best special unit.

Chaired by my old friend Major Brian Leishman, a former business director of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, this has undoubtedly become one of the highlights of my year, one of the great opportunities for locals to join forces with visitors and to get out onto Princes Street, Edinburgh's main thoroughfare, and cheer.

Thereafter, of course, runs the official festival, with a book festival, a film festival, a television festival, a comedy festival, and a Fringe, which is nowadays bigger than all of the other festivals combined. When everything packs up at the end of the first week in September, those of us who live here collapse with a sense of exhausted satisfaction.

However, I seem to be a creature of habit, because it is then I head north for the Blairgowrie Highland Games held at Ardblair Castle under the chieftainship of the tartan swathed, magnificently bearded Laurence Blair Oliphant.

Somehow, after all the glitz and glamour of the city, finding myself able to participate in a good old fashioned Scottish gathering in the Perthshire countryside puts everything into perspective and makes me realise how exceedingly fortunate I am. It is possible to have the best of two worlds.