Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Eating fire and words in Edinburgh

Two glorious days in Edinburgh at the tail end of the Festival have, I think, made me eat most of my former words about Scotland. Previously I've had a few nasty experiences there, but this trip was pure magic. Not least, that was because the sun came out - though Edinburgh is a stunningly beautiful city whatever the weather. Tom compares it to Prague, with the hilltop castle, the deep cleft valley, the historic grandeur that infuses the grey stone from which most of the city is built; and you can see the first hills of the Highlands in the distance from the centre of town.

Combine scenery, sunshine and the festival atmosphere with the rich acoustic in the Usher Hall, two concerts with the LPO at its very finest under principal guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, innumerable wonderful cafes and fabulous vegetarian food (we particularly recommend Henderson's) and a fabulous party thrown for the orchestra by the sponsors last night in The Hub, a converted church on the Royal Mile, and - well, it was great. Even Tom felt as if we were having a glorified holiday, and he was working his socks off.

Of course, when everybody said that Vladimir set the Usher Hall alight with his electrifying charisma, they didn't quite mean the fire alarm to go off, which it did 10 minutes before the concert on Monday. Vladi was blameless, however: the culprit turned out to be an overenthusiastic tea urn in the ladies' dressing room... Earlier in the day I'd strolled down the Royal Mile, closed to traffic and boasting several fire-eaters juggling with flaming torches. Plenty of sparks flew in Edinburgh, one way or another.

The Scots don't always like to believe that life can be quite so marvellous and we found that the people we talked to were eager to point out that 'it isn't like this all the time!'. The Festival, they declare, is exceptional. A few weeks of intense, creative glory in which the place is packed with fantastic things to see, hear and do, and then back to normal: by December it's completely freezing and night sets in around 3.30pm. Tom complained that London doesn't have a festival - there are some fine local festivals such as Spitalfields, City of London and Hampstead and Highgate, not to mention the Proms, but nothing that unifies the city's lively arts scene across the board in the way that Edinburgh does. On the other hand, London is always full of things to see, hear and do - not just for three weeks of the year.

Still, COULD THERE BE a way to pull everything together in comparable fashion in London? Would it be sensible, practical or even desirable to have a London International Festival? Personally I reckon it would be virtually unworkable because of the sheer scale of the city, but I'm famously pessimistic. What does everyone think about this?