Reflections on the August Festivals

by Eve Livingston, freelance writer, summer 2018 

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[Note: Eve joined Festivals Edinburgh during summer 2018 to assist with the creation of news items and features about the city's summer events. She was also an active participant in Edinburgh's August and here she tells her own August story]

It’s hard to believe that August is over for another year, but as the pop-up bars are dismantled and pub corners restored to cobwebbed storage areas, it’s time to bid farewell to Edinburgh’s summer festivals once again. While it’s never easy to say goodbye, I managed to pack a lot into the last month and will be wrapping up August with enough memories to last all year.

I’ve spent many an August in Edinburgh, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying all that the month’s five Festivals have to offer. Edinburgh’s famous festival buzz was detectable from the minute I stepped off the train and, as always, I had just as much fun wandering the winding streets and taking it all in as I did packing my days with shows and events.

Luckily I’ve got scheduling down to a fine art now - you quickly get to know which venues are close to each other and where you’re likely to find last minute tickets! - so I enjoyed a great range of shows, talks and exhibitions across different genres, themes and formats thanks to the city’s Festivals.

I’m always interested to see how the Festivals’ programmes grapple with contemporary themes and I was intrigued this year by the range of events exploring freedom and related ideas like imprisonment, borders and equality.

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Shilpa Gupta’s immersive sound exhibition For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Hide, commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival, was a really effective exploration of the work of jailed poets, bringing their voices direct to Edinburgh audiences as recitations of their poetry echoed in unison through the Fire Station at Edinburgh College of Art, creating an eerie and moving soundscape. In lots of ways I felt like the exhibition summed up so much of what the festivals have to offer: a platform for creativity and experimentation; a sense of solidarity around an important message; an unusual Edinburgh space brought to life and used to great effect.

audiences left the event feeling a deep connection to people they had never met in places they had never visited

I was reminded of Gupta’s work when I made it along to one of the Imprisoned Writers sessions at the freedom-themed Edinburgh International Book Festival. These were free events delivered in partnership with Amnesty International and PEN throughout the festival in which audiences could hear authors read the work of writers imprisoned around the world. The readings were incredibly moving and you could have heard a pin drop in the Charlotte Square tent during some of them; they really set the scene for the festival’s theme and captured the international feel of the festivals, with Edinburgh audiences undoubtedly leaving the event feeling a deep connection to people they had never met in places they had never visited.

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Of course, it’s not all serious and political and any experienced festival-goer will know to try out a range of events during their time here. Sticking with the Book Festival, I really enjoyed the late night Unbound programme where I managed to see a plethora of readings, discussions and performances from writers, performers and speakers I might otherwise never have heard from. The strand was a great example of some of the top quality free programming that you can find across Edinburgh’s Festivals if you’re looking to try them out on a budget. Charlotte Square was a lovely venue for a drink in the (occasional) sun and a browse through the Book Festival's book shops, too - although both activities ended up costing me considerably more!

I watched a magician have his act interrupted as four masked men on huge stilts trotted past him, impressively nimble despite the famous cobblestones... I can’t think of many other places where you’d see such a spectacle

One of my favourite leisurely ways to soak up the Festival City is simply by meandering along the Royal Mile, through Bristo Square or near any other major festival thoroughfare. Not only do you pick up a range of flyers to help you pick your next show, but the street performers who descend on the city in August are world class and worth stopping for. At one point this month I watched a magician outside The Tron pub have his act interrupted as four masked men on huge stilts trotted past him, impressively nimble despite the famous cobblestones which have claimed many non-stilted visitors. I can’t think of many other places where you’d see such a spectacle, and it’s just one of many reasons why I love Edinburgh in August.

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Despite not getting my hands on a ticket for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo before they were quickly snapped up, I also sneaked a peek at the impressive Esplanade setup from the Royal Mile and enjoyed spotting bands and performers arrive ahead of the spectacular performance. And it didn’t take long to cross paths with one of the famous walking silent discos - I particularly enjoyed trying to work out the song playing in the headphones just going by the enthusiastic dance moves and oblivious singing/shouting along…

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This was a record-breaking year for Edinburgh Festival Fringe ticket sales, and it’s easy to see why when you consider the sheer scale and quality of what was on offer. I always try to strike a balance between pre-booking some big names, listening out for recommendations, and simply taking a chance on an interesting poster or particularly entertaining flyer-er. I was lucky enough to catch Comedy Award nominee Ahir Shah - despite the one-hour wait in the rain to get into a packed Cabaret Voltaire basement - and Best Newcomer nominee Maisie Adams, as well as a whole range of other comedians both new and established.

I made sure to get my theatre fix too, though, and used the opportunity to check out a range of different venues across the city rather than being tempted to stick to old favourites. I was especially impressed by Summerhall’s huge and diverse programme, and by Cora Bissett’s joyful and moving autobiographical tale What Girls Are Made Of at the Traverse.

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Equally joyful and moving was Home at the Edinburgh International Festival, which explored the concept of home itself and what it is that makes a house a home. As well as shining a poignant spotlight onto human behaviour, the performance was a sight to behold, with the set and performers transforming before your eyes in an almost dreamlike arrangement. In lots of ways it was the perfect end to another glorious August, highlighting the world-class performance that takes place here during the festivals and capturing the magic of the everyday.

there’s nothing quite like Edinburgh in August and I’m already looking forward to next year!

Every year I forget how quickly the month speeds by when you spend it running between shows, bantering with flyerers, taking in the city sights and relaxing in Edinburgh’s numerous pop-ups with a themed cocktail or delicious snack. I definitely made the most of my month, but I still felt a familiar pang of sadness as it came to a close: there’s nothing quite like Edinburgh in August and I’m already looking forward to next year!

Luckily for us festival fans, Edinburgh is a year-round festival city and I’m excited about getting my fix at the other brilliant festivals the city has to offer - most immediately the Storytelling Festival in October, followed by the famous Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations and the Science, Children’s, Film and Jazz Festivals in the new year.

August might be over once again, but the fun continues through the other festivals Edinburgh has to offer throughout the year. And then? Well, it’ll almost be time to do it all over again…

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Huge thanks to Eve for all her hard work in the last 3 months, during which she also created the following pieces for us:

Eve Livingston is a UK-based freelance journalist and writer - visit her website at everebeccalivingston.com

Images: Shilpa Gupta exhibition by Festivals Edinburgh; all other images by Dan James

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