Where to start? This is the question posed by most of those attempting to become acquainted with the Edinburgh festivals. They are left bemused by the various programmes detailing a range of interweaving festivals, all with a slightly different focus and varied and convoluted payment structures. It can easily become too much. Fringe-going after a two-year hiatus has left me feeling unmoored and apprehensive rather than stirred.
In addition to its multi-faceted character, the festival affords us the freedom to visit things as we wish. The absence of serendipity meant I didn't attend anything in the 2021 Festival or Fringe. A worthy attempt to keep things going but it was ultimately a holding operation. For many, the pandemic was an opportunity for Edinburgh to 'reset' the festival. It had, many argued, grown too large and become too unwieldy, overwhelming parts of the city. My experiences as a reviewer in 2019
suggested that there was a considerable amount of dilution, with many shows poorly attended. Too often I would pass crowded bars and then enter virtually empty venues. I felt like so many enjoyed the 'buzz' of the festival but didn't fully engage ('I might catch a few things').
This year, I felt the same trepidation I felt when I first started to attend Fringe shows in earnest, several years ago. I felt like a newcomer, a novice. Bumping into an ex-colleague we shared the re-emergence of that sense of where to start. How do we actually do
the Fringe? I suggest that newcomers and returnees should ease themselves into things before going on a 'Fringe binge'.
My introduction to the Fringe and Festival 2022 came gently, via the Wildlife Garden on Johnston Terrace. This has been opened up as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival (EAF), with Palm House (built in 2017) acting as a reading room offering a varied range of literature relating to the EAF events; suggestions of where to explore next. It's a delightful little hidden spot in the Old Town, which is generally closed (partly to help encourage wildlife to use it). So, it's a bit of a treat to be able to wander inside, especially on a warm afternoon. Whilst sat there, I witnessed something so common in the festival: visitors wandering into a place or a venue with a look of deep uncertainty and trepidation on their faces. What exactly have they entered?
It was very relaxed in Palm House. The spirit of the place is far from the madding crowds, despite its proximity geographically. Although Edinburgh is often perceived as too busy during August, you're generally only 100 yards or so away from relative quiet and space for reflection. I have often sought out such spaces to absorb some of the more emotionally challenging shows. Maintaining a sense of balance requires regular escape from the dark bunkers of the Cowgate.
As I looked for ways to ease myself into the Festival and Fringe, I took inspiration from the EAF reading room and headed westwards. One of the venues hosting events for the Edinburgh Art Festival is Edinburgh Printmakers at Fountainbridge. I had long wanted to visit Edinburgh Printmakers, but this was my first visit, five years after it opened. That may be a testament to how the Fringe often encourages us to engage with the city to a deeper degree; or gives us licence to do so.
As you enter, you are first confronted by Tessa Lynch's Houses Fit For People
exhibit. Central to this is a print showing a group of artlessly drawn toddlers clambering across concrete blocks. The implicit message is that living in buildings constructed of these materials is a very unnatural experience, especially for children. The perplexed and concerned faces on the toddlers suggest an alienation from their surroundings. The exhibition focuses on the inadequacies of much of our built environment. New housing is rapidly being constructed directly opposite, so the topic is highly relevant at the moment.
New uses for old buildings
In the gallery on the basement level, art produced using a variety of methods (lithography, stone lithography, hedging, monotype, screen print and others) is featured. A testament to the wide range of activities going on at the printmakers in their studios.
As you climb up the stairs, the open and airy character of the building and the skilful way it has been reimagined and restored becomes evident. The new Fountainbridge is slowly encircling it, almost threatening to squash it. The quality of the building and the richness of the activities it encloses should ensure it has a prosperous future. Its connections to the area's industrial heritage are deep and significant. The Castle Mills buildings once housed the North British Rubber Company, at one time a massive and highly significant factory producing a wide variety of items including, most famously, the Wellington Boot.
I'm reminded of talking to Professor Claude Hepburn who spent his early years working for the company, going on to have a career as a leading academic authority on rubber polymers.
Hepburn worked there before the devastating fire of 1969 which caused the company to move away from the Union Canal. Only the Castle Mills Works building remained. The building was then used by Scottish & Newcastle breweries and, after long and determined efforts, finally saved. I recall passing the building many times during this period of uncertainty and being somewhat unimpressed by the building and its unprepossessing purple painted bricks.
The superb restoration has revealed the hidden quality of the building. It's a fantastic example of finding new uses for old buildings
. The reuse of Castle Mills Works provides continuity as well as much needed architectural variety to Fountainbridge, amidst the influx of new construction.
Nadia Myre's Tell Me of Your Boats and Your Waters
, exhibited in Gallery 2, focuses on the variety of materials which were transported along the Union Canal. It's a beautifully crafted and stimulating exhibition making superb use of the space. The connections between printmakers and the canal are also seen in Amanda Thomson's Mainly in Sinuosities
, an engrossing illustrated map which examines the history, topography and wildlife of the canal. Given the changing character of the area, the details and photos of the remnants of Port Hamilton and Port Hopetoun are particularly interesting. Only small portions of this built environment persist in this area, among the 'anonymous' buildings that now dominate.
As you step outside into the small garden and orchard at the rear of Printmakers, you are surrounded by the sights and sounds of encroaching construction. As you look up towards the Union Canal, the area is a dusty post-industrial wasteland with patches of wild growth. This will soon disappear under brick, steel and concrete. The disputatious graffiti on the display outlining what is in prospect for the area suggests that the future of Fountainbridge remains contested.
Despite its proximity to the city centre, Edinburgh Printmakers still has the feel of a cultural outpost. This area, between the Union Canal and the West Approach Road, has for some time been slightly cut off. New residential areas are often lacking in social and cultural institutions. They are seen merely as places to live in and commute from. It is true that Edinburgh has a rich cultural history, but there are areas that, if not cultural deserts, lack in that regard. The efforts to make Granton a new cultural quarter of the city is surely to be welcomed in this respect.
Cultural institutions such as Printmakers are so important in ensuring that Edinburgh's cultural legacy is revivified and not just seen as a fading memory. There is a sense of style and substance about the place. By focusing on visual arts, the Edinburgh Festival is promoting something that has been marginalised in recent years.
Returning to the labyrinth
Energised by my toe-dipping, I felt I was ready to return to the dark recesses of the Old Town. Finally getting my hands on a copy of the PBH Free Fringe Programme, I spotted that a favourite performer was starting in just over 10 minutes. Slaloming through the Cowgate, I made it to the Banshee Labyrinth just in time to join the queue… then discovered that it was the wrong
queue. Settling down in my seat, a wave of mild claustrophobia soon dissipating, I was finally back, ready to embrace the chaos of the Fringe.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh