Michael Coveney: Edinburgh joys of Summerhall and summer weather
Yesterday morning, I sat in the sunshine in a stripy deck chair, sipping a coffee, reading the papers and soaking up the rays. There have been a few surprises on the Edinburgh fringe this week, but that sentence is probably the most unexpected of them all; the weather has been wonderful, which makes me fear for the next couple of weeks...
The deck chairs are littered among tables and ordinary chairs on a patch of imported fake greensward that has turned the stretch of cobbles outside the Roxy - now an outpost of Bill Burdett-Coutts' Assembly - into an impromptu alfresco destination, decorated with a false wall of posters, Assembly staff hastily improvising an outdoor bar while the sun still shines.
On the previous evening I had treated myself to my first visit to Summerhall, the trending venue on the edge of the Meadows. Now in its third year - and operating as an arts centre all year round - the venue is a marvel of splendid rooms, corridors, exhibition spaces, bars and cafes, managing to create its own festival atmosphere not too far from the ferocious and sometimes too familiar bustle of George Square, Bristo Square and the Pleasance Courtyard.
In fact, the whole experience was a little like going on holiday for a few hours. Summerhall is a handsome Victorian pile that was formerly the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. The place is hung with signs of its former role, with an anatomical lecture theatre, operating tables, antique furniture and a whole range of animal skulls and bones.
I had time to look around as I'd been bidden early by an importunate PR to a French dance performance that wasn't actually playing that night, planning a brief blast of ambient music and exquisite physicality before descending by lift to what proved to be the most explosively raw experience of my entire Edinburgh visit, Badac Theatre Company's Anna, about the work and assassination of the campaigning Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
There is a superb looking restaurant on the other side of the courtyard, the Royal Dick, with a beautiful, welcoming bar, but I chanced my arm with the pop up Indian food stall, where I feasted on curried lamb and salad for a modest fiver. Even a few familiar faces couldn't take the edge off the evening; there was Giles Cooper of Borkowski again, charming Cian from County Clare, everyone's favourite press officer at the Traverse and - oh dear - Steven Berkoff, who greeted me with what I thought was a rather over-gruff "Hello" (he must have just read my three-star picky review of his show that's packing them in at the Assembly Mound, An Actor's Lament).
Five minutes later I witnessed one of the Fringe's finest moments - a surprise and delighted reunion of two of Edinburgh's legendary Fringe icons, Berkoff himself and the irrepressible Richard Demarco, who doesn't seem to slow down or age one iota.
Now well into his 80s, Demarco, a native of the city, was a co-founder, with Jim Haynes, of the Traverse before launching his own Demarco Gallery which, for 30 years, was the home of the most important avant-garde and international work on the fringe; internationalism now tends to mean another Australian circus act and perhaps something from Georgia or South Africa.
With Demarco, we plugged directly into the maelstrom of European art through his particular association with Joseph Beuys, Tadeusz Kantor and Marina Abramovic. With the other major venues chasing the same artistic tails every year, it seems like Summerhall will become the go-to venue for more of the old Demarco ground-breaking adventures.
Having seen a mere 26 shows in six days, it was time to squeeze in a few of the essential Edinburgh experiences: a leisurely hour in Blackwell's book shop on Nicolson Street, fireworks in the night sky along Princes Street after the Tattoo, a bowl of cullen skink in the Cafe Royal, a spot of Tuesday night jazz in the Guildford Arms (sheer joy) next door, and a quick whizz round Holyrood Palace and the lower reaches of Arthur's Seat.
The city never ceases to take my breath away. And how gloriously it's been decked out in this week of blessed high summer weather.