I’m walking around Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, not really sure what to do with myself.
I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, a piece of history we wouldn’t wish on anyone, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show.
I’m looking at this huge sculpture by Phyllida Barlow that encloses the whole first floor of the gallery. It’s all pieces of wood covered in rough paint and swipes of plaster, a jumbled beast baring down on the space in a way that’s joyous and scary and impossible, and I overhear a guide tell his tour group, ‘You can’t get inside the sculpture. You can only walk around the outside.’
This is exactly how I see Edinburgh. You can’t get inside.
On opening weekend, a critic says to me ‘You’re lucky you don’t know the festival.’ I’ll make discoveries the rest of them no longer can, he says, as they travel along the tracks they’ve carved out for themselves during previous festivals. I’ll find new shows in new venues. But it’s now two and a half weeks into a three and a half week festival, and I’m still desperately struggling to find a way in.
Edinburgh is impenetrable.
‘I’m just frustrated I’m not doing my best work here,’ I say to another critic, as if your best work is something that can happen when you’ve flown to Europe for the first time, alone for the first time, for work for the first time. As if your best work is something that could happen when you’re writing three reviews a day; when you’re working with people you’ve only meet for the first time here; when you’ve taken your biggest leap in life since your sister died. As if your ‘best’ work is something that you could do every time, any way.
‘Nobody does their best work in Edinburgh,’ he replies.
I wanted to write for you a piece that discussed several shows in the festival, where I dissected them individually but pulled out the themes they look at collectively. I wanted to write the intellectual stuff I love to craft. But as I write this, it’s two and a half weeks in and I still don’t know how to find the words to do that.
‘Don’t feel bad that you won’t get to see everything’, people said.
‘I know. I won’t,’ I replied. It’s fine when I don’t see things because I choose not to. Because the ticket price is too high; because I’m not seeing any more shows about grief right now; because that particular show isn’t at the top of my list. But then I don’t see shows because I didn’t hear about them in time and they’re already over. Or I was planning to see something on Tuesday but it already closed on Saturday. Because I don’t know how to navigate between the posters covered in stars – the endless stars that I’m a part of creating – and all the people on all the footpaths handing out endless piles of flyers, and all of a sudden a show is on Twitter and blogs and it’s over and I missed it and I feel like I’m doing this festival wrong.
‘I’m just frustrated I’m not doing my best work here,’ I say to an artist.
‘Nobody does their best work in Edinburgh,’ she replies.
I feel out of place in Edinburgh. Like I tripped and ended up in a parallel reality where I’m not entirely sure what the rules are or how to function.
On my second day here, I buy a bike. That night, I get hit by a taxi. ‘Is it because it’s the opposite side of the road?’ people keep asking. ‘It’s the same side,’ I say. ‘We’re not that different.’
Everything feels familiar but also achingly different. Like I should know how to navigate this city, but I can’t do it.
Art is how I travel. Festivals are how I know cities. I know Brisbane through Brisbane Festival; Perth through Perth Festival. I met Launceston through the eyes of Junction; I fell in love with Melbourne through the eyes of Next Wave. But Edinburgh? Do I really know this city at all? Or is the cacophony just too loud?
‘Edinburgh is hard,’ I hear time and time again.
I think: maybe this is a festival that you need to come to three, five, ten times to be able to understand it. To be able to write about it with any real insight at all. And then I think: maybe an Australian will never understand this festival. How can I, when everyone is talking about how amazing the kids from Warwick University are, and I don’t even know where Warwick is?
‘We’re all just so busy, and seeing so much work, and feeling so many emotions,’ a critic says to me over wine. ‘But we don’t get time to process it. Of course it’s hard.’
‘Call me if you get lonely,’ another critic says to me over coffee. ‘Edinburgh is a lonely city for critics.’
And I realise I’ve some how tripped and fallen into the most incredible community of writers. I’ve never spent so much time with so many other critics before.
And now, as I write this, I look back at the work that’s made me smile, and laugh, and cry. And the works that have stolen my heart are mostly not the works I’ve written about, and I could write about them for you here, now, but I still don’t know where I’d begin. Because it’s hard. This city and this festival are so hard. But I think about that theatre I’ve seen, and those writers I’ve talked with, and the magazine I’ve been working on, and flying across the world starts to make some sense.
And I realise, as I finish writing this, this is my final commission I will write in Edinburgh. And I don’t know how I am possibly going to say goodbye.