For once I’m writing as I travel. More of Britain’s great rural landscapes flit past as I strike my fading ibook keyboard (I’ve actually repainted the letters, but even that version has now had its day – Apple take note of a serious design fault). So here I am in a packed train en route from Edinburgh to London with wifi access for £3 for 30 minutes. Now that’s a lot for something which is ultimately free to operate and, the cleverclogs, they make sure you can’t break it down into downloading segments. But it’s not quite as bad as the hotel I’ve just left. Edinburgh’s Sheraton charges the outrageous amount of £10 per day. It’s obvious that this is to make up for lost revenue snatched away by mobile phones. Those inflated phone-calls used to pad out hotel-bills brilliantly. With those gone, wifi steps in. Maybe one day they’ll twig that hotel guests prefer free wifi to free hair-conditioner.
On a more gratifying level, the Edinburgh Festival is booming, as ever. Rolling five into one, it combines the official theatre and music festival with Fringe (mainly comedy and theatre) then tacks on Art, Film and Books for good measure. As a final addendum, street-theatre (or rock-on bagpipes) sometimes fills the gap as you tear down Princes Street from one event to the next. It can become obsessive. Yesterday I saw three plays, one film, a literary talk and an art exhibition. By the evening I was mentally keeling over and confess to abandoning the third play at the interval.
Cherry-picked from what I DID sit out to the bitter end is the play Damascus by David Greig, directed by Phillip Howard. After two and a half hours I emerged actually feeling like I’d spent long fraught days in a small downtown hotel of that city, despite the fact that the hotel lobby set never changed. What made it so evocative was a distant soundtrack of local voices, muezzin, the bazaar and honking traffic (always high decibel in Middle Eastern cities) plus a flat-screen showing Al-Jazeera.
More than that though, it was the play’s central theme of a crossroads of cultural prejudices and misconceptions, brilliantly conveyed by Paul Higgins as a struggling Scottish writer trying to flog an English language-teaching system to the Syrian Education Ministry. He deals with Mouna, an attractive, highly intelligent woman, who delicately points out what needs to be changed in the textbook for it to work for Syrians, aka Muslims, in their Marxist-based system. For example where an English Muslim woman in full niqab is portrayed by PC-thinking Brits as being enlightened, for the emancipated Mouna she is a total reactionary. That’s just one example, there are many, all conveyed with irony and wit. Other characters intervene like Zakaria, the aspirational young receptionist who dreams of writing for Hollywood and seducing young American tourists, and Mouna’s boss and former lover, Wassim, an ageing embittered poet. Then there is the transexual Ukrainian pianist – maybe unnecessary – who acts as narrator. Despite Greig’s light touch and humour, there is huge pathos, and the ultimate coup de grace comes as a shock, in retrospect predictable enough in such a contradictory society.
But here I am firmly in Britain. “Auf Wiedersehen Pet” washes over me as the train pulls out of Newcastle, aisles packed with football supporters, their thick accents floating over me as beers floats down their throats in rapid succession. There’s still a way to go to Kings Cross.
A few hours later: I made it finally – passed Platform 9 3/4 on my way out – but no sign of Harry Potter.