I have always known Edinburgh. I was born here and lived my first five years here. My Mum’s parents lived in Musselburgh only a few miles from the city and her brother and his family lived in Leith. So even when we left, we returned regularly to visit family and friends. And a year ago I returned here permanently. I’m writing this in a house from which the fireworks at the end of the tattoo are visible, the beach at Cramond is a stone’s (hefty) throw and trendy Stockbridge is within easy striking distance.
There are so many books set in Scotland’s capital that I might decide to create a subset of them. But in honour of this year’s missing one, today I give you two books set during the Edinburgh Festival: A Play to the Festival and Drina Dances Again, published in 1959 and 1960, by the recurring Mabel Esther Allan, aka Jean Estoril. The Edinburgh International Festival was a direct response to the Second World War and was the vision of Rudolf Bing, an Austrian impresario and refugee from the Nazis. It quickly gathered momentum and by the time these books were published it was a global cultural highlight.
The Dominick Ballet Company decides to take a member of the school to dance Little Clara in their new production of Casse Noisette at the Edinburgh Festival and Drina is chosen. Her friend Rose goes too as understudy and the two girls stay, with Drina’s grandparents, at the Highland Hotel on Princes Street. They find Edinburgh full of romance and wonder; everything is described as being bright and vivid or grey and full of ghosts of Scotland’s history.
It’s interesting to get an outsider’s view of your home. I’ve always thought that Edinburgh is beautiful and interesting, full of reminders of past events, green spaces and glimpses of glistening sea. But to me, it’s a real place with locals who live normal, sometimes mundane, lives. I love the city – it’s mine – but I guess I’m more realistic about it than Drina and Rose and, possibly, Mabel Esther Allan.
Drina’s time in Edinburgh forms almost all of the second part of Drina Dances Again and it’s full of event. On the journey to Edinburgh Drina suddenly realises that Mr Dominick and Miss Volonaise, the heads of the company and school, will be in the same hotel as her and her grandparents and that they will certainly meet, something she has so far managed to avoid. Drina is desperate that the Dominick should not realise that her mother was Elizabeth Ivory, the one-time ballerina of the company. But they had already begun to wonder and, at the end of Drina’s time in Edinburgh, Mr Dominick confronts her with the question.
The other incident that stays in my mind is the account of the visit Drina and her grandparents make to a business friend of Mr Chester. They are staying somewhere in the country beyond Dunfermline in Fife. It’s not a particularly successful visit as Mrs Crawford talks even on and they stay longer than planned. Drina is worried that she will be late back as she is dancing that evening. Inevitably the car breaks down and she misses the performance. But that’s standard storybook stuff. It’s the journey that interests me because, of course, they cross the Firth of Forth by ferry, the Road Bridge being still in the early stages of construction at the book’s publication. It opened before I was born so, as a child, I had always taken it for granted. (When Collins re-issued the first six books, they updated them and swapped ferry for bridge. I wish they hadn’t edited the books; it was done in a fairly piecemeal way.) Some years ago, clearing out my Mum’s photographs, I came across one she had taken of the bridge in 1965, just a few months after its opening. She took it prior to leaving for Australia so that her aunt and uncle could see this long-discussed and world famous structure.
Flory Ronald also goes to Edinburgh to take part in a performance. In her case, it is a play, Against the Rose, and her opportunity is a result of nepotism. Her great-aunt is Marian Meddick, a leading actress of the day, and she arranges for Flory to be given a tiny part. With her to Edinburgh goes her friend Joanna Stanley, who is appearing in a student show on the Fringe. They are fortunate to be able to stay with Jo’s aunt in Comely Bank, described as being on the outskirts of the city. Not these days!
Like Drina, Flory is overwhelmed by what she sees as Edinburgh’s romantic history but she also has a developing personal romance to deal with. Naturally, there are complications with that but, equally naturally, the complications are resolved. Flory has a limited amount of time to give to love though; most of her attention is given to the play which has difficult staging and an all-star cast. Flory is merely part of the crowd scenes but she quickly becomes involved in it to the exclusion of most other things. And then when an accident to one of the leading actresses causes a general shuffle, Flory finds herself with a small speaking part and attracts the positive attention of some critics and, indeed, other members of the cast.
Flory’s experience as part of the International Festival is contrasted with Joanna’s amateur Fringe production, run on a shoestring and student energy and efficiency. The author brings to life the cramped hall and stretched budget just as well as the glamour of Flory’s star-strewn production. She also writes convincingly of the girls’ accommodation; the Camerons offer bed and breakfast throughout the festival period and an international selection of fellow guests pass through. The book is dedicated to ‘Mr and Mrs Black of Edinburgh’ and I like to imagine that they were the inspiration for the Camerons.
A Play to the Festival was one of my early Mabel Esther Allans and I remember visiting Edinburgh at some point during my teens and literally walking in Flory’s footsteps so detailed are the author’s descriptions of the city and her characters’ movements. It’s obvious from this book in particular that Mabel was in Edinburgh at Festival time. She writes memorably about the hectic atmosphere and international crowds and the excitement that still exists even now when the city is probably too overcrowded.
Both Drina Dances Again and A Play to the Festival are delightful evocations of what Edinburgh must have been like in the early years of the festivals. My Mum, who was slightly older than Drina and Flory, remembered the city en fete as it was in the 1950s and, if her recollections were accurate, Mabel Esther Allan immortalised it well.