The only trouble with our idyllic flat (posh furniture, all mod cons, quiet, free wi-fi) is that the basement (where the bedrooms are) is a bit damp and musty-smelling. When we arrived the agent had opened all the windows, and it became clear why after we returned the first evening. It mostly fine if you leave the windows open, but as we are out all day we can’t do that. It doesn’t help that the elegant claw-footed bath in the designer bathroom leaks. That is, the bath doesn’t leak, but the shower screen does, as there is a gap between it and the side of the bath. Oh well, not our problem. We have stuffed a towel under it.
Only two shows booked today, one re the Arctic, one re the Antarctic. The Arctic one is called Thin Ice, and is on at the Pleasance. We get into the mood by climbing a lot of industrial metal steps to the theatre and sitting in its extremely efficient air-conditioning for the next hour and a half.
Thin Ice is a sort of thriller set in the 2nd World War, and the scene shifts between Cambridge and Greenland, where scientists are observing weather patterns and changes in the ice. The weather patterns are important for aircraft, but the changes in the ice are an early indication of climate change.
The play opens with one of the scientists (a Jewish refugee) being found frozen in an arctic hut, clutching a sheaf of papers and an Inuit talisman. What has killed him? Did he kill himself after receiving the news that his remaining family were in Dachau? Was it a malevolent spirit that the local Inuit report as being out there on the ice? Was it carbon monoxide poisoning?
The play contains references to absolutely everything about the arctic – northern lights, Inuit, polar bears, katabatic winds, Danish colonialism, but what it’s actually about is two ways of looking at the world. The scientific way which denies the existence of what you can’t perceive or test, and the intuitive way which says that there are things out there that you cannot register scientifically, but if you ignore them they can poison you. Early on we are played an extract from Schubert’s Erl-Konig, in which a child dies declaring he has been attacked by a supernatural being, the Erl-King, which the boy’s father cannot see. The child may have died of a fever – the poem leaves it open. Fascinating and thought-provoking.
Then David Bann’s for lunch, a vegetarian restaurant with a fabulous range of puddings. M has the assiette of desserts for two to share, but manages to polish it off by himself. After that we go shopping at favourite clothes shop Ragamuffin, source of baggy clothes and funky knitwear.
Unfortunately we spend so much time shopping that when we get out it is only fifteen minutes until the start of the next item, a discussion at the Book Festival between Gabrielle Walker and John Harrison about Antarctica. It is not actually possible to get from the Royal Mile to Charlotte Square (at the far end of George Street) through hordes of tourists and festival visitors, in a quarter of an hour, although we try. All taxis have mysteriously vanished. We get there five minutes late and they won’t let us in. I am cross and embarrassed. We sit and have a coffee and look at books to recover.
Then we try to find a bus that will take us to Bruntsfield, where M’s sister lives, and we have been invited to dinner. This is not as easy as it ought to be. Having visited Edinburgh for many years I’m actually quite familiar with the buses that go south to Bruntsfield and Morningside. But Edinburgh has been devastated by the works for installing the new tram system, and the bus routes have all been moved.
It’s hard to describe quite how disfigured Edinburgh is at the moment. There are tram works along Princes Street, but also all over the New Town roads are blocked off, torn up and boarded over. The city is like a patient in the middle of root canal work. I had had a vague idea that the trams might be operating by now – after all, even Cambridge’s own over-time-and-over-budget council vanity project, the Misguided Bus, is up and running - but no. The taxi driver who brought us from the station was incandescent with rage. It will apparently take another two years.