Edinburgh at the beginning of the festival is a brilliant spectacle of excitement, creativity and exultant crowds, and especially so when the weather is at the relaxed end of a heat wave, when the crisp August breeze sweeps up the new revellers in town for a month of celebration. Saturday night, we walk through the centre with a charming man called Thatcher, on our way to meet with mutual friends for the Peter Doig opening at the Scottish National Gallery. As we make our way there, we see outdoor stages and bars in the final stages of construction, and a music hall area singing out its first show tunes and waltzes. We have never been quite so charmed by the Edinburgh festival, and we have been coming here for years. With this idyllic arrival, swept into the opening just in time to hear Doig himself welcome everybody to his show, we are nothing less than dazzled by the event, even at this early stage.
Although there are maybe too many people for even this huge room, somehow it adds to the excitement: something extraordinary is about to happen. Something brilliant is about to be seen. And it is: after stepping up the spiral staircase to the show itself, we are nothing less than thrilled by the expansive and wonderful paintings in No Foreign Lands. Huge canvases line the walls, and the crowds spill in, their eyes lighting up with some kind of love. It is hard to talk to anyone properly, so distractingly beautiful are the paintings. Lone figures in canoes, and showering in what seem like waterfalls. ‘Man Dressed As Bat’ (which looks like a giant, magical butterfly, from a distance) – continues to entrance a glamorous and bustling crowd. We continue to wander through the various rooms – through scenes of Trinidad, and illustrative posters for a film night – through singular figures and vast landscapes – through turbulent seas and secretive groups. We feel as if we are explorers, simply by walking from one room to another. And this sense of adventure gives brief encounters a surreal quality: we see a man we’ve have never met before (but both of us think we have met before) – it turns out we once reviewed a show he and his wife curated. We see an old family friend who kisses us on both cheeks, before running off into the night; we see someone with all the looks, charm and distance of a contemporary Gatsby, and at another glance, a beautiful girl whose Westwood dress almost matches ‘Music of the Future’.
In the middle of this dazzling, lively show, the art world – the guests, sponsors, gate-crashers, and socialites – are at their very best. The room sparks and laughs and wanders in a slow, happy waltz. This is the best case scenario – what every opening hopes it can be. The buzz and thrill that something truly brilliant is happening, and so a night carved into our minds for some years to come. Art that explores, that creates new worlds, as it remembers them – art that makes people happy to be alive – is surely the most valuable of all. There is a real sense in the room that these paintings are what we have been waiting for – waiting, for a very few, to buy, waiting to celebrate, and waiting to praise. The Edinburgh Arts Festival has started with fireworks.