Royal Mile, Edinburgh
26/27 August, 2000

It began in the usual well lubricated high spirits, and continued so throughout; it ended with a chillingly heavy police presence and a number of arrests, bringing this year's Fringe to its close on an exceptionally ugly note.

Arthur Smith's Alternative Walking Tour of the Royal Mile ia an annual one-off, publicised solely by word of mouth. At two o'clock on Sunday morning up to 200 revellers, few of us entirely sober and many having come from the Perrier Comedy Award party a quarter of a mile away, gathered in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle for Smith's long-established megaphoned ramble and series of japes.

Beginning with the traditional snogging of the security staff on the Castle gate (as Smith noted, it's somehow less fun since a civilian firm took over these duties from kilted squaddies), the crowd processed down the Royal Mile some 100 yards at a time. Smith interspersed anti-tourist-guide patter – "Edinburgh is full of Englishmen and lawyers and people with acne" – with stunts, some pre-arranged, some procured by the offer of money. Thus, we were regaled from a balcony window in Lawnmarket with a raucous rendition of "Loch Lomond" by a group supposedly consisting of the bastard children of Robbie Burns, whilst later a punter was offered £25 to climb onto a vacant plinth in Parliament Square and pose "in the manner of René Descartes". The usual smattering of brief public nudity and assorted other smut seemed to outrage neither the crowd nor Saturday-night passers-by.

After an hour and a half we had moved as far down the Royal Mile as Hunter Square, and the event reached a shambolic close after the last in a series of Nietzschean-comic speeches from Simon Munnery (alias the League Against Tedium), in the persona of a German tourist. Smith has in the past depended on a token police presence to round things off formally, but could not have expected what happened next. Just as the crowd was moving to disperse, a squad car arrived. Then another, then another... the final total, as far as I could see, was five cars, a van and an armoured Black Maria. For an insane moment, it seemed as if the police were about to attempt a policy of containment rather than dispersal; certainly, they gave no audible call for us to move on. Munnery – who had just made a speech about why he would not attack the nearby Starbucks coffee shop – was violently forced backwards into a doorway by a police officer, then led roughly to a car and taken away. Smith seemed to be trying to explain matters away to the police, but after a while was lost from sight.

Lothian and Borders Police confirmed on Sunday that, following a complaint from a member of the public, police arrived at a public order incident. Three men were arrested; two were released for summons, one on bail. It was a grimly catastrophic example of someone not getting the joke, and the cavalry arriving at the worst possible moment.

Written for the Financial Times Web site,

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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