Saturday, August 30, 2014

The King Of Kansas City

During late August, there is, to my mind, only one place to be. That special somewhere is the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. What makes it so is the annual Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts extravaganza, to where all manner of manic and madcap performers naturally gravitate to entertain those of us on the lookout for ‘left-field’ entertainment in a world of stifling conformity.

My first taste of it was back in 1988 (Figure 77.1). I suppose I was lucky: my girlfriend lived in a third-floor bedsit opposite Haymarket station in the city’s West End. As well as being conveniently situated to experience all the Fringe madness, when it was time to go home I was able to see from her (one and only) window my return train as it approached the station ... then put on my shoes, kiss her goodbye, bolt down three flights of stairs, dodge the traffic on Haymarket Terrace and reach the platform, bounding spectacularly through the train doors without breaking my stride. As I said, madness was all around.

Figure 77.1: For reasons that I will explain, and which might not be coincidental, the 1988 Fringe postcard appears to show a slightly unhinged street performer, juggling outside the National Gallery.

Copyright © 1988 EFFS

One Saturday morning that summer was memorably mad. We were wandering though Princes Street Gardens, when I heard a man, with what sounded like an American accent, scream:

‘I’m going to set fire to my hair!’

There was a small crowd gathered outside the Scottish National Gallery. (This is a huge neoclassical building on the Mound, underneath which run the railway lines to Haymarket and beyond.)

Startled, we followed the commotion and heard him repeat his threat. We should have known better. Rather than discovering a suicidal case preparing to end his days in style, we were confronted by a young, hyperactive street performer, reeling in a crowd before letting rip with his repertoire. First, he propelled himself up between two of the building’s Ionic columns, legs splayed, arms waving and presumably with decent treads on his shoes (Figure 77.2). He then began to juggle several flaming torches, tossing them in the air, between his legs and behind his back (Figure 77.3). As a feat of balance alone, it was impressive; not setting fire to his hair – or anything else – even more so.

Figure 77.2: Live at (or rather outside) the National Gallery

Copyright © 1988 Paul Spradbery

His crazy act lasted about twenty minutes and was well worth the five-pound note I could not afford to throw into his hat but did anyway. We spoke to him afterwards. He introduced himself as Rex Boyd from Kansas City, USA, and was the same age as us. We spent the rest of the day roaming the packed streets, stopping to watch any other ludicrous exhibitionists whose paths we happened to cross. On our way back to bedsit-land, we passed the gallery and our new favourite Yank was still wedged between the stone pillars, twenty feet in the air, going hard at it for the benefit of anyone too nervous to look away. Ever since, on my numerous visits to the city, I have never been able to wander past the National Gallery building and not think of Rex Boyd.

Figure 77.3: The manic torch-juggler in action

Copyright © 1988 Paul Spradbery

Old habits die hard – this year’s Fringe (Figure 77.4) ended just a few days ago – and this is undoubtedly true in Rex’s case. Twenty-six summers later, he remains a thoroughly original performer. Some of his recorded antics are available online, as are details of his live stand-up shows. He must, also, still be competent with the torches: his hair is still intact (Figure 77.5).

Figure 77.4: This year’s postcard. The 2015 Fringe is scheduled for August 7th to 31st.

Copyright © 2014 EFFS

Figure 77.5: After years of shinning up stone columns, Rex’s feet now point in entirely different directions. His comedy c.v. is available at; he has a web site dedicated to motion graphics, video and design at; and there is live material on YouTube.

Copyright © 2007 comedycv

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Folly Followers

Being able to see for miles is, I think, one of life’s (frequently unsung) blessings. Is this a subconscious reason why, for more than a century, holidaymakers and daytrippers have tended to make for the coast? Perhaps it is. For there, in one direction at least, there is no sense of visual constraint.

I remember, as a small boy, sitting on a swing at the top of a sloping field overlooking one of my childhood homes, fascinated by the stupendous south-facing view across the cornfields. The horizon was about six miles away, but to such young eyes those fields seemed to stretch halfway across the world. Perched there, swinging to and fro, I would often gaze upon a dark, tower-like building, seated on a ridge and surrounded by a small area of woodland. I would wonder what it was, who lived there, and when and why it had been built. My young imagination tried in vain to provide answers that were not apparent.

I happened to mention it at school. ‘It is a folly,’ said one of my teachers. That left me none the wiser. When prompted to explain, she floundered for a moment, before defining such a construction as ‘something built for no good reason’, which struck me as absurd. Surely there had to be a point? Forty years on, and I have belated sympathy with her inability to nail down a clear definition. Even architectural experts cannot agree fully. It is generally accepted that a folly is, principally, decorative. Some are intentional monuments to extravagance, opulence or family prominence – if you like, ‘we built it because we could’. Others, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were born of benevolence, commissioned to provide stopgap work for unemployed artisans and the local poor.

Recently, I told my young children of the mysterious building hiding among the trees which had enchanted me when I was their age. ‘What’s inside it?’ one of them asked. When I admitted I had no idea, because I had never paid it a visit, the response, inevitably, was: ‘I want to go there, Dad. I want to see it.’ It was the perfect excuse finally to see it for myself.

We set out early this morning. Access was not that easy. After taking them to lunch at a nearby, nineteenth-century, ivy-clad – in other words, wonderfully English – pub, we navigated a winding, single-track country lane and parked on a gravel layby. The tiny signpost for the monument could hardly have been less conspicuous. It was as if the place were not meant to be visited, especially as the thirty-metre-high structure itself was sufficiently obscured by the trees as to render it invisible from the roadside.

The kids were captivated at first sight. Its stone base is triangular, and, when viewed from below at certain angles, it appears to lean, as if frozen in the act of toppling over (Figure 76.1), rather like an Italian campanile, such as that on the Venetian island of Burano. It was built to commemorate the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 – I suppose, an eighteenth-century ‘up yours’ to the rebellious Scots (Figure 76.2).

Figure 76.1: The ‘leaning’ folly was completed in 1748, costing £3,000.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Figure 76.2: I took this photograph of the inscription set in stone above the doorway.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

It is still possible to reach the viewing platform (Figure 76.3), by means of an interior spiral staircase. Thanks to sterling efforts from a follies preservation society (Figure 76.4), it remains open to the public, but only on Sundays. So, another time, I hope, preferably on a clear day.

Figure 76.3: This is the view from the top, looking northward towards my childhood home. Despite the high-res picture, I cannot quite make out the sloping field.

Copyright © 2007 Joe Havard

Figure 76.4: According to its web site, ‘The Folly Fellowship was founded in 1988 as a pressure group to protect, preserve, and promote follies, grottoes and garden buildings. Initially a group of enthusiasts keen to record what was at first seen as a peculiarly British aspect of architecture.’

Copyright © 2013 The Folly Fellowship

By the way, from that same sloping field, it is still possible to see its domed roof on the horizon – but only just. In forty years, of course, the trees have grown (Figure 76.5).

Figure 76.5: The landscape has altered since the early 1970s, but if you enlarge this picture, and follow the central tree trunk directly upward, the dome can be seen to protrude above the distant – and ever-growing – woodland.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Folly or not, it is a treasure – if you can find it.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery