Letters from Edinburgh: A Day at the Races

In the eighth installment of her letters from Scotland, our writer blissfully listens to a talking head, then turns around and runs for her life.

I’m in the upstairs bar of Usher Hall counting down the minutes until David Byrne starts. I’ve got a good while to wait—an hour to be exact—before even the opener, Jim White, takes the stage. My reason for being so early is silly; I figure I might get to chat up a nice boy who finds Byrne’s verve as fetching as I do. But looking around the bar at the throngs of thirtysomethings with thinning hair and tapered jeans, it becomes clear to me that I’ll have to settle with a nice drink instead.

I manage to err on this point as well. The bar is quite expensive and I only have two quid on me, so I get the only thing I can afford—tonic water—and eavesdrop on a guy boring his young nephew to death with a dissection of the Talking Heads discography. My enthusiasm doesn’t waver one bit, though; I’ve never been into David Byrne for the booze or for the boys.

Once I’m done fooling myself into believing there is gin with my tonic, I take a walk around the venue. Usher Hall is a marvelous sandstone concert hall located in Edinburgh’s West End, with an octagonal form and a circular dome. It is a regular host to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and was the scene of the BBC Awards for World Music in March. The building’s baroque-revival interior is less-than-impressive, but then again I’ve never been keen on pink marble or gold coffering.

From my red velvet seat in the Grand Circle, I’m brewing with anticipation as I watch the techies tussle with wires on stage. There is something singularly exciting about going to a show. I don’t know the right word to capture it but it’s whatever would be the flush of far too much coffee—without the nausea.

As Byrne strides onstage, the crowd visibly perks. He looks smashing in saddle loafers and what looks like a brown janitor’s jumpsuit. Already I can tell tonight’s going to be memorable. There are about 15 musicians with him, all in matching uniforms. After two songs I decide this Grand Circle business just isn’t cutting it and sneak onto the ground floor because I have no intention of spending the next two hours doing jazz hands in my chair. Apparently, I’m not the only one with this idea, and the main-floor aisles and stage front soon flood with people.

In my experience, Edinburgh audiences tend to be a loud, obnoxious, and exceptionally fun lot. This one is no different. At first Byrne is annoyed with all the yelling and heckling. He begins to bark like an unattended dog into the microphone and then proposes we break for a discussion at the half. Some guy behind me calls him a twat and then requests “Tiny Apocalypse” from his recent album Grown Backwards. Pretty soon Byrne laughs it off and begins to enjoy the horde of dancing people at his feet. Odds are that everyone here except me is three sheets to the wind, and the way I see it he ought to take it as a compliment because it means they were looking forward to his performance. Besides, Byrne was born in Dumbarton and has family in Glasgow; he should know that in Scotland when they wind you up it means they like you.

Things get wild when the security demands we clear the aisles and return to our seats. I actually see a large woman in her 40s pull one of the guards into a partner dance like it’s the final scene of Dirty Dancing. Of course, the effort to make us move fails, and they give up trying altogether once the line “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack…” brings everyone to their feet.

To me, David Byrne is comforting. His voice is my madeleine and tea; I can hear a part of my past in it. That’s why I cannot believe I’m in Edinburgh, pogo-ing a few feet away from him, the big suit guy I pogo-ed to 10 years ago with my brother in a small Midwest town. I also cannot believe what a blast thirtysomethings in tapered jeans are! They get down like nobody’s business! If I could, I would buy them all a round of tonics.


* * *

The Glasgow Women’s 10K will be the first race I’ve ever run, but I’m not nervous about it. It helps that I’ve been training since January, but to be honest I’m too excited to even think about being nervous. The day of the race, my friends are out there somewhere on the route—along with 45,000 other cheering spectators—and I am limbering up in Bellahouston Park beside a nurse from Wales, both of us waiting for the start and saying that we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to run in Glasgow.

At 10 a.m., the start gun fires and I take off across the start pads. I reach the crest of the first hill and catch a split-second glimpse of thousands of other runners billowing out before me in a magnificent pageant. Exhilarating.

The race route winds through three parks, across two posh residential areas, along one major roadway, and beneath countless blossoming cherry trees. A bagpiper marks every kilometer and a Middle Eastern drum corps awaits us at the halfway point. At the fourth kilometer I pass a few giggling runners who’ve stopped to do a traditional Highland jig.

My friends are 250 meters before the finish, screaming and waving at me, and I’m so delighted to have found them that I squeeze through the final stretch effortlessly. Munching on my free prize-pack banana in the finishers park, I’m in a thrilled state of disbelief and babbling about having enough adrenaline surging through my body that I want to run another 10K right now. My flatmate Miya listens patiently and then says she’d rather spend the rest of the day in downtown Glasgow, soaking up the sun at an outdoor café.

I don’t put up a fight.