A damp and chilly street on a November night in central Edinburgh is a cheerless place where even the weather cannot summon up the energy for a true downpour or sharpen the air to a proper, penetrating frost. This is the weather that the Scots call ‘dreich’, an expression that conjures spittle from the back of the throat, epitomizing awful dampness and simultaneously threatening to add to it. Where is the laughter in this place, that in August roars with 2,000 comics determined to wring an involuntary gasp from audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe? Wait! It is down below. For all the stony solidity of this city street, there is a honeycomb beneath our feet and it is filled with nectar.
A narrow doorway, easily missed by day, but dimly illuminated by night, leaks a feeble light onto the wet street. Inside, on a low stool sits a young woman with a cash box. To be admitted to the hive, we swap a £5 note and a coin each for a hand stamp that spells something smudged and indecipherable. Down one flight of stairs lined with gig posters, about turn and then down another until we reach a doorway from which, as we approach, issue the swelling sounds of music, speech and laughter. Welcome to the Jazz Bar, folks! A hibernaculum of joy. A cave where good humour hangs in the air all winter long, like bats waiting for the spring.
The room is long and thin, created not by tunnelling into the rock on which Edinburgh stands, but by sneaking between the interstices of a bridge that spans two hills. We are inside the structure of South Bridge. From outside, it looks like an ordinary street with buildings on either side and no sign of any hills. When I first came to live in this city I could not understand why this street and an adjacent one were called “Bridges.” Now I know. The city has swallowed the hills whole, leaving only a labyrinth of inhabitable spaces in the stone structure of its bridges. When the weather up above is rough, these cellars are the refuge of Edinburgh’s nightlife.
Order a beer, a dram of whisky or a coffee from the bar that runs the length of one wall of the cellar and take a seat across the room, or stand and survey the crowd. And now the joint is jumping! The 6-piece band crowded onto the tiny, low stage at the end of the room is ‘Lights Out by Nine.’ Their name is a reference to the Blues Brothers who, in the film of the same name, were grown-up fugitives from an orphanage where the killjoy dormitory rule, blazoned in huge letters, was ‘Lights out by nine.’ The name is of course an ironic joke, because when the lights in the bar do go down at nine, the fun begins. Lights out by Nine are now well into their opening number – an up-tempo beat of their own that Dougie Hunter – the bassist and band leader – promises will be on their new album. A tall figure with white hair is moving swiftly through the crowd to the front of the stage. Without a pause, he sloughs his coat and then hoicks a sweater over his head, briefly flashing a skinny white frame beneath a flapping shirt. The striptease ceases, but with one fluid movement this septuagenarian bad-boy now sashays directly into a dance, moving like a crazed marionette, head nodding, his long arms and legs jerking outwards and upwards in time to the music. His moves are so puppet-like, I reflexively strain my eyes upwards to see if there are strings attaching his limbs to a giant hand hidden in the black ceiling. The band give him a shout-out. “Hey! David has arrived, Ladies and Gentlemen! The best disco dancer in all the Lothians is here so now we can really get started.” The crowd whoops their approval, perhaps reassured that this manic figure is a local celebrity and not just some random nutter off the street. In a moment, David is dancing with a young woman. They spin, first the woman and then David as he ducks beneath the arch of her arm. There is laughter all around as the energetic dancing continues and in the next few minutes two other young women orbit with David as his sheer joy in movement pulls them towards him, as irresistibly as corks into a whirlpool