"…and we thought we'd like to go to the Tattoo," said Jean, while outlining my folks' proposed trip to Scotland the following summer. Oh great, I thought. Ungracious, yes. Selfish, I grant you, but I freely admit I dreaded the very idea. The Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo bringing you jingoistic military march-fests since 1950. I was less than thrilled.
Then again, several friends had been to the Tattoo, some of them almost as sceptical as myself; all had emerged with glowing reports. Maybe there was more to this. In any case, I would have to start planning. It was October. I knew that what bills itself as the centrepiece of Edinburgh's considerable summer entertainments, sells out fast. Tickets would go on sale in the first week of December; all 217,000 would be gone by mid-January.
As the calendar turned over, I gave the matter more thought. Whatever my preconceptions about the event, they were tempered by the lure of the unique memories offered by sharing rare experiences with family and old friends. I also knew that with a limited amount of time left in this great city before I set out on travels of my own it was, perhaps, now or never if I wanted to experience some of its most distinctive attractions.
August rolled around; I didn't know what to expect. The summer weather had been awful. My folks were anticipating Edinburgh's horizontal rain, much as they'd had last time they visited. So was I. The afternoon they arrived, the heavens obliged. While I had some ideas for their visit, I couldn't make definite plans until I saw what the following day's weather would bring. Also, it was their trip; I wanted to make sure we did what they wanted. After all, I tried to convince myself – I live it here. I can see these things whenever I like. When the day dawned bright, warm and sunny, I asked if there was anything in particular they fancied doing.
"Actually, we'd quite like to see Britannia." Not that. Anything but that. This was a bigger challenge than the Tattoo. I'd adjusted to the idea of my participation in that – surely my barely informed ideas of it as a display of military bombast and jingoistic nationalism couldn't be quite right? But Britannia? Ocean-hopping plaything of our glorious Royal Family for 44 years till its retirement here in 1997? I was a good republican. I had little time for the publicly-funded trappings of privilege of an outmoded institution. I had God Save the Queen on seven inch vinyl, for goodness sake. To pay to look around one of their most famous toys? I found the idea almost distasteful, but I went off to check the website.
By the time I met up with my folks later that morning, they were already one step ahead of me. They'd learned that one can avoid the queues by booking ahead during August, and they had phoned to reserve tickets. We perused the exhibition and then picked up our extremely informative audio handsets. It's a slightly strange sight, all those people with black electronic bricks clamped to their ears: a little like an advertisement for early mobile phones. "I can't talk dear, I'm on the ship".
Britannia was launched on the other side of Scotland, on the Clyde in 1953. Although recently retired, she evokes a different age. At the time those brass tubes, steam turbines and mirror-polished pipes were the height of shipbuilding prowess. Hard to imagine they did a million miles in this. As I strolled slowly (the ship demands a serene pace) around the decks and corridors, I was conflicted by the notion that this should be used for its intended purpose, not simply garaged and polished, however meticulously.
It's impossible not to be impressed: the weather decks veneered with two inch-thick teak; the huge Rolls Royce Phantom V parked unfeasibly high up in its specially designed garage; the smooth hull shows not a single rivet or welding seam. One story has it that when General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf was shown the engine room, he said, "Well I've seen the museum piece… now, where's the real engine?" The captivating grandeur of the dining room, walls festooned with gifts from destinations around the world, dominated by a sumptuous table, 24 places laid with military precision is most impressive. This space is still hired out for corporate functions, standards of service maintained as they were when the ship was under commission. If you have to ask how much, you probably can't afford it.
That evening we had dinner at Le Sept, an Edinburgh institution, a favourite créperie. We watched Hunter Square play host to some early evening Festival Fringe madness – Australians performing backward somersaults from a five foot-high pillar box, that sort of thing. A postprandial stroll took us up the banner- and flag-decked Royal Mile to the castle, as if to some medieval pageant. We settled in for the show – what a show! This was entertainment on a grand scale, so unashamedly show-business, I needed to remember the event's roots were military.
This was a quick-fire salvo of theatrical set pieces, staged against the moodily lit backdrop of a castle nearly a thousand years old – from the late 18th century American fifes and drums of the Middlesex County Volunteers to the rifle-swinging, sabre-swashing swagger of the Taipei First Girls' Senior High School Honour Guard, from the youthful fearlessness of the Imps Motor Cycle Display Team to the mighty drum horses of the Band of the Blues and Royals. Yes, there were the expected massed pipes and drums. There were also cheesy moments. Does the world really need a rendition of Bryan Adams' Everything I Do performed by a band of squaddies in desert fatigues? I think not.
One cannot fail to be thrilled by such a show-stealing performance as that put on by The Band of The Moscow Military Conservatoire. On a day of surprises for me, it delivered the biggest. Dressed in that famous starched olive green with the ever-so-slightly-too-big peaks on their caps, I didn't expect a high-kicking, almost jazz treatment of classical Russian composers. I didn't expect the super-camp formation tomfoolery and I certainly didn't expect one of them to change, unseen, into a full-size cartoon bear costume and cavort into the finale. It was almost Pythonesque – whatever would Comrade Brezhnev have made of this? They performed with consummate skill and unabashed enthusiasm. A joy to behold, they epitomised the evening and they brought the house – sorry, castle – down.
By the end, I was breathless. Like my sceptical friends before me, I'd more than enjoyed myself. I'd loved it. Later, weeks afterward, I thought about the day. I began to realise I'd learned something. An old lesson to some, but fresh to these eyes. I concluded that travel, even when it's someone else's trip, can make one truly see the familiar for the first time. It can challenge prejudice and confound expectation enough to make one change one's mind. Crucially, all this can be fun, too.