27 Aug The Edinburgh Fringe: Some inconclusive thoughts
The following was written at the start of the Fringe, so apologies if it seems, well, historical. I decided to publish it anyway. So maybe read it at the start of next year’s fringe.
Pulling into Waverley station on a balmy summer’s evening I had a realisation. This is the twentieth year I have been to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That is more than half my life. (36, thanks for asking). From an uncertain sixteen year old, to a cocksure university student to a new improviser to accidentally running a venue to (this year) popping in to cover three shows because of visa issues. And that (I realised, walking over George IV Bridge) is why I get such an emotional reaction to this place. I have done shows good and bad here, frozen in the rain, fallen in and out of love, made and lost friends. It’s a certain kind of place. Pulling my suitcase across the Meadows towards Bruntsfield links, I realised that this is the reason why I didn’t want to get off the train. Edinburgh is a singular, strange and intense experience. And I am mostly a house cat now, unsure if I want to throw myself into the hurly-burly, happy with regularity and order. Lugging that same suitcase up to the top floor of a beautiful Georgian house with doors the weight of rock and rattly sash windows, I realised this: In twenty years, something has always happened in Edinburgh. Always.
Twenty years of sweaty, ill-equipped venues and techs with the exhausted, happy smiles of new parents. Twenty years of handing out flyers in the spaces between rain showers and the Sisyphean task of postering when four thousand other shows all want the same prime space. (That is not an exaggeration, the official Edfringe report listed 3398 shows in 2017, and many shows do not list in the brochure). Twenty years of late nights in the Gilded balloon bars, crowding round tiny first-generation smart phone screens to read reviews, too many people who are just a little too old to be staying in a flat together and the anxious dance of arranging to meet friends who are also in shows (‘I have half an hour at 4.15, but you’ll have to meet me at Summerhall.’). Twenty years of proud selfies with the Sold Out board and the crushing self-hate of doing a bad show because prioritising is hard and you stayed up too late. Twenty years of loving and hating the weekends because they brings stag parties, but also the mole-eyed, terrified tourists who will believe anything you tell them, including that your student production of the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is Actually Good (it wasn’t). Descriptions of the Fringe, like those of the first European settlers arriving in North America, always tend towards lists. It’s the only way to understand the experience.
I often say that I don’t like the Fringe, but it is a much more complex thing than that. I don’t dislike it the way I do spiders, Monopoly and chip shop chips. I dislike the Fringe in the same way I dislike supermarkets. Not because I hate the things that are being sold to me, but because I want them all. With a full purse and not much to do, I have been known to average seven or eight shows basically back to back and drink solidly the whole time. I am a completionist, someone who asks if you have seen a Netflix series YET, as if there were an inevitability and not doing so just meant you were behind. I always feel a slight unrealistic twinge of defeat at the shows on my to-see list when I leave, or the Fringe finishes.
Which makes the Fringe the perfect physical metaphor for modern culture. If you were to binge all of those 3398 shows back to back, it would take you over twenty weeks, or not far off six months. And that’s if you don’t sleep. With the best of wills, that is not possible. Everything is available, so you have to decide what you see. Because you can’t have it all.
The advantage and disadvantage of this is that it means you can whatever kind of fringe you want. What do I recommend? What do you like? What kind of Fringe do you want to have? For some people, that’s a delicious, liberating feeling. They can pore over the app, star things and cross reference with reviews and who they will be meeting that afternoon. For others, it’s a terrifying wall of flyers, websites and friend’s recommendations that you can never fully decode. How will I ever feel part of this, when there is so much? Faced with this, I totally understand why people go and see that white, male comic from Mock the Week (you know, that one). I know what that is, I can get my head round it. I can cope. I don’t recommend you do it, but I can see why people do.
Three days later, I left Edinburgh on the 9am train to go to my mother’s birthday party. I had done three shows and seen exactly one, and that because Heather was in it. It was very good, but it’s the Showstoppers, of course it is. I’ll probably go back next year, surprised that I’m there. What do I recommend you do while you’re there? Try to stay sane, well-hydrated and fed, have a bath with some scented candles if it feels too much and remember, no one else is having the same fringe as you.