“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.”
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival; the number of the beast. From out the frothing Firth of Forth it sprawled, and laid claim to the city. The locals begrudgingly bore the mark of the beast upon their right hand, and from across the glens came hoards of university a cappella groups, and student dramas featuring a unique hook and an uncomfortable bit about rape, and many gladly bore the mark of the beast around their necks in lanyards, and all failed to make any good come of it.
I’ve just come back from a month in Edinburgh. I was on the wrong side of the divide. I was a performer. Many of my friends are returning from stints in Leeds, or Shambala, but these are just words and vague concepts to me, for whom only the horror of the Fringe remains, scorched into my memory like napalm across an oil field. This must be how ‘nam vets feel.
The Edinburgh Fringe is, technically, a festival, and it got me thinking about what exactly it is that constitutes a ‘festival’. Whilst thousands were clawing through the mud of Leeds, trying desperately to cram into Eminem (not literally), I was dragging myself in canvas shoes up the Royal Mile, stopping briefly to buy a latte, and watching a man dressed as Predator stand on a box and beckon children with his talons. To be fair he did this 10 hours a day, every day, for a month, in the sweltering heat and the pouring rain. Eminem did what? Two hours? Under an overhang? Sell out. Whilst thousands were huddling together in their canvas tents at night, knee-deep in rain water, telling tales of the old country and singing laments for the Sun gods, I was neck deep in a bubble-bath, listening to Radio 4, and eating a pizza whole. Whilst thousands were loosing wellies to the depths of the mud, I was losing one thousand pounds to the depths of despair. Fair enough. You win that one, Leeds.
On the face of it I’ve not made it sound all that bad. Sure, I lost money, everyone does, that’s the rule of engagement, but compered to living in Stig of the Dump’s back-garden for a whole weekend, presumably eating mud and each other for sustenance, the Fringe sounds like a self-centred doozie. Perhaps it is, but it has a reputation for breaking bigger men than I. It is supposed to destroy you. It’s supposed to take all your dreams and sheltered ambitions about how talented you are, and how much you stand out in your youth theatre, and smash them against your face repeatedly, screaming “You are average! You are average!”. It is an artistic bootcamp, complete with assault course. Over the month performers typically face obstacles such as arriving to discover their venue is an ox-cart moored to the docks by sellotape, or that the name ‘The Cupboard’ was not as ironic as they anticipated. From there it’s straight onto discovering your flyers have been delivered to Falkirk, so for the first week you advertise your show to people on bits of toilet paper, or rizla, trying desperately to convince them and yourself that it’s kooky, and underground. After that comes the gruelling realisation that you’ve been eating pot noodles for two weeks now, and that you hate everyone you work with. Finally, the biggest obstacle of all, the slow dwindling realisation that you’re aggressively average, that your play/musical/comedy-career makes no sense, and has a stupid premise. Then, slowly, you lie down on the Royal Mile, stick a flyer in-between your toe, and hope people will think it’s a clever statement, and not the death of your dreams. By the end of the Fringe the Royal Mile, the vibrant battle-ground of performers enthusiastically flyering for their shows in character at the start of the month, is littered with the corpses of student drama societies, who are somehow both pretending to be dead, and actually being it on the inside too. In some ways they have finally transcended art, in others they are just posing a hazard to pedestrians. Seeing it, I was reminded of the wreckage of Czech hedgehogs and landing crafts washed up on the beaches of Normandy. Flotsom of a past war.
I suppose the defining characteristic of a festival is that you come back feeling like you survived it. If you went to a place and had a nice time and experimented with drugs but nothing bad came of it then you have not been to a festival. You’ve been to a jamboree, or a fiesta, or in extreme circumstances a church fete, but you have not been to a festival. You barely even deserve to call it a holiday.
I have just finished counting up the money I made back in donations for my show over the month. I don’t even remember how much money I sank into this festival. For most people it’s in the region of the thousands. I also made the rookie mistake quite early on in August of cancelling all my bank cards in a panic before finding my wallet under a tea-towel, so I was living solely off the generosity of punters for the month. A move which shouldn’t have paid off. As it was I made enough to live, eat, drink, and still come back with a hefty wad of loose change to pay for September’s bills. The tiny stacks of bronze, nickel-brass, and cupronickel sprawl across my desk, laying claim to my work-space. I place the last stack of pennies precariously upon the penny tower. I note down the number and type it into a calculator. A number flicks up on screen. My ‘earnings’ for the month, my wage for all my misery; £66.6, the number of the beast. Here is wisdom.