Lloyd Evans mingles with sozzled Scots, benumbed punters and performers with nothing to lose at this year’s Fringe
It’s for losers, Edinburgh. The world’s down-and-outs come here in droves every August. This year I was one of them. Having failed to secure my usual lodging, a spartan cell on the university campus, I had to book a backpackers’ refuge on the Royal Mile. It was better than a park bench. Just about. The website promised ‘fitted sheets’ and ‘lounge with real fire (gas/coal effect)’ as tokens of its commitment to luxury. I rented a towel (20p, no deposit), which turned out to be fairly clean on one side.
The accommodation was rammed. Six rooms, eight bunks each. Nearly 50 of us sharing four showers. No soap. The dormitories were christened with the nostalgic titles of childhood. ‘Star Wars’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Muppets’. I was in ‘Gotham City’ where my bunk bore the alpha-tag ‘Batman’. Above me slept ‘Robin’, to give him the name his berth entitled him to, a young Bosnian who suffered ecstasies of nocturnal itching when he wasn’t having nightmares. He woke at
6 a.m., evacuated his cot noiselessly, and then spent two hours crinkling a plastic bag next to my head. ‘Riddler’ and ‘Penguin’, opposite me, were occupied by a handsome French couple in their mid-20s who — thank God — observed a no-rutting policy in barracks. The Frenchman, I reflected, must have been blessed with exceptional powers of persuasion. ‘Darling, let’s visit the home of the Scottish Enlightenment and sleep in a dosshouse full of twitching Slavs.’
Outside, I plunged into the ragged, swarming gaiety of the streets. There are three constants: zippy, elated performers; mooching, sceptical punters; and alcoholics roaming freely and touching the extremes of bliss and despair through mists of disorientation. I admire Scottish tolerance of public drunkenness. The Royal Mile, fenced into cordons and patrolled by police, would be easy to clear of these sozzled ruins. But no. They doze unmolested in gutters. They lurch out of doorways, shirtless and crimson-faced, touting for cash. They zigzag along North Bridge muttering florid curses. The drunks are a mobile and familiar symbol of the capital’s proud heritage, like red buses in London, which the newly arrived tourists delight in spotting. ‘Ah, we’re in Scotland. Oh, and there’s my first pisshead.’
For me, Edinburgh means junk food. Not burgers or chips but hardcore garbage. I lived for two days on jumbo packs of McVities Mini Cheddars and a banana that I found on Gotham City’s window sill. I had some chocolate Hobnobs, too. Eat as you walk. Best option when hastening between venues. I was the only one doing any hastening. The visitors saunter around the world’s biggest and wackiest arts festival in a state of zonked indifference. But then it’s not Bayreuth or Glyndebourne, where devotees gather to see a specialised art form presented in its most rigorous and exalted state of refinement. This is Edinburgh. The punters are ‘on holiday’. They’ve put their brains on standby, parked their true selves in limbo, and abandoned their dress sense and the self-respect that goes with it. The ‘summer break’ is an enforced sabbatical which revives one’s enthusiasm for work by delivering a potent reminder that the alternatives — unemployment, early retirement, or just loitering aimlessly in foreign climes — are deadly by comparison. So the Festival-goer, intellectually, is no different from the sozzled Scot. He’s down-and-out too, benumbed, stalled, directionless. He doesn’t care what show he sees either. The factor that decides most ticket purchases isn’t the title or the four-star review but the location. Oh, it’s just here? Right. Two for the stalls.
So while the punters couldn’t care less, the performers couldn’t care more. They come every year, investing three weeks of their lives and thousands of quid on one fabulous punt, one reckless wager to vault them into the firmament. It’s a loser’s fantasy. And every summer more wannabes queue up. Three years ago about 2,000 acts performed. Now it’s 2,500 and counting.
The bigger the Fringe grows, the worse it gets at spotting future stars. Who won last year’s comedy award? It was Russell I’ve-never-heard-of-him Kane. The year before? It was Tim I’ve-never-heard-of-him Key. And before that? Some equally unlegendary comic. But during those three years several stars emerged — Michael McIntyre, Russell Howard, Rhod Gilbert and John Bishop — who were never identified as winners at Edinburgh. How come? A mystery. Somehow these lucky comedians secured the favour of television’s ruling caste, the commissioning editors, the top agents and the media potentates who authorise contracts and change lives. These grandees are at the Festival too, barely a dozen of them in all, scouting for the next stadium-filling act. And each brings with him a cabinet of five or six star-spotters. So there’s your audience. Just 60 people. But the secret of guiding them to your show has yet to be solved.
And so, in response to the frustrations of this enigma, the performers indulge in fantasies of discovery and attention. They head for the top of the Royal Mile and they leap into the limelight. They grab instant fame. They perch on a litter bin or a concrete spur and yell their names to the milling crowd. They’re famous. They’re known to everyone. Well, within 15 yards.
I was watching this rite of effortful zaniness when a bald middle-aged man sprinted past me. He had an impressive beer gut and a scarlet shirt and he was running full tilt down the Royal Mile shouting, ‘I don’t care! I don’t care any more!’ and flinging handfuls of flyers backwards over his head. ‘I don’t care any more!’ It worked. Even rival leafleters pick up his flyer. ‘Bob Slayer’s Marmite Gameshow,’ it said. The performance, at the Hive in Niddry Street, unfolded in conditions of artless disarray. There was no gameshow. There was no Marmite. There was simply Bob Slayer at the mike, haranguing the audience with camp improvisations, and yelling ‘Mervyn! A pint!’ whenever his glass ran dry.
He bribed an Ulsterman to dress as Freddie Mercury and perform Queen songs. That took up 97 per cent of the act. For his finale, he invited volunteers to injure him with darts. A punter stood up and took aim. ‘Sir, before you kill me,’ said Bob Slayer to his would-be slayer, ‘may I ask what you do?’ ‘I’m just back from Afghanistan,’ said the volunteer. ‘I’m an army sharpshooter.’ He flung. He scored. The dart sailed through the air and lodged in the target’s left thigh just below his belt. The now-perforated Bob Slayer looked down at his piercing with a quizzical expression. It had hit him in the wallet. ‘How shite has this show been!’ he observed as he wrapped things up. ‘Come back tomorrow and see if it’s this shite again.’
Bob Slayer is probably not an O2-filler but his brand of insane merriment seemed to encapsulate the Edinburgh mood. He had charm and hope and nothing to lose. The realm of the down-and-out is full of strange attractions because people who dream of a better place are, as the sages tell us, already in a better place than the better place they yearn for.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 27, 2011