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
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.’
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.