A few weeks ago, in what now feels like a former life, I was talking to a friend’s dad in a house party. It seems I’m doomed to talk to the parents at these things. “Have you ever been to Edinburgh outside of the Fringe?” he asked. I answered “no” with the weary certainty that the gentleman was going to shake his head, suppressing a hipster grin of self-satisfaction and announce, “You haven’t seen the real Edinburgh, then. I have, and it, like me, is great.” Instead, he just said, “Don’t bother. It’s grim.”
When we arrived in late July, I thought I saw what he meant. I’d only ever visited the city a couple of times before, and always while it was playing host to the largest annual cultural festival in the world. In contrast, the streets now provided clear views of austere enlightenment architecture; there was little or no advertising for upcoming shows. It felt like Chelmsford on a rainy Sunday. Grim, indeed, but like all things grim, it came with an almost Victorian sense of the opportunities of improvement. Just as a cold bath is good for the circulation, so the absence of events promised the chance to gain from cultural excursions to the endless libraries and museums that Edinburgh offers.
It was, of course, the calm before the proverbial storm. Through the city that night, insurgents of student theatrical types had been smuggling in props under cover of darkness, whispering lines, printing off reams of last-minute flyers like clandestine dissenters. By the first of August, the revolution erupted (two days before the Fringe Festival officially started).
I won’t go into all the different Royal Mile clichés with which you’ll either already be familiar, or could find summarized elsewhere with more amusing illustrations. It suffices to say that it’s ridiculous. There are too many of them. By them, I mean us. As ever, the people most likely to complain in these situations are the people who cause the problem. Like tourists complaining of tourism ruining Venice, the people who flyer on the mile treat each other with grudging passive aggression, often masked with vague interest in each other’s shows. Even this interest can be boiled down to basic economic exchange. I flyer you, you flyer me: neither will go to the other’s show in all probability, but at least we’ve both got one less flyer to force upon punters. We want to flyer proper punters, or people who look like they’ll take one out of pity, or people with kids too young to see our shows anyway – anyone apart from the elderly army of the Walking Dead who shuffle ineffectually up to the Castle for the military tattoo every night. We can’t even see the absurdity of using the word “flyer” as a verb. We blame our phones’ predictive text modes for rendering “flyering” as “flowering.” Stupid phones.
In Edinburgh, logic begins to break down in very real ways. I don’t mean it in the smug, self-congratulatory way in which your tediously sane friend-of-a-friend declares, “I’m mental, me.” I mean that our sense of cause and effect becomes detached. There is no way of finding if one flyering style or another is more effective. How many people can see our flag? Will that make more people come to the show? There is no way of knowing, but we impute cause retrospectively, with no experimental validity. Why was the show so well attended tonight? Today we had fewer flyerers (another neologism that passes without comment), so people are more likely to come if they think there are fewer of you. Tomorrow, no more than one person flyering at a time. Why was the crowd less impressed today than yesterday? Well, last night I watched “Goldfinger.” No Bond before a show, then! We become superstitious.
We try to adjust to our surroundings, to find patterns of eating, sleeping and living. But we do this under a completely anomalous set of circumstances. We become immured to sentences like “Young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man in a rocking chair wasn’t very good today,” or, “Sorry I’m late, I had to circumnavigate chainsaw-guy again.” The Fringe, for all its variety and vivaciousness, becomes a way of life, the start of which we can barely remember, the end of which we cannot see beyond. Sometimes you see flyerers staring into space, not even attempting to reach out a flyer to the unseeing tide of people flowing around them like stream around a pebble. You catch their glassy eye, then realise you too are staring into space. At times, you wonder who really is the Walking Dead.
But it’s all good fun anyway.