I also inadvertently flicked through television channels the other day to find I was watching one of Emma Freud's nightly reports on the festival for BBC2. First up was a troupe of what I took to be radical lesbians, one of whom was depicted swinging on a trapeze and then, after some vigorous rummaging, plucking a single cherry from her crotch (the trapeze, incidentally, appears to have become indispensable to experimental drama). Next was a one-woman show by a recovered anorexic, during which the performer liquidises grotesque mixtures of food and then pours them down the lavatory while making loud retching noises. She was followed by an Aboriginal woman whose show testifies to years of oppression and governmental atrocity and, naturally, includes a moment when she lifts her eyes and stares with liquid pain over the aroused consciences of her audience. A wonderful sense of well- being stole over me as I switched the television off and remembered that I could steal away to my own bed, hundreds of miles from this carnage of creativity.
This isn't, though I may have difficulty persuading you of the fact, a general diatribe against the festival. I have seen wonderful things there, both on the Fringe and at the official events. But it became increasingly clear over the past few years that a fallow period was necessary. When I first attended, I was a fertile field - no seed fell on stony ground. The performers planted their fanciful hybrids and the impressionable earth yielded an abundant harvest. But something was leached from the soil with every year - the elements of credulousness and generosity and patience which are essential to proper enjoyment of the festival.
The crop of pleasure began to diminish, gradually at first, and then with alarming speed until it became clear that almost nothing would grow. I knew things had really come to a head when I was rung by the PR for the official festival, anxious to bring me up to date with their plans for press conferences and solicit some early articles. "We're not doing it this year," I said (I was, as arts editor, responsible for our coverage at the time). "Sorry... what?" she replied, convinced she'd misheard. "No, we've thought about it and we're not going to cover it this year. We always do it and then wonder why so this year we're not going to bother." There was a short pause as the enormity sank in and then a stammer from the other end of the phone. "But... but... you... not anything?" "No," I said in tones of calm resolution. "It's very expensive for us, you know, and I'm not sure that our readers are that fussed. Besides, anything that's any good always comes to London anyway." There was another long pause. I had gone mad and she wasn't sure what the protocol was for dealing with editors who had become deranged. "All the other papers are covering it," she said finally, in pleading tones. "Up to them," I replied stoically.
I gave in, of course. The fantasy was too outlandish to be sustained for very long - but I knew from my longing that it might be true, that, personally at least, the time had come to end this intensive farming of the imagination. For two years at least, I was going to stay away and let weeds grow instead. It's only been a year now and I think the ground is recovering already, but I'm not going to rush things - the remedy is too pleasurable.