The Ballad of Edinburgh Fred

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The Independent Online
As I set off to the Edinburgh Festival today, I am reminded of a long poem which I don't think I have ever brought to you before. As you know, I am an avid collector of modern folk verse, especially motorway ballads, and this long ballad was told to me by a lone unicyclist whom I once gave a lift to en route to the Edinburgh Festival. I never saw him again, though I still have his unicycle, if he cares to contact me.

Oh, I am part of a two-man show

And over the world the two of us go

There's me and Fred, and Fred and me,

And nobody else that I can see.

Comedy mime is what we're at

We do our stuff and pass the hat,

And we have been all over the place

From Burnham-on-Crouch to Cannock Chase

From Marrakesh to Tripoli

Making a living uncomfortably.

But the place where we will never return

The place we'd rather willingly burn

The place whose memory makes us cringe

Is the place they call the Edinburgh Fringe.

Oh, we went to the Fringe in ninety-four

- We'd neither of us been there before

And thought that it was well-nigh time

That we hitched north with our comedy mime.

Well, straight off we got a bit of luck

- A lift with a brand-new pick-up truck -

And there in the back already there were

Five people going to Edinburgh.

Introductions all round were made

And comedy juggling was their trade.

"We were up at the Fringe last year,"

Said a girl, with a very slight hint of a tear,

"And we lost twenty thousand quid."

"More like thirty," said a boy called Sid.

"But we are going up again,

Once more to burst the barrier of pain."

"It's like a drug," their leader said,

Haggardly eyeing me and Fred.

"When you leave the Fringe on the homeward train,

You swear you'll never go back again.

The empty houses, the lack of reviews

The take-away food, the smelly shoes,

The lack of sleep, the quiet despair

- All of this vanishes in the air

And after a fortnight, come September,

The only thing you can remember

Is the occasional fun you had

Not the things that were so bad.

And so we're going again to get

Even further into debt."

They laughed like a group of maniacs

As they sprawled on their dusty bags and sacks.

And Fred gave me a dusty look

Which I could read like an open book

And the book was called "The Road to Hell"

Subtitled, "Why Are We Going As Well?"

Suddenly the truck stopped, at Carlisle,

Where the driver was going to eat for a while,

And the jugglers all got out in the street,

Though not to stretch, and not to eat,

But to paper the town with posters that said

"Juggling Tonight at the Comedy Shed!

Hit of the Fringe In Ninety-Three!

Come Along and You'll Agree!"

"Just a moment, chaps," I said.

"You might call me a dunderhead,

But why on earth put your posters here

When it's in Edinburgh you appear?"

"Because," said the girl, "there's no room up there

Every shop with a window spare,

Every cafe, every bar,

Every house and every car,

Anything at all in Edinburgh

That's large enough and doesn't stir

Will be covered in flyers on every wall

So better Carlisle than nowhere at all."

This tragic ballad goes on for hundreds of lines, and tells how Fred and the narrator are so appalled by the tale of woe, and by the sight of broken-down vans full of theatre props still trying to get to Edinburgh, that Fred and friend turn round before they ever get to Edinburgh and hitch back south again.

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