The Edinburgh Fringe is almost done and the artists are now broken. Spent, emptied, they are on their knees. If you have never taken a piece to the Fringe, you won’t understand. But the demands that face the artists as they attempt to survive a month in Edinburgh are unique and monstrous. And those who suffer them are heroes.
A quick disclaimer: I didn’t ‘do’ the whole month this time. The pressure of writing a weekly column for The Independent eventually told and I spent the first two weeks of August lying face-down in my kitchen emitting a low-pitched drone. I only scooped myself up for the final fortnight and it has given me a new perspective on the madness. To walk among these brave spirits who have committed to a whole August of this bullshit is a real eye-opener.
And it is a commitment. I am writing this in Piemaker, Edinburgh’s culinary epicentre, on South Bridge. It acts as a naked flame to the punchdrunk moths, who are up here doing shows. In a month stuffed full of dreams, broken dreams, taped-up dreams and uncertainty, the only constant is that you must have a pie every day. Character acts, stand-ups and bespectacled storytellers fall into Piemaker’s bosom and try to express with their sad eyes that they need pie in order to survive. The staff duly feed them pies, check their temperatures, pulse and blood pressure, inject them with Irn-Bru, hug them and send them on their way.
As I gaze through Piemaker’s famous windows I watch the performers. Distinct from the locals, they are easy to spot. Lacking colour, density even, they are ghosts. Shells. Shattered and emaciated, they haul themselves towards their venues like desert rats, beaten by the sun, their canteens empty. They jabber, no longer coherently, almost silently. If you press your ear right up against the tip of their tongues you will hear jumbled snatches of coded testimony: “…technical glitches… judges were in… the ending’s working better… snogged a flierer… hungry… need water… water”. And yet they do not fall. They get to their venues. And they knock out their hour. Because they are heroes.
It’s impossible to combat the unhealthy lifestyle that comes hand-in-hand with an assault on Edinburgh. All preconceptions of time change on arrival. Bedtime becomes 4am. Mornings no longer feature. Even things like 5pm cannot be trusted. With most of your meals taking place after midnight, almost everything you eat is grey-brown and doesn’t know for sure if it is solid or liquid. You try to balance it out with the occasional tangerine or flapjack, but it’s tough. It really is.
With the excesses so unavoidable, you have to try and safeguard yourself in the month of August. Different artists do this in different ways. Some people nap during their show, weaving it into their script so it doesn’t look like they’re taking the p*ss. Others drink juice or sleep with each other. I eat a lot of Tunes. I remember one year, encouraged by the comedian Joe Wilkinson, I joined a gym. I was broken when we arrived and tried to swim a length but got tired. It was too much. I hauled myself ashore, crawled on to a recliner and slept. Beached, beaten, buggered. So is it worth it? Yes.
Because as each artist is patched up by pie and pushed back on to the pavements, there is something else discernable. Each one of these brave sods has a glint in their eye. Though sick with artistic overindulgence, there is a magic about them. And, as they leave, their chests pump up like robins. They are almost too weak to chew their pastry, but they are living the dream. They know they have to be here. They know. It is vital for their very souls.
I’ve had four pies and a doughnut now. I am ready for a stiffener and then showtime. These are the times of our lives. Emaciated, woozy and fatigued, we are lucky to be a part of this. Push on through to the end.