The Edinburgh fringe is just another choking canary in the toxic national mine
But if I’m going to watch the Britain I loved expire slowly, I’d rather do it from the top of the Royal Mile in August
On Monday I traversed the igneous peaks of the Pentland Hills from Edinburgh to Stratford-upon-Avon, having finished a run of my current standup show, Second Best Living Standup After Bo Fucking Burnham, at the fringe, which isn’t as good as it used it be in the 1980s, back when I wasn’t so old and jaded and deaf.
There had been a lot of talk about how the fringe was finally finished. Accommodation was too expensive because of the privatisation of former student digs and the Airbnb explosion; a financial and cultural narrowing of access to the arts was reflected in a social and cultural narrowing of performers and audiences; big business had fully colonised the spaces between producer and consumer, and profits never trickled down; the cost of living discouraged risk; Brexit bureaucracy discouraged European talent and visitors; and cynical rightwingers turned up on cue to fan culture war flames. But all these criticisms were true of Britain generally, and the fringe was just another choking canary in the toxic national mine. And if I’m going to watch the Britain I loved expire slowly, I’d rather do it from the top of the Royal Mile in August, with a bottle of Orkney whisky in one hand and a flyer for a puppet show about tetraplegic sex workers in the other.
I attended my first fringe in 1987, and have performed there during 32 of the subsequent summers, but over the past two decades I lost the desire to socialise during the month, instead drinking steadily alone in pubs, with folk musicians in the corner, where fans won’t find me. I am humbly grateful for consumers’ ongoing support for my work, but it is sometimes hard to find the right words, over and over again, as my failing ears struggle against background noise, and any people I may have arranged to meet wait patiently at my side, like the silent servants of a fat king.
But now, in my acoustic safehouses, the musicians and the folk fans recognise me too, although not entirely accurately. Last week, at the Whistle Binkies music bar, I was asked to pose for a selfie by some old, drunk men who thought I was the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals, which I did gladly, before they left delighted; and the week before I carried off a long conversation about old rock’n’roll with a man who thought I was the former fabulous standup comedian and Radio 2 specialist radio show host Mark Lamarr. He even asked if I remembered when he had visited my house. I said I did, and asked if he remembered the reinforced shelving for the vinyl. He said he did. I have not visited Mark Lamarr’s house. Reinforced vinyl shelving was just the sort of thing I imagined Mark Lamarr might have had.
The night before I left Edinburgh I was tempted out, uncharacteristically, to meet some nice comedians in a private bar I had never been to before. I was delighted to be reacquainted with the American comedian and actor Mike McShane, but was shocked and disappointed when he told me the American Shakespeare expert Prof James Shapiro had been left “shocked and disappointed” by news of my rewrite of the Porter’s comedy monologue in the director Wils Wilson’s forthcoming RSC production of Macbeth.
The assembled crowd of veteran comedy improvisors immediately rallied to my side, disparaging Shapiro and calling into question his professional credentials. “This poor oul fella, he may know his way around a Shakespearean joke on paper,” offered an Irish act who shall remain nameless, “but could he close the late show at the Store on a Friday night? I rest my case.” “Yes,” added another waspishly, “when I was a guest theatre lecturer at Columbia we called him James ‘All Theory and No Practice’ Shapiro.” Nonetheless, we toasted the grey academic generously with Highland Park single malts and, on my way home, I placed a copy of my favourite of Shapiro’s books, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, which was coincidentally in my bag, on the ancient stone by St Giles’ Cathedral known as the Heart of Midlothian, and spat bloody phlegm on to it, as is the Scottish tradition.
I arrived in Stratford on Monday night to see a preview of the new Macbeth, and to check out my four-minute bit that had already apparently disappointed and shocked an old man who hadn’t seen it. That afternoon, a journalist had asked me the now obligatory question about whether I think wokeness is killing comedy and the arts generally. The first Shakespeare I ever saw at Stratford was Ronald Eyre’s Othello, in 1979, when I was 11, in which Devon’s Donald Sinden had the honour of being the last white actor to “black up” in the titular role at the RSC. Even I, a preteen 2 Tone fan, had an inkling it was off. Wilson’s Macbeth is woke as fuck, with actors of all races and genders in all sorts of roles that would have sickened 70s RSC sensibilities, and is all the better for it. And it seemed to take place in a world where everything was running out, against a backdrop of polarised squabbles, ordinary people cannon fodder in the power struggles of desperate elites, echoing the ebbing of opportunity I had felt farther north.
On my last day in Edinburgh I looked in on the hallway of the Masonic Lodge, which had allowed our 80s student company to sleep on its floor, while we shaved and showered in the now obsolete public washhouse on Infirmary Street. The prime space was a 6ft slot under the stairs, the only area that afforded any privacy. It had, I noted, been permanently boarded up, another body blow to the hopes and dreams of the artists of tomorrow.
The RSC’s new production of Macbeth is in Stratford until 14 October. Basic Lee tour dates are here