The close of the Edinburgh Festival marks the end of summer. For many locals it is a sense of relief rather than melancholy which greets the end of this international arts jamboree. I'm largely in the latter camp; I find that my walk home from work through the Cowgate in early September is always tinged with a little sadness as the final traces of the Fringe fade.
A heavily laden bramble bush also symbolises this ending of summer. A fortnight ago I came across a fantastic crop on the Goldenacre Path near Ferry Road while 'decompressing' after a particularly hectic Fringe. As I stood picking the berries in the warm afternoon sunshine, I was transported back to family trips up Blackford Hill for the same purpose. It was a Saturday afternoon and what struck me was, despite the prodigious quantity of fruit, no-one else stopped to pick any berries. It felt like something that was free but of value was being overlooked.
This failure to appreciate things which are right in front of us made me think of the Fringe, though I experienced most of it in dank recesses of the Cowgate rather than glorious sunshine. As part of my own evolution from a Fringe sceptic to an enthusiastic advocate, I spent the Fringe as a reviewer (for ThreeWeeks
magazine). This experience only strengthened my view that the Fringe is largely undervalued by locals – it's too easily dismissed and seen as an annoyance which disrupts the city for three weeks. Even those who congregate at the big venues don't seem to fully engage with the Fringe. I continually found myself surrounded by people who didn't seem to attend many shows but were merely soaking up the atmosphere or the 'buzz'. This buzz may be a by-product but surely isn't the essence of an arts festival, which is surely to expose yourself to something different.
Having shows allocated to me by my editor meant that I saw things I might well not have chosen myself. This led me to see a lot of unexpected gems and real variety of shows: spoken word, music, theatre as well as the ubiquitous stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy remains the dominant form at the Fringe but much of it is unremarkable; I would urge those looking for a richer Fringe experience to explore other genres and take risks.
The argument that the Fringe impinges too much on locals who want to go about their daily lives has some cogency. There is little doubt that at some key pinch points (especially South Bridge), the situation has become unsafe and unsustainable. The temporary widening of the pavement next to the Tron and the deployment of traffic stewards did help alleviate but did not come close to solving the issues. One particularly unpleasant hour spent trying to catch a bus from South Bridge in the middle of a thunderstorm was a low point of my Fringe. But, in Edinburgh, you're really no more than 100 yards from somewhere quiet (even on South Bridge you can quickly escape the hordes by nipping down Infirmary Street). A performance such as Sophie Rocks' Notes From Shetland To Shanghai
(a beautiful melding of poetry and harp playing) was typical of the way that a show can act as an antidote to the cacophony of much of the Fringe – even when taking place 20 yards from the Tron.
The concentration of venues in the very centre of the Old Town is an issue and isn't helped by the unwillingness of Fringe-goers to move away from the established venues. The new Just the Tonic venue at the Charteris Centre was a case in point. The shows I attended there were excellent (particularly Brett Johnson's moving and thought-provoking Poly-Theist
), but, despite being less than 150 yards from the Pleasance, audiences were on the sparse side. Indeed, I was the sole audience member in one show. Given the very awkward situation, the performer (the poet Melanie Branton) put on an impressive and interesting show.
Bonnie Prince Bob's critique of the Fringe – There's No Edinburgh In The Festival
– deservedly received a lot of attention and contained a number of valid points. Such criticisms however tend to treat the Fringe as one single entity when it is multifaceted. Certainly, the Fringe has become commercialised (too much 'hype and profiteering' as Bonnie Prince Bob puts it) and rather conformist, but parts of it remain true to the original spirit and genuinely alternative art remains cultivated by it. The idea that is overpriced and therefore limits access certainly has some validity. As a reviewer, I was lucky not to have to worry about paying for my tickets. To have to do so would have set me back several hundreds of pounds.
The concept of the 'Free Fringe' has flourished under the tutelage of Peter Buckley Hill (aka PBH). Buckley Hill read from his new book Freeing the Edinburgh Fringe
in an entertaining show at the Banshee Labyrinth. It's a venue which typifies the Free Fringe with it's cramped and basic rooms but also a tangible community spirit between the performers. In his highly engaging and often very witty account of the Free Fringe (at times he probably could have done with a slightly stricter editor) PBH argues that the efforts to reduce the control of the big venues has reinvigorated the Fringe.
The Free Fringe has, of course, added to the issue of continual expansion and excess (the 2019 Fringe Programme ran to 456 pages: in 1983 it was only 69). This issue of 'where do I start?' is something which can be off-putting to new Fringe goers. Whether the Free Fringe has diluted the quality of shows is something strongly disputed by PBH. Certainly, I've seen some fine shows in the PBH Free Fringe, not least Richard Gadd's fabulous Monkey See Monkey Do
, which deservedly won the comedy prize in 2016 – something which obviously brought further prestige to the PBH Free Fringe, but also countered the accusation that local performers cannot make an impact (Gadd is from Fife). Gadd’s view that 'the Fringe is a magical place… don't let anyone tell you otherwise,' is a sentiment I've come to share.
The Free Fringe isn't helped by some of its weaker venues. Last year Three Broomsticks venue was nothing more than a dilapidated flat above a pub, while the Cowgatehead (now Bar Bados) has been beset with various issues, including a plumbing problem which closed the venue for a day this year. The Free Fringe has also added to the issue of concentration of venues in and around the Cowgate. Indeed PBH has, over the years, attempted to shift to more peripheral venues (in Leith and Meadowbank) but always found it difficult. Even venues on the other side of the Grassmarket or in the New Town have suffered. The need to spread the Fringe out over a wider area is a pressing one.
On a more recent visit to the Goldenacre bramble patch, I found a family busy at work. They had come well prepared with plastic tubs and poles for bringing the berries within easy picking distance. It was clearly an enjoyable experience despite a couple of minor injuries – a twisted ankle for the boy and a scratched finger for the girl. Clearly, it pays to be well prepared and be willing to suffer some discomfort to access the best of what Edinburgh has on offer both during and outwith August.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh