As I write this the sun is setting here in Slough and the oppressive heat of the day is leaching away into a slate blue sky. Outside the wind felt warm and stale, providing nothing in the way of respite from the baleful rays of the Day Star. Even safe within the confines of my home with the curtains closed, the heat left my brow slick with sweat. I tried to sweep my hair away from my forehead but only succeeded in making myself look like a cockatiel. This has been a lazy weekend. Even had the heat not been so strong as to sap the strength of any sane man it would still have been a lazy weekend. I need a lazy weekend. I need a lazy weekend bad. For last weekend was not lazy, it was not relaxing, it was a hectic roller-coaster of gross and improbable mischief. I was north of the border in the ancestral homeland of Scotland; in its fair capital of Edinburgh; visiting the Fringe. It was an experience to say the least.
I’ve been to Edinburgh many times over the years, but never during the height of The Fringe. Edinburgh in the month of August is a very different place. Edinburgh has always exuded an aura of age, the dirty grey stone of the buildings adds a dreariness to the place that makes the city seem almost more real than it actually is. It makes it seem solid, immoveable and eternal. There are entire streets that feel more like they have been hewn out of cliffs and outcroppings as opposed to having been built in the conventional sense. Most of all, Edinburgh has always felt like a serious and sensible place to me. So when I finally rolled up into Waverley station after spending the better part of seven hours in transit the sight of Edinburgh is full Fringe swing came as a bit of a shock. My abiding memory of the Fringe will be of just how surreal the entire experience felt. In August Edinburgh’s population doubles, there’s people everywhere, strrets which I had previously seen as calm and quiet places are suddenly thronged with garishly dressed individuals whose soul purpose is to force tiny sheets of glossy paper into your hands. And when you finally do find yourself actually going to see something your find yourself clambering through tiny stone doorways into derelict houses or squirrelling your way down crumbling staircases into damp and dingy cellars to be assailed by the smell of damp, mould and the stale sweat of a departed audience. No place illustrates this absurdity better than The Underbelly. This particular cluster of venues is in fact set up in a disused railway arch and a series of adjoining industrial buildings. It’s only open for one month of the year before being packed away into mothballs for the Fringe the following year. Entering it feels like slipping into a semi-legal rave in the under city of a dystopian metropolis. But more of the Underbelly next week.
After checking ourselves into the hostel we were staying at we began the arduous task of preparing ourselves for a night out. This largely consisted of 3 members of our party of 6 donning shirts. My response to this was the considered and calculated: “You fuckers are wearing shirts? You bastards.” This was in turn quickly followed by myself also donning a shirt so that I wouldn’t be the odd one out. I off course kept the jeans and the tan leather boots stained with combinations of water, unnamed chemicals and paint. I wasn’t going to totally cave to peer pressure. By this point it was rapidly heading towards 8:30pm, we had a show to attend at 9. None of us had really eaten anything since lunch and by our own admissions were “famished.” Earlier, while still on the train, I had even threatened to eat JP. So we headed off to hunt out a takeaway and something resembling sustenance. By this point we had already imbibed perhaps 3 pints of alcohol on empty stomachs. This was in retrospect, perhaps unwise.
We wandered through the darkening streets of Edinburgh towards the venue of our show. I’ve always found it harder to navigate a place in the dark, the dark brings changes to a place, it distorts the cityscape into something similar but not quite recognisable. Were it not for the Best Man I suspect we would have all gotten thoroughly lost. I nabbed a jacket tettie smothered in butter and orange cheese shreds while the others nabbed pizzas. We woolfed them down as we walked. I managed to lose my little plastic fork, somehow making it ping from my hand like an uncoiling spring, reducing me to tearing strips from it while cradling its hot starchy form in the palm of my hand. I hadn’t managed to completely devour the warm corpse of the potato before we had to make our way into the venue. So I closed the lid of its little polystyrene house and placed it under my arm with as much nonchalance that I could muster. I was concerned that it might get cold. I needn’t have worried. At the top of a set of stars and through a cramped wood panelled corridor we found our way to the preview show of “Thom Tuck Flips Out.” In reality I thing we’d actually found our way into a fucking sauna. More beer was forced into my hand and in the sweltering heat I watched Mr Tuck be both funny, bitter, wistful and astute. Reaching a pinnacle at his tale of attempting to say “puppy” but his mouth telling his brain “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” before spouting the chillingly wonderful “Dog-Child.” Just writing that made me giggle. Upon exiting into the cold Edinburgh night I was gifted with a button bearing the words Dog-child. It was time well spent, even if I did leave perhaps a couple of kilograms of myself in the room in the form of sweat.
Buoyed by food, our heart lightened by laughter and made reckless by alcohol we headed off in search of another show. The night was young and the city lay before us, filled with hidden wonders and unknown joys. And that, is precisely when it all went horribly, horribly wrong. We hunted through an already dog-eared fringe guide for a late night comedy show. We stumbled upon Denis Krasnov’s Hour of Intellectual Filth. By the way it was billed we all expected it to be intelligent, yet fundamentally filthy. As its own blurb said “Don’t expect simple dick jokes…expect d*ck jokes about Large Hadron Supercollider.” We were to be thoroughly and utterly disappointed.
The venue itself looked like an abandoned house; the bar nothing more than a man behind a bench; the stage for the horrors we were about to witness? A cellar that smelt wet and had a rough lined with what looked like white tarpaulin. The six of us sat near the back clutching Jägerbombs, what we saw will live etched into our collective consciousnesses till the end of days. For 15 whole minutes we witnessed the comedy equivalent of summary ethnic execution. This was a war-crime against comedy, a genocide of humour. After those fifteen minutes the entire audience left en masse. What we had seen was neither intellectual, nor filth, just a crass Russo-americano talk jerkingly about cock-sucking and how he was once raped by a bear (a female bear mind you, nothing as he put it weird) and chastising us for not laughing at his jokes and then proceeding to explain why they were funny in agonising detail. Upon leaving we sought out pubs in a vain quest to drown the memory in booze, a thing which the 9 year Fringe veteran amongst us viewed as “the worst thing he’d even seen.” Eventually we gave up on this plan and slopped off the bed.
In retrospect the five pounds we spent to get into that travesty against sentience was probably the best five pounds we spent during the entire weekend of festivities. It was something which we all remember and in the days that followed we brought many a laugh to our party with the simple mention of “bear rape.” And because, at the end of the day, there’s nothing that makes you appreciate quality more than something utterly lacking in it. From that point on, everything was up, everything was better, nothing could possibly be worse. We had observed the lowest, thermodynamic value for humour; the zero point of LOL. The entire success of the weekend and the glorious Holy Grails and Arks of the Covenant that were to come, we owed entirely to a Russian man who was really, really bad at his job.