August, it’s been lovely to see you
Tom Wheeler surprised himself with multiple visits to this year’s festivals. Hear are his thoughts going forward…
So farewell then, August. Conventional calendars would have us believe that you’re merely the joint-longest month of the year. But the residents of Edinburgh, whether temporary or permanent, know the title to be yours alone, and by a country mile at that. Nobody who looks into the glazed eyes of a comedian, as they drag themselves through their set on the final Sunday – or, for the truly masochistic, the final Monday – could sensibly believe they’ve only been doing this for four weeks. The same applies to the many thousands who have spent the month helping it all happen, from the bar staff still pulling pints at nearly 5am, to the council workers clocking in at the same time to begin the daily clean-up. (And when these people rightly withdraw their labour until offered a wage on which they can reasonably live, the outcomes are clear to see – and smell.)
As ever, August, you’ve been very good to some. You’ve launched or transformed the careers of numerous performers. You’ve brought much-needed trade to businesses that have endured a grim couple of years. And you’ve put smiles on the faces – and eye-watering amounts of loot in the pockets – of so many enterprising landlords.
And to a greater extent than I can remember, you’ve brought genuine joy to those who live here all year round. After a three year gap between festivals proper – with due respect to 2021’s scaled down iteration – there’s been a strong sense of a city realising what it’s been missing. I’ve seen friends who have always been ambivalent about this time of year – to put it kindly – hanging around the Pleasance like the keenest of tourists, taking in shows and drinking in the atmosphere (and the drink). I’ve seen more shows myself this year than ever before, and even some of the perennial irritations – from the unshiftable miasma of vomit in the Hive, to the hipster unicyclists blocking bus lanes – have taken on an almost endearing quality. That’s the power of novelty for you. Or, to put it another way, the power of a pandemic.
Let’s face it, August. From a resident’s point of view, it’s a lot easier to look kindly upon you if your work occurs predominantly at home, rather than spending an hour a day wondering whether this crammed, sweat-infused bus home will ever reach the bottom of Lothian Road. After enduring varying degrees of house arrest for so long, to have literally thousands of live entertainment options on any given day is ridiculously pleasing. We didn’t even have to brave the city centre to have a memorable night, thanks in no small part to the sparkling programme of live music at Leith Theatre.
But not everyone has had such a fine time of it. Ticket sales for the Fringe were down by a quarter on 2019. To be honest, in the light of the particular logistical difficulties this year – hurried preparations, rail strikes, the fact we’re teetering on the edge of an economic abyss – that figure doesn’t strike me as too bad. In fact, when many of us remain understandably reticent about cramming into tiny, unventilated rooms full of strangers and Covid, it could be seen as remarkably good.
And it would be, if only the whole caper were sustainable in the first place. But it isn’t. Nor has it been for many a year – if indeed it ever was. For every comedian giving it the double-thumbs for a photo in front of the ‘sold out’ board, there are multiple others quietly pulling that day’s show due to the absence of an audience, while solemnly adjusting their financial outlook for the month from ‘terrible’ to ‘life-alteringly ruinous’. Remove a quarter of overall sales – while keeping in mind that the household names playing the largest rooms are taking next to none of that hit – and that’s an awful lot more people than usual in the same leaky boat.
Those who envision a never-ending path of festival expansion – very few of whom, strangely enough, can be found anywhere near this city across the other eleven months of the year – have been sending potential solutions in all directions (but mainly in the direction of the Guardian letters page). That’s all very well; but meagre audiences and huge losses for performers aren’t exactly new phenomena. You could implement every half-baked idea going for freeing up accommodation – whatever the social cost to the city and its people for the rest of the year – and still most performers would end up out of pocket.
The cultural changes that could meaningfully improve the experience for all concerned – a push to normalise two week runs at the Fringe, for instance, rather than treating the full four week slog as a badge of honour – won’t please the expansionists. But they might help to reshape this crazy month into something this small city, and its permanent and temporary residents, can reasonably cope with.
August, it’s been lovely to see you. Haste ye back. But less of the Narnia-esque time-bending next time, if it’s all the same to you. A month-long month would do just fine. ■
Sons of Kemet, Leith Theatre, EIF 2022.Photograph: Jess Shurte