There was the night long ago when, perched precariously on a balcony of the Usher Hall, I presented the opening concert of the Edinburgh Festival live on BBC2. The soloist was Janet Baker. (Yes, that long ago.) Very little in broadcasting could make me nervous. That experience did. But for the purposes of actual participation in the Edinburgh Festival, it didn't count. I was merely a hanger-on – literally so, as I peered over the precipice to the stalls far below.
That was the nearest I ever got to taking part in the great event until early this year, when a surprising invitation popped into the inbox: an offer of a slot at the Edinburgh Book Festival to discuss a work so few had read that I wondered why anyone would want to hear its author talk about it.
Nevertheless, I checked out the Edinburgh Book Festival to see what it amounted to and discovered that it was quite a big deal, giving a platform to '700 leading writers and thinkers from across the planet.' It astonished me that the planet boasted 700 leading writers and thinkers, unless you counted the dead ones for whom apologies for absence might have to be tendered. I reckoned there could be no more than a few dozen writers and thinkers in the world worth bothering about, that not all of them would be able to make it to Edinburgh this month, and that I certainly wasn't one of them.
But there is no limit to the power of flattery. All it required to become one of the planet's leading writers and thinkers was to press a button marked ACCEPT, which would give me immediate access to the 'authors' website.' It all sounded pretty exciting, so I pressed the button.
Within seconds I regretted it. Suddenly I could find all sorts of reasons for not taking part in the Edinburgh Book Festival: the fact that I had grown heartily sick of the subject (contemporary Scottish history), that I had never met the guy with whom I was sharing a platform and was unfamiliar with his work, that I had lost the desire to pontificate in public, and that I might dry up – or have nothing to say in the first place – long before the allotted hour was up.
But there was a further reason more powerful than the others: the fact that I couldn't face Edinburgh in August. The thought of it repelled me. Apart from all the usual discouragements – the overcrowded trains, the horrors of Waverley Station, the inability to move freely in the streets, the ghastliness of the pubs and restaurants, the many talentless, self-regarding street performers with their painted faces, that god-awful piper on Princes Street, the inescapable racket and stench of the entire circus – there may have been a certain presentiment. Having read, in last week’s SR, Gerry Hassan on the oppressive security, Harry McGrath on the rip-off of the city's trams and Rachel Sharp on the dire quality of much she had to endure in a single day in the name of culture, I realised that it was worse than even I could have imagined.
It wasn't always like this. When I started going to the festival – or rather the Fringe – in the late sixties, it was small enough to be an enjoyable experience. Even by the late seventies, when I reviewed it for the Glasgow Herald, it was easily manageable. Implausible as it sounds, it was possible with careful planning for a single critic on a broadsheet paper to cover all the main attractions of the Fringe in three weeks. I should know; that solo critic was me. The days were long and exhausting, but it could be done.
Back then, the Fringe consisted overwhelmingly of plays, including new plays, unlike the official festival where drama was always the poor relation of a programme dominated by opera and symphony concerts. That gave the Fringe a distinctive role and created a space where new talent could flourish and stand a reasonable chance of being noticed.
Getting noticed these days must be the purest luck. Edinburgh has spawned a monster. And instead of theatrical innovation, we have half-baked comics up every close: of this year's 3,400 productions – 'shows' as they are now called – no fewer than 1,200 are classified as stand-up comedy. It is a marvel that there is so much to laugh about.
The new chief executive of the Fringe Society, Shona McCarthy, has expressed concern about the dominance of comedy and says she wishes to 're-focus' the event, giving more prominence to theatre and music. I hope she succeeds – unlike some of her predecessors she has the right instincts – but it may be too late. Edinburgh in August is a victim of the modern obsession with scale. The main requirement of the Fringe is not that it should be any good – clearly most of it is rubbish perpetrated by exhibitionists and freaks – but that, year after year, it should be 'bigger', as if being 'bigger' is somehow an achievement in itself. Do I sound elitist? That's probably because I am.
The same malaise appears to be afflicting the book festival, which has spilled over from Charlotte Square into unsuspecting George Street. Since I foolishly pressed the ACCEPT button and then had to beg the extremely nice but persistent organisers to drop me, the number of 'leading writers and thinkers' from across the planet speaking at it – including, I note, that leading writer and thinker, Nicola Sturgeon – has grown from 700 to 1,000. It is barely credible. But I am ready to embrace a nation's gratitude. Had it not been for me, it would have been 1,001.
How many will be worth listening to? I'm reminded of my old friend Ena Lamont Stewart who, at the first festival in 1947, sat at a PEN lunch next to
T S Eliot. 'Quiet little man,' Ena recalled many years later. 'Had hardly a word to say for himself.' He would have been absolutely useless at the Edinburgh Book Festival.