When Charles Dickens coined the phrase 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times', I like to think he was talking about the Edinburgh Fringe. Every August, around 3,000 shows are performed across the city in almost 300 venues, which is great if you’re looking for something to do, but if you're simply trying to make your daily commute down the Royal Mile, you'll be able to mummify yourself with the volume of flyers you'll have accumulated by the time you reach the other end.
After living in Edinburgh for five years, I developed a complex relationship with the Fringe. In terms of variety, it cannot be matched. It's one of the most inclusive, non-discriminatory arts festivals in the world, but each year it turns Edinburgh into a surrealist parody of itself overnight. One act that obscures the distinction between avant-garde and pretentiousness is genuinely called 'A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes and Then Leaves…', locally known as 'the gorilla show'. It sells out every year, and the official Fringe website recommends that hopeful audience members turn up two hours early to guarantee themselves a seat to this auspicious annual event.
By my third year living in the capital I had learned two valuable lessons that helped me survive the Fringe. First, the population of Edinburgh virtually doubles during August, so don't expect to get anywhere in a rush, and second, everything costs more during the festival, so prepare to have countless conversations beginning with the phrase, 'Guess how much I just paid for…'. It's not just hostels and hotels that inflate their prices when the festival comes to town: I worked night shift in a convenience store that, as standard procedure, increased the price of everything in the shop by 10p during the festival. I also waited tables in a restaurant that raised the prices of its dishes by around 5% every August to maximise profits, and last summer I worked in a restaurant on the Royal Mile that charged an extra 50p for soft drinks during the Fringe.
On the bright side, your chances of appearing on TV or running into a celebrity also increase. One evening in the convenience store I served Gavin Mitchell, aka Boaby the Barman from 'Still Game'. I felt the sudden urge to make an impression and knew this wouldn’t be achieved if our conversation was limited to 'Do you need a bag', so I looked him right in the eye, perhaps a little too intensely, and just said: 'I love your work.' The next year, Ewan McGregor and his mother visited the restaurant where I was working for a coffee (americano, no milk) but my manager wouldn't let me serve them in case I came across as 'too keen'. After my episode with Gavin Mitchell, I didn't blame him.
Edinburgh during the Fringe really is like an alternate universe. Walking down the city's cobbled streets, you might try and side-step a fire-breathing street performance and suddenly find yourself in the middle of a crowd watching a man juggle knives on a unicycle. The buzz of ambition is constant; for an entire month, it's as though art is the only thing in the world that matters. Artists and performers are given an uncensored platform to say whatever they want in any manner they see fit. What they choose to say isn't always very inspiring or funny, but you won't find that kind of freedom in the west end of London.