back in edinburgh

So I’m in Edinburgh again. And it would be weird not to blog while I’m here.

Plus it’s 8am, and most of the comedians will have only just gone to bed. There is not a single flyerer in sight. So, blogging it is.

I just got off a night megabus, and I’ve got that woozy, early morning slightly surreal just-tried-to-get-a-night’s-sleep-on-a-bus-and-failed feeling that I usually reserve for arrivals in Paris. It’s not that dissimilar from standard Edinburgh sleep deprivation, but it’s annoying because, as a veteran of night coaches, I had a sleeping strategy this time.

I didn’t even try to get my own double seat – I’ve tried that before and it just means that any massive snoring bad-smelling weirdo can come and sit next to you and take up all the space with their massive snoring bad-smelling body. But this time I knew all the seats would be fully booked, so I chose to try and get in the middle of the queue. That way, I could get on when about half the seats were taken. That way I could quite legitimately pick my weirdo.

I picked well: not far from the front there was a small woman, about forty-ish, who did not obviously smell and was having a quiet telephone conversation in a sane-sounding US accent. I sat next to her, and she gave me a polite, not-mental smile. When the bus pulled out, she settled over to the far side of her seat, put a blanket over her head and went into a calm, snoreless sleep, leaving me to celebrate the success of operation pick-your-own-weirdo, and feel just a little bit smug at not feeling too cramped.

At which point, the dark-haired man in the seat in front of me violently jammed his seat so far back into the reclining position that it almost crushed my legs. Then he couldn’t get it to go forward again – he’d forced the seat way further back than it was designed to go, and now it wouldn’t budge. He shrugged, lay back and closed his eyes, and I spent the rest of the journey unable to move my legs, and with nothing but a headrest separating the dark-haired man’s head from my crotch.

So I didn’t get much sleep. Whenever I’ve taken night coaches to Paris before, I’ve got over this feeling by sitting in the nicest café I can find and getting a café au lait. But this time I’m in Edinburgh.

So I’m sitting in Starbucks on the Royal Mile, looking over the crossroads where I’ve flyered for shows I’ve done every year for the last few years. It’s the place where I always notice how it’s suddenly getting dark early in the evenings towards the end of the festival. And no other square in the world has rained on me quite so much.

In fact now I come to think of it, this is the Starbucks where I come to get out of the rain. I’ve sat in this Starbucks before (many times), and it occurs to me that I’ve never actually been happy in here. In fact, I’ve only ever sat in here and felt depressed.

Come to think of it, I don’t really have very many memories of sitting anywhere in Edinburgh in the daytime and really being happy. I’ve always been miserable and worried and tired, and usually either hungover or still drunk. The few occasions I can remember being in Edinburgh and being really happy have almost always been followed by sudden, crushing downs that were usually a direct result of whatever it was that made me happy in the first place.

Still. I’m here now. And I’m only here for three days, and I’m not doing a show.

So perhaps this year will be different.

And the first step towards that is to get out of this fucking Starbucks.

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day 7: personal mythology

There’s a bit in a story Nan wrote about a man remembering how he met his wife; she describes it as “a story he tells himself…part of his own personal mythology”.

Everyone has their own personal mythologies, of course; but there is no place and no people for which this is more true than Edinburgh and Edinburgh Festival people. The city is so visually distinctive, the festival lifestyle so intense, and the colours of life so vivid, that those of us who have been coming here for a few years store up a bank of our own festival memories. They’re memories of moments, events, stories we tell ourselves and are reminded of every time we come here.

This morning, after a ridiculously early (10am) Flashback venue rehearsal and notes session, I went to meet some friends who have come to visit from London, and then to meet my friend Lorna for lunch.

I have seen very little of Lorna since she dumped me in 1998 to move to Glasgow (and stay there), but I have a very vivid memory of meeting up with her in Edinburgh in 1999. It was the first time I’d been to the festival and I was blown away by how the city felt. I’d just come back from Athens and thought it must have felt something like the atmosphere during the Panathenaea; I remember seeing the view of the castle, parthenon-like,  from the New Town; I remember sitting in a bar in the New Town with Lorna and her sister, unable to really speak about how much the year just gone by had hurt and how much I blamed her for it.

Yesterday was nothing like that, of course; Lorna is a brilliant grown-up now with a husband and a beautiful baby daughter if the photos are anything to go by; and it was just great to see her (even if it did make me feel a bit like an irresponsible Peter Pan with my overdraft and my ridiculous comedy projects…)

But walking around the city with her – just like walking around Edinburgh always is – was like having visual mementoes of my own Edinburgh mythology piled onto me. Seeing the room where Topical Scurvy ran, with the image in my head of Fraser leaping onstage in his first appearance as Marty McFly. Seeing the Holyrood Tavern where, one midnight in 2006, I joined a room full of stand-ups sang dobedobedo at the tops of our voices before Brian Damage and Krystal took the stage. Seeing a large black door with the number 8 on it, being opened and then closed. Seeing the bar in Espionage where Loz and I invented the ‘scurvybuster’ cocktail; and where Tony, Loz and I decided to ditch Circling The Drain last year.

I’m hoping I’ll have more to add from this year; the shows were pretty average tonight, though Tom Webb was a great headliner for the showcase and the Flashback audience were the best we’ve had yet – largely thanks to an incredibly giggly lady at the front who started convulsing at Mr Myagi’s first line and then didn’t stop…

Hopefully I’ll remember that too.

Showcase: Audience half-full. I should have flyered better. Performance 6

Flashback: The reverse of the the show from two nights ago. Lots of mistakes (including a massive cockup on the lighting from me) but the audience had a wonderful time.

Overall: WIN

day 1: pushing a boulder

I am in Edinburgh.

At about 5pm yesterday, I arrived in the the flat where I’m staying with the cast of the ’80s Movie Flashback’ show. The others hadn’t yet arrived, so put my bags down and looked out of the window. And outside it started to rain.

I got out my umbrella – unused since last year – and trudged back out across the meadows in the drizzle. Across the grass, a big black tyre in the playground swung listlessly on its own, taunting me about times when I’ve been happier to be here.

Last year, Edinburgh felt like controlled falling. Arriving yesterday, into an apparently unchanged festival landscape but with an achingly long three weeks ahead – just like the last few years – it felt like Sisyphus reaching the bottom of the mountain once more to start another episode of pushing a boulder up a hill, forever.

I walked through Bristo square, down through the C complex to Niddry Street and the venue for the showcase I’m hosting. Somehow, possibly because with my jacket and glasses and bloody-hell-am-I-here-again look that screams ‘jaded’, I reached the show venue without a single person trying to give me a flyer.

Anyway, the place where I’m doing the showcase is called The Hive, and the first two things I discovered on arriving were that a) more flyers had arrived than I could possibly ever distribute, and that b) The Hive is also a bar and nightclub which sells gin and tonic for £1.50.

Both of these are omens of impending doom.

But then something lovely happened: milling around in the venue were Sarah Campbell and Ed O’Meara – who are doing shows in the Little Cave just before mine – and Laura Carr and Lindsay Sharman. And just sitting in a room chatting to them reminded me how much I like the company of other comedians – and, of course, drinking £1.50 spirits in the company of other comedians – and I started feeling better straight away.

I still had no intention of running the Stand-up Showcase last night, even though it was billed in the fringe programme to start last night. My plan was just to check out the venue, so I didn’t bother to flyer for the show or prepare anything or book any other acts.

Instead, I sat in the Hive’s Little Cave and watched Sarah Campbell’s show ’27 Up’ (which is full of lovely imaginative touches and deserves a bigger audience than it had), thinking that if a few people actually turned up for the showcase, I could politely turn them away.

Then 68 people showed up.

And one of them was – I found out later – Kate Copstick, the comedy reviewer from the Scotsman. She is the Egon Ronay of the Fringe and she can launch or end careers with the stroke of a keyboard.

Fortunately, Manos the Greek was running a show in the small room next door, so I hijacked him and the acts from that and scrambled through something that resembled a show. The acts turned out to be awesome, and audience were lovely and seemed to enjoy themselves, but I felt terribly underprepared. If that show is reviewed, and it turns out to be a bad one, this year’s boulder could turn out to be even bigger and heavier than ever before.

Still – it’s necessary to imagine Sisyphus happy. And I know I’m not overly concerned about reviews this year. I’m not here for that, I’m just here to get better as an MC and have some fun with comedians I like. And when Rik and Fraser and Rachel arrived late last night, I started laughing – genuinely laughing – and whatever other omens were looming tonight for this year’s run, I am definitely going to have some fun.

Showcase: Audience 68; Performance 4/10 (if I’d thought there was going to be a show this would probably have been better…)

day 21: climb on

I climbed Arthur’s Seat yesterday. Arthur’s Seat is the huge rock that sits in the middle of Holyrood Park, overlooking the city; and if you’ve never climbed to the top of it during August, you haven’t really seen Edinburgh.

The lunchtime gig had been pulled after only two people showed up, and I was feeling pretty down for a heap of reasons. Tony suggested that instead of doing the show, we just use the time for a short rest, and after that I felt a bit better; but I needed some fresh air to blow the listless melancholy away.

So I walked to the park and started climbing.

I think I was initially only intending to climb the crags, but my intent isn’t always in charge and before I knew it, my legs were taking me up the rocky track that leads to the summit. I stumbled a bit at first, but took the right paths; and that meant I caught a lucky tailwind that pushed me higher as I climbed. This could be a metaphor of my festival in some ways; like my luck in the festival, though, that same wind made it pretty hard to stay steady when I reached a high point, and even harder to go back; the west wind, like the “storm blowing from paradise” in Benjamin’s wonderful description of the Angel of History, held me up and pushed me on.

And when I reached the summit, I sheltered from the wind in a crack in the rock and looked around. The view is immense. To the northeast is the North Sea, black and cold; to the northwest, the city and its festivals, the big top by the playground in the meadows, the shows and the thoughts and the moronic idiocy of it all. And to the south, a layer of mist on the hills – and somewhere beyond that mist, thoughts of England – and London. For comedians, Edinburgh is the thrilling and shifting and unpredictable lover we entertain in the summer; but London is our family at home, permanent and fixed, always ready to take us all back in September with comfortable, indifferent hospitality…and it’s nearly time to go home.

Everyone has to come down from the mountain eventually. Me, I just went back to the flat, listened to some music that pushed down on the parts of me that hurt, and fell asleep for a few hours.

Today marked both the physically highest and emotionally lowest points of the festival for me. I think there are higher points yet to aim for; the only thing to do from here is to keep climbing…

CTD: cancelled

SSS: Audience – about 20; Performance – adequate, but not special. I was closing the show, and it needed to be more special to close the show properly, but I just didn’t have the energy to build any momentum (6/10)

Other Stuff: Yes, I’m climbing. But I just feel like it’s filling time, now.

Overall: feels like a LOSE

day 3: 6/10

Edinburgh intensifies context.

Whatever the normal feelings you have about your artistic achievements, they are always within certain contexts: how your show compares with the previous day, how your performance compares with that of others, where you fit into the landscape of that artform as a whole, etc. Normally, of course, that happens quite slowly.

But here – where you are doing several shows a day in a small city heaving with other shows – those contexts become intensified, magnified. A few years back, a friend of mine, whose first year in stand-up had been phenomenally promising, apparently did an Edinburgh run where she didn’t quite do as well in the first few days as other acts in the same show, lost confidence which never returned, and gave up comedy shortly afterwards. Everything she did during that festival was placed so starkly in the context of how they had done in their first year and and how other acts did. It was a tragic loss.

So when I say that yesterday was a 6/10, and I felt pretty good about it, that is largely because of the context of the previous day. Tony woke me up with a cheery good morning and some coffee, which was nice; the first proper ‘Circling the Drain’ show was a technical shambles but I didn’t forget any of my lines (which was my biggest worry) and got a few good laughs; and even two of my ex-students turned up to see the show, which was wonderful, especially because of the slightly surreal fact that one of them seemed to spend the duration of the show knitting. Brecht said you should always smoke cigars in the theatre because the slight distraction detaches you slightly from the performance and allows you to make a better judgment of it. Perhaps knitting is the new cigar-chomping.

I spent a big chunk of the afternoon getting prepared for the evening show and then that went much better than yesterday. Rik Moore opened the evening show with his usual charm and genuinely brilliant use of ‘found’ comedy; that set me up nicely to do some ‘found’ stuff of my own, ie my bit about petitions to the Prime Minister, and my ‘sandwiches’ bit which I’ve always liked but got a slightly more muted response than I was hoping for last night. It needs more punchlines. Loz did very well again, and then Nat Luurtsema headlined. She is absolutely lovely and very very funny, but it’s possible that she suffered from the same problem that myself and Mike Wozniak had the previous night – ie that following Lawrence’s songs is very very difficult. He finishes with the whole audience singing the theme from the ‘Bodyform’ adverts and loving it, and to come on and just talk to people after that is hard…See, it’s all about context.

After that, we went out. I laughed, but for some reason I’m feeling generally insecure around everyone this year, even people I like. I don’t really know why that is. Still, as an evening it was nice. At least, it was okay until me and Loz came home and put the computer football on. Then he beat me 4-1 and I decided it was time to go to bed.

In the context of a much better day though, I didn’t mind that so much…

CTD: Audience – Small (20); Performance – competent, with some good laughs (6/10)

SSS: Audience – Almost Full; Performance – competent, with some good laughs (6/10)

Other stuff: Generally fun

Overall: WIN

the caledonian non-sleeper

So I arrived in Edinburgh yesterday morning after one of the worst nights sleep I’ve had in years. The trouble with sleeper trains is that they rock, and not in a good way. Combined with the fact that the ‘berths’ – they could never call them beds – are too hard for anyone who weighs less than 14 stone to make a dent in the mattress, while being too thin for anyone of that kind of weight to fit on it, this is not a comfortable way to sleep.

There’s also the dilemma of which end to put your head; next to the cabin door feels weird, but when I switched at about 4am I discovered that the other end smelled vaguely of a thousand feet that have slept there in the past.

In addition to the smell and the sudden jolts every few minutes, I also made the mistake of emailing friends to apologise for not attending their ‘launch night parties’, right before I went to bed; I got their replies beeping their way onto my phone throughout the night.

Just as I was giving up hope at about 5, I started to drift off and the next thing I knew there was a firmtapping on the door – it was 6.20 and the attendant had brought me the ‘hot drink and a snack’ promised on the website. It had sounded appealing when I booked the ticket, but turned out to be a small shortbread biscuit, a cup of hot water and various sachets containing sugar, bad milk, and the kind of vomitous instant coffee that lets down both coffee and the idea of instantness, because once you’ve got it to taste anything other than horrible you might as well have ground and filtered some actual coffee. I poured it down the sink, and felt miserable.

But then I opened the shutters and looked out the window.

Scotland, in all its deepest, wildest beauty was buzzing past, trees and crags and lakes, in a bright morning sunlight that suddenly made everything okay; I watched it glide by, gradually seeping into granite, bleached in sun as Edinburgh arrived.

It’s impossible to feel anything but great when you arrive in Edinburgh on a sunny August day at the start of the festival. As I settled into the flat (let to us at a bargain rate by a friend), I thought, ‘Perhaps I’ll take a walk around the city; breathe in the atmosphere, walk up to the crags in Holyrood park, admire the city in the sunshine and let it welcome me to Edinburgh….’

Then I got into bed and slept until lunchtime.

being on the internet

I’ve been on my computer for a silly amount of hours in the last few days. I’m more or less convinced that the radiation from my laptop has made it impossible for me to ever have children.

Still, it might be worth it; that observed lesson went pretty well, plus I now have a blog and there is an official Scurvy website for anyone to look at, should they possibly want to.

Websites take so bloody long to build that it’s a wonder this internet thing ever took off at all. Still, it has some kind of nascent existence now, even if its essence is yet to be chosen. Not that a website could ever experience itself as being a radically free being-for-itself, of course – that would scare old M. Jean-Paul as much as it scares me – but the point is, it exists at last.

It was about time it did. As well as the Islington Club show, we’re doing two Scurvy shows this summer (‘we’ being myself, Loz, and Tony Dunn), and they need publicising. And what better way to make sure information is available for everyone to ignore than to put it on the internet?

Anyway. It’s there now. It is; therefore I don’t need to think about it.

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