This strange thing happens to my city every year

My parents never used to throw anything away. Sometime in 1982 I found an Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme from 1964, tucked into a box with a lot of other theatre trivia, and what startled me wasn’t finding a thing like that from before I was born: it was the size. Obviously meant to double as a wall-planner, the programme had been folded out of an A3 glossy sheet of paper: it was a calendar for the three weeks of the Fringe, which then ran concurrently with the Festival, and every show and venue was listed on it. I mean the whole thing fitted on to one side of A3 paper. Twenty years later, supposing that anyone had wanted to print such a thing, you could not have fitted one day on to a side of A3.

I’ve lived in Edinburgh for most of my life, and so for most of my childhood it did not occur to me that there was anything strange about how, every August for three weeks, the city blossomed with theatrical performances. That was just what people did in August, it seemed to me: either stage a show or go to see one.

In the 1970s and 1980s, tickets were cheap, concessions were half-price, and some venues that couldn’t get fire insurance or proper seating dealt with this by offering free shows, entry by donation.

Lavender Menace, Scotland’s first queer bookshop, did some magnificently silly readings of lesbian and gay romances to the tiny audiences that could fit into its basement home on Forth Street; when it moved to a larger venue on Dundas Street, that was where I first heard David Benson “do” Kenneth Williams, and heard Armistead Maupin read from Tales of the City before he was famous.

I used to work for Gay Scotland and I still slightly regret not taking up the Arts editor’s offer of a free ticket to go see this new gay comic his first year on the Fringe, but really, who could think anything much of a name like The Joan Collins Fan Club with Fanny the Wonder Dog?

I loved Shakespeare for Breakfast (they used to hand out free croissants and coffee) and the Dutchman who had fallen in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets and memorised them all. I went to see a production of Hamlet once where to save a cast member they’d eliminated Horatio and Hamlet spent more time than ever talking to himself: a scarily intense Othello with a young black woman in the title role and a very pretty young blond man as Desdemona: I saw The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) when I was 20 on a word-of-mouth recommendation that included “Don’t sit in the front row, you’ll get Ribena on your feet”.

But it’s been ten years since I went to a Fringe show of my own accord. When I have guests staying with me who want to “do” the Fringe I often come along to whatever show they’ve picked, but I rarely even pick up a copy of the Fringe programme any more, and there’s really only one reason for that.

It’s too expensive. And it’s too big.

Stewart Lee dates the breakup of the Fringe to 2008, with the formation of the Gilded Ballroom Fringe – which print a separate programme that I cannot recall ever picking up – and suggests that the Osborne-Cameron couple who devised the plan were also Etonians. It’s true that two huge programme booklets to look through just compounds the problem. He complains, as visitors to Edinburgh for the Festival/Fringe often do:

There are many reasons why the Fringe is now much more expensive than 25 years ago. The property boom means that even the public bath house I used to wash has been converted into luxury flats, and Edinburgh residents, with no apparent grasp of cause and effect, criticise Fringe prices while boasting about how they tripled the rent of their flats for the summer.

The endlessly rising property market in Edinburgh has priced first-time buyers even on an above-average income out of it. Anyone on a average-or-below income, forget it. Lee’s lack of experience: he evidently never meets the Edinburgh residents who can’t afford to go to Fringe shows like his “Carpet Remnant World” (full price £15, concession £12) because anyone in fulltime employment who can’t afford to spend £15 on 75 minutes early evening comedy – won’t own their own home and so won’t be able to rent it out for the Festival at tripled or any rents.

I’d been feeling more and more detached from the Fringe for ten years or so – recognising that the sudden influx of tourists is good for business, and quite prepared to explain where the Castle is and that the Observatory on Calton Hill is not the Castle and the buses don’t give you change and yes, it’s Edinburgh manners to thank the driver when you get off the bus – but mostly: it no longer felt like this huge costly extravaganza, kind of like the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics but bigger, had anything to do with me.

A couple of years ago something changed my mind.

I am a supporter of the Abortion Support Network, which helps women who come to mainland UK for an abortion, as thousands of Irish women must do each year. They are the next generation from the Women’s Abortion Support Group, described in Ann Rossiter’s account of the journey made by women “across the water” in the 1980s and 1990s, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora – The ‘abortion trail’ and making of a London-Irish Underground 1980-2000:

The book tells the story of London-Irish women who gave support to many of the women who crossed the Irish Sea to have an abortion in the UK. It is also a record of the work of IWASG in London.

The book is a testament to the tireless work undertaken by London-Irish women for twenty years to support Irish women before during and after their lonely journey ‘across the water’. Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora was launched in Waterstones on Dublin’s Dawson Street by Senator Ivana Bacik, who also wrote the forward to the book. Speaking at the launch Senator Bacik spoke of her involvement with IWASG.

Ann Rossiter came to the Alternative Edinburgh Book Festival in 2010 to premiere her standup comedy act, “Making a holy show of myself”. She writes:

I got tired of droning on: ‘Every year, approximately 5,000 women from the Republic and 1,500 from Northern Ireland make their way across the Irish Sea to have an abortion in a British clinic. They come and go in secret, like women on the run’, etc. etc. I thought: ‘We live in a confessional age. Everyone is telling it as it is, or was, however painful, but why does the silence still hold around the abortion question?’

I’ve probably read more or less everything that’s been written around the subject of this silence and listened to many hundreds of Irish abortion seekers of all ages and classes, Catholic, Protestant and non-believer, who have sat in my kitchen in London pouring out their fears and their dilemmas over the twenty years I was a member of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group. However, I have yet to pinpoint the precise reason for this silence. Maybe there isn’t a single answer; maybe it’s entangled in a web of issues to do with religion, history, culture, women’s sense of themselves, the Irish family and, dare I say it, the Irish Mammy herself.

Maybe by lightening up a bit, if only for half an hour of me making a holy show of myself, we can tackle the subject together. And, have a bit of craic at the same time?

Rossiter planned to perform it in Ireland, and I asked her why she’d wanted to come to the Fringe to do it here first. She said, because if she blurbs her one-woman show as “Premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe” that makes it culture – and frees her to say anything. Including half an hour or so of stand-up comedy around her abortion in London before it was legal – in a country where abortion is still illegal even when the fetus cannot survive or the woman’s life is at risk.

Rossiter’s show was wonderful. In a bookshop, entry by donation, a crowded room full of folding chairs and bookshelves.

And that wonder is why the Fringe will never die.

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Filed under Childhood, Human Rights, Scottish Culture

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