My formative years were spent in Edinburgh. It’s the last place on earth where colourful language should find itself restricted. Once, as a teenager, I had been ignored at a bar in Tollcross for 20 minutes. Eventually the barman strolled up to serve the man next to me. ‘Ach, give this poor cunt a drink first,’ he said, kindly. Because Scotland really is a country - possibly the ONLY country - where you can be called a cunt kindly. Its use of English is that glorious and that elastic.
So I was alarmed by the stony-faced, censorious malaise that has gripped the city’s Festival Fringe Society. And I agree with everything that has already been said: if you can’t see words like ‘willy’ written down at the world’s biggest arts festival then free expression has gone the way of school milk. I suppose it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that this is part of Scotland’s more general slide into paternalism and oppression?
Of course, we’ve known for a long time that the Fringe has lost its way. The Fringe Society, once the puckish, nose-tweaking champion of all that was indefinable, avant-garde, amorphous and ephemeral, has turned into a corpulent jobsworth; a gargantuan greedy gutbucket so swollen with money that it can’t even see its own pr!ck anymore. It certainly isn’t interested in the ‘truth’ on any level.
Every year it tells us that visitors are up, ticket sales are up, venue numbers are up, production has exceeded the glorious five-year plan. And then, when something important happens, like this little storm about art and expression - silence. You would have to sail within a hundred miles of Pyongyang to hear the next-best self-serving bullshit machine.
I’ve had my own problems with their bloody programme. In fact, I’d say that master Goldsmith is worrying about small potatoes if he can’t find his bowdlerised show title on Google. Last year nobody could even find my two shows in the Fringe programme. Even people who knew I was performing two shows, and were scouring every page specifically to find them. The reason for this is that, like a fucking idiot, I filled the form out exactly the way the Fringe Society asked me to. I put my name where it says ‘Artist’ and the show title where it says ‘Title of Show’. Like a dick.
Of course, if you do the Fringe a lot then you know that you need to put your name in again, as part of the show title. If you don’t do this, then you don’t exist in any meaningful sense. You hang over the Fringe like a paradox or a possibility. People might find your show, in the same way that they might find Shangri-La, or Schrödinger’s Cat still alive, but it’s enormously unlikely.
The Fringe programme lists shows by title because, when it was first printed along with the Gutenberg Bible in 1450, it was full of theatre shows where the title is all that matters. The fact that half its business is now stand-up comedy where the title - sweary or not - is relatively unimportant, is not something the Fringe Society cares to spend time thinking about, less still explaining to neophytes.
This is not to say that my 40 words passed unexamined; bugger me no! Someone painstakingly turned my semicolons into full stops and inserted a dangling modifier at the beginning of the blurb. I don’t think I blow my trumpet too much by saying that, after 14 years on Fleet Street, I know how to construct my own sentences. Yet someone took great pains to argue, for a couple of days via email, why I wasn’t allowed a hyphen in ‘Venn-diagram overlap’ but took no time at all to tell me that my two entries would be lost in the programme anyway and I had, like dozens of other morons without grown-ups / promoters to fill in the form for them, spent ￡800 on precisely fuck all.
I object to lots of other things about the programme. Like everyone else I object to the sheer, naked, indefensible greed of demanding ￡10 a word. I object to having to provide a generic photo three months before I have any sort of show worked out when modern methods would, and should, allow us to drop in our artwork five minutes before the presses roll. I even object to being classified as ‘English’, since nobody asked me and I don’t happen to regard myself as such.
The Home Office respects my right to call myself British, if I want. Which I do. I grew up in a colony (settled by the Scots, as it happens), and I’m no more ‘English’ than the Polish lady next door who also happens to live in England. Why, by differentiating between the nations of the Union, is the Fringe Society intent on presaging its break-up when it remains 20 bastard years behind with everything that’s ACTUALLY important? Is it just impatient for that happy day when we Sassenachs can be classed as ‘overseas acts’ and hit up with an inflated fee schedule?
I can’t help but wonder whether Scotland’s ‘separate destiny’ has something to do with this decision to excise words from the programme that a Victorian cleric wouldn’t blink at. By this I mean that there’s a censorious chill in the air in Scotland these days.
Don’t forget Stephen Gough, the naked rambler who in 2004 walked the length of the UK pretty much unbothered by anyone until he reached Scotland, where he spent four months in HMP Inverness. When he tried again in 2005 the police were waiting in Edinburgh, and - since he has refused to be paroled with his clothes on, he remains in a Scottish prison to this day. He was arrested for ‘breach of the peace’, a catch-all law in Scotland by which the police are allowed to arrest just about anyone for just about anything, and it’s often used in the ongoing War On Swearing. ‘Breach of the peace’ lingers on as a legal anachronism in the cities of England, where policemen will happily sit in their van watching a hen party claw each other’s eyes out. But in Scotland its application is frequent, cruel and sometimes unusual.
It was, until recently, the law of choice for arresting anyone singing sectarian football songs. There are new laws for that now, of course. Since the last Fringe, Holyrood has passed zero-tolerance laws on insulting other people’s religions and anything else that might cause a fellow human being to feel ‘hateful’. We’ve yet to see whether anyone acts on these laws or they just clutter up the statutes like Blair’s raft of free speech-choking bullshit in 2008, but if persecuted to the letter they could put a lot of shows out of business. I don’t think I would risk doing the routine on Islam I performed last year.
I don’t expect snatch squads or bailiffs at venues; of course not. But I’ve always found something disquieting about the arbitrariness with which justice can be meted out in Scotland. I even managed to get arrested for breach of the peace once; the peace I breached was the perfect solitude of a student disco on ￡1 triples night. I was mostly saying ‘fuck off’ to the person hitting me. My friend was arrested for it twice - both in Edinburgh - for wearing a home-made sweater that said, ‘Fuck the System’. In England you would not find a copper who could be bothered with the paperwork involved in punishing words, cries and utterances, but in Scotland, where they’re better educated, they seem to relish the extra homework.
In 2007, I travelled to the city in a converted hearse with my nephew in the back. Like Stephen Gough we had no trouble at all til we reached Edinburgh. There, on the city limit, a policeman pulled us over. He pointed out that the vehicle had no seatbelts in the back. He said I needed to get seatbelts or he’d arrest me next time he saw me. Since the hearse had my show written on the side of it and was, after all, a hearse, there could very well be a next time. I couldn’t afford to have it modified. So I explained that I had looked into it, and I didn’t need seatbelts because the vehicle had been adapted before back-seat belts became mandatory, was insured to account for this and was therefore exempt. He said that it was ‘a grey area of the law’ and therefore down to him, ‘and I say you need to fit seatbelts if you’re going to drive that in Edinburgh. It shouldn’t be on the road anyway. It’s not a normal car.’
I realised there was little to be gained by saying ‘cheer up, it’s a festival,’ so I insisted that it was not actually a grey area. I mean, The Law doesn’t have grey areas. The Law exists to remove grey areas; that’s why it’s called The Law. He replied that if I carried on arguing then he’d book me for obstructing The Law, ‘or breach of the peace. That works for anything.’
Imagine if, at that heated moment, the Fringe programme on the passenger’s seat had blown open, showing Mr Goldsmith’s quarter-page prick and Mr Herring’s half-page cock. And the policeman noted that we were parked outside a mosque. I think it would have tipped the balance, and ruined my whole month.
Even beyond breaching the peace, there are now so many nut-cracking sledgehammers in the armoury of Scots Law that anyone being ‘edgy’ can be cudgelled to a pulp if the city fathers decide that’s the way they want to go. And since Edinburgh Council has lately shown every sign that it hates and detests and is determined to obstruct, in every possible way, the festival that fills its coffers every year, it’s careless to assume they won’t.
We English must bear in mind that Scotland is following a different path to us, the ‘sexy Swedish model’ of Big Statism, whereby everyone is responsible for the wellbeing of his neighbour. And that means that if your neighbour is offended by the word ‘prick’, then you have failed as a citizen to protect them from it.
It is a philosophy at odds with our childish traits of selfishness, egotism and shock tactics, and that is perhaps why Sweden has produced very little exportable culture. In many ways this new sensitivity by the Fringe Society is merely keeping pace with the changing mood up there. It’s a brave new world, so tone it down a bit.
Of course, I’m just letting my imagination run wild. I’m sure this is not an omen of dark, oppressive, reactionary, Presbyterian clouds building over Auld Reekie. Some damaged teenager with a fear of penises was no doubt given a crayon and told to look for rude words in the programme; that’s just the sort of thing that happens at the Fringe. Pre-schoolers with crayons writing press reviews, the poster mafia, ticketing systems that collapse in the first week and never get up again, council bullyboys who smash up the poster boards you just paid ￡1,500 for, promoters who take your money and then move your show to a tent on a bombsite, elected councillors who think the Fringe is a modern reincarnation of the Black Death and must be chased away with prayers and flails - we’re accustomed to this parallel world where plankton is promoted to lofty thrones of dominion. Edinburgh is like Jerusalem in the 11th Century; we accept that.
We accept it because that’s what human beings do when they have fuck all recourse. Going to the Fringe is like being Mexican peasants in the hands of El Guapo. An asterisked word in the programme is another kick in the bollocks; another lung oyster in our weary eye. But it’s probably the least of our worries.
- Liam Mullone’s show, A Land Fit For F*ckwits, is at Stand 4, August 3-26 (not 13) at 3.30pm. The good people at The Stand have filled out all the forms for him.