I like to think that that one of the most visceral experiences you can have in modern life is to watch somebody take a selfie. Their face contorting into what they think is attractive or happy or funny, a wholly constructed expression – there’s a staggering vulnerability to seeing a person choose how they are perceived like that. Naturally, it’s as embarrassing as it is compelling, with the whole self-conscious pretence being harrowingly universal.
Here I am essentially doing it right now, posturing as a kind of intellectual interpreter of contemporary minutiae. Jesus, you hearing this? But see now you’re aware of the facadery, and you’re feeling that icky sensation, the kind you get when privy to a meek politician’s public attempt at being ‘of the people’, because it’s not just exposing them as phony but all of us, in our ways.
And sometimes, in my mind, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was like watching somebody take a selfie while trying to take my own, with everyone else watching me do it, for a month.
There were 3269 shows at the Fringe this year. Every show needs an audience, those audiences need enticing and enticing = glossy paper, star ratings and a young person trying to convince you of the worthiness of their glossy star ratings. Enter: flyering.
Successful flyering, I imagine, is akin to what casual sex must feel like. You apply a bold, mostly false front to obtain a small transaction between you and a stranger, who accepts with a smile but then drifts off into the crowd, anonymous again. The short burst of elation wears quickly, and you begin to feel terribly alone and false and unhappy. Then you turn around and try again.
Unsuccessful flyering, in this case, is akin to just being a creepy dude. You apply a bold, mostly false front to obtain a small transaction between you and a stranger, who rejects with a blank or occasionally disgusted face and drifts off into the crowd, anonymous still. Although the short burst of anger wears quickly, you begin to feel terribly alone and false and unhappy. Then you turn around and try again.
Either way, I’m clearly thinking about this too much, and it’s when I’m supposed to be actively flyering the middle-class herds of Edinburgh’s streets that I choose to formulate these sad funny analogies. I flicker between believing that I am simply not cut out for what I see as ‘the dishonest nature of selling’ and that I am simply not cut out for what others see as ‘hard work.’
‘Free stand-up comedy?’ Nope. Ah, better return to my head in order to dramatise these very inconsequential moments of my life as being somehow connected to my entire personality.
It’s the second night I’m performing as part of our ‘soLOLoquies’ stand-up show, and in the two hours before the 10:40pm timeslot I station myself part way up The Royal Mile, the Fringe’s polluted thoroughfare of self-promotion. The potential show-goers drift down lazily, as if boastful of the amount of space and time they have compared to the heaving crowds that trod the same cobbles six hours prior. While some seem to absorb the smiley energy that flyerers throw at them, others become drained by the hassle, making the entire endeavour an emotionally fraught seesaw of stranger-to-stranger interaction. I could just as easily be a brief conduit of joy as just another nuisance in a long day of mounting aggravation. The butterfly or the moth.
I’m sort of exhausted, but after having put on hour-long sketch show eleven times in the past fortnight, it’s an exhaustion I’ve become accustomed to and thus make no big deal over (though I won’t hesitate to make a big deal over how I’m not making such a big deal, you’ll notice). Still, I’m searching for a distraction to keep my fatigued mind off the existential impact of handing out paper. I find it when I spot a couple struggling with their camera’s timer function. They gladly accept my offer to take their photo and we exchange pleasantries that extend as far as learning each other’s geographic origin (they say India, I say Warwick – they say they’re travelling to Leamington Spa once they’re done here, how funny). And so they take their place, arms around one another, stood in front of a pillar thick with three week’s worth of posters over posters over posters, the Royal Mile stretching out behind them, well-lit and well-littered as it is in the evening hours. Not the most traditional tourist image, but perhaps that originality is what they’re after – a memento of what the Fringe purportedly represents: ‘#defythenorm’.
I take the photo. The woman comes over to see it. Considers it a second. Mmmmm. Let’s try again. It seemed good to me but whatever. They stand slightly further back this time. I take it, she comes, mmmmm. Again? Sorry. Sorry. Maybe it’s a blur or something that I’m causing as I press the button? Back to the spot, same position. I take it. She looks. Mmmmm. Okay thanks. No problem.
Disappointment is palpable, as any Fringe performer can probably attest and it’s significantly less pleasant when there’s not a (physical) stage between yourself and the disappointees. The couple don’t want to ask me to take yet another photo, possessed by that ol’ mistress of polite disconnect, Awkwardness. They shuffle on unperturbed though, in search of further norm defying. Only once they get to Leamington and go through their photos will the regret seep in. If only we’d asked him to take more. Why didn’t we ask someone else? I should have stood at a better angle. God, I look fat. You’re not fat. I am, look at that! You’re never happy, are you? I just want it to be perfect. We had a good time, didn’t we? Didn’t we? … It just seemed like a waste was all. Of what? Opportunity. I don’t understand. Yeah well you wouldn’t. You know you can be so selfish sometimes. I’m sorry, I just… I don’t know why I’m so unhappy with it all. You just need to get out of your head – these are only photos. Yeah but it’s what everyone else sees. Why does that matter so much to you? Why can’t it just be for us? Because then what’s the point at all? … Does Amazon sell selfie sticks?
I dawdle over to one of the postered-up pillars and take up a reserved lean. There are twelve of these totem poles staggered up the Mile, in six parallel pairs, each standing about 15ft high and capped off by these top hat things emblazoned with the same title and sponsorship carried by the multitude of skip-grade bins that also line the road: ‘Fringe’ and ‘Virgin Money’. In my mind, these festival columns are growing tired from the abundant weight of tree-born signage, especially the one I lean on, which seems nonetheless indifferent to my gentle pats of reassurance and solidarity.
Every morning a new layer, covering up everyone who tried to be seen on it the day before… It’d be poetic if it weren’t so environmentally irresponsible, I think, as a person who is both poetic and environmentally responsible. The thing practically mushes with my weight, the layered paper padding soft after some excessive rainfall in the 5-7pm timeslot.
One of the posters on it is for a show called ‘Look At Me’ but the poster depicts nobody to actually look at. It’s just that title on a white background with some smaller text at the bottom detailing the show’s what/where/when. Smart. An ‘honest’ admission of attention-seeking calculated to somehow absolve it of its neediness, which therefore makes it superior to all these other shows that aren’t as forthcoming in their deceptions and shortcomings. Ick. I push a finger through it.
I should probably return to my flyering. But I’m looking back at this little hole I’ve now made in the pillar’s coat of commerciality and I’m wondering just how deep it goes…. And so my finger starts chipping away, tearing at all these semi-soggy adverts people have spent time and money to get on this thing, letting it all fall away like dead skin paperpaperpaperpaper pretty soon I’m wrist-deep, shredding with maniacal glee as faces, words, stars collect in scraps around my feet paperpaperpaperpaperpaperpaper it feels not only satisfying but weirdly purposeful paperpaperpaperpaperpaperpaperpaper Shawshankian perhaps paperpaperpaperpaper like, in my mind, maybe paper if I can get through all this paper then I’ll be paper alright paperpaperpaper and not so obsessed paper with all these stupid paperpaper serious paper thoughts anymore and paperpaperpaperpaperpaperpaperflesh–
‘Uhm, how did you get in there?’
‘This pillar thing that you’re inside.’
‘Y’know, I’m not really sure.’
‘Well… do you want any help getting out?’
‘No no, I’m good thanks.’
‘Aren’t you lonely?’
‘Very. I can’t see anyone and no one can see me.’
‘I can see you.’
‘I’m sorry for ripping all this stuff up.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Can you do me a favour though?’
‘Just remember that I’m in here, okay? And that there’s a person in all of these; behind all of this.’
‘Thanks. It’s hard to get that out there sometimes.’
‘You can take a selfie with me if you like.’
“Self-indulgent … painfully overblown”
“Pointless, confusing and just sorta sad”
“It’s difficult for him to fully understand let alone out-rightly explain all the reasons why this was not the time of his life that people expect it to have been”
“Riddled with self-doubt, and rightly so”
“But he hopes that this at least comes across as an honest attempt at articulating the warped outlook that a socio-performative industry bubble can inflict on such an impressionable and over-analytical young mind”
“Far too long”
“Gimmick after gimmick”
“And mostly he’s just sorry that his preoccupations with ‘self’ likely got in the way of properly appreciating his friends, the time he spent with them and the things they made together”
“Not funny enough”
The final words of Richard Gadd’s award-winning Fringe show this year were “look after each other.” He doesn’t have flyers or posters. I like to think there’s some cause and effect in there somewhere. Then again, I like to think a lot of things.