Tammas Clark on the wisdom of Bukowski and the value of the festival.
Picked up a copy o the Fringe catalogue at Galashiels bus station the ither day. Thocht ah wis gaun tae hiv tae buy it its ain seat on the X95 an aw. S’a muckle thing this year, like, near til five hunner pages lang. That’ll keep ye gawin tae Selkirk, onywey. “Read the TV guide,” says the auld carle in The Lost Boys, “And you don’t need a TV.”
Gin ye’re speirin efter the state o Scottish poetry, ye coud try talkin tae a poet – kind o signin yer life awa there, tho – or mebbes jist hae a sprig glence throu the 2017 Fringe catalogue. There’s eleiven pages o spoken wird in aw, an anely ten ongauns listit there as poetry. This is no me gettin aw Cassandra at the waws o Troy, bi the wey – ah ken fine weel that the poetry is oot there. It’s jist that it’s learnt itsel tae adapt in order tae survive, like the Xenomorph oot o Alien. Twa fowk daein poetry? Cry it a performance piece. Anely the yin? Say it’s a dramatic monologue. Actors, artists, performers, cruiners – poets these days’ll caw thairsels onythin jisy tae stey clear o the dreidit spoken wird section.
An yon’s a shame, acause there’s a richt feck o guid poetry gaun doon at the Fringe, an no aw o it in the catalogue either. There’s Larry McCluskey daein Heaney at the Scots Club. Carol Ann Duffy an Liz Lochhead at The Stand. The Loud Poets at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Guid on them an ithers for fessing up tae the rhyming gig. Awwhaur else in spoken wird, ye’ve jist tae tak yer chance on a talk aboot science an howp there’s a wee bit imagery thrawn in.
Still, gin it’s wirds o the spoken variety ye’re efter, ah ween ye’ll no be disappyntit gin ye stick yer penny in Alex Salmond’s bunnet. The pitch – a TV chat show that’s no on TV – micht soond kind o Linton Travel Tavern, but when that much o the Fringe is jist a shot in the daurk, it’s guid tae ken siccar, if naething else, that ye’ll no be bored. Ah jalouse oor ae-time First Meenister will be ashuirt in his spraffin, and whitiver else ye micht think o the man, it’s haurd tae deny that a great talent wis lost tae Scottish comedy whan Alexander Salmond set his cap at independence.
No that ye’re strauchlin for laughs at the Fringe. Michty me! The programme’s a hunner an fifty pages o it, fae Frankie Boyle an Hardeep Singh Koli tae Alexei Sayle an Paul Sinha aff The Chase. A hunner an fifty pages! Even theatre’s only a hunner-odd. Ah’m thinkin that the stand-up has cam tae occupy much the same weygate in cultural life, certes Scottish cultural life, as the poets yince ruled the ruist ower. Ye tak oor smairter, mair poleetically-inclined comics – Limmy, say, wha’s daein the Fringe an aw – an really whit they’re up tae is no that different fae whit oor poets an philosophers are still in aboot – handselin the notion o thocht, the idea o the inner voice. Fair eneuch, a cliver thumb throu the catalogue is aw ye need tae see that mebbe 80% o the stand-ups oot there are mair Whits-gaun-on than Wittgenstein; but yon jist maks it aw the mair wirthy o note that Scottish comedy has craftit thegither sic a braw tradeetion oot o naethin mair than Stanley Baxter an Billy Connolly. Tho ah ween haein a festival like the Fringe takkin place in oor capital willnae hae hurt.
But, no for the first time, Alexei Sayle has tipped me aff tae somethin. Dae ye no think, as the years hurl by (or mine dae, at ony rate), that mair an mair o the Fringe is bein haudit ower tae nostalgia? Ah dinnae jist mean takkin up wi the past we’ve awready got, ah mean the active manufactur o mair. Leuk. Whauriver ye get a muckle group o fowk thegither, some o thaim are gonnae be bangin on aboot the Eighties or the Nineties or the auld gemmes they used tae play. That’s a gien. But deekin at the programme for the Fringe the day, there’s sowt aboot it that maks even shaws aboot current affairs seem somehou dated, a bittie dae-ye-mind-yon-time-when. Mebbe it’s just the jundie o events, or o news in ony case. Dae ye mind afore the Brexit vote? Dae ye mind afore Trump wis president? Ah guess richt nou these things aw seem like plausible wattersheds. It’s juist we dinnae ken whit they were wattersheds fir. Whit it is that’s comin neist.
Ah guess aw ah’m really sayin is that the Fringe is ephemeral. Yon’s a clatty, pejorative wird in this disposable age, but it needna be. Sometimes the best thochts we hae are the yins written in the wund, and the worst are the anes that are carved in stane. The quaistens we speir. The things we ken we dinnae ken. The Fringe is aw that times five million. Beware the knowers, Bukowski says. Beware those who seek constant crowds. He never said onythin aboot the lad wi the ukulele an the knock-knock jokes, talkin tae six fowk in the back o Moriarty’s.
The Fringe is mair as jist a catalogue; a hunner pages o this, a haundfu o that. It’s the conversation we hae wi oorsels, every year, aboot everythin that’s gaun on, an whit it means tae us; aw o us, no jist the yins wi agents an production companies. So get oot there an vote wi yer feet. Contreebute. Gin there isnae a play in the programme, then scrieve it. Gin there isnae a sang on the set list, then sing it. An gin there isnae a rhyme tae be had, leuk again. The poetry’s aw aroond ye.
Tammas Clark is a scriever an poet fae the Scottish Borders. He is co-editor o Scots at Bella Caledonia an poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC.