Edinburgh diary: No sleep 'til September

Nicky Woolf navigates day four of the Fringe.

August 11. Day four. 

The Edinburgh festival, for both performers and punters – and reviewers; anyone, in fact, who is planning on going up for a serious length of time – is a marathon, not a sprint. If Glastonbury is the Usain Bolt of festivals, Edinburgh is Mo Farah.

I'm sorry. That was a tragically tenuous metaphor, I know. Farah isn't even a marathon runner. But as I write the closing ceremony is just starting, Twitter is full of Olympic pride and I feel I ought to get into the spirit a little. Twenty-nine golds! The most successful British showing in more than a century! Wonderful.

OK, it's out of my system now.

Anyway. It is seductively easy up here at the Fringe to end up, ahem, sprinting nonetheless. There is an embarrassment of riches on offer here – live music, comedy revues, dance, theatre, and endless bars and clubs – and they go on all through the day and the night. Most people get strung out at some point along the way, and usually it happens about now, half-way through the month; performers have been rehearsing, performing and promoting their shows non-stop for more than a fortnight now, and it begins to take its toll. This phenomenon is called Fringe Fatigue.

Conrad Sharp, 32, is a cast member of Enfants Terribles' The Trench. “I'm exhausted,” he tells me. “We're doing a show in the day, with warm-up and notes before that, then we're handing out flyers all afternoon, then after that we fix all the props – and then you go out all night to blow off a little steam, you know.”

Edinburgh during the festival is a truly 24-hour party city. The Penny Black, the first pub to open, does so exactly five minutes after the last one closes, at seven in the morning. There is always a queue of people outside; several times, I have been among them.

“...Then you get up the next morning and do it all again,” says Sharp. “It's pretty full-on.” I ask how much sleep he thinks he gets, on average. “Ooh. Four hours, maybe? Five? And I'm sharing a room with another cast member, so of course we come in at all different hours.”

That punishing schedule is not limited to August for performers. “We arrived on the 1st, but we were rehearsing eight hours a day for four weeks before then. Because it's a brand new play, there was lots of devising, trying to figure out how it was going to work.”

It's not just performers who burn the candle at both ends. Lauren Archer, 18, is a reviewer for Twitter-based review site Fringebiscuit. She is asleep on a table in a café in the Pleasance when I see her. I ask if she's tired, and she laughs, wiping sleep from her eyes. “Ha! Oh yes. I don't think I've got more than four hours sleep since I got here on the first. Everyone is properly tired, dead out by now.”

“I haven't slept since July,” says comedian David Mills. “Sleep? No sleep.” He pauses. “Seriously, though, I see this as work. I'm trying not to let the fatigue get to me. It's like boot camp. This is training for comics. You smash one, then you fail the next one, then you fail, then you smash one, then you fail, then you smash another night. It's a gauntlet. I'm trying to stay focussed and committed.”

“There's a lot to distract you up here,” he goes on. “The problem with playing hard is that it makes it difficult to work hard.”

Boundless energy: the inSTEP group. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis