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 a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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