Surviving Black Wednesday - and checking out the Big Four

Nicky Woolf's first Edinburgh diary.

 

Wednesday, August 8. Day One.

Today, auspiciously for my arrival, is “black Wednesday”. This is the day when shows will statistically report their lowest audience figures. It's the first serious day of the festival, after shows have been offering two-for-one deals and press previews; cast members are getting serious, punters are just arriving and getting their bearings. Black Wednesday is the bottom of the mountain. If you can make it today, you can make it all the way – but a bad audience today will be very bad for morale. Black Wednesday, it is said, separates the men from the boys.

At the 2012 Edinburgh festival fringe, there are more than 257 performance spaces in the city, some of them grand old theatres, some of them tiny rooms above pubs or prefabricated huts in car parks, hosting more than 2700 shows or acts every day. During the festival the entire city – already one of the world's most beautiful, its ancient tenements crammed together in the lee of Arthur's Seat or in the shadow of the castle on its dramatic bluff – has an indescribable buzz about it. Excitement pours through its streets like honey. The Royal Mile is crammed with performers making their pitches to the innumerable groundling throng who seethe the cobbled streets.

The Festival is dominated by four big companies that each run clusters of theatres, bars and performance spaces. These are Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Pleasance, for example, takes over the University of Edinburgh Students' Union buildings and runs a total of 214 shows in 21 venues ranging from the 750-seat Pleasance Grand to the 46-seat Pleasance Hut

It's nearly ten when I step off the train, but before bed I pop out to check out some of my old haunts. My favourite place to hang out, and my first port of call, used to be the outdoor bar at the fifth of the so-called “big four”, C Venues. C is commonly thought of as a little smaller and less slick than the big four, a little less polished, and I have always found it to be a lot more fun. It is also more willing than the big four to take a chance on unknown or student companies or unusual concepts. “C venues,” a friend said to me unkindly, “will take anything.” His show is at the Pleasance, and there is certainly a pecking-order, though some individual companies transcend it.

C also had a lovely outdoor bar area called SoCo; but I am in for a shock. The area it used to occupy, on Cowgate, in the centre of the old town, is now a building site. Doors I used to go through are shut, and the building has a forlorn, empty look. The upstairs bar at C is still buzzing, but it's unusually hot for Edinburgh in August, and I want to be outside, so my next port of call is the Udderbelly, an outdoor garden and stage run by Underbelly venues that has been available London's South Bank. 

There, at the exclusive and exquisitely-decorated Abattoir bar, I have a nightcap and ask around for show recommendations before turning in. Tomorrow, for me, the festival begins.

Performers arrive at the Edinburgh Festival. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear