Let Bolton have the tomatoes

Observations on the Edinburgh festival

I happened to be at the Edinburgh Book Festival when Paula Radcliffe lay down and wept. Which was lucky, because Edinburgh turned out to be a good place from which to inspect the ruins of that very well-documented Olympic dream. Not surprisingly, the festival chit-chat couldn't help turning to the "drama" unfolding in the cradle of civilisation, and I half-expected some quick-witted producer to mount a sardonic re-enactment of this classic street theatre on Princes Street. It didn't happen.

I should not have been surprised. The much-vaunted Edinburgh Fringe may have begun life as a brash free spirit, but these days it is an established forum with all-ticket venues, award ceremonies of its own, repeats (if you missed Three Men in a Boat this year, you can catch it next time), and hordes of loyal regulars out in the audience. Far from being a sprightly elf in the wings of the major event, it has become the biggest (and in some ways the most predictable) show in town.

As the Guardian's Michael Billington pointed out in a sorrowful valediction to Sir Brian McMaster, the soon-to-retire director of the international festival, the modern Fringe perfectly represents the trajectory by which alternative theatre grows into an established church. While packed houses hoot with laughter at any old anti-Bush gag, the genuinely inventive or daring shows in the "official" calendar are performed to rows of empty seats. We live in iconoclastic times, and do not like to admit that the formal programme, far from being the padded throne of elitism, might be the home of the avant-garde. Such thoughts sit uneasily with our love of the conspiracy theory and our mistrust of authority. So we barely notice how the Fringe has moved centre-stage.

Paula Radcliffe reminded us how important it is to keep moving. So maybe Edinburgh should take a laurel leaf from the Olympic book and become mobile. Acrobats, stiltwalkers, trapeze wizards, impressionists and mime artists could carry the torch (symbolising fellowship) across the land. Belfast and Southampton, Reading and Doncaster, Newport and Hull - splendid and scenic landscapes such as these could compete for the ap-proval of the IAC (International Artistic Committee) and the award of the lucra-tive festival contract. Stand-up comedians (and there are easily enough of these to relay the sacred flame) could become Jog-Along jokers, so that the crowds would surely rush, if not flock, to line the route ("No, but seriously . . .").

If medals were handed out, America and China probably couldn't be stopped from going for top honours; but a touring festival would provide a great opportunity for "lesser nations" to strut at least some of their stuff. Step forward Indonesia, looking to hang on to gold for shadow-puppetry. Or Italy, with its endless medal hauls in Shakespearean opera. Hungary would be hard to dislodge in the testing string quartet category, while this might be Wales's chance to overcome Japan's once-invincible haiku squad. It may be a while before anyone can challenge Germany's mastery of the endurance events - last year's gold was won by Gotterdammerung, at a canter.

There would have to be mandatory dope-testing, which might rule out some of the poets as well as the late-night music; but overall the exchange of cultural ideas and energy could only be good for the Games. After all, towns such as Cardiff, Exeter, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Bolton have every bit as much right as Edinburgh to play host to a lot of students dressed as tomatoes, handing out leaflets.

Robert Winder's Bloody Foreigners: the story of immigration to Britain is published by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The happiness industry