Tag Archives: may you live in interesting times

Why liars and the tsunami of history may yet lead to bloody civil war in Europe and Scottish independence

In 1985 I was on holiday in Uzbekistan.

Opposite our hotel, a new block was being built and its skeleton was showing massive cracks in the concrete. I asked an architect why this was.

“They are using the wrong type of concrete,” he told me. “The decision on which type of concrete to use in the building was made centrally in Moscow. They have a very cold climate in Moscow. This is Uzbekistan. We are in the middle of a scorching hot desert. They are using the wrong type of concrete because those are the decisions made by the bureaucrats in Moscow.”

The Soviet Union was partly an organisational disaster because it made centralised decisions for a nation which stretched from Uzbekistan and the Balkans in the west to Siberia and Mongolia in the east.

In 1991, Yugoslavia disintegrated, largely because, like the Soviet Union, it was a fake country with such disparate constituent parts that it never made a sensible whole. It just never held together as a single country because it was not a single country.

The UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973 and I remember the 1975 referendum in which English politicians Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and other pro-Europeans lied through their teeth and claimed we had joined an economic union which no-one had any intention of making a political union. The referendum was said to be about joining an economic Common Market.

The European Economic Community then became the European Union in 1993 and Eastern European countries joined after the fall of the Soviet Union. Turkey is likely to join, if it can get over its habit of routinely torturing people (or even if it doesn’t). There is even talk of Uzbekistan joining – a ‘partnership and co-operation agreement’ came into force in 1999.

So we have the ludicrous spectre of a new Soviet-style Union with a centralised bureaucracy increasingly making decisions on the same basis for towns and cities from icy cold Aberdeen (I was partly brought up there in a council estate on a hill, so don’t talk to me about cold) to the baking hot deserts of western Asia (I’ve been there).

And, give me a break, Scottish culture bears no relation to Balkan, Turkish or Uzbek culture, let alone Italian culture.

In Scotland yesterday, at the time of writing, the governing SNP (Scottish National Party) appears to have won a decisive victory in elections for the Scottish Parliament, possibly helped by the fact the opposition Labour Party seems to have mostly attacked not the SNP, but the Conservative Party which is virtually non-existent in Scotland. It would be as if Britain, at the start of World War Two, had decided to concentrate on waging war against Italy instead of Germany.

Presumably this own-goal disaster of a strategy was masterminded from London – another example of why centralised control is a bad idea.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has said he will introduce a referendum on Scottish independence in the next Scottish Parliament.

I used to think Scottish independence was a ridiculous idea because Scotland is not economically large enough to be independent but I have changed my mind because of the European Union.

Clearly I do not think we should be in the European Union but there seems to be no practical way to get out of it.

If Scotland were to separate from the United Kingdom and become an independent country, then financially it would gain massively from being a small country within the European Union – I worked in Ireland in the 1990s and saw the massive financial benefits that country had reaped and was still reaping from Europe.

If Scotland became independent I do not know what would happen in Wales but there is some likelihood that it would move towards independence from England (for – whisper it quietly – it is in the United Kingdom not as a separate country but as a principality of England).

Instead of one country (the UK) being part of the EU, there would be three countries with three votes but the same outlook on almost all issues – an outlook shared by the island of Ireland (which is going to unify eventually, however it happens).

Quite what happens to Britain’s ‘voice within Europe’ and to the British Armed Forces at this point, I can’t even begin to get my head round. But we may yet live in interesting times as I cannot see a vastly enlarged European Union lasting very long without a Soviet style acrimonious break-up or a Yugoslavian type civil war.

Edward Heath, the lying cunt who took us into Europe may yet be the British leader who created a very bloody civil war within Europe.

We can’t escape the tsunami of history.

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Myths, dangers and curses of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

(This blog appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Roadshow in London on Saturday and a couple of people asked my advice because they have decided to perform on the Fringe for the first time this year. Then, on Monday morning, a non-performer who appeared briefly as a guest at last year’s Fringe e-mailed me about the possibility of staging a full show throughout this year’s Fringe in August. On Tuesday morning, an established comedy act phoned me about returning to the Fringe after a gap of several years. And, yesterday afternoon, I got Skyped by someone who lives in mainland Europe about coming to the UK and playing the Fringe for the first time.

On Saturday, I asked about the long-and-widely-quoted statistics that the average Fringe show audience comprises six people and the average Fringe-goer is only in the city for three days. The Fringe Office told me both were urban myths.

Fringe Chief Executive Kath Mainland, in fact, told me that 50% of Fringe audiences come from Edinburgh (ie the EH postcodes). And that does not include the large numbers of Glaswegians who commute to Edinburgh Fringe shows. If true, it would mean that over half the audience is coming from lowland Scotland and performers should perhaps tailor their shows more towards Scots audiences if they want to get bums on seats.

Like all Fringe statistics, of course, even that one should be treated with a pinch of salt. The only way of knowing who goes to the Fringe is if punters buy tickets in advance and give their postcodes. The vast numbers who buy tickets with cash at the venue on the day don’t do that. And all Fringe statistics are mightily skewed by the fact no-one does nor can know how many punters attend the increasing number of free shows – let alone where they come from.

So, as always, performing at the Fringe is like juggling spaghetti in the dark and, when you get there, like standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. This year, the uncertainties are even greater – not because of the recession but because of the rapidly changing nature of the Fringe – especially the crumbling of the box office for middle-ranking comedy shows. It happened last year and is likely to happen even moreso this year.

There are two types of show at the Fringe.

There are the traditional shows where audiences pay for tickets. And the free shows put on by the original PBH Free Fringe and the separate Laughing Horse Free Festival.

On Saturday, the gloriously entertaining Peter Buckley Hill of the PBH Free Fringe (a notable former Malcolm Hardee Award nominee) said he has had an 85% increase in applications for the PBH Free Fringe this year.

This is not surprising.

Paid-for show tickets are usually around £10 each – that means £20 if you are a couple and, if you see three shows in one day (which is not uncommon), that is going to set you back £60. For that amount of money and with limited time and vast numbers of shows on offer, you want to make sure you are not throwing your money away. So you pay to see ‘safe’ acts you have seen on TV or, at least, very long-established Biggish Name acts with a known track record.

People used to go to the Fringe and ‘take a punt’ on a show which sounded like it might be good… though it might be shit. That was what the Fringe was about. The excitement of the unexpected and the chance of stumbling on future stars.

What is increasingly happening now is that audiences are prepared to pay for the TV names they know. And they are prepared to take a risk by visiting several free shows. But excellent, experienced comedy acts playing paid-for venues who have not had TV exposure are seeing their audiences fall year-on-year. I know of at least three top-notch comedians who are not going to the Fringe this year because the potential on the paid-for Fringe in major venues is increasingly risky – they will still make a profit but the profit-to-hassle ratio has changed – and they cannot be seen to play free shows because it would lower their professional reputation with reviewers and the media.

It can cost £7,500+ to stage a good comedy show in a major venue at the Fringe.

The Fringe is alive and well for Fringe-goers who want to take a free punt with a high risk of seeing shit… and for Fringe-goers who want to pay to see re-heated TV acts of known quality. But the Fringe is increasingly difficult to financially justify for excellent, experienced live comedians with no TV exposure.

Another factor this year will be the death of the Fringe in the new town.

Edinburgh is two cities – the ‘new town’ (Georgian) and the ‘old town’ (medieval).

With the move this year (for at least three years) of the major Assembly venue from George Street in the new town to George Square in the old town, all the Big Four venues will now be clustered around Bristo Square, George Square and the Cowgate.

People may decide to go to a specific show in the new town, but the four places where punters will come to vaguely sit down and only then decide which show to see will be the Pleasance Courtyard, the Udderbelly Pasture in Bristo Square, the Pleasance Dome in Bristo Square and the George Square gardens which will have, I understand, two new Assembly venues in them. So street flyerers will get more passing trade and bums-on-seats potential in or near Bristo Square/George Square/Cowgate (as well as in the traditional maelstrom of the High Street on the Royal Mile). If someone flyers in the new town near a venue, they will be flyering in isolation and not picking up other shows’ punters.

This August will be particularly interesting to see and particularly uncertain for performers, yet the lure of the Fringe is still almost irresistible. There is that 85% increase in people applying to perform at PBH Free Fringe venues.

Uncertainty is almost an aphrodisiac for performers, but the financial repercussions are incalculable and go on and on.

What will happen next year when the end of the London Olympics overlaps with the beginning of the Edinburgh Fringe? Who knows?

For years, I have tried to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti for one minute and have always been unable to find anyone. But I have blind faith success may be possible. In that respect, I suppose I am much like Fringe performers going to Edinburgh.

The Fringe is an ongoing Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

(NOTE TO READERS IN THE USA: The British English phrase “bums-on-seats” means something more financially sustainable than it does in American English)

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