I am enthusiastically ushered onto the “Javelin Train” at St Pancras and I’m not even asked for a ticket. I marvel at the friendliness and efficiency of this part of the Olympic journey. A mere five minutes in a tunnel and I’m cast out into the dazzling Olympic light, heading for the bright Olympic Park, shining in the distance like an Olympic Disneyland. But first I have to enter through the gift shop which, in this case, is Europe’s largest shopping centre.
Frank Lowy is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who arrived in post-war Sydney without a penny and went on to build all this. But I digress. Or do I? For was that not also an Olympian journey from rags to riches, of passion, of tireless dedication, hard graft, and determination. An epic story of wheeling and dealing and of triumph over tragedy until he eventually received whatever the equivalent of a gold medal is in the retail park construction industry? Enough gold bullion to make a million gold medals.
I, too, am on a journey of Olympic proportions that began when I was a small boy writing songs on a ukelele and culminates, this year, at the Edinburgh Fringe. The festival is about the same age as me and is still just about hanging on to its open arts ethos despite the invasion in recent years of corporate comedy agencies, ad-men and marketing strategists.
Anyone can perform there if they have enough money, stamina, and resilience and also suffer from myopia. It’s like a whole lifetime concentrated into three highly stressful weeks of dramatic peaks and troughs. It’s a vanity publishing feeding frenzy and as the Olympic Games is to athletes so is Edinburgh Fringe to the performing arts.
For some, it is a disappointment. The Lothian streets are not paved with gold and even well-established domestic and international artistes find themselves unrecognised, pitching their wares with as much subtlety as a carpet salesman in an Arab market, alongside students on stilts and divas in drag. They have been seduced by the promise of prestige and glory that only the world’s biggest arts festival can supply until they discover that, like nearly everything, it all sounds rather more glorious than it actually is.
I am on my way again, addicted like a hopeless, deluded junkie dreaming that, this time, I might get the equivalent of a gold medal. A Foster’s Comedy Award? Unlikely, I’m not that kind of funny. A Fringe First award? Bit late for that for a performer of my vintage. A Bank of Scotland Herald Angel Award? Whatever that is, I expect it’s been sewn up by a bit of insider trading. No, the medals to be won here at the Fringe are for simply surviving it.
This part of my journey is a diversion via Stratford. It is Tisha B’av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar made even sadder by the fact that I didn’t even realise it was Tisha B’av when I accepted the booking to perform a specially commissioned Olympic song on BBC London Radio and thus another opportunity to promote my Edinburgh run. At least I am not wearing leather shoes today, nor have I applied any oils or creams or indulged in marital relations, all proscribed on this fast day.
But I am The Jewbadour, aka the New Comic Bard of Anglo-Jewry, so I must be doing God’s work, and the chance to be on the radio this morning must surely be his will.
Presenter Jeni Barnett and I engage in the jolly radio banter that is only ever heard on jolly radio banter shows. I perform my song, pitch my Edinburgh show and then am bustled out of the building. I take one last glance at the utopian apartment blocks of the Olympic Village and imagine what it might be like to be fit enough and worthy enough to enter. I feel like Moses denied entry to the Promised Land. This has all been part of the preparation as I now go for gold across the border. There is only one mantra to repeat as the planes and trains and trucks converge on the Scottish capital and that is “Bums on Seats”. It’s a longing, it’s a prayer, it’s a bracha. Say it in the morning as you lay your tefillin and in the evening as you gather for maariv. And just maybe, for the odds are stacked highly against you, a miracle will occur and you might get a minyan. This will be your reward for all the stress and the anxiety, the wailing, the gnashing of the teeth, and the beating of the breast. A double-figure audience and several years worth of debt.
As for the art, the enlightenment, the purpose, the essential betterment of the human condition, the trail of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the making of it — why, that’s the easy bit.