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[SCENE: The courtyard of the Peartree. It is early afternoon and James is sitting at a picnic table in the sunshine, drinking gin and tonic and reading from his laptop. Tychy approaches.]

James: Zbigniew! We have just received some fantastic news!

Tychy [noncommittally]: Yes?

James: An email! From Bloomsbury Publishing!

Tychy [his frown swiftly softening, despite himself]: Bloomsbury?

James: Bloomsbury!

Tychy: They’ve offered us a book deal?

James: Yes!

Tychy: Finally, after all these years…

James: There’s a £10,000 advance and then 15% royalties.

Tychy [his eyes widening]: At last… no more wiping tables ever again… no more mopping floors… no more getting up at five am to catch a bus that is freezing from this new air-circulation…

James [laughing nervously]: But, of course, our website is based on a principle that is fundamental to blogging, going back to the earliest ideals of the internet, of a free open access for all readers, regardless of…

Tychy: Well, it was based on that fundamental principle. But, you know, the world has moved on and people have grown more realistic these days. The contract that Bloomsbury have offered us is impressively generous, at least as a starting bid, and it would not do to look such a gift horse…

James [freezing]: Ah, hang on man…

Tychy:… and you know it would be nice for us to move into the suburbs, finally, and maybe there are a couple of seats still reserved for us up in the tier of the middle class…

James: Wait Tychy, I might not have soaked up some of the more important details of this contract whilst I was skim reading it…

[Tychy freezes as well. He stands staring straight ahead for a second, before turning his face to James as heavily as if rolling a boulder back over a cave door.]

Tychy [in a voice extinguished of all life]: What?

James: Well… you see… there is a sense in which they don’t actually want to buy our writing.

Tychy: They don’t want our writing?

James: No… oh, I’m sorry, Tychy… I really don’t know how to tell you this, but instead, well, it is this writer who is called… well, I know that we can never agree on the determiner…

Tychy [gloomily]: Botendaddy.

James: Indeed, but I always think that it ought to be the Botendaddy.

Tychy: And how, pray tell, does this person come to have any bearing upon our book deal?

James: It seems that Bloomsbury are very interested in publishing these comments that he leaves on our website every now and then.

Tychy: Ah, yes I remember… normally three paragraphs of absolute gibberish. I never read them.

James: Nono, you should. They are very well written. I have read some of them hundreds of times, simply to study the architecture of the prose. And it turns out that Bloomsbury want to publish a title called Bloomsbury’s Botendaddy: A Small Book Of Bedside Wisdom. It would be like a novelty hardback or a stocking-filler. They’re preparing it for the Christmas market. I’ve just seen the cover – it’s in an attachment to this email and it’s a beautiful little thing, covered in spidery flowers and pink butterflies.

Tychy: And is it us who are getting any of the money from…?

James [shaking his head]: They just want our permission to cut and paste the comments. Incidentally, if we refuse they will go over our heads and ask WordPress instead. Otherwise, the Botendaddy is getting the advance and the royalt…

Tychy [sitting down]: I’m going to order something to drink. Do you have the app?

James: But it is good that we will continue to be associated in some way with such a prestigious project. It will look as though we are decidedly on the ball…

Tychy: I think I will get a gin as well. A double would possess, at this precise moment, numerous advantages over a single. You must have the app, since there’s already a drink in front of you?

James [looking around in confusion]: Oh yes, I have the app… Wait, is a Pickering’s okay?

Tychy: I’m surprised that this app is still going. Surely everybody must have rumbled what it is up to by now. You start off well enough with it early in the night but after a few drinks, you can no longer focus on it properly and soon you are hitting random buttons in frustration and then, suddenly, you have found that you have ordered ten pitchers of lime and vodka.

James: There, I’ve done it! A double Pickering’s with tonic! Are you happy now?

Tychy: I’ll be happy when it’s in my hand. Did you add the correct table number?

James [looking spooked]: Er… no? I had done this before but the app didn’t ask me this time.

Tychy: So how will they know where to convey my drink?

James: Ah, the QR code on the table must somehow automatically add the table number. Don’t worry, I’m sure that it will…

[All at once, thirty or so young men and women in black clothing stream silently from the doorway of the Peartree. Each of them is holding a glass of gin and tonic. Each wends their way towards a picnic table and, to the considerable surprise of whoever is sitting there, they identically place the gin and tonic on the corner, before turning and silently withdrawing.]

Tychy [taking his gin and tonic]: Well done! Cheers!

[James’ phone pings.]

James [brightly]: I’ve just received the bill by email and it’s still only five pounds. So if heaven has its eyes peeled then I will have paid for just a single drink.

[The phone pings again. It then pings again. Now it is pulsating and pinging manically. Exasperated, James puts it on silent mode.]

Tychy: Look! Who is this coming towards us?

James: Oh it’s Ed, one of my best friends.

[Edward Fringe, a tall, strapping man in a glittering jacket and striped trousers, is crossing the courtyard. He has a banjo in one hand and he is carrying a plastic skull under the other arm. He is apparently bearing down upon the courtyard’s stage but when James calls him he stops up short. He turns to them and in the sunshine he looks dazzlingly virile.]

James: Ed! Come and sit over here for a moment. We must be at a point in the pandemic, by now, when this won’t break any significant rules.

Ed: Hello James, it’s great to be back in Edinburgh! I have so much fun and so many surprises in store for you all!

James: It’s so wonderful to see you again, sir. We missed you terribly last year.

Tychy: Hi Ed, it’s nice to see you back. [He nods at the stage.] What are you intending to play for us?

James: Yes, what tricks do you have up your sleeves this time around?

Ed: Well, there is one thing and one thing alone that is my chief priority this year…

James: Let me guess, is it some of the newest and most innovative comedy to be available in the UK?

Ed: No it isn’t that, I’m afraid.

James: Is it the latest innovations in contemporary circus?

Ed: No, I’m not allowing myself to get distracted by whatever feats they are accomplishing in circus currently.

James: Well then, it must be some of the most inspiring drama, some of the most stirring…

Ed: Nope. These things are all to the good, each in their own way, but they are not what is foremost in my thoughts this year. There is only one priority for me during 2021 and this is that everybody keeps safe.

James: What?

Tychy: What the hell? Have you taken leave of your senses?

James: You’ve never been remotely interested in keeping safe before. There have been plays where I’ve almost suffocated, where I’ve fainted, where members of my family have been called prostitutes. There was even a play where I was stabbed.

Tychy: He got up to go to the toilet when they were creeping up on Caesar… the lighting was rather dim… it was a misunderstanding.

James: We want to be excited and thrilled! Nobody in their right mind wants to “keep safe”! In fact, there is no combination of words in circulation at the moment that is more insane – and more gratuitously destructive in its implications! – than “keeping safe”! Keeping Safe, the Destroyer of Worlds!

Ed: It is vital that we follow the government regulations, to the utmost of our abilities. I’m an anti-vaxxer – I doubt that any of these vaccinations truly work – and so I want my audiences to sit shielding in bubbles, two metres apart, in the rain or preferably in a blizzard that can disperse all of their COVID droplets far across the Meadows.

James: Ed, I’m so disappointed in you. If everybody has gone mad during the pandemic, you seem to have gone particularly mad.

Tychy [peering at Ed suspiciously]: But haven’t some people been saying of late that your performances are now harking back to the glorious, legendary days of your youth?

James: A return to the festival’s roots, as Mark Fisher has put it in the Guardian.

Ed: Why, I am brimming with a new youthfulness. This year there is no Edinburgh Tattoo and no enormous queues at the Pleasance to see middle-aged comedians and no American High School Theater Festival. I am merely performing for the art in itself and for the community, and it goes without saying that this is one of those very exclusive communities that includes hardly any people! We have at last gotten rid of what has marred so many previous Fringes – the public! – with their thoughtless renting of AirBnb lets and their persistent desire to watch Al Murray The Pub Landlord rather than some surrealist, interactive ballet that is set on the moon and their drunkenness and their noise and their overeating and their germs, their frightful germs, which are scurrying about everywhere causing a major, escalating infection risk…

[James and Tychy are both staring at Ed in horror].

James: Ed, what is happening to your… face? It is coming somewhat unfixed.

Tychy: And there doesn’t appear to be any arm in that sleeve of yours.

James: Look – his hand is made from papier-mâché!

Tychy: This Ed Fringe is a rank imposter!

[Ed’s mask slips and falls whilst his spangled clothing begins to unravel around him. His banjo drops to the floor with a clunk and Yorrick’s skull tumbles under a picnic table. From out the back of the collapsing trousers scampers a tiny, puny dwarf with a sour face.]

James [calling]: Where is the real Ed Fringe? What have you done with him, you phony?

[Snatching at the banjo, the dwarf bounds onto the stage and he starts to warble in an unbearably pathetic falsetto. The people sitting at the courtyard’s picnic tables are now all booing and jeering.]

Audience: What is this pish…? Get tae fuck with this… etc.

[Yet it is increasingly dawning on the audience that rejecting this Ed Fringe might be unpatriotic towards Edinburgh or letting down the city in some way. The sour dwarf receives some lacklustre applause and smugly satisfied with this, he parades off.]

Tychy: Ah, Tori is coming. Good afternoon Tori!

[Tori is trundling along with a pram, which she parks beside the picnic bench. She sits down and, expertly, she uses the app to order them more gin and tonics.]

James: What have you been up to lately?

Tori: Roger and I have been watching a lot of the Olympics. [James pulls a face.] You might pull a face, James, but I hear that the Fringe is such a soggy mess this year that your usual joke no longer works…

James: You mean, that the Olympics are trying to compete with the best and most exciting festival in the world, but it is hopeless, they might as well give up. Yes, I think that this joke still functions unimpaired, even today.

Tori: The Olympics is actually really interesting once you get into it. And maybe your website would acquire some extra readers if you knuckled down to writing articles about the scandals and controversies that are raging over in Tokyo. Such as this brave woman, Simone Biles, who had dropped out due to the psychological pressure. Should she or shouldn’t have she? – it’s a bewildering moral smorgasbord that I can’t stop dithering over.

Tychy: You know, I had once witnessed a very similar situation.

Tori: Indeed?

Tychy: Yes, I was on a jumbo jet that was flying to Argentina. When we were midway across the Atlantic, the captain’s voice suddenly came over the intercom. He explained that he was distressed by the tremendous psychological pressure of flying and that, due to the challenge to his mental health, he was dropping out.

James: And what happened next?

Tychy: Well, he received a lot of applause from amongst the passengers and there were many tributes to his “bravery.” Michelle Obama was on board – she was sitting three or so seats behind me – and she tweeted that the captain should be in no doubt that he was “good enough.” According to her, this was, “the mantra I practice daily.” The cabin crew assured the captain that, “we prioritize your mental wellness over all else.” But eventually, as the plane began its descent into the ocean, the captain was persuaded to reattach his hands to the controls.

[All at once music is issuing from James’ laptop.]

Tychy: Is this the Skype call that we were expecting?

James: It is. I’ll just hook us up.

Tori: This is another new candidate to be editor of your website?

Tychy: Yes, we desperately need some fresh ideas. Each time that I can bring myself to look at the stats, there are fewer readers. Last week, there was even a day when the stats were in a minus figure – I mean, how is that even possible?

James: So this is the new applicant to be editor. [He spins around the laptop.] Meet Sir Keir Starmer.

[A worried-looking man with his hair scraped into a small pet tsunami appears on the screen. When he sees them, he looks even more worried and perplexed.]

Tychy: Good afternoon, Sir Keir. What qualities are you able to bring to our website?

Sir Keir: Good afternoon. What your website is crying out for is a fresh vision, a bolder, more optimistic leadership and a better sense of direction and a new purpose.

Tychy: I don’t understand. What does that mean?

Sir Keir: It means that we need a bolder, more purposeful leadership, with a fresh optimism and a more direction-orientated sense of vision.

Tori: This sounds very energetic.

James: Does it?

Tychy: But Sir Keir… what can you actually do?

Sir Keir [looking very crafty and confiding]: You see, I want to appeal to your readers by using only one word.

Tychy: Just one word?

Tori: Which word is this exactly, Sir Keir?

Sir Keir: The Prime Minister has the strategy of using three words. For example: “Hands, Face, Space” or “Test, Trace, Isolate” or “Test, Track, Protect.” I think that this is the wrong strategy. Our website will develop a far more general appeal if we narrow it down to only a single word that can break through to many more people.

James: And this word is…

Sir Keir: For example, I had recently wanted to get across the idea that the Prime Minister was being “reckless.” So I made sure to use this word at every opportunity. I would say: “With his reckless decision-making, the Prime Minister is being reckless, with our jobs, with our lives, reckless, reckless, reckless.

Tori: Let us test this method. Tychy, if I were to now say to you the words “Boris Johns…”

Tychy: Reckless!

Tori: And James, if I was to spring on you all of the sudden the words “Boris Jo…”

James: Reckless!

Tori: Wow, it works! You’re a genius, Sir Keir!

[Sir Keir blushes and looks very proud.]

Tychy: So if we use a single word repeatedly, many more people will read our website?

James: If we could move on to consider some of your deepest and most doggedly-held principles, Sir Keir.

[Sir Keir immediately looks guilty.]

Tychy: Yes, what are your principles?

Sir Keir: I presently have hundreds of dedicated young interns and research assistants who are all off on a great expedition in the jungle to discover my deepest moral principles. I should say that one of these chaps, who is very clever, has managed to work out how these staff can be said to be paid a compassionate living wage, in line with our deepest Labour values.

Tychy [pouncing]: Ah, so you want for people to be paid properly?

Sir Keir: Yes, we have committed, as soon as we are in government, to holding an independent commission to assess whether or not certain people should be paid a more remunerative… er…

James: Moving on to Brexit…

Sir Keir: We are developing an innovative and highly-strategic mission-remit to implement a fairer Brexit deal.

James: You used to be quite a big noise in Remain, is that not the case?

Tychy: Perhaps this is one of his deepest moral principles?

Sir Keir: This is no longer actively our policy. As I have indicated, we are developing an innovative, highly-charged policy response, in line with our bold vision for….

James: This confuses me. I cannot imagine Tony Benn, for example, ever saying that he had consulted some opinion polls and seen how unpopular socialism was and that he had consequently decided to abandon socialism or to be a socialist only in private. To unthinkingly ditch your most heartfelt principles in such a way would be surely appallingly inhuman and unnatural?

Sir Keir: We are committed to bridging a middle route between the human and the inhuman, which serves to bring people together… strategically… delivering on our bold promise to… er….

Tychy: Editing our website is a full time job, you know. Do you have any other commitments?

Sir Keir: I should disclose that I play a minor administrative role in running the UK Labour Party, but that this is purely a part-time position.

James: I am sorry, Sir Keir, but I am afraid that we do not judge you to be a suitable candidate…

[Sir Keir’s face crumples and he starts to sniffle and weep.]

Sir Keir: Oh please, sir, I want this position so much… Oh please…

Tori: Yuck! He’s begging!

Sir Keir: Please let me edit your website. Yes, I am strong and hard enough to beg. [He is now sobbing openly]. I can provide fresh leadership, bold leadership, a bold, renewed optimism for the future…

James [firmly]: I’m sorry, Sir Keir but I am terminating this call now.

Tychy: Goodbye, Sir Keir.

Sir Keir [feebly and from a great distance]: Please let me edit your website… Please let me! etc.

James [snapping the laptop shut]: Well, so much for him.

Tychy: I guess that our hunt for an editor must continue elsewhere.

Tori [annoyed]: Roger is resurfacing again. Are there any dregs left in that glass that I can soak the teat in?

James: Let us nonetheless drink to the success of our website. To its pursuit of intellectual excellence…

Tychy: And maybe one or two readers as well…

Omnes: Cheers!