Growing Your Community: Fringe By The Sea

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I mentioned the other day that my parents are awesome. This is not a subjective statement. They produced me for a start, so, obviously. And when redundancy hit, instead of trudging off to the job centre, they ran away to the French Alps to spend a season baking cakes, cleaning toilets, getting paid peanuts and skiing every day. Not too shabby for a pair of baby-boomers. And, on top of that, they are also personally responsible for bringing to life the annual festival of amazingness that is Fringe By The Sea.

(That's a home-made tea-chest bass, in case you were wondering)
I grew up in a small seaside town near Edinburgh, called North Berwick. Until recently, the most exciting thing to happen there, culturally speaking, was the annual town pantomime (Oh no it wasn't. Oh yes it was. Oh dear that was a bad joke).

Edinburgh is famous for its International Festival* every August, and perhaps even more so for the Festival Fringe that surrounds it, and my dad (a guitarist) had long nurtured the idea that perhaps our little town could get in on some of the Fringe action. He talked his friends John and Jane into supporting the cause and, with the coming together of his musical contacts and know-how and their organisational and marketing superpowers, from that little bean of an idea Fringe By The Sea was born.

I could talk about how FBTS has grown over the last three years, going from a couple of days in a soggy marquee to a week-long, multi-venue extravaganza. I could talk about how, in its first year, probably 50% of the performances included a member of my family; last year, it featured everything from folk heroes to theatrical divas, half-naked dance troupes to snarky comedians, witty authors and street poetry to blues, ska, jazz, opera, ukuleles and a one-man band (and, still, members of my family. Organiser's prerogative).

But what I want to talk about instead is community. Other than the three organisers, FBTS is staffed entirely by a troupe of local volunteers who are recruited, instructed, clothed and co-ordinated by my mum. Many are retired or fit their volunteer shifts around their working pattern, but there are some (me included) who take a whole week of precious annual leave off work, just to be a part of it. Last year the Hubster and I went straight from our honeymoon to FBTS without pausing for breath, which slightly counteracted the intensive relaxation of the previous fortnight, but it was SO worth it.

To give you some context, the harbour esplanade in North Berwick was once dominated by an outdoor swimming pool. Sheltered by the surrounding rock and filled with salty seawater from the Firth of Forth (latterly the water was chlorinated and vaguely warmed up, but still...), the pool was the beating heart of the town every summer. In its mid-century heyday it was home to swimming competitions and beauty contests, the benches packed with cheering locals and holidaymakers. Sunbathers would clamber up on the rocks, the older members of the family perhaps going as far as loosening their ties, while the more adventurous braved the chilly waters.

When we moved to the town in 1990, the pool was still going strong. Every summer we would eagerly await the opening day and run down after school to be among the first through the rusty old gates. During the holidays my friends and I would spend the whole day there, daring each other to ascend the rickety steps up to the Big Slide, climbing out of the water every so often to warm up on the smooth rocks and let the sting from the saltwater subside in our throats. The day would end with a hot bag of chips drenched in chippy sauce** to heat us up as we walked home, wet hair dripping down our necks.

Sadly, the march of modernity could not be halted and, despite a vigorous campaign and huge local opposition, the outdoor pool closed in 1995 to be replaced by a sleek, sanitised indoor version in another part of town. The closure was particularly memorable for me because on the very last day I skidded off a slippery wall and smashed my elbow to pieces, putting me in a sling for the first six weeks of my first year of high school and ending my hockey career before it had even begun (ha!). Where the pool once was, where everyone I knew spent every sunny summer day and more than a few rainy ones, is now a paved-over area for keeping dinghies.

But with Fringe By The Sea, in a small way, the tide is turning.

Come August, our distinctive blue logo starts to appear in shops and windows and soon the High Street is awash with turquoise. The chatter starts softly and begins to build: Have you heard who's playing? Did you get tickets for this? Are you going to see that? The volunteers drop in one by one to collect their t-shirts and check their schedule to see if they've scored one of the big-ticket shows. A lorry with Belgian number plates trundles into town and heads for the Harbour; in a flurry of Flemish the Spiegeltent, our biggest venue, is erected at lightning speed and stands majestically on the esplanade, ready to receive its first paying guests.

The first show is always carnage. In fact, much of the week is carnage, but as the days wear on we quickly learn how many chairs can be squashed into which venues, the fastest way to take tickets from 500 people, how best to placate thirty rampaging mothers who were-told-that-their-little-cherubs-could-see-the-Singing-Kettle-for-free-this-is-outrageous-who-is-in-charge-here…

We're all just volunteers, muddling through, not always getting things right first time. But, with remarkably few exceptions, the goodwill and gratitude from the crowd is overwhelming and the grace, good humour and warmth of the fellow volunteers is enough to outweigh any moments of stress or unpleasantness. The harbour esplanade is once again buzzing, filled with people enjoying the sweet, simple pleasures of music, laughter and friends on a long summer's day.

The fact that this amazing event is taking place in OUR TOWN and is completely put together by OUR PEOPLE makes me so proud to be a small part of it. True community is increasingly undervalued and hard to find these days, but Fringe By The Sea is bringing it back in bucketloads.

Told you my parents were awesome.

Meg of A Practical Wedding spoke recently about growing your community in an online context (although Team Practical has now become a real-life community too), and the desire to find a place in the blogging community was part of why I started this little blog of my own.

Do you think community in a virtual, non-geographical sense can or should replace a physical, local community? Is it inevitable as people drift deeper into their own individual worlds and real connections are harder to make? Am I going to look like a total idiot by ending this post with a load of questions to which nobody is going to respond…?

(Speaking of community and APW - anyone up for an Edinburgh/Scotland APW meet-up? If so, leave a comment or tweet me, immediately!)

*Just heard that the Iraqi Youth Orchestra is being funded to come and play at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Please, if you support one show at the Festival this year (other than FBTS, obvs), make it this one. As a former youth orchestra brat myself (cello, if you're interested), I can only imagine what an amazing experience this could be for these young people.

**Chippy sauce is a heady mixture of vinegar and brown sauce unique to the east coast of Scotland. My husband would bathe in it given half the chance.

All images are courtesy of Colin Lourie, via FBTS's
flickr, with the exception of the old outdoor pool shots which are from here and here.

5 boats moored

  1. Your parents *are* awesome. And adorable.

  2. It makes me so sad that they closed the pool! Sounds like it was so much fun to have while growing up. But Fringe by the Sea sounds pretty fantastic, too. It's great that it's grown so quickly! (Though I can also see how that can create a logistical nightmare.)

    I don't think an online community can entirely replace a local community. Not for me, anyway; I need in-person interaction regularly or I go crazy. But I definitely think online communities are just as real, and they've become just as important to me as my local community.

    And your parents definitely are awesome. :)

  3. Cara, thank you. You are so sweet.

    Kristy, I know I'm still so gutted they closed the pool! But am mega proud of Fringe By The Sea, so there is that.

    I wonder if living in a small town would be different - I don't feel like there's much of a community vibe where I live, in a city (albeit a small one) and it's hard to meet people other than through work. But you're right, I love to blether too much to give up on real people!

  4. I used to love going to that pool {we lived in Haddington} although the main thing I remember was how cold it was!

    Thats very impressive your parents started fringe by the sea; although Im ashamed to admit I dont think ive ever been to North Berwick during the festival!

  5. Yeah it was freeeezing! Maybe it just looks better in hindsight...

    You should definitely come this year - I'll post an update once the programme is released, it's going to be brilliant (not that I'm biased).


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