We stood stock-still, terrified they would spot us. But it was too late, to try and hide would have been futile. They walked towards us, an expression of artificially induced cheeriness frozen on their faces. We tensed up, braced for the onslaught, but it never came. Apparently we were not their target and almost as quickly as they appeared, they were gone; clipboards swinging gaily in their arms, identical coloured windcheaters rustling. We had escaped the chuggers. I looked at my friend, in the manner one gnu might look at another as a pride of lions sauntered off leaving them unscathed. We both said silently: “What just happened?”.
It was early afternoon in town and we had unwittingly walked into a crowd of about thirty members of a ‘street fund-raising team’ as they emerged from a building which would appear to have been their lair. It was unnerving watching them. It’s not clear what goes on in a chuggers’ base. One could easily imagine hour-long confidence sessions’ where they are fed pains-au-chocolat laced with Prozac and taught how to walk towards a member of the public in a dancy way, waving their arms and shouting “Do you have a moment?”. The seemingly impenetrable confidence of these people is to be grudgingly admired. They are the answer to the question: “What happens all the Billie Barrie kids once they grow up”
It’s no wonder the industry attracts them. A recent job advertisement was looking for people with “A genuine desire to over-achieve.” It’s not clear why they specified ‘genuine desire’. Perhaps they had been stung by people pretending to over-achieve in the past. Elsewhere in the job description there is talk about that most commonplace of workplaces: the ‘dynamic working environment’. I’ve seen many jobs billed as being in dynamic environments and I have to say most are pretty static. You just sit at your desk and wait for retirement. Chugging is undoubtedly more dynamic but the greatest dynamism is displayed by citizens trying to avoid the Benetton-Ad luvvies with the clipboards. Another job-spec promises the opportunity to work alongside “some of the coolest people around”. By cool, I presume they mean just cold from being on an Irish street.
But as I sneer about these street-teams I know that partially at least, my words are hollow. This past week I too have been on the street, approaching strangers holding out a piece of paper with a cheery smile. (Though I stress, this is not the full chugger grimace – a rictus like that of an acolyte whose religion inaccurately predicts The Rapture every five years). I have spent the last week on the streets of Edinburgh selling my show.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has about two and a half thousand difference events during the month of August. That’s a lot of competition. Even for someone with a huge international reputation like me, it’s still important to do some direct marketing to get people to come to my show. That means handing out fliers. As the weeks have progressed I’ve met hundreds of people and persuaded many to spend an hour with me in a dark, sweaty room while l pour out my heart to them. and some have later come to my show also. I am in exalted company. Even Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich was on the Royal Mile handing fliers to strangers. Though when it comes to fliering, being Colm O’Regan is not the same as Being John Malkovich.
The festival population of Edinburgh – both natives and visitors, are largely used to the barrage of paper. The area in front of my venue – the Teviot in Bristo Square – has become such a flier-storm that some people will just avoid it altogether, preferring to walk a good couple of hundred yards out of their way. As the days have passed, I have started to acquire a chugger’s thick skin in dealing with rejection or being ignored. Admittedly, I’m not looking for bank details or waving my arms around too much. Nevetheless I am walking up wearing a giant facebook-style thumbs-down asking people if they ‘need a hand picking a show’. So while I don’t experience the hatred that chuggers must face, I do annoy people, or am ignored entirely. And when that happens, I just pick my ego off the ground, dust it down, tell myself that everyone in the world is a ‘total tool’ except me and stick my cardboard paw out and offer another flier.
By Day 8 or 9 of the Fringe, the crowds are festival-hardened and have their ‘No thanks’ excuses ready but it’s still possible to spot the festival naïfs. Veterans have a standard response to all offers –“I don’t take fliers for environmental reasons” or “I’m going to see shows all evening, and I won’t be around for the rest of the festival because I’m leaving for Mozambique”, or “F*ck Off”. Newcomers haven’t formulated a response yet and when presented with a flier will often panic as they search in their mind for an alibi for the time of your show. “We’re doing something at that time aren’t we Barry [Barry] Are we? [Her] Yes remember, we were doing that thing in the other place. [Barry] Yes that’s right, that other thing in that other place.” I could press them for some material evidence of that other thing in that other place but I let them off the hook and silently call them a tool as they walk away before swivelling and pointing my cardboard hand at another civilian. For all its rejection, fliering works. About half of the people that end up buying tickets for my show have received a flier from me. And in the same way, I suppose chugging is a valuable enough source of steady income for charities so that they can handle a little damage to their brand. Given the week that’s in it – I suppose there are worse things you could be doing on the street.