Guest blog at Edfringe 2022: Mark Saltveit’s first Edinburgh Fringe adventure

Why did I think it was a good idea to create my first Fringe show at age 60? That’s easy: it’s an adventure.

I started a “zine” about palindromes in 1993, before web pages existed, and it got out of hand, creating a worldwide (though very small) network of palindrome writers. (You know, palindromes like “racecar” and “Hannah” and “No panic. I nap on” where the letters are the same backwards.) That led to competitions, books and a feature documentary (“The Palindromists,” about the second World Palindrome Championship, or WPC).

Six years later, I started doing standup comedy, at 38 – with a wife and a baby and bills to pay. I’ve always had a “real” job and known that fame and riches were extremely unlikely, which takes the pressure off. Now my daughters are just through uni, and if I don’t jump in now, when will I?

I had done a palindrome improv show in the States a few times, which surprised me by actually working pretty well, so here I am in the PBH Free Fringe, 14 shows down and the best six coming up. The panel has 30 minutes to create original palindromes from audience suggestions; meanwhile I mix guest comedians with my tales of lurid palindrome history (eg sacred and satanic palindromes in antiquity).

I expected Fringe to be chaotic and overwhelming, and it hasn’t disappointed. The only flight I could afford was Play Airlines (WTF?) through Keflavik to Stansted; both airports were nice and empty. My train up was canceled 3 times, twice mid-journey, but the fourth (from Newcastle) got me through.

Week 1, I loaded the panel with demented poets and friends from the WPCs. Like an idiot, I lost my voice on the first night of a monthlong festival, between celebrating at pubs with my friends and thinking I didn’t need a microphone in a small room. Ever since, it’s been constant stream of pastilles, throat-saving herbal teas and warmup tips cadged from actors and singers. On the plus side, my voice is an octave lower and I can do a passable Barry White imitation.

That mishap upset my plan to do a lot of extra comedy sets – I live in rural Vermont, USA, where stage time is hard to come by — but the mechanics of living somewhere for a month kept me frantic anyway. Laundry, finding tools and scrap lumber to build a rough overhead projector from a webcam, shopping for groceries and toothpaste, and navigating the twisty closes and staircases filled my day. A Lothian bus pass and a cheap rice cooker from Poundsavers were invaluable.

Luckily I have no shame about taking naps and chose to take Tuesdays off every week. It’s still exhausting though (in a good way). I didn’t really start going to other shows until mid-Fringe, but that is incredible. I knew Stewart Lee, Stuart Goldsmith, Andrew O’Neill & Alasdair Beckett-King would be good, and they were. New to me were Grace Petrie, Posey Mehta, Stamptown, Jack Tucker, Consignia, Eleanor O’Brien and CJ Hooper; all exciting as well as excellent. I have a list of 30 more I’d love to see, and maybe I’ll get to half of them.

I planned my show for involving other performers, with a panel of 3 to 5, and room for 2 or 3 guest comics. Comedians have been fantastic and plentiful but the panel is naturally harder to fill. How many people will risk writing a palindrome for the first time in front of a crowd? My initial group of panelists left after a week, and I’ve scratched together just enough replacements to keep the show going.

My biggest surprise (and joy!) is that audience members have been more willing to try their hand than the professional comics. I now give paper and a marker to anyone who wants to poke away at it, and the majority of the crowd does. (I also hand out cheat sheets and offer tips as we go along.) In week two, punters won four of the six shows, by audience applause. The prize: a genuine Roman coin (specifically, a follis of the Tetrachy).

I absolutely plan to come back to Fringe, hopefully with a one-man show and the return of Palindrome Fight! And next year, at 61, I’ll get the concession: £1 off on every ticket.

Palindrome Fight!, Kilderkin Pub (65 Canongate, at the bottom of the Royal Mile). 7:30 pm nightly (not Tuesday). It’s in the PBH Free Fringe, so just turn up. No tickets; we’ll pass the hat.