THE great thing about visiting the annual Edinburgh International Festival (it's been going since 1947 and is still confident that it is the biggest and best arts festival in the universe) is to keep your head while everyone around is losing theirs. There is so much of it - drama, stand-up comedy, late-night cabaret, opera, music, art.Heavens! - every billboard, every willing cafe and news agent's wall is a chaotic collage of posters. The Scotsman newspaper publishes an hour-by-hour program every day. Over 500 shows are taking place - and that's just those in the "Fringe" listing. The Fringe is the unofficial child of the "main" festival and in size, if not in quality; it has outgrown its parent. The official festival is the status (and pricey) part of the feast - and there's also the film festival, jazz festival, book festival, milit ary tattoo, and fireworks. The choice is entirely bewildering. How can you choose between (on the Fringe) the Sieve and Shears Theatre Company in "Busted" ("a sharp streetwise polemic" - Guardian) or "Sir Jasper Tries It On" (tries what on?). Or the Feet Stomping Theatre in "Thatcher's Women haven't they heard she resigned? The plug given them in Varsity ("have to be experienced in the flesh") doesn't help to make them sound current either - it dates from May 1989. Should I stick to "Glue Wedding"? How about "Hammersmith FATS - Th e Legend Returns", or "Tom Thumb," or "Orpheus Singing"? What I really fancy is the (American) Reduced Shakespeare Company - the entire works done in 90 minutes, including Hamlet backwards and Othello to rap. But do I have time? "It's the hysteria," explains a knowing taxi driver (who has also observed fewer visiting Americans this year, but more Italians and Spaniards) as he jolts me swiftly up one of this Northern gray stone city's many vertical hills from Waverley Station to the Royal Mile. It's a cliche that Edinburgh comes alive for this three-week summer bonanza and is dead the rest of the year. A bit slow to start this year, by the end of the first week the swamping crowds of festivalgoers, generally celebrating youth and , presumably, culture, have effectively shattered the Scottish capital's tranquillity with their usual daft exuberance. Down around the National Gallery at the foot of the Mound you can "learn to juggle in 10 minutes, donations accepted" or have a strand of your hair plaited and beaded, or buy a T-shirt hand-painted in the style of Picasso on a bad day or (preferably if you are under four) you can have your face painted to look like the clown within that has been so longing to get out. Or - and this is free - you can stride demurely into the National Gallery and see a special exhibition of all the astonishing works of art that the National Art Collections Fund, "Britain's premier art charity," has helped over the years to save for Scotland. In passing you might notice that in this neoclassical building resides one of the supreme small art collections of the world. Among the frolics, the festival does maintain its serious side. But, increasingly, it is this sort of contrast that marks the festival, and the director of the official festival, Frank Dunlop, who relinquishes his post after this festival, has broken precedent by openly criticizing the Fringe - arguing that its standards have fallen, serious experimental drama has little chance of surfacing in it, and there is an overwhelming amount of stand-up comedy. He went so far as to dub it a "tower of Babel." Then he set up a public "debate open-air in the courtyard of the Tra verse Theatre - in which some of the Fringe's problems, which he says everyone has "gossiped in corners about for years" but never discussed publicly, were aired. A fair amount of indignation has been expressed by Fringe administrators. Mr. Dunlop had clearly broken an unwritten rule: the two sides of the festival have been traditionally separate (though complementary). But Dunlop had already (and he, as a theater director, was a devotee of the Fringe in the 1950s, and owed some of his early success to it) broken another unwritten rule. He talent-spotted on the Fringe each year and then invited back some of the most stimulating companies or performers to the follo wing official festival. Some of the Fringe people clearly consider this poaching. He doesn't see it that way. But most people at the "debate" seemed to agree that to limit or edit the Fringe in any way would be to destroy its very nature. Supporters of the status quo argued that it is essentially organic, a kind of "brilliant mess." All the same, arts entrepreneur Richard Demarco, a long-time festival supporter, pointed to a genuine problem involving confidence in the festival. Audiences can often be no more than "four to six" people for Fringe productions. Supposing, say, a Latvian group comes with high expecta tions at enormous cost - how can such minute audience attention be explained to them? And, adds Dunlop, what is done to help those groups that arrive in high hopes but end up bankrupt? Who helps them get home again? Joyce McMillan, Guardian arts correspondent, stoutly defends the Fringe and disagrees with Dunlop's critique, but she does agree that some sort of Fringe Fund might help to make it more caring, and that season tickets might encourage more people to go to more Fringe shows.