Every Year When the World Comes to Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, August 28th 2016

At the end of every summer Edinburgh becomes a global village – walking down any street or lane entails coming across numerous nationalities, languages and different cultures.

Streets are packed with tourists, sightseers, and cultural backpackers; there are performances in every nook and cranny of the city centre, and all sorts of impromptu and free shows going on all around.

All of this puts Edinburgh and Scotland on the cultural map unlike anything else. It generates large amounts of revenue for the city and wider – estimated to be around £313 million – and even brings parts of London and Oxbridge society on rare excursions north of the border.

All of this is badged as ‘the biggest arts Festival in the world’ – a claim usually made about the Festival Fringe but, often in shorthand, meaning the entire gathering of happenings in August that include the International Festival, Book Festival, and Military Tattoo.

But is the Fringe really the biggest Festival in the world, or the Book Festival the largest of its kind, and what kind of claim is that versus trying to be the best?

The Edinburgh International Festival was born of the austerity and shock that confronted European civilization after World War Two, beginning in 1947. Alongside it a small number of other, more alternative, plays and performances started up – hence better known as the Fringe, which long ago became an official offspring.

The Fringe has run through several cultural incantations: it reacted and reflected the alt comedy and satire of ‘Beyond the Fringe’ in the early 1960s, idealism later in the decade, and angry young comedy of the 1980s. Since then much of it, like a lot of comedy and performance, has ossified – not aided by the increasing costs and scarcity of spaces in the city.

The city does feel like a collective carnival over these weeks – with a sense of chaos, fun, joy, freedom – and elements of the insufferable. One criticism of the Fringe is that it was always a playground of the middle classes, in performance and audience, but this has become even more so.

There is tension about how Scottish culture is portrayed and championed, which broke into the open with classical composer James Macmillan recently summarising our entire cultural scene as ‘vile, venal and parochial’.

This was typical over the top stuff, but the Fringe illustrates the complexity of how critics, and others, react to Scottish works and to Scottish culture. A couple of years ago, Lyn Gardner in a ‘Guardian’ piece entitled ‘If Scottish critics love it, it must be good – right?’, asked, ‘So what’s going on? Are Scottish critics protecting their own?’ As if London critics, and critics the world don’t do the same.

The Scottish Government engages in numerous showcase events at this time, all in support of so-called ‘creative industries’ – that amorphous, ill-defined group of people which not only encompasses arts and culture, but advertising, marketing and fashion.

This concept has began to fall into dispute globally, being associated with a winners view of culture, but Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop still clings to it, happy to cite that Scotland gains big time from all this Festival-ing. It is pretty conventional puff stuff, and has no room or interest for reflecting on where and to whom is that £313 million going. Not to the good citizens of Edinburgh in what must be classified as trickle down culture.

Where does Edinburgh’s continual Festival bandwagon go? Does it just try to keep getting bigger, because on that criterion, a city much bigger than one with 495,000 people is going to come along eventually and take that crown.

What about the state of arts and culture generally? There is unlike the early 1960s or even the early 1980s an absence of critical culture – art which stands up and confronts us with some of the difficult questions about life, ourselves and our times. But that is a dilemma which confronts Festivals and cultures all over the world.

Harry Mount, right wing commentator, got it right when he bemoaned the rising tide of remakes and cash-ins on old hits at the Fringe, asking ‘where has all the originality gone?’ This is as a result of the grip of cultural nostalgia. It wasn’t always so, as Mount observes: ‘Fifty years ago, people weren’t doing tribute acts to Noël Coward and Fred Astaire; they were creating new things.’

There is some nervousness amongst Edinburgh bigwigs, that when you are top the only way is down. But that is frankly a very Scottish way to look at things. Now is the time to be bold, strike out and plan for the long term. Scotland at the moment feels like a society on hold; that’s a perfect foil for artists and cultural figures to provoke and comment on.