As I write the Edinburgh Festival of 2015 has ended and to mark the occasion thousands of pounds of fireworks have been rocketed into the sky like so many mini-Tridents and exploded into tiny nuclear starbursts of sound and colour over the castle. Last year I had great success with my play “Three Thousand Trees” which played to full houses for three weeks. This year I wandered around the city for less than a week, a singular soul in the carrying stream of desire, ego, expression and razzmatazz which is Edinburgh in August. Next year, who knows, I may have another success or my play could go the way of 95% of all Festival offerings: down into the darkness of audience-less, review-less oblivion.
For once, not being caught up in the intensity of a production, I was able to observe the Edinburgh Festival dispassionately. As I moved like a ghost through a fair, entertained and appalled in equal measure, delighting in the colour and exhausted by the clamour, the thought kept coming into my head, like a bird through the open window of an empty house: just what is all this for?
The Roman poet Catullus (84 – 54 BC) – a great wanderer and questioner himself – once wrote
“I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it, and I’m torn in two.”
All my adult life I have believed that the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe was about art, about seeing the best performances from around the world and about freedom of expression. I no longer think that. “…and I’m torn in two” and if what follows is a bit rambling then it only reflects the rambling chaos of the Festival itself.
As I walked down the High Street and managed to both enjoy and swerve the rather annoying Australian street performer whose act seemed mostly to be about blowing huge soapy bubbles up into the Edinburgh air I saw two of the busker stages provided by the Fringe where a singer (or whoever) can book a slot and perform for an allocated time: all sponsored by Virgin Money. No-one is free when they perform under such a banner. I am not so naive to suppose that sponsorship plays no part in the production of art. I myself have accepted funding from dubious sources and have convinced myself that it is for the good of the production. That is not the nature of my complaint: I suspect that no-one any longer knows what the Edinburgh Festival is for? Just what, exactly, is its purpose? Whose interests does it serve?
It may be of no significance whatsoever that I seemed to be the only one whose heart sank watching one the greatest French screen actresses of her generation go down in a lifeless production of Antigone which understood neither the function of drama nor the conflict between the laws of nature and those of man.
Watching a great play die is never easy. This production was a universe away from the threshing floor of human experience upon which Sophocles conceived it and beat it into shape. The collective of the chorus was transformed into the individual voice so there was no power, no threshing out of humanities tragedy, no theatre. For whom was this exercise in style and celebrity designed?
Why did I feel so lonely in the crowd watching another exercise in style which was the production of Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s novel of 1981? Was it because what was happening on the stage was both confused and confusing, was crammed packed with gizmo’s and gimmicks – light and sound at the expense of storytelling? Or was it because I knew that at that precise moment Alasdair Gray was lieing badly injured in a hospital bed? Or was it because the tickets were £32.00?
Many hundreds of people loved Antigone and Lanark. I was not among them “and if you ask me how, I do not know.” What do I have to complain of? Is not Juliette Binoche performing before your eye a mouth-watering prospect? Is the work of Alasdair Gray not worthy of celebration in his 80th year and by a Scottish – more or less – theatre company?
Well, yes to all of that. And yet, and yet… “I hate and I love”. So maybe it is time to return to the threshing floor which is the origin of all celebration, of all the performing arts. Once the harvest is in the people dance. The Edinburgh “International” Festival was started in 1947 to shed some light into the dark world of post-World War Two and to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. The harvest up to 1945 had been war so is it any wonder people needed to believe in creativity. That same year, 1947, eight theatre companies “gate crashed” the official festival and so began the Fringe. Recent revelations have added to the significance of Edinburgh as the site for this Festival because the Nazi’s planned to drop their atomic bomb on Edinburgh once they had the wherewithal to do so.
Edinburgh in August is bombed by agencies of a different intention. Squadrons of spivs, chancers, marketeers, promotors, agents, producers and snake oil salesmen drop their load on the capital for three weeks. Each year their carpet bombing has increased to such intensity that now the “platform for the flowering of the human spirit” has been reduced to rubble. Cultural “shock and awe” has like in Dresden in 1945 sucked the oxygen out of the city and turned it into a firestorm of greed, mania, exploitation, naked ambition and money.
For all the 3,000+ performances which happen every day just what is actually going on in Edinburgh in August? In post-referendum Scotland, where the Tory cuts have been proven to be driving people to kill themselves due to desperation and depression, just what has the Festival got to do with us? Other than those companies which are fortunate enough to be sponsored and promoted by the Scottish Government’s “Made in Scotland” partnership which selects “the best” of Scottish arts – and in effect creates an elite because no-one really knows how the selection process works, it is difficult to make your presence known above the babble. The old much maligned Scottish Arts Council refused to directly fund anything at the Edinburgh Festival and at least that had a rough equality to it. As it stands, out with official sanction, just where is Scottish culture represented in the Festival hootenanny?
Many small companies take the risk and perform at the Festival Fringe. Many more ignore it and save their precious resources for the other 49 weeks of the year. Why bother to “weep the black river” of yourself, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney – you may get lucky and the stars align as they did for my play last year but everyone knows that it is rare. Bolstering a contemporary cultural confidence in a small emerging nation, albeit one with a long cultural history, is difficult when the focus is all about three weeks in August in a festival city which treats such cultural aspiration with disdain and deems it “parochial” and ignored by a media which is hypnotised by celebrity.
I love the Edinburgh Festival but I hate the Edinburgh Festival. It mirrors the growing gap in inequality in our society and the obsession with self and inwardness. What the Scottish people are striving for is a new social paradigm where wealth is distributed more equally and where there is opportunity for all. I think what the Scottish people desire of the Edinburgh Festival – “I do not know: I only feel it” – is an arts festival and an arts community in general which reflects the threshing floor of their dialogue with the political and cultural future we are trying to create. Nothing much seems to be serious in Edinburgh in August, especially the comedy. It is as if we have to go back to 1945 and begin again.
The truth – even although it may not be self-evident – is that the Festival is just too big. It is collapsing under its own mass and like a black hole it sucks all light and gravity in and lets none escape. The Festival, as it is shaped and constructed now stops us from asking who we are, keeps us complacent – “I do not know: I only feel it,” as old Gaius Valerius Catullus would say and as I say “I’m torn in two.” In other words: we need something new. The plot each year is exactly the same only “bigger” and “better” but that is a world we all know too well. What we need to discover, to seek out, is a new narrative for our emerging world. That narrative will take courage and imagination to create because our new freedom will be just as hard to secure as our old slavery is difficult to shake off. Just go and watch the Tattoo if you think the imperial military past with the Union Jack as its banner-logo is safely in the past: it is still here. It makes us think in the light but act in the dark. It is the opposite of the Greek idea of the “agora”: that public space where the citizens go to debate the politics of the state and the poetry of the moment.
The commodification and financialisation of art means that it becomes merely advertising: it is trying to sell you something. The purpose of art, especially of public art, is to give you something. What does the Edinburgh bonanza in August actually give us other than access to “Virgin Money”? It was Chekov who suggested that “The writer must find the truth, wrap it up and take it somewhere.” He never suspected it would be in the logos and slogans of oil companies, banks and breweries and that it would be taken to that dark place where information is valued over civilization and your cash over your soul.
New figures reveal the population of Scotland is at an all-time high of 5,347,600. It was also reported that 2.3 million tickets have been sold for this year’s Fringe alone and that 400,000 fireworks were let off to celebrate the Festival’s close. Now it has to be remembered that the Edinburgh International Festival from 1947 ignored Scottish culture entirely which is why from 1951 to 1954 Hamish Henderson and others mounted the highly successful Edinburgh People’s Festival. It was closed down by the Labour Party who thought it was a front for communism. What it did give was a platform for Scottish folk culture. It seems that the Labour Party in Scotland has a history of getting things wrong.
Now I know that criticising the Edinburgh Festival is never a popular but I am no backwoodsman with a parochial axe to grind: far from it. Like the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam I too am “nostalgic for a world culture”. What we need to do is to sweep away the empty husks of finance and the dead straw of corporatism from the threshing floor of Scottish culture so that the arts that express that culture can truly engage with the rest of the world, as equals in an truly welcoming and international Scottish People’s Festival, and not have to go skulking around the backstreets of our own capital, excluded from the ceilidh by ticket prices and that old ugly dog-dance of the Scottish cringe and London prejudice.
My personal quirky high points from this year’s Festival (other than Elspeth Turner’s brilliant play Spectretown) was a Latin American jazz band ripping up tunes with a joy and skill that lifted the heart and a man carving a sleeping dog out of sand on Prince’s Street that seemed so beautiful and melancholy people watched him work in silence. So, you may ask, what have I truly got to complain about? In conclusion, and in my defence, I give you the dichotomy and dilemma of Catullus – and me – again
“I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it, and I’m torn in two.”
©George Gunn 2015
George Gunn’s book “The Province of the Cat” (£9.99 plus postage and packaging) will be published by The Islands Book Trust later this month.