2007 - 2022

Ambrosia and Nectar No More: FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT

As the brilliant carnival of the Edinburgh Festival parades the streets of our ancient capital once again, now is a good time to look at just what is being celebrated, by who and for whom?

Carnival, originally, was a reversal procession and the ritual was that social roles were turned upside down; masters playing servants, the wicked playing holy, the darkness turning into light. Carnival demands that the ordinary modes of behaviour are suspended, as new ways of being are searched for. Carnival, traditionally, was about driving out the Winter spirits so that Summer can return. It was a celebration of fertility. In Scotland, in the Celtic calendar, this was the function of the Beltane fires. Well, so much for the anthropology. In Scotland now we have the Edinburgh Festival in August. It’s all about art, isn’t it?

Well, if you wander around the busy streets of Edinburgh one thing is clear – The Festival is not about art, it is about rent: it is a Festival of rent. It exists so that it can exist to make money for a select few. After the first weekend BBC Scotland ran a news item in which two very happy Fringe “super-venue” producers took it in turn to tell the world, in their clipped public schoolboy accents, that “This has been the busiest first weekend, ever!” Everybody is happy! The rentiers make the money. The Fringe is ever expanding. Everything is beautiful, unless you ask just what is being put on? But the Festival exists! Is that not enough?

We “celebrate” 70 years of this existence this August. 1947 was a difficult year. India was partitioned, for example, in a terrible bloodbath. Perhaps there is a play at the Fringe which highlights the British culpability in this? In Scotland 1947 had seen in the worst Winter in living memory. The BBC was “suspended” until March. The coal mines were nationalised. In an attempt to keep Europe warm the Royal Navy blew up the German defensive island of Heligoland, creating the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history. The “Voice of America” began regular broadcasts into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union just in case they did not know that there was a Cold War on. The International Monetary Fund was set up to remind us in the “free” world of the same. The Iranian Army hung the leaders of the Second Kurdish State in the main square of Mahabad. On an artistic note “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams with Marlon Brando in the lead opened on Broadway. Nothing much changes, either in Broadway or in the middle east, except that there is only one Tennessee Williams. Also Malcolm Lowry published “Under The Volcano”, one of the most beautiful and sad books in the history of literature. So, it was a busy year.

Being a Scottish poet at the Edinburgh Festival, I have always thought, is a bit like being Tantalus in his pool in the Underworld. His crime was being the semi-divine son of the god-king Zeus and the Oceanid nymph Plouto. Invited by his father to the table of the gods on Mount Olympus to dine on ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the gods, Tantalus was so impressed by the fare that he took some of it back down to share with his own mortal people. For this horrendous crime Zeus condemned Tantalus to Tartarus, one of the deepest regions of the Underworld, where he was made to stand in a pool of water. Over his head were low hanging branches, heavy with delicious fruit. Every time Tantalus reached up to eat the branches raised themselves up, out of his reach. Each time he bent down to drink, the water receded, so that he could not quench his thirst. In some versions of the story there is a big stone which hangs over his head, threatening to fall upon him. From Tantalus, we get the English word “tantalise”.

Like Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to the people, so Tantalus is punished for trying to feed his people. If you cannot afford the rent in Edinburgh in August you are down in Tartarus with Tantalus, raising up your hands to be fed and lowering your head to drink, only to be denied nourishment. There are many Scottish poets in the pool with Tantalus, the great rock of exclusion about to fall on them.

Yet the cultural oligarchs thrive, and this in an age of government created austerity. How can this be? Like the Davos elite they subvert democracy through a cultural bond market and a form of artistic fractional reserve banking, (which in reality has replaced arts funding) so that cultural and artistic assets are taken from the less fortunate who cannot bear the risk and given to those elites who can and who run super-venues and franchises. This empowers the incoming cultural oligarchs at the expense of the native majority. So it is that Zeus protects the food of the gods and for Scottish poets its ambrosia and nectar no more. You are in the hole with Tantalus.

Seventy years just to get to a trade fair for cheap TV and bad stand-up comedy. Who would have thought? Who would have thought, also, if thinking is your thing, that the Edinburgh Festival would become an annual articulation for Scottish independence? The fact that Alex Salmond and his backers can book, at the last minute, a slot at the Fringe to indulge his ego is to my mind offensive. But what does that matter? I am down in the pool in Tartarus in the Underworld with the rest. Tantalus’s sister, the free poet (could such a being really exist?) walks the August roads between the barley fields of Banff and Buchan, caresses with her eyes the fishing fleets from Buckie to the Broch, knowing that they have been betrayed by ego, by elites and the oligarchs of culture and the financial market, the false flag wavers of Brexit populism and its doppelganger which is austerity. She hangs her head in shame. Is there anyone in Scotland, if they saw what she saw, who could resist the possibilities of independence?

But people are flocking to these shows! What is wrong with you? “Krapp’s Last Tape” is packing them out! Surely Samuel Beckett is a genius we should celebrate? Scottish artists are winning awards, for godssake!

What I argue is that the content – or activity – which occurs at the Edinburgh Festival only supplies an apparatus which is obsolete, which does not meet the cultural and artistic needs of its host, and in fact, emasculates it. This causes confusion amongst both artists and critics. In defending the Festival, they are defending the producers and the rentiers. This situation has enormous consequences which no-one really dares to address because if we do it will fundamentally change the relationship between the creator/writer and the producer/owner. Currently the artists think they possess the apparatus, but in reality, the apparatus possess them, so they defend it even though they have no control over the apparatus. The result is that the Lady Boys of Bangkok are the resident theatre company on the Fringe and Scottish poets are in the pool in the Underworld with Tantalus. No illusions, stimulants or hyper-entertainments can corrupt Tantalus because he is constantly denied by the apparatus of the oligarchs, those cash-rich arbiters of culture, art and taste, who charge rent and control the machine. The pattern may be set for Tantalus in myth, but for Scottish poets does it have to be so? What can they actually do to expose this process as it operates today, in August, in Edinburgh?

The poet can write about it certainly, but the rock may fall on their head for speaking out of turn. The oligarchs can take the financial risk, can a poet? The only realistic demand our society should put upon our writers is that they think: think about their position in the production apparatus of rent and patronage, of cultural gate-keeping, space invading and the shaping of artistic taste. For many Scottish writers, their means of production – their education – disallows them from seeing the all absorbing and denying nature of the apparatus. It is the mind-worm of inferiorism which keeps these writers both imprisoned in the machine of rent and vetting and in the pool in Tartarus, like Tantalus, up to his neck in water, the fruit of his labour raised “tantalisingly” out of his reach, the life sustaining water draining away as soon as he needs a drink. This is perhaps the ironic intention of what Andre Gide meant when he gave advice to a younger writer, “Make certain that the impetus you have once achieved never benefits your subsequent work.”

In this time of corruption surely Scotland needs to look to her writers: what a tragedy it would be if they were all corrupted as well? My play has been a success, so I love the Fringe, is an understandable sentiment. I have had my new book published and it got a good review (somewhere), so things are good. That, I suppose, is fair enough. In my time, I have had successes on the Fringe and my books have been well reviewed (somewhere), so I am not immune. Which is just as well, because the apparatus has no need for loyalty, or culture, for location, identity or art. It puts forth the proposition that you too, if you participate, can eat the ambrosia and drink the nectar, but as the corporate fist tightens on the subjective throat of Edinburgh and its festivals, it is clear that the ambrosia and the nectar are guarded. They are guarded by the collectors of rent. Rent is all everyone involved in the apparatus of the Festival is interested in.

I am not asking for a Utopia. Utopia actually means “no-place”. What I search for is Eutopia, the “good place”, which is rather more utilitarian. This is a hard task as we are historically being dragged out of “Europa”, counter to our democratic desire. I also understand that we must rethink the cosy notions of forms and genres we have accepted so far, if we are to find new artistic forms appropriate to the cultural and political energy of our time. Maybe there is a production in a back-room in a back street in Edinburgh at this very minute which is boiling up the solution to all of this, or even asking the question? But my experience of the Festival leads me to doubt it.

Art, quite fundamentally, has to offer humanity the freedom to resist the apparatus and to allow the people to eat and drink freely the ambrosia and nectar of the gods, for it is common as Tantalus believed. The organisation of the future will be in the art of what is possible. A democratic education is in art and art is education and education is our only protection against exploitation. Our culture is our inherited right, the record of our existence. It is the imagination of the past and it cannot be sold off, rented out or appropriated by others. Our cultural fate and our artistic pride is held in our imagination. Cultural education is like water: without it we die. Our mind is like the land, what would it be if we did not try to make it better, to make what James Baldwin described as an “organic difference”? In Scotland we must dig deeper in the field of ourselves.

©George Gunn 2017

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Comments (15)

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  1. Graeme Purves says:

    It is interesting to see the MSM breathlessly reporting negotiations between Fringe impresarios and Edinburgh’s corporate barons over the restoration of St. Andrews Square Gardens as a “performance venue” in 2018. The City Council having abdicated responsibility for the management of Edinburgh’s civic spaces, what mere citizens might think about it doesn’t seem to matter.

  2. Darby O'Gill says:

    Since the postal code area of EH has expanded so much in recent times why not expand the Edinburgh Festival accordingly?

  3. Derek Grainge says:

    St Andrews Square isn’t a civic space. It belongs to the people and businesses who surround it. The same applies to Charlotte Square, where the Bookfest tiptoes a line in order to continue there – and Queen Street Gardens, and many other green spaces.
    The problem with St Andrews Square in particular is the way pop-up boozers and smelly pork stalls took over most of the venue. Only one yurt where Fagin plied his (acting) trade. Mammon took over and businesses didn’t like it. Bugger all to do with the council.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      I am well aware of the history and ownership of St. Andrews Square. It functions as a civic space and in a civilised city it would be managed for the benefit of the citizens by the municipality, not exploited by corporate interests.

      1. hamish says:

        The Festival – as ever – has little to offer the ordinary folk of Scotland. its audience is the chatterers of Islington who move up en masse for 3 weeks of the year, aided by the colonist-settlers who live year round in Edinburgh.

  4. Fay Kennedy says:

    Everywhere you look it’s the same. How utterly boring the model of profit and enomic growth.

  5. Fay Kennedy says:

    Rentiers: it wasn’t always thus. The impresarios, the middle men, have crept up on us and now control many of the big venues. The Assembly Rooms, the Pleasance, and more recently George Square and the underbelly. Fights between impresarios over who controls the bun fight. I remember a Fringe (many years ago) where theatricals booked their venues directly and organised their own publicity. And almost inevitably made an amateurish loss.

  6. George Gunn says:

    Dear Fay, making a loss is what happens at the Fringe, for performers. Not for the venues. The artistic director of the Festival decides what goes on at the Festival. The programme reflects a certain historical, cultural, political conditioning. The rentiers, through their prices, decide what goes on in their venues. The critics on the other hand confuse numbers with cultural health. We are not in possession, we are possessed by the apparatus of cash extraction. There is a great difference between observing what is happening on the High Street in August and the reality of what is actually going on in Scotland, culturally, now and what will happen in the future.

  7. Lorna Purcell says:

    Yesterday I was lucky enough to hear Andrew O’Hagan’s talk, ‘Scotland, Our Scotland’. Later, our Makar Jackie Kay read from her latest book Bantam, about the young 17 year olds sent out to fight in the First World War. In the evening I was totally mesmerised to watch ‘Requiem for Aleppo’. In 5 minutes I will leave to see ‘Flesh and Bones’. A play about the abysmal housing crisis for the young.
    When I was in North Berwick 2 weeks ago, they were setting up venues for fringe shows.
    The rich will always profit from these enterprises but I feel enriched to be surrounded by so much.

  8. w.b.robertson says:

    Yes, each year Edinburgh hosts this pantomime. But better the present Festival set up than no Festival. Those in the “arts” have always sought support from patrons, even Rabbie welcomed them. Only difference is today`s patrons are called promoters and have their own accountants.

  9. George Gunn says:

    Yes, Lorna, I would have loved all those things as well. We are enriched, while being robbed. At least we are talking about it. Brecht had this chiseled into the beams of his house – “the truth is concrete”.

  10. Richard MacKinnon says:

    George Gunn doesnt like the Edinburgh Festival. Why? Becuase of its success. Success; as in, it makes a lot of money for a lot of people that George doesnt like. “The Festival is not about art, it is about rent: it is a Festival of rent”. George is particular in his dislaike of sell out shows. It seems, the more successful a piece of art is the less George likes it.
    He bemoans the ‘lack of funding for the arts’ . He thinks ‘the arts’ should be more state sponsored. Council art is George’s preference. Art that makes money for the artist, The Lady Boys of Bangkkok is looked down on by George Gunn from his self built critical pedestal. It is a lesser form of art than poetry.
    And George knows about art: “Art, quite fundamentally, has to offer humanity the freedom to resist the apparatus and to allow the people to eat and drink freely the ambrosia and nectar of the gods, for it is common as Tantalus believed”.
    I think George Gunn is a tedious snob.

  11. George Gunn says:

    It is the problem, Richard, I admit, that when you discuss the Fringe, and the arts, you can come across as a tedious bore. I love the Festival as much as anyone else, Ladyboys included, and I’ve had great success on it, a few failures and one or two projects that wiped their feet. There is, however, something fundamentally wrong with the super-venue phenomenon and all the rent issues which go along with that. It impacts on cultural perception and provision in Scotland throughout the rest of the year and I don’t think the model of the Fringe, as it stands, works anymore. Maybe you could tell us what you think?

  12. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Sorry for the delay in replying, I have been away on holiday.
    I don’t know anything about how The Edinburgh Festival or The Fringe works except that it must make a lot on money for Edinburgh, which must be a good thing. I hope you agree.

  13. Richard MacKinnon says:

    When it comes to art I know nothing. I go out of my way not to understand art. I think that people who pass an opinion on a certain piece of art can often sound pompous. I therefore let others judge whether a piece of art is good or bad. If art makes money for the artist I think that is a good thing and admire the artist for his talent and how he has used his talent to make money.
    As a consequence, I don’t like state sponsored art. I am angered that certain kinds of art, for example, opera and ballet performed at the Glasgow Theatre Royal is heavily sponsored by government whilst the Pavilion Theatre just around the corner has to be self sufficient.
    I ask my self why this is and I don’t have an answer. The reason I am angry is because I contribute in the form of taxes to an art form I have no interest in and do not understand. I believe if an individual likes a piece of art so much they buy it to hang it their wall or go and see it performed then they should pay to do so and not expect others to pay for them.
    I can tell from your article you must be an expert when it comes to art. May be you help me here? why is it that certain forms of art are sponsored by our government and others are not? Surely if a piece of art is good art then it should be able to finance itself?

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