2007 - 2022

Time, travel and the fading magic of Edinburgh

There’s something magical about living in Edinburgh as the festival draws to a close – something far more poignant than mere relief that the bins will stop overflowing, or that you’ll no longer have to factor in an extra 20 minutes to cross the span of Hunter Square.

Having worked several odd jobs at the festivals over the years: I recall them winding down, as autumn is tasted on the breeze for the first time, and with it the feeling of a more familiar city returning. For, as the bards tell us, no city is more definitively autumnal than Edinburgh.

But that welcome change was always tempered by a knowledge which seemed so certain: that this great glut of humanity would be back as sure as the summer itself. In the grand scheme of things the expectation of Edinburgh’s annual transformation was a small matter: but it is yet another marker of time that the pandemic has stolen.

It may only last for four weeks, but the festival is imbricated in all aspects of this place – it doesn’t simply align with a moment of seasonal change, it is a kind of elemental force in its own right.

An old friend used to respond to our habitually barren financial and romantic lives with the Micawbersish line – ‘the festival always turns something up.’

Somehow it always did. The sheer mass of new arrivals, the switch to a temporary 24-hour city, the weirdness, the spontaneity, offered a season that seemed to belong to more permissive and egalitarian times and places.

Loitering on the penultimate evening of the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this week, I was thinking about my former festival days.

Watching the camaraderie of the staff and the gradual moves to take down the temporary apparatus of spectacle, I thought of the punishing hours, the madness of working to help put on something so vast. I observed the stalwarts of Edinburgh’s galleries and theatres, hale as ever, glance around in quiet acknowledgment that this year was a ghostly imprint of what had gone before.

To walk through central Edinburgh in August 2019 was to experience an ambient assault of invitation: but this year you had to furtively seek out any residue of the carnivalesque.

On the big screen at the Book Festival’s new home in the Edinburgh College of Art quad, a modest crowd, just too scattered to share each other’s’ responses, watched a team of theatre-makers interpret Kathleen Jamie’s prose variations, The Yellow Door.

Director David Greig pointedly noted that this five year long strand of work at the festival, Playing with Books, has been a much needed outlet for experimentation because ‘the world of theatre is chronically underfunded even outside the pandemic.’

Later, the woman who has overseen such cuts arrived and was met with a reverential hush. Culture is indeed extolled with great originality by our bookish First Minister, and like her counterparts in the south, her government ensured that the live arts were able to survive the unprecedented existential threat of the pandemic.

Instantly Consumable

But there is a deeper disquiet within Scottish culture that a palpably unrevived festival scene underlines.

What if the festivals, already experiencing a silent crisis prior to the pandemic, will simply continue to decline? What if they never return to their former glory and an already fragile Scottish cultural sector sinks with them?

Behind these concerns sits the great awkward question of whether Scotland’s cultural and political leaders really feel that there is the will, or demand, to reinvent the basis for these events. The festivals were founded with an existential mission to bring nations together after half a century of carnage, but there is no equivalent vision today.

The pandemic may be a crisis on the scale of global conflict – but the implications of recovery from it seem to point in the opposite direction – remoteness is sensible policy.

Without the magic of accessible international travel and its capacity to bring so many performers from so many places together; Edinburgh’s festivals are doomed. If this element gets discarded the city will end up like Prospero, realising, finally (in lines spoken on so many rickety stages, by so many over-enunciating students): ‘my charms are all o’erthrown,/And what strength I have’s mine own,/Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,/I must be here confined by you.’

The Olympics and the FIFA World Cup are the only events on the planet that attracted numbers equivalent to those that once attended Edinburgh in August. Events of such scale are great spectacles of over-consumption, fattened by years of complacent corporate greed, but they are also the holy-days and carnivals that make life in the global village purposeful. They allow us to watch humanity at its most graceful, skilful, dexterous and weird.

The problem is not the events themselves, but the way in which late capitalism has become ever more drawn to instantly consumable experiences; hungering for their potential as a repository for surplus capital. Large-scale events, recurrent, easily replicated and always instilling a thirst for more, are the ideal commodities of our time.

These qualities make the ‘immaterial’ products of the events and tourism sector ever more alluring, but they come with heavy material and social impacts on the localities where they take place.

Edinburgh has undoubtedly suffered from that boosterism, from a greed for exponential growth; perching its fortunes precipitously high above the pre-pandemic competition.

The festivals can also be understood as a seventy-four year process of gentrification; with the first wave landing in the fertile but seedy terrain of the post-war Old Town. Perhaps Edinburgh’s lightning-fast gentrification over the past three decades simply fulfils a pattern; familiar to so many increasingly expensive and exclusionary cultural capitals the world over. The recent controversies around the city’s UNESCO status and its struggles with overtourism stem from reaching material limits – this is a small city which has simply run out of space to colonise.

But the loss of Leith and Fountainbridge to the endless march of coffee shops and gastropubs is incidental. You could strip out Edinburgh’s culture scene tomorrow and these will remain. Art may be part of the first wave of gentrification, but its open and experimental forms can disappear just as quickly as they arrived.

It will take a kind of reverse engineering of this process; a decoupling of culture from boosterism and growth, to revive Edinburgh’s cultural status. There is a need for a new founding moment and vision equal to that proposed in 1947. Tragically, decades of austerity and neglect have hollowed out the institutions that might once have championed and instilled such fresh thinking.


Wandering about this radically diminished festival, I found myself yearning for the strangest of things. I wanted to go and see something that would probably be terrible, but might, against all the odds, prove wonderous: I longed for Ibsen performed by geese in a paddling pool, or a musical interpretation of the life of Gladstone.

Sitting through the worst performances always brings that nagging sense that you will never get the time back: but it is the thrill of taking such a risk which underpins the remarkable spontaneity that only a live event can offer. That capacity to be a bit promiscuous with our time, to gamble it and play with it, is precisely what was taken from us all in 2020.

The pandemic has left us at sea when it comes to the heavy passing of time: we need art above all because it can seem to expand, circumvent or recast it. As Greig said of reading The Yellow Door for the first time, the work seemed to ‘make time exist where it hadn’t existed before.’

The illusion that witnessing a performance can offer us: that time can be conjured up, or restored, may simply be a baseless trick that fades when the lights go down. But in a sick world that needs to work like hell to heal itself – who would dare put a price on it?

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Comments (7)

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  1. Liz Summerfield says:

    Young man, the Festival you yearn for is the festival as it was when it started, not as it is now. As a teuchter transplanted here in my early childnood, I’ve known the festival since its first year. It used to be something any aspirant group or individual could take part in, and succeed or fail instantly. Now, it’s just a beanfeast for corporates like Assembly or Underbelly to make lots of money, which instantly leaves the city. Companies like that rely on people like you to work unreasonable hours for shit pay, and they rake in the profits, and the council even bloody subsidises them to do it.

    When I were a lad, as they say, you could come up here with a show and sleep on someone’s floor (often mine) and take your chances in a church hall or any other space that would let you in cheap.

    I’ve seen Shakespeare performed on a motorcycle and sidecar. I’ve seen performances in phone boxes. And I’ve seen shows that wouldn’t have had a chance anywhere else succeed beyond the performers’ wildest dreams. You can’t do anything really daft, or “out there” any more, because the promoters who monopolise the festival won’t put on anything risky. Many household names started off at the festival long before it became this kind of closed shop. (I was Victoria Wood’s landlady the year she made it.) Now, if you’re not a TV “name”, it’s hard to get a showing.

    I’m not saying all of this stuff was wonderful, but that doesn’t matter. It was folk trying to do something. They can’t afford to do that now.

    I speak as someone who has worked in Arts management for more than 30 years.

    1. Niemand says:

      This is an overstatement. Though I am sure you are right about the general direction, in recent years I have seen numerous very small acts and solo events by unknowns that were ‘really daft’ (like a man with an electric guitar and little else, in a tiny space doing a poetic take on the life of Arthur Machen, or a small troupe of students doing a surreal take on the life of Nikola Tesla, awkwardly but with brio, or a duo imagining the drunken, post-Sex Pistols debacle life of Bill Grundy, or a dramatic ‘lecture’ on the life of Mary Anning that was miles more informative, accurate and entertaining than the recent film on her). I think you have stopped looking.

      I liked this piece Christopher, quite evocative and a great read, thanks.

  2. Doug says:

    So what? Appoint the first Scottish Edinburgh Festival director and I might pay attention. It’s just a love in for luvvies who all went to OxBridge. Just because ‘temporary’ baristas and servers might get a pity shag from foreigners, who else cares?

  3. Robbie says:

    Liz, Abba explained all this in 1976 ,Money Money Money, the lyrics tell you everything about then and as you rightly say it’s much worse.

  4. Kenneth Owen says:

    You sir have said the most positive and wonderful things about this great City that is Edinburgh I thank you immensely!

  5. Wul says:

    It deserves to die off. We went once as a family for the day. No change out of £200-plus quid and we only live 45 miles away. Overcrowded, over developed and rotten value. I’d cheerfully see it abandoned for ever. Something better would fill the gap. (“The Dundee North Sea Cultural Exchange and Ceilidh” ?)

  6. Fluffykintail says:

    I dont share the author’s delight in the Edinburgh Colonial August Festivals. They are a stressful, overcrowded human-sh*t-magnet.

    Also riddle me this Batman; Why has no one had the presence of mind to host the festivals during the actual Scottish School Holidays in July?! I struggle to hear any Scottish voices or accents in Edinburgh during August. It has become a private fiefdom for the London boarding school set. Even worse the festivals accepted £1 million from Boris Johnson’s government. By accepting that blood money the Edinburgh festivals have tainted themselves with the blood of all those poor bastards who have died due to tory economic polices. So now not only are the Edinburgh festivals colonial now they are openly tory in their outlook & agenda. This goes a long way to explaining why the Festival organisers have refused to deal with local Edinburghers. they all hide away in their Old town offices in a wee bubble whilst the rest of the city has to deal with the mess that they have put upon the city.

    Stop giving the festivals your support & patronage. It is time to Boycott the Edinburgh Colonial August Festivals.

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