Brian Ferguson: Belief in Leith as festivals’ opener

The Leith Festival Launch at Kirkgate shopping centre. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The Leith Festival Launch at Kirkgate shopping centre. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE programmes are stacking up, e-mails flooding in by the daily dozen and my diary already has chaos written through it like a stick of rock.

Edinburgh’s summer festivals have been cranking into gear for weeks now – and by the end of this one the final pieces of the jigsaw will be in place.

I’m looking forward to finding out what’s in store at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival – partly because its programme is still firmly under wraps.

I’ll be relieved when I finally get a complete sense of what will be unfolding over the summer as I’m currently wrestling with what kind of spreadsheet to work from. For a self-confessed technophobe like me, my favoured choice at the moment are a couple of pieces of cardboard – tucked inside a plastic folder, just in case it rains.

Things used to simpler. At the end of July, or very early August, the city would burst into life with the jazz festival, closely followed by the Tattoo, and that was it until the fireworks finale five weeks or so later.

It’s a bit of a struggle of late to pin down when the whole shebang actually starts. And more so than ever this year.

The jazz festival, which shifted its dates back two years ago to avoid a clash with the Fringe, certainly has a good claim with its Mardi Gras in the Grassmarket, a colourful affair with an uncanny knack of attracting good weather.

This year, as The Scotsman revealed on Saturday, the jazz festival will be joined by a newcomer, the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, which in only its second year has burst out of a Fringe venue and more than doubled the number of days in its programme.

There will be little cross-over between the target audiences for these two events. However, between them, they will be creating that all-important festival buzz at a relatively dead time, culturally, for the city.

And although both events seem to be starting ridiculously early – on 19 July – when many city residents, including me, are still on holiday, there will only be three days of respite between the final fashion and jazz events before the first Fringe shows open on 31 July.

However, a very strong argument could be made that the summer festivals will get under way well before then – on Wednesday afternoon, in fact – when the red carpet is rolled outside the Festival Theatre for the European premiere of US indie drama Breathe In.

I’ve a hunch that the Film Festival might feel properly settled into its mid-June slot properly for the first time since that big break five years ago.

When I put the question out on Twitter as to when the festivals season in Edinburgh formally starts, I got a mixed response. Several people pointed out the film festival was now completely isolated.

But that’s not entirely true. And I’ve got a cheeky idea that might just help matters – and extend the entire extravaganza even further.

Leith Festival, which finished last night, has been a strange beast this past decade. It has been woefully underfunded, at times haphazardly organised and pretty disjointed when it comes to promotion.

Yet, bubbling under the surface is a series of projects – each with its own separate identity – that has made significant waves.

Village Pub Theatre ran a week of pop-up events, the Leith Jazz and Blues Festival deployed just about every watering hole over the weekend, and Leith Walk was transformed into one huge grassroots festival for several hours last Thursday for the Leith Late event.

While Leith Festival has roots in the local community stretching back more than a century, I’ve always felt it has had huge untapped potential which is only now, slowly but surely, being realised. I just wonder whether Leith could take a leap up the pecking order of funding hierarchies at Edinburgh City Council and Creative Scotland and host a fitting curtain-raiser to festivals’ season? To some, this might seem fanciful. To Leithers, it might appear heresy to be lumped in with events like the Fringe. But the council has finally thrown its weight behind opening up the shamefully neglected Leith Theatre building – by handing it over to enthusiasts to get on with the task of fundraising. What Leith now needs is the right person, or crack team, to pull together a plan and the kind of budget that long enjoyed by events like the Edinburgh Mela. To get it going, I’ll even donate a slogan: “The summer starts here.”