It’s that time of year again: and yesterday, in the usual mood of slightly frantic celebration, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society launched its annual programme brochure, which once again contains more shows than ever before – this time, it’s more than 40,000 performances of 2,871 shows, in 273 venues across the city.
The 2013 Fringe will be 6.5 per cent larger than last year’s; and it will, as usual, run alongside Edinburgh’s dazzling range of other August festivals, including the Edinburgh International Festival, the Book Festival and the world-famous Military Tattoo.
Ask the people of Edinburgh how their city is doing, of course, and you are never likely to be rewarded with much more than a bitter laugh. From the never-ending tram works – unwanted, unsightly, and breathtakingly expensive – to rows like this week’s furious battle over Leith Waterworld (a much-loved local facility set to be saved by a community initiative until the council abruptly changed its mind in favour of ready cash from a commercial developer), Edinburgh’s municipal government remains, in the eyes of its citizens, a perennial byword for daft and perverse decisions, and for well-meaning councillors struggling to make any impact on a juggernaut of stubborn bureaucracy.
And yet, for all that, the story of Edinburgh over the past half-century has been one of surprising and persistent success, of a city that has ridden wave after wave of economic change and continued to grow and prosper, inching upward from a population of about 300,000 in the mid-20th century to a predicted 600,000 in the 2030s.
According to some calculations, Edinburgh will overtake Glasgow to become Scotland’s biggest city some time in the next 20 years, although that figure is distorted by boundary changes; and just this week, Edinburgh emerged from a survey as the happiest city in the UK, thanks to its consistently high quality of life.
So on days like yesterday – when the city’s largest and most anarchic festival once again proves its robust indifference to the very idea of economic recession – I sometimes wonder whether this idea of “Festival”, brought to the city in the darkest days of postwar austerity, is not in some way central to Edinburgh’s continuing success.
It is arguable, of course, that the Festival owes as little to the wisdom of the city fathers and mothers as any other positive aspect of Edinburgh life; the original idea for it came from a group of London-based postwar artists, led by the conductor Rudolf Bing.
Yet in truth, the city’s Lord Provost back in 1947, John Falconer, welcomed the festival with great warmth, and made its international vision his own; and today, the council continues to support the festival as generously as it can, not only with money, but with its tireless logistical efforts in inspecting and licensing hundreds of Fringe venues. And for all the grunting and moaning of Edinburgh residents down the decades – about the crowds, the congested traffic, the pavement posses of students in silly costumes – Edinburgh has never, since that founding year of 1947, really wanted to lose its title of “Festival City”.
It fits the handsome contours of the place like a glove; and in those dusty post-war years, when pubs closed at 9:30pm, and restaurants were few, it began the long, slow, vital process of reawakening Edinburgh’s dormant public spaces, of providing the city with new direct links to the wider world, and of transforming it once again from a provincial town, into a beautiful world city.
I would suggest, as this year’s Festival heaves over the horizon, that the effect of that kind of shift – in a city’s image and self-image, in its sense of itself and its place in the world – may simply be beyond calculation. The economic impact of the Festivals can be and has been measured, of course; some £250 million a year is the current ballpark figure. And their cultural impact is impossible to deny, in the life-stories of generations of Scottish artists for whom the Festival has been platform, opportunity, inspiration; and of audiences transformed by their annual encounter with the best in world music, dance, theatre and visual art.
Yet beyond that, I also suspect – although I doubt if it could ever be proved – that the rebirth of Scotland’s capital as postwar Europe’s first and greatest festival city began a process of change, of development, and of emerging creativity and confidence, that cannot be separated from the political story of Scotland, over the past half century.
It’s a kind of change that has become intensely fashionable since the 1980s, of course, as cities strive to rebrand and reinvent themselves through the arts; some have fallen prey to the idea that cultural transformation can be bought off the peg, as a kind of civic purchase, when in fact it depends on a deep, unpredictable and slightly anarchic alliance between the most serious of artists and the bravest of funders.
Here in Scotland, though, our beautiful capital had the immense good luck – the mighty, eloquent stroke of fortune – to find itself decades ahead of that game.
Thanks to its festival, Edinburgh emerged onto the world stage as a “city of culture” long before the phrase had ever been invented; and it entered the 21st century – the age of information and creativity, of self-expression and global networking – with credentials in those areas that were beyond price, an image that no marketing campaign could ever have bought.
If the city’s economic performance has remained surprisingly robust during the present recession, that powerful positive image must form part of the reason.
And today, as some councils north and south of the Border target their arts budgets for 100 per cent cuts, the story of Edinburgh since 1947 reminds us of just one thing: that although some outcomes of arts spending can be predicted, there is finally no measuring where a pound well spent on a cultural initiative may take you; if only because it will take you – over decades and generations – into a future of which you have barely begun to dream, but which some artists, somewhere, have already begun to conceive and make possible, in the magical working-house of their minds.