Street artists and their admirers can be annoying, but the Festival makes the Capital more interesting, says Aidan Smith.
It’s a classic Edinburgh image. Not as lyrical as reverends skating on Duddingston Loch or as majestic as sailing boats sweeping under the Forth Bridge and so artists wouldn’t paint it. But maybe they should.
It’s a classic image because it tells of an epic struggle: the little old lady battling through the Festival crowds to reach her bus stop. She doesn’t live in the city centre but must negotiate it regularly. She could be returning home from her cleaning job at a couple of swish townhouses. She might have been meeting her sister for afternoon tea on the top floor of a department store.
Either way, the world’s biggest and greatest arts festival is a pain in the backside. Not just the daredevil who’s drawn a large gathering for his bed-of-nails stunt, so blocking a path to the wee wifey’s stop for the No 22, but all of it. All of the performers and all of the crowds. All of the leafleters and especially that trust-fund twerp challenged by the rest of his undergraduate troupe to attempt to shock the natives with the old refrain: “Live sex on stage! Every day at 3.45pm except Mondays!”
Our little old lady has seen it all before. Not the sex, obviously, but the sight of Edinburgh engorged every August, swelling to four times its normal size. And as she reaches her stop, having missed two buses already, she delivers an old refrain of her own to the assembled exhibitionists: “Away and work!”
What is Embra to do with its cultural clamjamfry? Is the place about to burst because of too many students and too many comedians and too many chancers? Are the good people who live there, who can’t get onto the heavily potholed roads for all this art, about to call proceedings to a halt with a quick clap of the hands, and pronounce: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”?
“Public fury at Festival impact reaches an all-time peak,” ran a headline in The Scotsman the other day. A poll carried out in the capital by council officials discovered “negativity” towards the Festival on an unprecedented scale. And their report warned that “perception of the Festival may have reached a level where it represents a strategic risk to the long-term success of the city”.
The struggle between thesp and local is not a recent development. Thirty-five years ago, as a junior reporter on The Scotsman’s sister paper, the Evening News, I was regularly despatched onto the streets at Festival-time to check on it.
From the performers’ side, you wanted a positive story with a star-of-the-future gushing extravagantly about the beauty of the city and the bountiful opportunities it afforded artists. On one such occasion, unknown teenager Rachel Weisz obliged.
From the residents’ side, the ratepaying, we-have-to-live-here contingent, you hoped for a moan. This was not the paper being anti-Festival, far from it. We were proud of Edinburgh’s world-class reputation based on those three weeks in August, but had to square this with the capital’s more prosaic needs (every other day the “Action Wanted” page would highlight the plight of poor blighters living in council houses enduring world-class dampness and rat-infestation).
And if the moan concerned nudity – fantastic. You phoned up Councillor Moira Knox, Edinburgh’s Mary Whitehouse, who’d ask for venue and performance times so she could see the orgiastic outrage for herself.
Any city staging, and part-funding, an arts spectacular would be prey to the tensions currently in the air in Edinburgh but not all cities are as prim, perjink and douce as this one. If the Edinburgh Festival was the Festival de Paree and in its 71st year, or it had been established in Berlin or Amsterdam for the same length of time, there would be no such issues of size or scale or congestion or the inability of its inhabitants to “get on with normal life,” as the Edinburgh survey puts it.
Here, the annual invitation to “let it all hang out” comes from a city that likes to keep it all tucked in – thus that tension is world-class as well. Is there anywhere else in the world which would get its knickers in a twist about art to such an extent – even though this is a place which, according to legend, isn’t supposed to wear any under its fur coat?
Edinburgh, as exemplified by that little old lady bashing trick-cyclists and devoted Shakespeare scholars about the head with her brolly in an effort to reach the bus stop, is the Festival’s biggest star. But a warning, a voice from the wings: she shouldn’t get too big for her boots or think it’s all about her.
If the grumbles in that poll were to grow, if more and more of Edinburgh’s citizens were to reach the conclusion that the Festival made the city “a worse place to live”, then the risk to the event’s future would presumably edge closer to reality.
Now, I’m an Edinburgh playwright’s son whose teenage summers were spent in thrall to the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd and I reckon the city likes making a crisis out of a drama and wouldn’t go as far as to stop the greatest show on earth. Because other places in Britain and around the world would love to have the problems of all that culture and not quite enough makeshift stages.
They’re green-eyed with envy that it’s called the Edinburgh Festival and would nab it faster than you or indeed that chump in his pater’s fedora could say: “Live sex on stage! Every day at 3.45pm except Mondays!”
I mean, how normal does Edinburgh want normal life to be? As normal as Glasgow’s ...?