Kevin Williamson: Fees will kill off culture at grassroots

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Proposed public entertainment licences would be a hammer-blow to grassroots culture in the Capital, argues Kevin Williamson

It doesn’t seem like 20 years ago, but on May 1, 1992, I launched the first issue of Rebel Inc magazine in the upstairs café of the old James Thin shop in George Street.

Six writers read from their work that evening, including an unknown Leith author called Irvine Welsh. Thus began a ten-year adventure in publishing which developed into an internationally acclaimed creative partnership with Canongate Books.

The early 1990s were an exciting time to be involved in grassroots culture in Edinburgh. A diverse vibrant club scene was scattered across the city, art exhibitions popped up in weird and wonderful places, and there were plenty of venues for up-and-coming bands to build their reputations.

When Rebel Inc first kicked off I was evangelical about literature and wanted to take live poetry in particular to unexpected and interesting places. We organised literary events in cafes, bars, restaurants, community centres, libraries, independent bookshops, the back rooms of cinemas, unemployed worker centres, at private parties, in club chill-out rooms, and even in outdoor parks such Princes Street Gardens.

There was an anarchic feel to much of it. We felt we were breaking new ground and opening people’s ears and eyes to an edgy new literature that came from the heart and soul of the city, from the streets, the clubs and the football terraces.

At one such event in the summer of 1992, Irvine Welsh read a new short story called Disnae Matter. Performed is a more accurate description. A stand-up comic couldn’t have delivered it with better timing. Afterwards, sides still aching with laughter, I grabbed the sheets of paper out of his hand to publish in the second issue of Rebel Inc. That was the performance that convinced me that Irvine was the best performer of his own writing I’d ever heard. And that still stands.

Fast forward 20 years and it troubles me greatly that the sort of grassroots culture that allowed Rebel Inc to thrive, help develop new talent, and which gave us writers like Irvine Welsh, is now under threat.

Make no mistake about it – if the forthcoming public entertainment licensing laws had been passed back then Rebel Inc would have struggled to get off the ground. Few of these venues would have allowed us to put on magazine launches and guerrilla-style pop-up cultural events, not if the local council was demanding a hefty entertainment licence fee.

In Leith, where I’ve lived in the last few months, I’ve been to free poetry, music and film events at the likes of Elvis Shakespeare bookshop, Embo café, and the Word of Mouth café. These small standalone Leith businesses are nurturing grassroots culture and emerging artists. But come April 1 it’ll be over. They won’t be able to afford a licence fee.

Why is the council being asked to go down this road? Cafes, galleries and bookshops already pay business rates for council services. Why should they fork out a hefty licence fee on top of this to stage art exhibitions, poetry readings and other such free or non-profit-making cultural events?

What do the venues get back in return for this licence fee? Answer: absolutely nothing. The only comparable arrangement I can think of is the Mafia demanding protection money from legitimate businesses. Give us your dough or we’ll shut you down.

It staggers me that the Scottish Government – which claims to encourage the arts – has passed such poisonous anti-culture legislation. I hope Edinburgh council will have the good sense to take a leaf out of Glasgow’s book and at the very least put it on hold in order to consult wider with arts and cultural organisations.

Grassroots culture in Edinburgh – for all the fanfare of big-budget festivals – is struggling. Since the heady days of Rebel Inc came to an end ten years ago, independent book stores have all but gone. We’ve lost venues such as La Belle Angele to fire, the old Bongo Club in New Street was demolished and turned into an empty gap site, the much-loved Venue is now a posh gallery, Cabaret Voltaire is closing, Edinburgh University is trying to evict the new Bongo Club from Moray House and the Roxy Art Centre and Forest Café were closed due to financial mismanagement.

There are now very few medium-sized venues for bands to play. Such a level of carnage is hard to recover from. Culture needs spaces to develop local talent.

If Edinburgh council wants to bang a final nail in our city’s struggling grassroots culture then, for sure, press ahead with this crazy legislation. But don’t come crying for votes when our reputation as a city of culture becomes irredeemably tarnished. You’ll be responsible for screwing it up for everyone.

n Kevin Williamson is the founder of Rebel Inc, a poet and co-founder of monthly Neu!Reekie! literary cabaret.

n A public meeting to campaign against public entertainment licences, with speakers including independent producer Chloe Dear, Neil Mulholland from Edinburgh College of Art and councillor Rob Munn, deputy chair of the licensing committee will take place on Thursday, March 1, at Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Dalmeny Street, from 7pm to 9pm.

Ditch this archaic idea

New York-born singer Lach, founder of the Anti-folk scene, said: “As someone who has been on the forefront of artistic movements in New York City for the last two-plus decades I think the potential I see in Scotland for groundbreaking work is not to be taken lightly.

“However, my enthusiasm and trust has taken a serious hit as I see the council considering requiring licences for free events. This will choke the life out of a budding artistic population.

The time to foster year-round free events in the spirit of The Fringe is now, the archaic idea of needing licensing for them should be thrown out entirely.

“Imagine The Beatles had set up an their impromptu concert on a roof in Edinburgh instead of London. Do you want to be the one to tell them to stop playing because they didn’t get a licence or do you want to be the one grinning and dancing to Get Back? The choice is yours.”