Desire Lines (part two)

A few days ago I wrote a provocation for the Scotsman inspired by the Desire Lines project, arguing that the intense concentration of culture in Edinburgh during August is psychologically damaging to the city. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to arrive at Summerhall for the launch of Desire Lines and discover that the very first speaker was Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian, talking about the relationship between the arts and mental health, and the transformative effect one can have on the other.

I have a particular interest in this subject. I recently started working in arts development for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF), looking at ways to expand its programme throughout the year. Linda is one of the people I will be working with as things progress. After hearing what she had to say on Monday I’m looking forward to that all the more. Meanwhile, I think the psychological effect of Edinburgh’s annual cultural binge merits further exploration. (For the record, everything that follows is entirely my own view; it does not represent the views of SMHAFF).

The event on Monday night identified many hindrances to prospering as an artist in Edinburgh, year round. Most are practical and easily identified. As expected, Edinburgh’s strict noise laws, a crippling obstacle to the city’s live music scene, came up a lot – particularly in a barnstorming speech by Olaf Furniss, who identified numerous double standards and made the very reasonable suggestion that, just as a music venue moving into a residential area is required to invest in soundproofing, so should new residences built in an area with an existing music venue. Other obstacles identified included a lack of cheap – or ideally free – rehearsal or workshop spaces for theatre companies, artists and musicians; and strict new licensing laws that risk making pop-up events virtually impossible (even for Unique Events’ Pete Irvine, who is at the top of his game when it comes to this sort of thing).

Most of these things are, in theory, fixable by more enlightened policy and better communication (although the licensing issue is unfortunately UK-wide; thank you Westminster) and might not even need that much of a cash investment, which will come as a relief to Edinburgh City Council. What’s needed, in many cases, is simply a change of attitudes at local government level. The complicating factor is that the people who need persuading seem to be mostly unelected officials rather than elected councillors. The good news is that the elected councillors appear to be in the mood to listen and empathise. Desire Lines, although run by arts organisations, was suggested by them. Its very existence is a sign of progress.

But Edinburgh, I think, faces a deeper, more complex problem – one I touched upon in my piece for the Scotsman. And it’s absolutely related to mental health – the mental health not of individuals but of a whole city, of a culture. It’s a tricky thing to put your finger on, but look at it this way. A once-a-year cultural binge on the scale of Edinburgh is the diet of someone with bulimia. Psychologically, it is a culture of extreme mood swings. As a physical exercise regime, it’s sprinting for an hour then doing barely any exercise for a week. My friend Camille O’Sullivan compares the Fringe to a marathon. If you have any sense, you pace yourself in order to get through it, but actually however you run the race you end up physically and emotionally exhausted. For the past 13 years I have been running the Scotsman’s festival coverage (and, in recent years, Scotland on Sunday’s too). By the end I am a wreck. In September, virtually everyone I know is ill. This is, clearly, not conducive to positive mental health.

The festival seems to inspire a kind of masochism in some regular performers – a desire to see how far you can push it. Think of Mark Watson and his 24 or 36 hour shows. Think of the endurance test that is Late N Live, or an all night theatre show at Summerhall. The way that the festival pushes you to your limits has come to shape the art created within it. And I’m talking here about the people who know what to expect and adapt accordingly. Some people – the beginners, the naïve – are traumatised by the experience, by the pressure to succeed, by the sight of others arriving as unknowns and leaving as award-laden heroes, while their own show continues to perform to five people in week three. One year, I received a phone call from the Fringe office to tell me they’d had a performer visit them in floods of tears, telling them that if they didn’t get a Scotsman review then their entire trip – all that money, all those months of work and preparation – would have been wasted. Wow, I thought at the time, that’s an extreme reaction. But really it was a normal reaction to an extreme situation, in which artists are expected to make huge financial and emotional sacrifices in pursuit of the slimmest of hopes – the elusive five star review that will make their career. 

I’ll come back to mental health in a moment. But first, a necessary aside.

It was a little unfair, I accept, for me to liken Edinburgh culture to a regime of feast and famine. A couple of colleagues from a very well established, very successful festival that takes place in Edinburgh outside of August chided me for this at different times on Monday. Edinburgh is hardly a cultural desert the rest of the year, they said. Well of course it isn’t. It would be a terrible insult to all the artists who live and work here – some of whom are good friends – if I was to suggest that. But that wasn’t my point. What I’m talking about is perception, and its psychological effect. Ask virtually anyone, anywhere, what the (generally interchangeable) phrases ‘Edinburgh festival’ or ‘Edinburgh festivals’ mean to them, and they will tell you that it means what happens in Edinburgh in August. As much as those of us working in the arts in Edinburgh throughout the year would like that not to be true, it is true. Sorry. And Edinburgh’s August festivals have become a shorthand for its culture in general. We can’t address this without first acknowledging it.

What Edinburgh faces, fundamentally, is a problem of perception. Many of the observations made at Desire Lines on Monday night reflected this. I’m thinking of Caitlin Skinner of Village Pub Theatre, who said that she is told constantly how wonderful it is that something like Village Pub Theatre is happening in Edinburgh. Somehow it is surprising to people that Caitlin is doing theatre in the back room of a pub in a city that stages a festival, every year, in which thousands of people do theatre in the back rooms of pubs. What people are really surprised by, here, is that someone would bother to make Fringe-like theatre in Edinburgh outside of the Fringe.

And I’m thinking of Olaf Furniss, who echoed Caitlin’s comments by saying he is often asked by people why he chose to stage his Born to be Wide and Wide Days events – projects that have energised the city’s music scene – in Edinburgh. To which Olaf’s response is: ‘Why wouldn’t I? I live here.’ Again, consider what an extraordinary conversation this is. Olaf combines working in tourism with working in the music industry, and was at Desire Lines partly to pitch a music tourism idea. Why on earth would Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, be considered a remotely obtuse choice or a difficult sell to any visitors from the music industry?

This is, I suggest, evidence of a very particular kind of Scottish cultural cringe, a cringe that somehow posits that Edinburgh, far from being a successful cultural city, is not a cultural city at all. Not a city of living, evolving, radical contemporary culture, at least. It is a heritage city – the downside of all that old, stunningly beautiful architecture. Or it’s a financial centre. Or it’s for shopping.

Oh there’s the festival, sure (and again, I’m using this as shorthand for ‘all the festivals that happen in August’, because everybody does), in all its beautiful, energising, often radical variety, but somehow that is not Edinburgh. It’s a thing mostly made up of other people coming to Edinburgh, to showcase careers that have been built up elsewhere, or to launch careers that will continue elsewhere. It’s for the tourists. Think of the long-held perception that the festival is somehow not for the people of Edinburgh (despite a majority of its audience being local). Think of what is regarded as an Edinburgh festival success story, what is regarded as newsworthy. It’s a famous name from somewhere else gracing us with their presence. Or it is someone from here whose success at the festival means they can now go and be successful somewhere else.

Or the story is about numbers – the sheer scale of the event meaning that scale is often all that is talked about, because it seems like the only way to make sense of it. How many shows? How many venues? How many tickets sold? And how much money is being made? One of the ugliest marketing slogans ever dreamed up, in my opinion, is ‘Edinburgh: Inspiring Capital’, three words that blithely imply that the whole purpose of culture in Edinburgh is to make money. I’m thinking of another remark by Caitlin Skinner, that one of the problems artists face outside of August is the festival mentality of Edinburgh institutions – that artists are people you can make money out of. An attitude that is wholly inappropriate and exasperatingly counterproductive outside of August, but which somehow sticks.

One of my favourite parts of Desire Lines was a visual presentation by Malcolm Fraser, in which he reminded us of the wonder of Edinburgh’s architecture – not as a heritage site, but as a living sculpture, a living stage set. All those different levels, the sudden changes of perspective, the sheer overwhelming three dimensionality of it all. It is the architecture, Malcolm argued, that makes the festival possible, just as it made the Enlightenment possible, all those different kinds of people piled on top of each other in a small space, the unplanned encounters that generate radical ideas. To thrive culturally year round, Edinburgh needs to find new kinds of inspiration in these spaces (just as it manages to do during the festival), to use them better – perhaps by taking up Malcolm’s idea for a year-round outdoor dance space and ice rink in the Grassmarket, just outside Dance Base, instead of using the space for drinking alcohol behind wooden picket fences.

That said, it is ironic that while the architecture of the old town continues to enhance the festival, the city’s expansion since the Enlightenment has left that same architecture highlighting its social segregation. The beautiful old town: a place for the privileged. The schemes: where the poor are hidden away. I’m thinking of an Andrew Maxwell joke. Where are the poor of Edinburgh? They’re behind the mountain. No wonder so many people in Edinburgh feel the festival is not for them. It mostly takes place in a part of the city that is for someone else. The middle classes. The tourists.

What does all this do to the mental health of a city, to its culture? For the city’s poor and disenfranchised, it alienates. And for the city’s artists, it makes them feel – as I said in my Scotsman piece – abandoned and bereft. There are of course some things that can be done within the structure of August’s festival culture to help offset this. Made in Scotland, for example, has gone a long way towards increasing the visibility and perceived value of Scottish work within the Fringe. The Book Festival, as its director Nick Barley was keen to point out on Monday, is working hard to involve a wider variety of local people. There is Desire Lines itself, a project which is being spearheaded by establishment festival figures like Barley and Faith Liddell of Festivals Edinburgh but is also pulling in key players from the city’s year-round grassroots scene, like Morvern Cunningham and Bart Owl. There is the notion, explored on Monday, of extending the Fringe to Leith. The part of the Fringe that is now dominated by the commercial clout of those who operate in a small area around Bristo Square may prove reluctant to engage with this. But power can shift dramatically at the Fringe within a short time. Think of Summerhall, second only to the Traverse as the Fringe’s most important theatre venue (and, perhaps, not second for that much longer) just four years after it opened. There are clear desire lines currently pointing towards Leith. It could happen, and could potentially be driven by the city’s own grassroots artists.

In the end, though, there may be no getting around the domineering relationship that Edinburgh’s August activity has with the city. My suggested solution – to extend the summer festival brand to December and January – may or not be practical or desirable. It may be, in fact, that nothing significant can be done without risking damage to the festival itself. There is a downside to every success story, and perhaps the downside to hosting the world’s biggest arts festival is that we inevitably end up living in the shadow of it, forever. But, as the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival demonstrates, the way to address mental health issues is often simply to talk about them, openly, honestly, creatively and unapologetically. To understand. To be aware. To empathise. And if full recovery is not possible – which, sometimes, it isn’t – you find a way to adapt, manage your expectations, make peace with it. Desire Lines is a good first step on that journey, wherever it ends up.


2 thoughts on “Desire Lines (part two)

  1. A thoughtful piece, Andrew.

    I’d argue, though, that you’re creating an unhelpful polarity between what happens in August and what happens in the rest of the year. In 1961, a theatre director called Gerard Slevin argued it would be better if “only ten halls were licensed” on the Fringe. People have been complaining about it being too big ever since. But I think that’s missing the point. The nature of a festival is that is is festive. The late nights, the partying, the cultural overload, the impossibility of getting to see everything are not side-effects, they’re what it’s about.

    Your deliberately provocative provocation proposed that the Fringe should be half the size and twice as long. Apart from the logistical and ethical questions this would create in an open-access festival, it misses the point of what a festival is all about. Like Christmas and Hogmanay, it’s supposed to be the exception not the norm.

    Equally, however, I think you’re onto something when you use the August festivals as an example. Isn’t it odd that the council has such an amazing reputation for licensing venues on the Fringe, but such a poor reputation when it comes to helping venues year round? Isn’t it odd that the city can find so many temporary performance spaces in August, but always seems to struggle to get the balance right for the rest of the year (at least for music)?

    I’d argue that we should use all that is good about the festivals in August as an example of what can be done at other times. To an extent, this is what is already been done by Festivals Edinburgh and the organisations it represents – and, although I wasn’t at the Desire Lines event on Monday, it sounds like what many people are trying to do across the city as well. As your concluding paragraph seems to suggest, it shouldn’t be a case of either/or, but getting the best of both worlds.


  2. And to pursue your mental-health analogy a little further, it is healthy to let off steam every once in a while, but not particularly healthy if you did it for long periods of time. If there’s a problem, it is not in the one-off exuberance of the festivals, it’s in the repression of the rest of the year (although I’m not sure it is that repressed).


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