Two articles have appeared over the last weekend which come to contrary positions on whether Edinburgh has yet fallen to the philistines. In Bright Green Scotland, the theatre director Harry Giles warns that “Edinburgh is Sleepwalking into a Cultural Disaster,” which leaves me with an odd image of five hundred thousand people in pyjamas together waking up in the dead of night, possibly out in the Pentlands, in the middle of a gigantic performance of Riverdance. Giles describes himself as a “performance poet,” a “facilitator and workshop leader,” and “an author of interactive fiction,” so he is probably the last person in Edinburgh to have any sensible ideas about culture, but his article makes the case for inexorable cultural decline:
The litany has become terribly familiar: La Belle Angele, the Big Red Door, the Lot, the Roxy Arthouse, the Forest Café, and now Cabaret Voltaire and the Bongo Club. In the last decade, Edinburgh’s independent arts venues have been closed or threatened with closure, one by one…Venues like Out of the Blue in Leith, North Edinburgh Arts in Pilton and The Space in Craigmillar continue to do sterling work, but the closures have entirely gutted community access in central Edinburgh. In circumstances like these, it’s difficult to see how our communities will ever produce artists in the first place, even if we bring back venues for them to perform in.
But just as dread seizes your heart and you are instinctively starting to look about the living room for a weapon, a second article pops up to argue the exact opposite. Writing in the Observer, Tracy McVeigh claims that, “Edinburgh Takes Pride in a Cultural Renaissance.” This is not to say that figures comparable to Petrarch and Titian are currently reinventing the modern mind in Edinburgh, but rather that the people in charge of the city’s culture have reopened the museum, spruced up the National Portrait Gallery, and the Festival looks quite good this year. McVeigh’s list plummets to spectacular heights:
Tourists are recognising Edinburgh’s renaissance, helped by the exposure generated by royal weddings – Zara Phillips and rugby star Mike Tindall got hitched here last year – and films such as One Day, which have exposed the city’s stunning architecture to a wider audience. Luxury hotels and restaurants have also been springing up. Last week a new Michelin guide to Europe’s main cities listed only 11 guest houses of note – but six were in Edinburgh.
A renaissance in a teacup. Thinking very carefully about whether Edinburgh’s culture is burgeoning or declining, I realise that I have absolutely no idea. I hope that I am not indifferent to the question, although I fear that I may be.
Edinburgh’s day-to-day culture is the same as it has always been. Whether highly-paid architects of the Festival preparing to showcase something sensational – or embittered “performance poets” holding a “festival” in somebody’s grotty cellar – the same characters persist in generating the same “culture,” mostly as an extension of identity politics or as a pissing to mark their individual territory. The crux of “culture” is that it resides in the people, not in institutions which we have to defend from the justice of the market (as Giles would have it) or in a public policy which stimulates the consumption of culture (as McVeigh appears to have it).
Giles argues that, “what’s happening doesn’t just present a tremendous risk to Edinburgh’s local arts culture, it also indicates a shameful lack of cultural leadership,” which sounds quite plausible, but he then defines this failure of leadership as “the refusal of the property sector, local government or creative support organisations to step into the breach.” I am sure that Shakespeare would agree that he owed everything to innovative property developers and the support of vital local government quangoes. Giles is right to campaign against a particularly meddlesome local government initiative to license free public events. Working in a bar myself, I am aware that any business can suffer death by a thousand regulations, and that complying with everything from health-and-safety requirements to the terms of the latest Licensing Act can only infuriate anybody who is impatient to get anything done. But if Giles’ beloved Forest Café was truly an arts centre, then it would be foremostly a community, rather than merely a business or a property, and this would render it indestructible.
McVeigh is on a surer footing by equating culture with popularity, and taking heart from bustling museums and mushrooming hotels. Whether this is the most that the city can expect from its culture is a moot point, but perhaps culture is ultimately unpredictable, something that cannot be determined by governments or safeguarded along with a certain number of arts venues and policy initiatives. I only hope that whenever the next Robert Louis Stevenson or Norman MacCaig adds another chapter to Edinburgh’s culture, Tychy will be on the spot.