Arts: A drink in the last-chance salon

Ideas, politics, networking - can the salon be revived? Edinburgh thinks so.
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The Independent Culture
Having embraced the Q&A, the meet 'n' greet and the masterclass, the Edinburgh Festival has over the past week discovered the very latest in multi-disciplinary, artistic interaction: the salon. Forget about snuff boxes and perfumed periwigs, though. Lizzie Francke and Faith Liddell, directors of the Edinburgh international film and book festivals respectively, believe that the salon could make a comeback as a forum for artistic brainstorming. The institution began in France in the 17th century and flourished over the next two centuries as an engine-room of ideas, letters and politics, usually presided over by a hostess of high social or intellectual status.

The word salon tarts up what is in fact a simple occasion - an evening meal or gathering, on a non-professional basis, of figures reputed in their fields. In this case, Francke and Liddell invited film-makers and authors to attend one of a series of salon suppers at the Roxburghe Hotel in Edinburgh. The purpose of these half-dozen salons depends on which of the organisers you listen to. "They create a place where people can either get drunk or talk ideas or get introduced to other people's work," says Francke. "The Festival's a big party, anyway." On the other hand, according to Claire Fox, a hostess of one of the salons and co-publisher of LM magazine, participants remove their professional hats at the door and enter "a place of lively intellectual exchange with a bit of an off- the-record feel; a place to unravel some ideas over a meal or drinks".

Despite the congregation of so many complementary art forms in Edinburgh at this time of year, Francke and Liddell feel that the film and book festivals have ignored collaborative opportunities - a situation that they believe the salons could redress. "We are all in our enclaves and it's important for us to get out. There are so many links between writers and film-makers," says Liddell.

As for the events themselves, tales emerged from the initial salons of exotic Scandinavian novelists and their flunkeys, of high-falutin' debates on the nature of fact and fiction, and of below-the-belt deliberations on kinky sex. The author Andrew O'Hagan proved to be the biggest of the wigs present at the salon I attended. However, a rump of indie film-makers from New Zealand, Ireland, the USA and Australia outnumbered him and his fellow Scottish scribe, the poet Robert Crawford. Indeed, no sooner were the main courses done with than the writing contingent made their excuses and left. The remainder of the evening was given over to the directors' accounts of their distribution hell and the fleeting whereabouts of a German film festival's "man in Edinburgh". And what did the participants make of it? Fun? Certainly. A beneficial exercise in cross-disciplinary bridge-building? Hardly.

How, then, do these salons differ from a hard night pressing the flesh at the Groucho Club? "It's more formal than just dropping in. And while there aren't obvious expectations, there's hope - I don't know if you have hope at the Groucho Club," laughs Liddell. To Fox, the glad-handing that takes place is of a different order: "These are networking opportunities, but not in the narrow sense of `Will you be useful to me because I might pitch you an idea?' People were going round buying each others' books and recommending things others should read or see."

Nevertheless, the question is still valid, particularly when one considers the avenues of communication between film-makers, writers, and movers and shakers of any sort. Liddell disagrees: "Writing is a solitary activity. These social occasions are very important - they're nourishing. I think people feel themselves more and more isolated. What these salon dinners are about is cross-fertilisation." We mustn't confuse quality of ideas with quantity, adds Fox: "You might have access to ideas on the Internet, but if all those are bland and boring, then what's the bloody point?"

As well as being a member of the London dining clubs The Maverick and The Boisdale, where salons are regularly held, Fox is responsible for the occasional salons run by LM. These events are oriented more towards cultural politics, as befits LM and the series of debates the magazine initiated earlier this year, "Culture Wars".

While few doubt the honourable aims of the salons, it's trickier to discern in what ways they benefit Joe Public. For Fox, though, salons can be instrumental in creating debates: "I think debates have become unfashionable. To ask questions and make people work through things with rigour is a good thing."

Moreover, one of the qualities of salon discussions is their welcome frankness, according to Fox. There is an unspoken rule that what is spoken during a salon remains off-the-record. In my case, that means the identity of the film director on my table who threw a tantrum when told about the hotel's non-smoking policy shall forever remain unknown.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 0131-228 5444, to 30 August; Edinburgh International Film Festival 0131-229 2550, to 29 August