Tim Luckhurst: Beware the fantasies of festival Edinburgh

It is like Paris after the liberation. But it is not the reality of contemporary Scotland
Click to follow
The Independent Online

We are at that point in the calendar when Edinburgh is spoken of in Islington and eulogised on Radio 4. Like the mythical city in the fairy tale, this Edinburgh is impermanent. It exists for one month per year.

We are at that point in the calendar when Edinburgh is spoken of in Islington and eulogised on Radio 4. Like the mythical city in the fairy tale, this Edinburgh is impermanent. It exists for one month per year.

The Edinburgh of festival time has little in common with the "city of extraordinary and sordid contrasts" described 70 years ago in Edwin Muir's Scottish Journey. It owes still less to the grimly recognisable depiction in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Edinburgh in August is chic, cosmopolitan and dynamic.

At the Gilded Balloon or Assembly Rooms, once and future Footlights mingle with the spirit of Young Ones departed and the widest selection of friends they will ever encounter north of the M25. Performers who will never make it share anecdotes with those who made it so long ago they are in danger of being forgotten. There are oodles of Chablis, buckets of beer and fresh Scottish mussels from Belgium plucked daily from the freezer.

Once, British high society streamed north to enjoy what it called "our highland playground". But since that annual pilgrimage became popularly associated with blasting semi-domesticated birds to smithereens, it has ceased to be something to boast about. A week in Edinburgh is socially acceptable. Bloodsports are not always.

In fact, festival Edinburgh teaches a lesson about the nature of Britain's real élite. Any doubt that media power now outranks landed aristocracy is dispelled by a stroll through the new town. Houses that were once rented to visiting peers now go, for three times as much, to television executives. Edinburgh becomes Hampstead on Forth, and never more so than during the forthcoming weekend of the television festival.

This is not wrong. Joyless whingeing that the Edinburgh Festival ignores social exclusion is irrational as well as dull. The problem is one of impression. The Edinburgh Festival leaves influential people from England with a spectacularly misleading impression of Scotland.

Scotland was once perceived by those who influenced policy as a sporting facility ideally suited for the conspicuous consumption of leisure by the very rich. Now it is perceived by the very influential as the apogee of good taste and civilised living.

As the owner of a large house less than an hour by train from central Edinburgh, I am exhausted by the strain of correcting the eulogies uttered over my dinner table by guests from London. I mean guests, not friends. Some do not speak to me for years before receiving a late invitation to the television festival and discovering the cost of hotel rooms in Edinburgh. Still, enraptured by the glorious atmosphere of the Royal Mile or simply stunned by that first glimpse of the castle on emerging from Waverley Station, they, almost always, begin by telling me how incredibly lucky I am to live here.

My home is in Glasgow, and I often try to confuse them by saying simply: "You mean lucky to live in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh? Yes, I am." But it makes no difference. They have all been to one of the Fringe shows in which comediennes from Taunton demonstrate their familiarity with contemporary Scotland by making jokes about Glaswegian hostility to Edinburgh. They just assume I'm part of the act and continue.

The typical English haute-bourgeois fantasy at his time of year runs like this. "Oh, just think. We could live in a huge house in the new town, and have money left over for a cottage in the Highlands. The children could all go to state schools. We could both walk to work in the mornings. All our friends would flock to visit."

Hard facts about soaring property prices, state schools that perform less well than English comprehensives and the real problem of anti-English prejudice in the Scottish professions are met with stunned incomprehension. Nobody ever mentions these aspects of Scottish life. They are barely audible on the BBC. Can they possibly be true?

I explain that, in Scotland, paying school fees for secondary education is more common than ever before and that cronyism is a constant of Scottish political life. It is hopeless.

Edinburgh during festival time is like Paris in the week of liberation. The atmosphere is charged with glorious possibility. Fifty-year-olds remember how it felt to be an undergraduate. Real students fall in love even more intensely than usual. It is exactly how the world's greatest arts festival ought to feel, an experience that can cheer the cynical and enrapture the normally placid.

My plea is simple. Do not confuse those feelings with the reality of contemporary Scotland. Delusions like that lead influential people to believe nonsense. This haven of pleasure in August is still, for the rest of the year, more than capable of reminding affluent festival goers why that dinner table dream is rarely acted upon.

That is why the real population trend is in the opposite direction. Those who visit every August should recognise that the only bit of Scotland they know feels tremendously progressive because all their friends are in it at the same time. Then they go home and take their illusions with them. Untamed, what starts with a drink on George Street ends with the grim corruption of regional devolution for England, too.