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Festival exposes a tale of two cities

Once I wrote, for another newspaper, a partly frivolous, partly serious piece in which I articulated the views of not just myself, but also of some grouchy Edinburgh citizens who regarded the city's annual arts festival as an encumbrance, an annual visitation to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Indeed, I dared to suggest it might be better if the Edinburgh Festival did not exist.

This made a good man very upset. He was the arts editor of the paper in question, and he had been a kind and encouraging colleague to me. But he adored the Edinburgh Festival with something close to fanaticism and was astounded that anyone could suggest, even half in jest, that the festival was something the capital city could do without.

He told me that he "just lived" for the three weeks each summer when the city was utterly transformed. I asked if the transformation lasted. Was there any residue, after everything had returned to normal? To make this point I wrote a further piece called "Not Long till November".

Many people do genuinely believe that this huge arts festival - and its even bigger sister festival, the sprawling, inchoate fringe - are truly transformative. The current director of the Edinburgh Festival, Sir Jonathan Mills, expresses his belief in the transformative power of culture in this year's official festival programme.

This, I reckon, is still not the view of most of the citizenry of Edinburgh. While some of them undoubtedly cherish the festival, others find it annoying, a nuisance to be tholed.

A significant third group - many of whom make money out of it in one way or another - deploy a grudging, equivocating and very Scottish endorsement.

Overall, I reckon it's the many visitors who are en fete, not the citizenry.

And while many of the capital's citizens do support the festival and buy a lot of tickets, they can be pretty cautious. Many of them prefer what is safe, tried and tested to the daring and challenging. I once watched, in embarrassment, an official festival production of a new, radical (and possibly transforming) production of Kleist's play The Broken Jug in the very large King's Theatre. Fewer than 30 people had bought tickets.

Although comparisons can indeed be odious, I reckon it's fair to suggest that Edinburgh is a less welcoming city than Glasgow. I genuinely doubt if Edinburgh could have hosted a great international event with the sheer chutzpah, exuberance, and manifest delight that Glasgow displayed during the recent Commonwealth Games. (Edinburgh has hosted the Games twice; the first time was a modest success; the second, a catastrophic failure). Glasgow always welcomes; sometimes Edinburgh winces.

But this argument is about more than two cities. It's about the potential of art and culture. Politics can transform, for good and bad, and religion can too, again for good and bad. When art joins with politics it can indeed be transformative, but there is the danger of it becoming propaganda. Plato, as I understand it, would have banned art from his ideal republic, although he might have allowed an exception for some music.

I'd never ban art, and I'd never ban festivals. I just think that some places are better suited to hosting festivals than others, and I also think that the paramount importance of allowing artists and performers complete freedom must not be confused with high falutin claims about the deep significance of what they are doing.

When the South Bank theatre complex was being created in London in the 1970s, Sir Peter Hall was the director of the new National Theatre. His exceptionally frank and eloquent diaries of the time indicate the utter despair of a man who found himself involved, every single day, in politics as well as the arts. For him then, and for many now, the arts are an escape, an exit route from the necessary day to day grind.

Scotland currently faces a huge, momentous and, dare I say it, potentially transformative choice; it is essentially a political choice, though I accept that culture can illuminate it.

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