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Tattoo art? It’ll never catch on

THE Edinburgh Military Tattoo was "rebranded" last year.

It may parade under the guise of entertainment, but the Edinburgh Military Tattoo's very name reveals its inherent propaganda
It may parade under the guise of entertainment, but the Edinburgh Military Tattoo's very name reveals its inherent propaganda

No, I didn’t know that either. Nor am I really sure how it worked, aside from the usual fiddling with logos. How do you apply “a modern twist on traditional heritage” when the unchanging business at hand is pipes, drums, kilts, marching and boys’ own militarism?

The tattoo is famously the most popular festival event Edinburgh has to offer. It sells out in advance year after year. At least 200,000 people turn up in August to enjoy the capital’s summer weather and a sort of noisy, martial theatre in the round. Real defence cuts might have service people facing unceremonious lay-offs, and real wars might be claiming real lives, but the tattoo skirls on.

It’s strange. It celebrates an activity we are supposed to abhor. It preserves one of the cartoons of Scottishness we are supposed to disown. Above all, it trades on a deep ambivalence towards our long, bloody military history. And audiences love it. You could auction off the Scott Monument for crazy paving before you could deprive festival Edinburgh of its tattoo.

I haven’t attended it voluntarily since I was a child. As a young journalist I was dispatched to “review” the latest offering with a stern warning that mockery was not required. For that newspaper, the tattoo was sacred.

Nor could you ask about the tattoo’s purpose. Back in 1950, when the event first arrived at the castle esplanade, impoverished Britain still had enough of an empire to put on a faux Victorian pretence. Presumably people were still proud enough of themselves, their military and the victory over Hitler to indulge in the tunes of glory, even if every veteran of the war knew better.

For whom is the tattoo – now the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, to boot – staged? The truth is that it’s just another tourist show, its Scottish core, lone piper and all, yet another example of giving the visitors what the visitors want. Some 70% of the audience come from outside Scotland. They know what they like: repeat business thrives, Edinburgh makes millions, and cheek from journalists is not welcome.

There is no sign of the tattoo flagging. London’s Royal Tournament – field gun dismantling contests, bugles, motorcycle displays – went the way of the cavalry charge in 1999. Though attempts have been made to revive the event, the reason given at the time was simple: too few tickets were being sold. Some took it as a sign that Britain was going to the dogs. Most concluded that such affairs had had their day.

Not in Edinburgh. Iraq didn’t touch it; Afghanistan doesn’t touch it. The disbanding and amalgamation of famous old regiments might provoke a sentimental sigh, but not one sufficient to disturb the fantasy, or the worldwide broadcast of war-themed frolics. As a native of the city, I hold the thing to be an embarrassment, but no-one is asking my opinion. It’s probably better to ask instead what the appeal might be.

This is about warfare, remember. It may be sentimental, it may be “historic”, it may appeal to a love of country, fanfare and spectacle. It may offer – as this year – one of those sights you don’t see every day, a Dutch Mounted Bicycle Band. But at the heart of the thing are the rituals that have arisen from centuries of young people killing and being killed. We are invited to take pride in that, and to enjoy the grand tunes. Judging by attendances, none of it is regarded as bizarre.

It could become stranger still if Brigadier David Allfrey, former commander of the 51st (Scottish Brigade) and the tattoo’s new producer and chief executive, has his way. He wants a “fabulous formula” to “evolve”. Specifically, he intends to involve the arts – writers, dancers, musicians, painters and singers – in future shows. And how would that work?

“This is a chance for wonderful exposure for Scottish art,” the brigadier tells The Herald. “Never mind the 220,000 people who see the show, there is a TV audience of 100 million people. So, should we be going after young actors? Absolutely. Young dancers and young choreographers? Yes. You have the canvas of Edinburgh Castle, which is unique and extraordinary, on which you can put images. You can paint it with different colours, with the lights, and we have a very good new sound system coming.”

The arts, like defence, are going through some hard times. The tattoo, on the other hand, makes money. With a turnover of £7 million from ticket sales alone, it can afford to invest £16m in new stands when Creative Scotland’s entire budget is £35.5m. That’s not the point. Are there really arts workers out there who have something to contribute to military entertainment?

I struggle to think of the writers the brigadier has in mind. I doubt that excerpts from Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, or a reading from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting as it touches on festival Edinburgh, would do. I can’t picture The Proclaimers on the battlements. Nor can I name visual artists whose original works would involve the kind of symbolism customary at the tattoo. Are we supposed to believe that the military aspect of the show – its main aspect – has become mere, uncontroversial entertainment?

That’s long been part of the tattoo’s real purpose, I suspect. It invites us to sentimentalise a miserable tradition of enlistment, conscription and sacrifice. A lot of Scots do that unaided, but Allfrey’s wheeze is – or ought to be – provocative. Don’t writers tend to tell us that warfare is a bad idea? Don’t painters strive to show us that the reality isn’t bagpipes and banners for the young people who join up?

The tattoo will not be offering “the arts” a free hand, I suspect. Like the pipes and drums, the cultural component – what the brigadier calls “a very strong Scottish element” – would be decorative, yet again, and designed for the preconceptions of tourists. A painter’s rendering of the faces of all the Scots lost in Afghanistan is not likely to be projected on the “extraordinary” canvas of the old castle. But why not?

Our military fight and die, supposedly, on behalf of us all. That we are never consulted on the matter is overlooked, but such is the theory. Those are our soldiers, sailors and aircrew, paid for by our taxes, employed purportedly in our defence, and too often to our regret. But not for our entertainment.

Yet an event such as the tattoo – what else would you call it but propaganda? – allows neither doubt nor dissent. In Scotland’s case, irrespective of foreign participants, it presumes to misrepresent an entire country’s history. And with “a very good new sound system”, too.

Unless the brigadier is advertising the massed drummers of the Stop The War coalition, you can call me a conscientious objector.

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