There’s No Festival Like Edinburgh

13 Aug

Royal MileWords by Rosalind Romer

There has been a lot of animosity towards the Festival this year. The curmudgeons complain every year and the bubble has supposedly been about to burst for decades, but this year seems to have gone up a gear. There is enough vitriol at the moment. Like many others, I am stressed out and fearful because of Trump, Johnson, Brexit, climate deadlines getting closer… the list goes on. The Festival has let me breathe. I see that other people feel the same way, performers are processing and reflecting those fears through art and starting conversations which could change the world. Views are being challenged and minds are being opened.

Enter Bonnie Prince Bob and his rant that’s gone viral. I have tried to ignore him like a troll, hoping it would go away but people are still repeating his opinions. It has got to me, tipped over the edge by an Edinburgh taxi driver who after various lazy comments about how awful the Festival is (despite being his busiest month for making a living) proudly announced that he has never seen a show during the Festival. He also said that I had a “well-trained” partner because he took some time off work to spend time with our one-year-old and enable me to work during the Festival. A snarl came out of my mouth and he started talking about the weather.

So. Bonnie Prince Bob. I have risen to your clickbait so here goes.

One point I totally agree with is the spike in rent in August. The only people who benefit are greedy property owners. This is an unfortunate by-product of the success of the Festival, but it’s supply and demand. As long as human beings can get away with it, they will. So legislate. Cap the rent. Maybe some of the figureheads of the Festival can help with this, so appeal to them, don’t write them off.

Harry Potter and shops selling tat on the Royal Mile? Yup, it’s tacky. It’s got nothing to do with the Festival. It’s tacky all year round. Speak to the Council.

The Festival does not help every single person in Edinburgh, but does anything? Many people in poorer areas do find it prohibitively expensive to come into town. But that’s not the Festival’s fault and again, it happens all year round. Appeal to Edinburgh Council and Lothian buses to make journeys more affordable. Speak to the Scottish Government and Westminster to stop poverty in our ridiculously wealthy country. Stopping the Festival will not eradicate poverty. Should we shut down the museums in the centre of town while we’re at it? No, that would be crazy. Many all-year-round attractions and Festival events are free, and the provision for free children’s entertainment has grown in recent years.

And what about the mini-Wimbledon accusation? Many of the food stalls are from Edinburgh, and many of the consumers are not. So bringing money into local businesses is a good thing, isn’t it? As for the locals or those staying in a flat for a month, you can bring a sandwich and a lot of bars put a jug of tap water on the bar for you to help yourself. As for the “Etonian Oligarchy”, I can only assume you mean Ed and Charlie from Underbelly. The percentage of Etonians at the Edinburgh Festival is miniscule compared to the Conservative Government. Is it not better to overcharge people for drinks in a gorgeous beer garden (and yes, take some of the profits back to London, but they do have an office in Edinburgh all year round) than to systematically fuck up the country like their schoolmates? Plus they have some excellent shows to open your mind or even escape from reality for a little while. And if you really can’t stomach it, there are hundreds of other venues. Loads of venues have events and bars in Edinburgh all year so go and support them if you prefer. It’s your choice. As far as I am concerned, people from the rest of the UK and people from abroad are all welcome.

Another criticism over the last few years has been the exploitation of workers, which makes a bit of sense from the outside. However, many venue workers get accommodation and a venue pass, as well as their pay in a lot of cases. For the people who would spend every last penny on shows, this is worth thousands of pounds (see accommodation above). The festivals support over 2500 jobs in Edinburgh, which can only be a good thing. You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. It’s the chicken and egg situation all over again. Yes, the Living Wage is an admirable aim, and supermarket giants can afford it, even if they don’t pay it. Yes, 6-month unpaid internships with no accommodation are exploitation, and can only be taken up by the wealthy. Flyering for one month and seeing a ton of free shows you wanted to see anyway is hardly the same thing.

The festivals can’t afford to pay more, and already rely heavily on rapidly reducing arts funding and corporate sponsorship (which also comes under fire in Bonny Prince Bob’s rant). Living wage would break them. The big venues come under fire for the huge percentage of ticket sales they take (usually 40%) but it’s not like they are spending it on cigars and lobster (well, maybe at the lobster van on Bristo Square). The costs of running a venue, including marketing, staff, often building theatres from scratch, sound and lighting equipment and health and safety are colossal. The Free Fringe operates on a bucket system so it’s possible to make a bit of money (or lose less once accommodation is taken into account), but you may or may not be in a rowdy pub with bright lights and pub furniture spoiling sightlines. There are pros and cons for each but that’s for another time.

Yes, town is busy and it takes ages to get to work. It’s annoying, I know. But it’s one month of the year and it shouldn’t be a surprise by now. And hey, maybe you’ll even have some fun or learn or feel something watching a show. For me the highs far outweigh the irritations.

If you don’t like the Festival, fine, but don’t ruin everyone else’s fun. I am one of the two thirds of locals who have seen Festival shows in the last two years, so don’t you dare speak for us when you say there’s no Edinburgh at the Edinburgh Festival.

And breathe. Let me describe some of my Festival experiences in the last two weeks.

I have roared with laughter at Jessica Fostekew’s Hench until my whole body ached, along with everyone else in the audience. That group of people will never be together again but we shared a sense of camaraderie that day. Jessica made me realise that the pain of childbirth wasn’t my fault, that somehow if I’d breathed “better” it wouldn’t have ripped me apart, physically and emotionally. Thank you, Jessica Fostekew, for letting me see how ridiculous that idea was.

I have sobbed my eyes out in the Pleasance Courtyard after seeing the incredibly powerful show by Bryony Kimmings, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch. Her show is about a trauma and subsequent recovery. As I mentioned, I have a one-year-old, who happened to be getting a routine check-up at the hospital that night. If you’ve seen the show you’ll get the significance. He’s fine and was always going to be fine that evening, which is why I went to see a show, but I sat with an excruciating amount of guilt, which by the end of the show was released forever from somewhere deep inside. Thank you, Bryony Kimmings.

Before the Fringe, I did a series of questions for my favourite comedians. One question asked who or what each act would like to have waiting for them after the show. Amy Matthews had answered with a very specific beer and it was too tempting to resist. I put a big red shiny bow on the can of beer and presented it to her after the show. The look of excitement, confusion and joy on Amy’s face was wonderful. I know I technically gave you the present, but thank you, Amy Matthews. Your reaction made me so happy.

Yesterday I ended up seeing an amazing sold-out show because I bumped into a friend whose brother (who I had never met) had a spare ticket. We watched the show like we were old friends.

I realise these mean far more to me than you, but they are examples of the interaction you can enjoy if you embrace the spirit of the Fringe. It’s the deeply personal nature of the shows and human interaction that make the Festival so magical for me. Edinburgh hosts the greatest arts festival in the world and it is something we should all be immensely proud of.

To the taxi driver, thank you for making me realise that your opinion doesn’t change my experience. This Festival matters to me and to thousands of others. And to everyone who says they don’t like the Festival, maybe it’s time you gave it a try rather than churning out old clichés. And if it’s really not your thing, let the rest of us have some fun.

3 Responses to “There’s No Festival Like Edinburgh”

  1. Williamena Hicks 31 Tue+01:002019-08-13T23:01:15+01:00+01:0008b+01:00Tue, 13 Aug 2019 23:01:15 +0100, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

    A valiant attempt at defending the increasingly bloated, capitalist greed machine that is the Edinburgh Fringe. Instead of internally raging at your unappreciative philistine taxi driver, and indulging in desperate whataboutery in your attempts to negate many of Bob’s points, perhaps you could take some time to listen to them, and reflect on the possibility that their views may be more encompassing and less myopic than your own, and perhaps contain genuinely held valid concerns rather than easily dismissed ‘clickbait’ designed to irritate and upset you.

    Personally, I have tried the Festival… and to me it’s the trajectory that Bob and others point out – and which you seem oblivious to – that is the real problem. Every year I become less interested, less engaged and more cynical about the Festival and increasingly dubious about the purpose of, and motives behind the people running the festival. The unrelenting obsession with growth and increasing ticket sales is destroying everything good about it.

    The fringe I came to 15+ years ago is a very different beast to that which exists now. It is increasingly sanitised, safe, homogenised, elitist, cynically corporate….middle class. Of course the individual artists and shows aren’t directly responsible for this, and I’m sure there are still plenty of great, challenging shows, moving experiences and a great time to be had by those who have the interest and budget. I’ve certainly had some great experiences over the years. But from my perspective, the Fringe as a whole is being slowly changed for the worse, destroyed and consumed by rampant, unrestrained corporate greed and rapacious capitalism. I’d argue that Trump and all the other things concerning you are symptomatic of the same root cause. Late stage capitalism is trying to eat everything.

    Regarding exploitation. For what it is worth, someone I love dearly is employed year-round by one of the big companies that have strong associations with the festival. He generally likes his job, but that changes when July rolls around each year. He is not temp bar staff or a promo person. He is full-time management level, responsible for many aspects of running several venues and for multiple staff during the Fringe. Every year he is expected to work up to 16 hour days in the run-up and first few weeks of the festival. The venues he works are constantly understaffed, and he is constantly stressed and overworked throughout August. He regularly has to deal with staff who are upset, overworked, physically and mentally exhausted. By the end of August, he is often run-down, ill, nothing like his usual happy self. He doesn’t get paid any extra, or anywhere near enough to be treated like this. He’s just expected to deal with it because that is the Edinburgh Fringe. As far as the big Fringe companies go, this is the norm. Staff are routinely expected to put up with this level of exploitation. Not just the temp or student staff as you suggest – which there is no fucking excuse for in any case.

    “The festivals can’t afford to pay more” This is complete and utter bullshit, but regardless… it’s no excuse for exploitation even if it was. If it was true (which it isn’t) then they should adapt the business plan, and live within their means, and not treat other humans terribly, just like regular people have to do do. Shameful that you think this excuses exploitation.

    I’ve been unfortunate enough to meet and hang out with several of the big bosses of the big Fringe companies. I’ve heard their attitudes from the horses mouth and had a taste of their lifestyles and way they like to do things. That you are directly defending the exploitative practices and attitudes of these rapacious, privileged, self serving shits is just sad and depressing.

    Finally, in my opinion Edinburgh could and should be one of the great cultural cities of Europe year round, not just famous for the gaudy, overblown Festivals in August & Christmas . As it is, ECCs policy of whoring out the city for corporate greed, focussing on the Fringe and reaping every penny it can during August but subsequently not giving a shit about the arts during the rest of the year is an absolute travesty. Edinburgh could have the same kind of vibrant year round cultural scene as Berlin or Barcelona, but as it is, we are no-where near that… we are a pale shadow of Glasgow and many provincial English Towns & Cities where the arts are actively encouraged year-round.

    • Punchline 31 Wed+01:002019-08-14T21:51:26+01:00+01:0008b+01:00Wed, 14 Aug 2019 21:51:26 +0100, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

      Dear Williamena,
      Insults aside, you make several interesting points.
      Neither Bonnie Prince Bob nor the big venues need to be defended by you and me.
      BPB’s video was deliberately provocative. As I wrote in the article, I agree with many of his points, but feel that the majority of the issues are outwith the Festival, and that his and your anger should be directed towards the governments and the council to sorting out the root causes of these problems.
      You are right, I was only thinking about temporary workers. I once made the mistake of working out my hourly rate during the Festival, and eventually left the job because it wasn’t sustainable for me. I had never thought of it as exploitation. Maybe it was. Long hours are expected at the Fringe just like in retail at Christmas, but there is a limit. My point is that it’s not realistic to pay everyone £10 an hour to work a 35h week.
      Somewhere in between would be nice.
      Also who do you mean by “the people running the Festival”? There are many festivals in August and venues so it’s run by hundreds of people. Let’s not attack the vast majority of people working in good faith with small budgets because of a few big money grabbers.
      The Festival isn’t going anywhere, so how about we work together to reform it, not destroy it?
      All the best,

  2. David Kinnaird 31 Thu+01:002019-08-15T17:19:21+01:00+01:0008b+01:00Thu, 15 Aug 2019 17:19:21 +0100, 2017 at 5:19 pm #

    I could be wrong but I don’t think Bob has a problem with performers? Indeed he mentions the traditional essence of the festival in the film.? Bob is a well known guy in Edinburgh and an extremely talented satirist. His Jim Murphy film about the Scottish Referendum is one of the funniest and well crafted pieces of political satire I have ever seen. I don’t agree with everything he says in his ‘No Edinburgh in Festival’ polemic but he likes to get people talking and boy has he done it this time! Most of the people I have shown the film to, or shared it with have agreed with his views. I suppose the main point is , what do people in the city get back from all this profiteering? I think the answer is pretty clear. Nothing.

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