Edinburgh’s festivals build bridges in a world too keen on walls – Donald Anderson

Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier perform at the opening of the Edinburgh International Festival in the Usher Hall in 1947
Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier perform at the opening of the Edinburgh International Festival in the Usher Hall in 1947
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As the cheap populism and xenopbobia of Brexit looms large, there couldn’t be better time to celebrate the role Edinburgh’s cultural gems have in promoting international culture and understanding, says Donald Anderson.

‘For those of us who work in culture and literature, there is no doubt about Edinburgh’s unique capital status. It’s not for nothing that the great thinkers of the Enlightenment gathered here; or that the Edinburgh festivals were founded here and have grown in strength and international appeal ever since; or that Unesco declared Edinburgh the world’s first City of Literature. I welcome any call for investment, energy, ideas and real aspiration to develop the Capital’s status for the future and for the benefit of the whole country.’

Donald Anderson is the director of Playfair Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna

Donald Anderson is the director of Playfair Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna

Not my words, but the words of Catherine Lockerbie, then director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. At a time when xenophobia is so prevalent in politics, it is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons why Edinburgh has its festivals. During the Second World War, Edinburgh’s council was determined to reshape and renew a city in crisis. In 1943, a ‘City Development’ strategy was drawn up to tackle economic decline throughout the city.

Shortly after, the idea of an arts festival was first hatched over a lunch in London’s Hanover Square. Opera empresario Rudolph Bing, who himself fled Nazi Austria, met leading Scottish literary figure Harvey Wood. Having considered other UK cities, Edinburgh became the preferred choice. The International Festival was established as a beacon of hope and aspiration in the shadow of the world’s worst war.

The Military Tattoo followed in 1950, and in the 50s too the Festival Fringe grew as a fantastic unofficial addition to Edinburgh’s cultural gem. There has always been controversy. I remember discussing the Festival Fringe with a council colleague way back and was aghast when he advised me that the council had actually had debates about banning the Fringe in the 1950s. Despite the controversy our festivals grew and prospered.

Controversy persists, and not everyone believes festivals are good for the city. Six per cent of residents think the festivals make Edinburgh a worse place to live. That is a real concern and we should respect that. However, that needs to be balanced with the whopping 76 per cent who think that festivals make Edinburgh a better place to live. Indeed, participation in the festivals by Edinburgh residents themselves is at an all-time high, with 67 per cent attending one or more festivals in the most recent survey.

I love the hustle and bustle of the festivals, but tourism has to be managed and Airbnb poses real problems for residents. Although the city centre population has increased in recent years, many homes in the city centre now operate year-round as Airbnbs. That’s not sustainable or sensible and regulation is coming which could make a huge difference. The ‘Bed Tax’ will also help by taking cash directly from visitors to invest it in meeting the needs of residents and businesses. Edinburgh’s growing pains can be managed, so let’s make sure that happens.

Our ‘family of festivals’ are the envy of the world. And, in a time of uncertainties, there’s an economic dividend too. As we face Brexit, what better time to celebrate the original vision of creating festivals that embrace and nurture internationalism in the face of cheap populism and xenophobia. Let’s celebrate a unique family of events that promote international culture and understanding and that enriches the lives of people in Edinburgh, Scotland and indeed the world.

Donald Anderson is the director of Playfair Scotland