Edinburgh is ill-prepared for its thrilling Festival

It’s against the odds that this festival flourishes, says James Naughtie

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It seems an age since a naked woman walked across the stage of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and people noticed. A local councillor denounced the sinfulness that the Festival had brought to the city, and bemoaned the arrival of the 60s in Edinburgh, though at the time it did seem a little late in arriving.

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Now, if you came across a troupe of naked dancers in the Cowgate, or a transvestite dramatisation of the New Testament within sight of John Knox’s statue on the Mound, no one would turn a hair. Edinburgh has absorbed its Festival at last.

For the whole of August, the International Festival itself, the ever-growing Fringe and the Festivals of books and art and television grip the city in a tight embrace, so that it is difficult to move unless you are going to a theatre or a concert hall or the upstairs room of a pub.

It is understandable that some citizens flee, like Munich teetotallers during the Oktoberfest, but the truth is that despite all the complaints and the old jokes – “The Festival’s great… some day they should try holding it in the summer” – Edinburgh has learnt to accept the invaders and lose its head for a few weeks. But does the place deserve this wondrous event?

Travellers pulling into Waverley Station this month (and the only sensible way to arrive is by train) will find it unfinished. Just enough of the long-overdue refurbishment has been completed to allow a glimpse of how it might be (next year) and they will be directed through a building site to the street.

The only consolation is that last year’s Festival gave them practice for the obstacle course that is still in place. Once outside, they will find the streets in a mess produced by the stationary trams that sit sadly in their siding near the airport waiting, like everybody else, for the years of excavation (and re-excavation) to come to an end. Late and over-budget, its route cut by nearly half its length, the Edinburgh tram system is bidding for the title of Europe’s most embarrassing public transport project.

And historically minded visitors will gaze along Princes Street trying to remember when it had some style and a little grace. That was long ago, before its façade was ripped apart and reassembled in a jumble of cheap and mostly nasty shop- fronts unworthy of their place at the heart of one of Europe’s great cities.

It was no accident that in the late 1940s, musicians and artists of all kinds took to the new Festival. They recognised that it sprang naturally from Edinburgh’s past – enlightened, inventive, and ready to let imagination thrive. So it grew, despite some burghers who tried to starve it of funds and never saw the point.

Maybe we will all love the tram system one day, but its birth pangs will be long remembered. Maybe somebody will clean up Princes Street one day. Maybe a couple of shopping centres will be demolished in a welcome return to enlightenment.

Maybe. For the moment, we must dream.

And, fortunately, it is the best of cities in which to lose yourself. Vistas that thrill you, streets that carry you back to a place of intellectual excite- ment and discovery, corners that let you step away from the here-and-now for respite and renewal. Festival time does bring frustration along with the fun, but the glory of Edinburgh can survive it all.

Against the odds, the Festival flourishes. Down the years it has graced the city, refreshed its cultural bloodstream, and brought the world to Edinburgh.

Sometime, it would be nice to think, the city might repay the compliment in style.


James Naughtie presents Today on Radio 4. He lives in Edinburgh and London.

For Festival highlights see The Review Show on Sunday 9.00pm BBC4

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The Culture Show from Edinburgh: Funny Women is on Wednesday 10.00pm BBC2