The unthinkable became inevitable. Edinburgh has lost its festivals to COVID-19.
Few people alive today can remember the city without its summer spectacles. It’s strange for the rest of us to contemplate an August without them, even as we realise it’s for the greater good that they are temporarily disappearing. For all the things we treat like matters of life and death – and the Fringe is one – there’s nothing like actual life and death to give us some perspective. Let us not talk of the festivals being cancelled as a tragedy when there are real tragedies being experienced.
That’s not to suggest we feel nothing. Now that it’s confirmed, the cancellation brings with it a range of emotions:
Sadness. People’s years revolve around August. Their fondest memories are made here. Their friendships are rekindled. The cancellation of the festivals is a net loss to world happiness.
Fear. Livelihoods are in the balance. Individuals have lost jobs and organisations may be imperilled (The Pleasance statement that “this crisis is a very grave threat” to their future is a warning sign about what many are facing). Who knows what state the arts landscape will be in once this is over?
Disappointment. Cancellation means hopes dashed, chances missed, plans suspended. This year would have made careers like it does every year. Maybe yours? Thousands of hours have gone into shows whose moment may have passed. It’s OK to feel hard done by if this was you. The big picture of the crisis doesn’t negate the many small sorrows that come in its wake.
But hidden among the emotions that are being felt are some more unexpected ones:
Relief. Of many kinds. Relief that lives aren’t being put at risk, for sure. Relief at knowing the decision’s made, so refunds can (possibly) be salvaged at an already difficult time. But also, relief for some that they’re not having to go through the anxiety and debt the Fringe would have brought. Relief for others that their careers aren’t suffering by missing out on something they couldn’t afford.
Resentment. That it took so long to make the call at an already stressful time for artists (though how it could’ve been otherwise given the complexity of the Fringe, I don’t know). That commercial interests are being protected over individuals (again, this depends on situation, perspective and what ultimately happens). Either way, resentment is out there.
Schadenfreude. Dare we mention that? Vocal minorities within the city are unhappy at the Festivals’ hold on Edinburgh. Some feel the commercial Fringe deserves a comeuppance. Ill feeling towards Underbelly over this year’s Christmas market would not have dissipated by August. To these groups, a fallow year is not to be mourned.
So although the reaction is rightly dominated by outpourings of sympathy and expressions of solidarity from the self-organising “Fringe community” and wider arts sector, there are reminders that all is not perfect in the world of Edinburgh’s Festivals.
Which brings me to the final feeling being expressed – hope.
Things may look bleak right now, but they won’t always. There will be future Edinburgh Festivals. People will return. Smiles will be back on faces. We may need to do things differently, that’s all.
Some changes will be forced upon us. International travel may dramatically reduce. Public gatherings may seem dangerous in a way they weren’t before. Economies may never be the same again. Most importantly, arts organisations and individual artists may require more support than we’ve ever given before.
But as we rebuild, some choices will be entirely ours. We would do well to rediscover what the festivals are for and why they are here in Edinburgh. The city needs to fall in love with the festivals again. The festivals need to be open and accessible for all in a way they are not at the moment. Commercial interests can no longer be allowed precedence over common good.
For our part, The Wee Review and our partners Fringe Guru are not going anywhere. We will be here to support and champion the incredible work that comes to Edinburgh each August and will be doubly determined to do so in 2021. We’d like to play a part in making the Festivals even better than before and hope that others will join us in that ambition.
The world needed remaking after 1945. The International Festival was part of that. It will need remaking after 2020. Edinburgh should again step up and show how the arts can represent all that’s best in the world. We have a once in a lifetime chance here to recreate something wonderful. Let’s not waste it.