Colin Fox speaks to Allan Armstrong about the vision and mission of the Edinburgh People’s Festival
What made you revive the Edinburgh Peoples Festival after almost 50 years?
We didn’t start off with the intention of reviving the Edinburgh Peoples Festival (EPF). At Hamish Henderson’s funeral in 2002, a group of us, including Bill Scott, Karen Douglas and Craig Maclean, started to discuss Hamish’s achievements. This was the man after all who had formally accepted the Italian surrender in the Second World War, first translated Gramsci into English, was the driving influence behind the Scottish folk revival, wrote Freedom Come All Ye and the John Maclean March, a working class intellectual and the man who founded the Edinburgh People’s Festival in 1951.
Years before I had come across an essay Hamish had written on the significance of the Edinburgh People’s Festival in Andrew Croft’s book Weapons in the Struggle, and it was a real eye-opener for me.
So, a group of us decided to organise a one-off event to commemorate Hamish and his contribution to our struggle. We opted to have it at the Jack Kane Centre in Craigmillar for several reasons. One, Councillor Jack Kane had been the original Chairman of the EPF back in the 1950’s. Two, Craigmillar, on the city’s southern outskirts is Edinburgh’s poorest district and the Edinburgh Festival itself never went beyond EH1. We also had good community activists in the area we could rely on to publicise and promote the show. Things just escalated from there.
I guess looking back we recognised the importance of the original People’s Festival in acting as a foil or critique of the Edinburgh Festival itself. It has never really been designed for the majority of the city’s people. Ticket prices are now disgracefully high. Local indigenous performers will find it difficult to find a stage or platform and are shunted away for the month.
Where does most of the support for the EPF come from?
We found our original support in Craigmillar where we quickly got the backing of lots of local community groups, like the Craigmillar Artspace. We also learned quick lessons. We put on Bill Douglas’s film, My Ain Folk in the Newcraighall Miners’ Welfare without realising that, although people dearly loved Bill, they felt his depiction of their village rather dismal. Nonetheless the area is proud to have produced such talented people. At the last count we have presented shows in 20 different communities throughout the city and Midlothian.
Beyond local support, the EPF has received backing from the organised active Left. Tommy Shepard, who runs The Stand Comedy Club has been a fantastic help. Support has also come from local playwrights Cecilia Grainger and Barry Fowler, and from many key artistic community development groups in Wester Hailes and North Edinburgh.
Local trade union branches have been key to our financial success. It has been their support that has enabled us to take performances to the local communities and always keep tickets at affordable prices. [We usually charge £2 when the performances and events are not entirely free]. We are indebted to Unison health-workers, posties, rail-workers, teachers, firefighters, railway workers and civil servants unions. They have been very generous, partly, as I remind them, because they haven’t been giving out much strike pay over the last eight years!
As a socialist, why do you see it important to promote popular culture?
Art and culture can be thoroughly inspiring and educational. In Gramsci’s writings you can see the blueprint which led the Italian Communist Party to have one million members in the early 1970’s.
My partner, Zillah and I, attended a festival in France in the late ‘80s organised by the French Trotskyist party Lutte Ouvrier (LO). We were amazed to see 30,000 people there in the grounds of a chateau just outside Paris being entertained and enjoying themselves on an array of attractions. Festivals like these are still common on the left in France, Italy and Spain, bringing together tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. It became clear to me that much of the mass support for socialism on the continent, came not so much through public and party meetings, but because of the wider cultural activities of the Communist Parties and groups like the LO.
The French Communist Party’s L’Humanite by all accounts attracts hundreds of thousands of people.
In Britain we have had Miners’ Galas, May Days, and more recently the Tolpuddle Martyrs celebration. In the 1980’s, when I was in the Militant we used to organise huge political and cultural events in the Royal Albert Hall, Alexandra Palace and the Wembley Arena with 8000 people. They were brilliant. I have to admit that I enjoyed those performances with groups like the Who, Billy Bragg, Red Wedge, Paul Weller and Skint Video more than the Conferences. Truth be told, I probably still do!
In your opinion, what have been the highlights of the EPF so far?
There are very many that spring to mind. Perhaps the earliest is the EPF’s ‘discovery’ of David Sneddon, who we found busking on Chambers Street. We got him to perform at the Jack Kane Centre that first year with his group, The Martians and people were really bowled over by him. A few weeks later, I remember, Alan McCombes phoned me and told me to switch on the TV. His daughters had been at the Jack Kane Centre and were telling him that David Sneddon had just won the BBC’s first Fame Academy! The press were all over us for photographs of him at his first public performance, in Craigmillar.
We also had Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson. We cheekily phoned her up and asked if she would perform at our show Bart Comes to the Simpsons. All the kids in Edinburgh are born at the Simpsons Maternity! She was terrific about the whole thing and the show was just a fantastic success.
We also took the comedian, Mark Thomas, and Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six into Saughton Prison for a show. Originally, it had been agreed that STV would film the event but the governor pulled the plug. The show went on without the cameras and the guys inside thought it was brilliant. They were all over Paddy Hill at the end. We have been back ‘inside’ just about every year since.
We had a line up in 2003 for a cultural debate, or ‘flyting’, which looking back was quite unequalled anywhere in Edinburgh since.
Whose Culture is it anyway? starred Paul Gudgeon, then Director of the Fringe, the irrepressible Richard Demarco, Tommy Shepard, actor Tam Dean Burn, Joy Hendry the publisher, Kevin Williamson, the late Angus Calder and Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas. They were all going at it hell for leather with poor Sian Fiddimore from Wester Hailes desperately trying to keep it all in order.
Last year, we launched the first of what will become the Annual Hamish Henderson Memorial Talks. It was given by Hamish’s biographer, Timothy Neat. And that went very well, certainly one of our highlights – and I think our first sell out event!
The exhibition we mounted, in the Craigmillar Arts Space, telling the story of the Edinburgh People’s Festivals from 1951 is just excellent. It was subsequently shown last November at Wordpower’s Radical Book fair at the Out of the Blue Art Centre in Leith. It is currently on show at the Jack Kane Centre before it goes off on tour.
With trade union financial backing, we also organised a local Art Competition last year, with £1000 in prize money. This was a great success too and a foray into a new field for us.
Richard Demarco, one of the leading figures associated with the Edinburgh Fringe, has given the EPF considerable encouragement. Do you see this as a sign of wider recognition for the EPF?
Richard Demarco is the only person who has been to every Edinburgh Festival. He has been responsible for bringing over many artists to Edinburgh, including from Eastern Europe, when it was unfashionable to do so. Despite Demarco’s centrality to the Festival and the Fringe he has always been an outsider. He remains driven by a passion for the arts and his effervescence is infectious. He has given the EPF a helluva lot of encouragement. He made a typically passionate contribution to the debate we organised at Out of the Blue in August 2007, on the future of art in an independent Scotland. Elaine C. Smith also spoke in similar vein.
But the truth is the People’s Festival has been treated with complete disdain by the Edinburgh establishment and its media, including the local Evening News. Bourgeois commentators have turned their noses up at the popular culture we offer. Nevertheless, they have grudgingly been forced to recognise our innovative approach on a number of occasions.
The People’s Festival has begun to organise events outside the traditional Edinburgh Festival slot. Why did you decide to organise a celebration of the 90th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution for example?
People have often said that, even if with some exaggeration, that Edinburgh is a cultural desert outside the official Festival in August. The People’s Festival decided to ‘cash in’, if I dare utter the term, on the fact we are here the whole year round. And since we had grown considerably we felt that it was time to try and extend our activities beyond August.
The opportunity came then in 2007, with the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, an event I believe is the greatest of the twentieth century. Others in the People’s Festival saw the possibilities so I approached Trevor Griffiths, the scriptwriter for the film, Reds, and asked him to come up and celebrate the occasion with us. In the interview he did with me at the event in The Stand, Trevor explained that in fact he was the fifth person chosen by Warren Beattie to write the script. Beattie had bought the film rights to John Reed’s classic, Ten Days That Shook The World. Tommy Shepard offered us The Stand for the event on a night in October. The comedian, Paul Sneddon (aka Vladimir McTavish) and Alistair Hulett’s folk group, the Malkies, performed alongside the Oscar nominated Trevor Griffiths. It was quite a night!
We also worked with Edinburgh’s excellent Word Power bookshop to produce the pamphlet, What the Russian Revolution Means To Me. Word Power is are markable resource. Elaine Henry and Tarlochan Gupta-Aura do a great job in sustaining a radical bookshop, when most other left bookshops have disappeared.
The following January, the EPF took on the organisation of an alternative Burns Supper. For the previous decade, this responsibility had been successfully taken on by the SSA/SSP, but it was good to broaden it out. The radical and controversial Burns scholar, Patrick Scott Hogg, spoke, whilst comedian Bruce Morton performed. People even came from as far away as Dublin to attend that one – seeing it advertised on our website!
This January the EPF organised a very successful event to celebrate 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. Tell us how the contributors were chosen and what else has been planned this year for this anniversary?
We wanted to offer an even better Burns event than that held the previous year. At first we hoped we could get the noted Marxist literary critic and writer Terry Eagleton to speak, but he could not make it. John McAllion stepped in and spoke tremendously well about the link between Burns’ art and his radical commitment in the 1790’s. The ever popular, Vladimir McTavish provided the comedy, whilst we had great musical sessions from the young black American jazz player, William Young, and from Edinburgh’s rising singer songwriter, David Ferrard.
We have also received money from the Lipman Milliband Foundation to produce a pamphlet later this year, What Robert Burns Means To Me.
You have a particular interest in the Scottish artist, Alexander Naysmith. What plans have you for the EPF to bring Naysmith to people’s attention?
Alexander Naysmith is known to everyone but they perhaps don’t realise it, he painted the most famous portrait of Burns. Like Burns, Naysmith was a radical and was blacklisted for his views. He began life as an apprentice coach painter in the Grassmarket before becoming a very successful portrait artist, possibly Scotland’s best, studying under Allan Ramsay, and working in Paris and Milan. But the big mystery about Naysmith is why he suddenly changed to landscape painting apparently at the height of his career. None of the art books will say why, but I know why and actually so do they. It was his politics. His wealthy patrons refused to give him any commissions because he made no secret of his radical republican views. He talked with great passion on the American and French Revolutions during the long portrait sittings. So, under advice from no less a figure than his close friend and ally Robert Burns he took up landscape painting instead. He rose to equal heights in this genre too.
Naysmith was a close friend and collaborator of Burns and out lived the poet by 40 years. He was one of us. And I want the People’s Festival to recognise one of Edinburgh’s people, to organise an exhibition, this August, in the Craigmillar Arts Space, with Naysmith’s portrait of Burns at its centre. We want to make Naysmith’s work and life more widely known. We display work by new artists inspired by him.
Angus Calder is another important writer, who has recently died, associated with Edinburgh. Are there any plans to organise an event celebrating Angus?
There was recently a memorial event for Angus, which I was unable to attend. Angus made many contributions to history and culture and was himself an award-winning poet. He was a member of the SSP and I got to know him quite well. He was a generous and strong supporter of the People’s Festival. I can still remember his contribution at The Flyting we organised in Wester Hailes in 2003. The idea was to revive the great Scottish tradition of cultural polemic, much associated with Hugh MacDiarmid and others, once again largely centred on this city.
The EPF would like to work with others to get more commemorative events organised. We don’t want to take responsibility for everything and I think that’s the best way forward with Angus’s work.
Recently Patrick Scott Hogg asked us if we could organise something to celebrate the great Scottish radical, Thomas Muir. The EPF thought it would be more appropriate that this was done in a West of Scotland setting.
One of Edinburgh’s most controversial figures has been James Connolly. Do you see the EPF trying to reclaim this great socialist republican for Edinburgh?
One of the members of our Committee is Jim Slaven who is well known in the city as organiser of the James Connolly Society. Jim played a key role, in the face of strong opposition, in trying to get Connolly’s legacy recognised in this city. Last August, we hoped to get Terry Eagleton up to speak. This may still happen.
However, in June, Jim was successful in getting the City of Edinburgh Council to organise a one-day event, to coincide with Connolly’s birthday. The event, Over the Water, had speakers from Ireland and Scotland. This June, the EPF hopes to organise a Connolly event in the evening, after the day’s official events. Connolly is very much one of our people and we feel he should be supported by all on the Left especially.
What else has the EPF got organised for this coming year.
We have worked with others, particularly on the Trades Council, in re-establishing May Day in this city. Last year we had Aida Avila from Colombia, Sean Milne, the radical journalist, and Pat Arrowsmith, veteran CND activist, amongst others, as speakers. This year we have Mark Lyons, convenor of the UNITE branch at Grangemouth Refinery, Hilary Wainright, editor of Red Pepper and Matt Wrack from the FBU joining us. We hope to give pride of place to Aleida Guevara, Che Guevara’s daugher, in celebrating 50 years of the Cuban Revolution.
We are also putting on a 20 years after the Poll Tax exhibition, which will concentrate on the role local people and communities played here in defeating this hated measure. The fightback started in Edinburgh, and included such veterans of the struggle as Sadie Rooney, one-time Labour councillor for Prestonfield – until she saw sense!
We also hope to bring a piece of theatre from London’s West End would you believe. The EPF’s producer Barry Fowler is going down to attend the London premiere of Maggie’s End written by Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood in the Shaw Theatre. The play is about the reaction of mining communities in the North East of England to the announcement of Thatcher’s death. Just the job, eh!
It would be great if we could put this on as our first full theatrical production. Even better, if our showing of Maggie’s End coincided with Thatcher’s actual demise!
What event would you like more than any other to put on the EPF?
Along with the photographer, Craig Maclean, I have often discussed the possibility of putting on some free ‘Outdoor Cinema’. Craig and Rob Hoon (from Out of the Blue) have already experimented with projecting huge images on prominent city landmarks. I certainly think the EPF should remain ‘dangerous and challenging’. I like the idea of guerrilla cinema as agitprop!