Apr 06 2017

EDINBURGH PEOPLE’S FESTIVAL TO COMMEMORATE ITALIAN PHILSOPHER AND ANTI-FASCIST, ANTONIO GRAMSCI

 

The Edinburgh People’s Festival has secured funding for a major conference commemorating the life and work of the influential Italian philosopher and anti-fascist Antonio Gramsci.
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Mar 29 2017

PADDY BORT – 1954-2017

Allan Armstrong writes about the contribution made by Paddy Bort, who died on February 17th, to our understanding of Scottish and Irish cultural and political links.

 

PADDY BORT – 1954-2017

Eberhard Bort, Germano-Scot and Germano-Irish by choice, “in essence the ultimate European”, and known to most acquaintances in Scotland and Ireland as Paddy, died unexpectedly on February 17th. Steve Byrne, founder member of the folk group, Malinky, and convenor of the Hamish Henderson Archive Trust, wrote what has become Paddy’s much circulated obituary. It begins with the strikingly appropriate words, “A hole the size of Arthur’s Seat is in the Edinburgh folk scene today.”
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Jul 29 2012

A SUMMER OF RADICAL CULTURE

EDINBURGH PEOPLES  FESTIVAL

August 6th-12th

1. People’s History of Edinburgh

August 6th, 6.30 pm,

Outside The Last Drop Public House, Grassmarket

 

Local historian Allan Armstrong leads us on this walk through the Edinburgh that never makes it into the official guide books.  This is the people’s history of ‘Auld Reekie’ shaped by those who lived here and built it.

 

 2. Hamish Henderson Memorial Lecture

Wednesday, August 8th,

Word Power Book Shop, West Nicholson Street

 

Hamish Henderson the famous Scots polymath-poet, author, folk singer, song writer, musician, political activist, linguist, intellectual and founder of the Edinburgh People’s Festival – died in 2002.  He was an inspirational and outspoken advocate of Independence favouring a modern, democratic, socialist republic for Scotland.  Delivering this year’s memorial lecture will be Colin Fox.

For all other events see:-

http://www.edinburghpeoplesfestival.org/whats-on/

(also see http://republicancommunist.org/blog/category/publications/emancipation-liberation/issue-17/ )

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EDINBURGH BOOK FRINGE

 10th to 24th August

Word Power Books, 43-5, West Nicholson Street

Friday, 10th August, 7. 00 pm

 James Kelman launches his latest novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky

Saturday 18th August, 1. 00 pm

 Neil Davidson, winner of Deutscher Memorial Prize, discusses his latest book, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?

 

For all other events see:-

 http://www.word-power.co.uk/viewEventList.php?category_id=12

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DOUNE THE RABBIT HOLE FESTIVAL

Duncarron Fort, Carron Valley Forest, Kilsyth

August 24th – 26th

August 25th, 1. 45 pm

The Longhouse Spoken Word Stage

Dave Douglass, leading NUM militant, member of IWW, author of autobiographical trilogy, Geordies Wa Mental, The Wheels Still In Spin and Ghost Dancers

For all other events see:-

http://dounetherabbithole.co.uk/

 

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May 27 2011

20 Years After the Poll Tax – Lessons for the Anti-Cuts Movement?

The article below was originally written for Red Banner, an Irish socialist magazine for discussion and debate.  In its conclusion this article draws some of the key lessons needed to conduct a successful struggle against the cuts  today.

It is twenty years since Thatcher’s Tory government tried to impose the Poll Tax. Officially termed the Community Charge, the Poll Tax amounted to a flat rate tax that individuals had to pay to their Local Councils regardless of their income. Previously, Local Councils raised much of their revenues to pay for the services they provided through the Domestic Rates. These related to the value of people’s property.  This meant Domestic Rates were a broadly redistributive tax. However, under the Poll Tax, a cleaner living in a one bedroom flat was to pay the same as the lord living in a stately home. The queen didn’t have to pay a penny!  King Richard II was the last person to try to introduce a Poll Tax in England, in 1381 – it led directly to the Peasants’ Revolt!

There were important political aspects of the Poll Tax.  It was designed to prevent Local Councils implementing progressive social policies through higher Domestic Rates on the better-off. Under the Poll Tax the least well off would contribute proportionately far more of their incomes than the rich. The Tories wanted severe cut backs in those services that benefited the disadvantaged – the unemployed, pensioners, the disabled and single-parent families. The accompanying Register was designed to monitor the movements of all Poll Tax payers (not just property owners, as before), so it represented a major extension in state surveillance.

The Poll Tax was introduced a year earlier, in 1989, in Scotland as a test run for the abolition of Domestic Rates throughout Britain. (Even the Tories had more sense than to try to introduce the Poll Tax in Northern Ireland in the context of the ongoing Republican resistance there!) The Poll Tax brought well-off Tory supporters in the leafy suburbs of Scotland’s cities the financial rewards they craved, despite the government only enjoying a small and shrinking electoral base here. Thatcher also wanted to demonstrate the ‘benefits’ of the Union to those Scots with money and the impotence of the official Labour ‘opposition’.

What gave the Tories the confidence to test out the Poll Tax in Scotland, where they enjoyed so little support, and then to extend it to England and Wales? Over the previous few years, the ‘Iron Lady’ had been able to ride rough shod over once powerful left-wing institutions – Labour controlled Local Councils including those of Edinburgh District Council, Lothian Region and Greater London Council.

Industrial action, undertaken by trade unions to defend their members’ pay, conditions and jobs, culminated in the Great Miners’ Strike in 1984. Although this heroic struggle involved thousands of miners and tens of thousands of supporters, Arthur Scargill always looked to the Labour Party and the TUC to deliver the knock-out blow. The miners waited in vain and the NUM went down to defeat in 1985.

The Tories now felt invincible. Seeing no further than the official bodies of the Labour Movement, they felt they could take on the whole of the working class without any fear of concerted opposition. The Tories had the measure of the official opposition.  To begin with, the Scottish Labour Party and the STUC promoted the ‘Axe the Tax’ campaign and organised the first marches. However, a Scottish Labour Party Special Conference, held in March 1988 in Glasgow, refused to back Non-Payment. This marked the end of official Labour opposition. What the Tories hadn’t calculated on, was the possibility of our class organising independently of the official movement. And this is exactly what happened.

By the beginning of 1988, Local Anti-Poll Tax groups were formed, and the very first regional organisation was set up, the Edinburgh (soon to become Lothians) Anti-Poll Tax Federation – or the ‘Fed’ as it became widely known. Very soon Federations were formed in Strathclyde (where Glasgow is located) and in every other region of Scotland. Glasgow became the heartland of the campaign and the centre for the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation.

Whilst the local groups always retained a high degree of autonomy, the overall strategy, tactics and coordinated actions were discussed and debated at the regional ‘Fed’ meetings and the national conference. These were attended by delegates from  local groups and usually met monthly. The ‘Feds’ certainly brought together many political activists and trade unionists, but meeting outside their usual official structures. However, they also brought together many more people, who were not involved in formal politics or in trade unions – housewives, pensioners, unemployed and non-unionised workers.

The initial tactics used by the ‘Fed’ were focussed upon two bodies which had already been tamed by the Tories. Labour councils were pressured by petitions, demonstrations and occupations of council chambers to adopt a policy of Non-Implementation. Trade unions, with members involved in the administration of the Poll Tax, were called upon to adopt a policy of Non-Collection. However, having already caved in before successive Tory attacks, neither the leaders of the Scottish Labour Party nor the STUC were prepared to move beyond token protests.

Fortunately, the Anti-Poll Tax groups anticipated the weakness of the official movement. They had another tactic that generated widespread support.  Non-Payment proved to be the real backbone of the campaign, and massively contributed to the undermining of the Poll Tax.  To be effective, Non-Payment needed community organisation at an unprecedented level. Community Anti-Poll Tax groups came together on a regular basis (weekly or fortnightly).

An early tactic which was discussed was Non-Registration. This was to provide a focus for activity in the period before the Poll Tax was implemented. It proved to be controversial, because some activists thought that people would ‘disappear’ from the Electoral Register too. Nevertheless, with or without the advice of the ‘Fed’, many people did not register. This marked the beginning of a collection nightmare for the authorities. Their registers proved to be inaccurate, whilst registration officers soon found they were most unwelcome in many areas, anticipating the later reaction to sheriff officers.

Anti-Poll Tax groups organised stalls, flyposting, mass leafleting, public meetings and many other events. People put up ‘I’m not paying’ posters in their windows. This gave confidence for others to follow their lead. Phone trees were put in place to warn of the activities of the sheriff officers employed by local councils to enforce payment. Street demonstrations were mounted and houses were occupied to prevent any seizures of personal belongings (poindings).

Local groups produced hundreds of thousands of leaflets, posters and other imaginative material. Colourful local Anti-Poll-Tax banners were made for use on demonstrations.  In some areas such as the pit villages such action was able to draw upon long established community traditions, whereas in those previously largely anonymous areas in the cities new communities came together for the first time.

The ‘Feds’ organised region-wide demonstrations and occupations of Local Council Chambers, the sheriff officers, and a mock poinding at Tory Scottish Secretary of State, Malcolm Rifkind’s house.  The ‘Feds’ also produced the initial material for the new groups, and provided the link between the local groups and the Scottish (and later the All-Britain) Anti-Poll Tax Federation.

As well as organising Conferences with delegates from many constituent Anti-Poll Tax groups, the Scottish and all-Britain ‘Feds’ organised huge demonstrations. Over 10,000 people marched on the first Scottish demonstration in Glasgow on March 18th 1989. Just over a year later, on March 31st, 1990, 200,000 marched in London, whilst a further 50,000 marched in Glasgow. Furthermore, non-payment levels had reached such massive proportions that the authorities no longer had any realistic prospect of collecting the hated tax.

The Scottish National Party leadership opportunistically took advantage of the mass movement to win a stunning by-election victory in Glasgow Govan on 10th November 1988 (with a 38% swing). Their vision was confined to making further electoral gains in Scotland.

The levels of non-registration and non-payment in Scotland, coupled to the ever-widening ‘no-go’ areas for sheriff officers (and Labour Party canvassers!) brought about levels of civil resistance not seen since the mass Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. The regional and Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federations saw the necessity of spreading the action to England and Wales, on the basis of internationalism from below. Speakers were sent south.

It was the knock out blow, delivered in the very heartland of the UK state by the riot in Trafalgar Square on March 31st, 1990, which prompted the ruling class to ditch both Thatcher and the Poll Tax. This was truly a stunning victory for independent class action. So what did the Left learn from this?

In many areas, the activities of the Anti-Poll Tax groups brought them into conflict with Labour Local Councils, which had become the Tories’ principal agent on the ground enforcing the hated tax. What soon became clear was that the local Anti-Poll Tax groups, with their regularly weekly or fortnightly meetings, and their usually monthly regional meetings, formed a far more extensive and better-supported network than the Labour Party with its ward, district and regional meetings. The political basis of a new independent political movement was there for any serious socialist who was prepared to see what was before their eyes.

The largest political grouping in the Anti-Poll Tax movement was Militant. After the bruising experience of trying to takeover the Labour Party in Liverpool, they began to question its previous strategy. It wasn’t easy for them. A Militant member-sponsored motion to the short-lived East of Scotland Anti-Poll Tax Federation called for it to be a condition of membership that you supported the Labour Party! Even the Militant leadership opposed this.

Nevertheless, when local groups agreed to put forward Keith Simpson, the recent Musselburgh Labour councillor and Militant member, as an independent Anti-Poll Tax candidate in 1990 Militant opposed them.  The local groups went ahead nevertheless, and Keith won over 20% of the vote. Scottish Militant eventually learned some lessons, and put forward candidates in Glasgow and Strathclyde in 1992, winning four District and one Regional Local Council seat.

Many of the political forces, including Militant, which came together to form the initial Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) in 1996, were from the Anti-Poll Tax Federations. The SSA went on to become the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998, winning its first seat in the new devolved Holyrood in 1999.  The highpoint was the SSP’s winning six seats in 2003. Virtually the whole of the Left in Scotland (including Militant and even the SWP) were united in the one party, and the opposition to the Iraq war was at its peak. Since then the Left in Scotland and the UK has once again been in retreat – but that’s another story!

The success of the Anti-Poll Tax campaign highlights the necessity to build independent organisations for our class. Sometimes this will mean continued work in sections of the official movement – there were individual Labour Party and trade union branches, which supported the Anti-Poll Tax Federations. However, in such cases, the main job is still to try and win their memberships over to independent class politics.

Furthermore, there is another vital lesson for us today. Class struggle in the late 1980’s was at a low ebb after the defeat of Left Labour-led councils and, in particular, of the Miners. Nobody anticipated the success of the Anti-Poll Tax struggle. Today, in the face of massive attacks in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Credit Crunch’, many workers still feel cowed. However, they also feel very angry. The massive rejection of the Social Democratic/Left Green Alliance government’s banker bailout in the referendum in Iceland, and the major strikes and confrontations between workers and the Greek Socialist government and state forces, show how quickly the mood can change. Trade union leaders, however, only want to renegotiate the draconian cuts, not to oppose them on principle. Success means reviving independent class organisation and building internationalism from below on an even wider basis.

Allan Armstrong, SSP (former Chair of Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Federation and co-Chair of first Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation Conference)

 

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The following article was written by Allan Armstrong for the Edinburgh Peoples Festival website

20 YEARS AFTER THE POLL TAX EXHIBITION


The Edinburgh Peoples Festival launched its ‘20 Years after the Poll Tax’ Exhibition at the Radical Book Fair, in the Out of the Blue Centre in Leith, on the evening of Wednesday, 28th of October.

 

The launch was presided over by Julie Smith, who had been active in the Sciennes/Marchmont Anti-Poll Tax group. Julie gave a brief background to the exhibition. The very first Anti-Poll Tax Groups in Scotland were formed in Edinburgh and this exhibition told their story. Julie drew attention to some of the exhibits. She thanked the EPF and the people who had put the display together. These included Marilyn Sangster, Craig Maclean, Sadie Rooney, Rob Hoon, Allan Armstrong and Mike Vallance. Julie then introduced the evening’s speakers and performers.

Allan Armstrong from the EPF, and former Chair of the Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Federation, outlined the situation in the 1980’s. Workers and their families had faced a whole series of defeats under the then Thatcher government. By 1987, Thatcher and the Tories thought they were invincible and they launched the poll tax to benefit her rich backers. This amounted to a swingeing attack on the majority of the people. Allan compared this with the situation we face today, and the failure to stop New Labour’s wars, and their current attacks on jobs, pay and conditions to bail out the banks.  Yet, the Anti-Poll Tax Movement had stopped the government in its tracks, after a similar earlier period of setbacks. This can inspire us today.

Mike Vallance of the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh (ACE), who had then been active in Stockbridge/New Town Anti-Poll Tax group, emphasised the importance of community resistance in the success of the campaign.  With no mainstream politicians or trade union leaders to back them, the local communities had to organise themselves. Mike went on to describe how the local groups operated and some of the imaginative actions taken, which challenged the local council and the sheriff officers. He pointed out that success also inspired later campaigns, and that ACE continued to help and organise people facing the sheriff officers to this day.

John Greig, and his son Robbie, followed with two anti-poll tax songs by the local writer, Stuart McHardy. Gary Joyce rounded off the evening. He performed a parody of  “I Did It My Way”, which he sang as one half of the Dangleberries, at many Anti-Poll Tax socials.

38 people attended the official launch, whilst over the next four days, over a 1000 people visited the Radical Book Fair, where the Exhibition was prominently displayed.

 

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Mar 20 2009

Edinburgh People’s Festival: Inspirational and Educational

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 4:53 pm

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 healthworkers, posties, railworkers, 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!

Edinburgh People’s Festival website

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