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Friday18 August 2017

Living in the greatest show on earth

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Edinburgh’s beauty is her chief economic resource, but when will the visitors all go home?

One of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities had two districts, one of them built of stone and the other a fairground confection of flashing lights and pasteboard. Of course, the stone quarter was always on the move, while the fairground had stayed put for centuries.

By now, Edinburgh feels like Calvino’s city – it’s a tired fairground, and we’re desperate for everyone to leave. The city has been tested to destruction. An army of burlesque dancers has marched on the Scotsman newspaper, flats usually inhabited by two people have been squatted by 16, and even my filthy cellar ended up being used as a dressing room for a cabaret act.

We’ll get two weeks of peace, and then the students turn up, and it’ll start all over again. When they’ve recovered from their hangovers, we’ll be asking them to meet a variety of community groups based in and around Edinburgh’s Old Town. They will be preparing for a seminar at the start of October named “Rethinking the City”.

There are a variety of different lobbies representing diverse interests, but they are all trying to work out ways of living in the middle of what is, for the month of August, the greatest show on earth. They all agree on one thing – that tourism is Edinburgh’s biggest problem.

On the street where I live, I can listen to bagpipes from dawn till dusk, buy fudge by appointment to Princess Anne, antique prints, speciality whiskies, cashmere, and kilts. I can find out my clan name, but God help me if I’m looking for some Windolene or a pint of milk.

Any time any public building or site becomes vacant in the centre of the city, the almost automatic choice seems to be to line up some hotel chain or other to take it on. At various points around the city, there are little brass plaques set into the pavement. Stand on one of them, and you’ll always find yourself looking at a beautiful view. Look at them more carefully, and you’ll find that they’re sponsored by Fuji film.

None of that looks like a sustainable future, and local pressure groups in the Old Town are constantly battling for local facilities for local people – playgrounds, schools, workshop space, and so on. Sometimes I feel like spearheading a campaign myself, but I fear that if we were really honest about what we needed to keep the area going, we’d ask for a branch of Lidl, preferably surrounded by a sea of tarmac.

It won’t happen. That’s the price we pay in order to live somewhere so beautiful that everyone in world wants to come and look at it. It would be churlish not to let them in; and let’s face it, their dollars sustain us for the rest of the year.

A century and a half ago, Lord Cockburn observed that Edinburgh’s beautiful appearance was its chief economic resource; but in order for it to remain so, the city must become a more or less uninhabitable fairground for a month every year. It’s a Faustian pact, as curious as any invisible Venice or Xanadu imagined by Italo Calvino.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • SAndals23

    Edinburgh has a sustainable future and will be around long after Ed or I try and mould it into whatever we feel is best for it's future - at the time. It is stone and glass and will roll with the punches. It's alive and actually, despite us all, it's doing rather nicely thank you very much.

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  • Ed is right, Edinburgh is becoming a mess, and that's because for more and more of the year (not just the month of the Festival) the only people it can think about are tourists. So more buildings become hotels and bars, more shops sell Chinese-made 'Scottish' tat, more flats become rented as 'party flats' (pity the residents who have to share their stairs with them on a twelve-month basis), the Old Town in particular becomes a shabby theme park, and the only aim of the city is to give a visitor a 24-48 hour 'experience'. Tourism is fine, at the moment we are all still doing it, but sometimes tourists want to come and see real things and real places where real people live interesting lives. Edinburgh needs to pay more attention to building up the long-term value of Edinburgh as a place to live in, for its own citizens, future citizens, as well as visitors.

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