The pictures on Morvern Cunningham’s office wall look like little time capsules of the ghosts of Leiths past. In her upstairs room in the Albion Road business centre that is a thriving hub of grassroots artistic activity, Cunningham is surrounded by posters from previous editions of LeithLate, the mini DIY festival she founded in 2011.
With LeithLate’s latest incarnation happening over two days and nights this coming weekend, the posters chart a story of LeithLate’s initial one-night event featuring a collection of now long-lost bands and a series of pop-up exhibitions in multiple premises running the length of Leith Walk. Other posters continue the story, of how the festival has expanded and contracted over the last nine years before arriving at this year’s event, run in conjunction with Leith Festival.
Next to the posters is a large map of old Leith, revealing an engrossing image of how the port looked before being amalgamated into Edinburgh almost a century ago, with the construction of Leith Theatre a pay-off of sorts. There is even a dotted line, Cunningham points out, marking the old border between Edinburgh and Leith, where different licensing laws saw Leith a more hospitable place it has arguably always been.
This year’s LeithLate aims to continue that tradition over a weekend that sees Cunningham and team co-curate the mainstage at Leith Gala Day with an all-female line-up of bands and DJs moving from Leith Links Saturday afternoon to the Happiness Hotel venue in Queen Charlotte Street to a club night at the FAB Cricket Club back at the Links. A graffiti jam and a Leith Mural Tour complete the weekend, which follows on from April’s Basque film and food crawl. More events will follow later in the year.
“We decided for various reasons not to have it as a big festival this year,” says Cunningham, “and doing it like this kind of extends the idea of having a cluster of activities.”
This year’s collaboration with Leith Festival also sees LeithLate plugging in to other community ventures.
“We’ve always done that to a certain extent,’ says Cunningham. “At the one-night only event we programmed maybe just under half of what went on, but a lot of the bars and other spaces programmed their own activity. So it’s not like we we were ever artificially transplanting artistic activity into Leith. LeithLate is very much about showcasing what’s already going on here.”
This was one of the initial motivations for Cunningham to start LeithLate in the first place in what now looks like a very different time.
“I think back then there was a more negative perception of Leith than there is now,” she says. “There was still an attitude that existed among some people that made them question why you want to go out in Leith at all, even though there was lots of great stuff going on here. That first year it was a case of bringing all the different strands together across ten venues and amplifying it. That was the impetus, but what’s scary is that hardly any of those spaces exist anymore.”
Such has been the Edinburgh way ever since Cunningham first moved there from Glasgow to study. After stints collecting glasses, picking up litter and managing box office in Edinburgh Festival Fringe venues, she ended up doing a post-graduate degree in cultural management and policy.
A turning point for Cunningham was her time at the Roxy venue, then run as a totally independent DIY entity. This was before the financial collapse of its landlords at Edinburgh University Settlement eventually led to the south-side former church being taken over by the Assembly organisation.
“The Roxy felt like a breath of fresh air,” she says, “and felt like what Edinburgh needed.”
It was this attitude that helped drive Cunningham to found LeithLate in a neighbourhood currently under siege by developers.
“Even in 2016 we were having conversations about the gentrification of Leith,” she says, “how artists are implicated in the gentrification process, and how it’s a recognisable cycle. I would argue that capitalism not only exploits the working class communities in areas like Leith, but also exploits the artists who make those areas bohemian, everyone in that area gets pushed out to the sides by luxury flats and other developments.
“We’re very aware of the context we’re working in. We’re not parachuted in. We’re a local group, with ninety per cent of our board Leith residents. We’re on the fringes, and have been since LeithLate started. We’re trying to advocate for creativity in the community, and to celebrate Leith through what we do.”
Where Cunningham would once fund LeithLate out of her own pocket by maxing out her bank account and hoping she could make it back through ticket sales, LeithLate has gradually received pockets of public funding. For the next five years, relative security will come by way of City of Edinburgh Council, with further commercial support from the Baillie Gifford company.
“That took us by surprise,” Cunningham says. “It’s not a massive amount, but it allows us to be able to think about what LeithLate can be. One of the main barriers we’d had to just existing, which any grassroots or small voluntary organisation has to face, is just having security. If you’re working on a project to project basis, it’s really tiring.
“At the same time, I think it’s really important that artists, producers and curators are made aware of the possibilities in being implicated in corporate objectives. Sometimes if you take money, you’re expected to deliver certain objectives, but that’s not the case with any of our funders. We haven’t been told what to do, who to work with or what to say.”
LeithLate has taken on a part-time producer, and, with the centenary year of Leith’s amalgamation with Edinburgh coming up next year, Cunningham has ambitious plans to accompany it.
“In some ways it feels exciting,” she says. ‘Leith feels like it’s empowering itself and taking ownership. The whole Save Leith Walk campaign has been amazing, and has really highlighted the fact that people in Leith won’t stand for endless soulless development in this area. I think there’s a resurgence. There’s lots of stuff going on, and LeithLate can be one way of bringing it all together.
“One thing I’ve always noticed is how busy Leith is if you’re trying to do things. There’s the community council, the rotary club, business association; all this stuff happening all the time, and all rubbing up against each other. I think that way of collective working is the future.”
LeithLate 19 Weekend runs this Saturday and Sunday. Full details can be found at www.leithlate.co.uk
The Herald, June 5th 2019.