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The Dramaturges of Princes Street Gardens – The Sky isn’t the Limit

Adventures on Yan

 

Imagine this. A colonised world where natives and settlers live peacefully beside each other. Old traditions have been forgotten since the place was taken over, so few born there are aware of their history anymore. Many have willingly embraced the ways of those who took them over, while some incomers fetishise local ways, appropriating them as something fashionable that might make them appear cool. While cultural integration largely keeps any prejudice at play, there are incomers who see themselves as superior, and look down on the natives. Largely, however, most get by. 

 

Into this, a blaze of spectacular images suddenly lights up the skies without warning, dazzling those below. The event is the latest in a universal franchise that has given its creator a virtual monopoly on such events, whether their intended audiences want them or not. But those behind it want more, and have landed in an attempt to make their next gig even better. 

 

To do this, they must explore indigenous culture written in the native tongue of living poets in touch with their roots. The plan is to get officialdom on side, made easier if they get a few locals already well versed in indigenous culture involved. All of which should help enable their theme park of the skies to be bigger, brighter and more explosive than before. What could possibly go wrong? 

 

If such a narrative sounds to Edinburgh cynics a little too close to home in terms of what might be expected in the ever-expanding milieu of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay’s ‘official’ celebrations, think again. The description above is a rough outline of a speculative fiction novel called The Dramaturges of Yan. Penned by English SF writer John Brunner, and first published in 1972, the book set out its store on the far flung but still beauteous planet Yan, colonised by Earth several centuries earlier. As the blurb on the back cover of New English Library’s 1974 paperback edition has it – 

 

 

‘The far-flung fingers of Earth’s civilisation touched many corners of the galaxy, and among them was the beautiful planet Yan. Here the colonists lived a peaceful, almost idyllic life, amid ancient and secret relics, co-existing with their strange and compatible neighbours.

 

The arrival of Gregory Chart, the greatest dramatist ever, whose dramas were played out in the skies, and whose actors were also the audience, could only disrupt and destroy once the Yanfolk were aroused from their dreaming indifference.’

 

 

In truth, The Dramaturges of Yan is a pretty pedestrian read, and up until the last few pages largely consists of characters sitting around talking as each chapter criss-crosses between sub-plots that eventually converge. The sit-down dialogues between Chart and poet Marc Simon, especially, with Simon a kind of matinee idol Hamish Henderson folk-lorist figure steeped in ancient Yannish culture, resemble an event producers brainstorming session on how to make a space age mint through cultural tourism. As cynically dull a conversation on Yan as much as on 21stcentury Earth, it seems. 

 

As with much of 1970s SF on the page, the ideas on show are as philosophically expansive as the front cover paintings are otherworldly. The words, alas, remain as earthbound as a planning application to build a Christmas market, and at times are just as easy to forget. 

 

It might make a great movie, though, or at least a multi-media hi-tech son et lumiere to help see in the new year. Never mind the fireworks. This is the future. Which is where, like parallel universes caught up in a time warp, The Dramaturges of Yan and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay begin to converge. 

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has effectively forced us all to live in a 1970s dystopian SF film over the last year, with tragic results on every level as the entire world has been pretty much closed down. While this includes the cancellation of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay’s usual itinerary, just like Gregory Chart, Underbelly won’t be grounded. 

 

Over three nights this week, the company present Fare Well, an online spectacular involving 150 drones broadcasting iconic images set to a new work by Scots Makar Jackie Kay, soundtracked by Skye based band, Niteworks. If this sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of Brunner’s back catalogue, perhaps we should think of Underbelly as The Dramaturges of Princes Street Gardens.

 

 

Seeing the Future

 

John Brunner wrote 58 SF novels between 1951 and his death in 19995. This came after suffering a heart attack at that year’s World Science Fiction Convention, held in Glasgow. There were at least another 30 books of various genres, plus several volumes of poetry and film and TV scripts. 

 

Brunner’s work bridged old school space opera and the more experimental SF new wave that came up during the 1960s. While his work didn’t sit easily in either camp, his 1960s and 1970s works in particular had their eye on a future that in some aspects have caught up with his predictions.

 

Brunner’s most celebrated novel, Stand on Zanzibar (1968), looked broadly at notions of global overpopulation. In form, he took ideas from experimental American novelist John Dos Passos and Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who first introduced the notion of the global village and predicted the internet. 

 

Brunner drew his book’s title from the early twentieth century claim that the entire world’s population could stand upright on the Isle of Wight. By 1968, an increased populace would require the more expansive Isle of Man to do likewise. Brunner predicted – correctly – that in 2010, if the world’s 7 billion strong population were to stand shoulder to shoulder, it would take somewhere the size of Zanzibar to accommodate them. This presumably includes security provided by G4S or similar.

 

The Dramaturges of Yan utilises a computer-based encyclopaedia that operates in much the same way as Google does, as well as being able to communicate by way of something close to E-mail or Messenger. Even Brunner, however, doesn’t seem to have predicted endless pop-up ads, spam and a million other online gremlins that seems to have passed SF by.

 

Nor, indeed, does Brunner mention the amount of public money required by commercial enterprises to make such unsolicited spectaculars as those unleashed by Gregory Chart happen. Underbelly, for instance, have a contract with City of Edinburgh Council worth up to £800,000 to produce Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay up until January 2022.

 

In October 2020, the Scotsman newspaper reported that Underbelly had been awarded £584,751 by the UK Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund in order to help them survive the pandemic. https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/edinburgh-festival-fringe-promoters-underbelly-and-pleasance-secure-major-public-funding-bailouts-3001763

In November 2020, the Scotsman reported that Underbelly also received a £250,000 ‘lifeline’ from the Scottish Government in order to help their business cope with the effects of the pandemic. The Scotsman said that this was the maximum possible grant from a Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund, and that it was £100,000 more than that awarded from the same fund to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. 

 

The Scotsman also highlighted that. while EFFS”s grant was announced publicly in June, there has never been any official announcement of Underbelly’s award, administered by Scottish Enterprise. https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/edinburghs-hogmanay-organisers-underbelly-get-ps250000-scottish-government-lifeline-firm-also-paid-alternative-celebrations-next-month-3050826

For Fare Well, Underbelly have received £175,000 from the Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, as well as financial support from EventScotland, who last year backed Edinburgh’s Hogmanay with £200,000.

 

This follows the fallout of 2019’s Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, after it was discovered that Underbelly had not secured the necessary planning permission to extend the Christmas market in East Princes Street Gardens. It was also discovered that City of Edinburgh Council senior officials had approved a two year extension to Underbelly’s contract to run Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay without informing elected councillors. 

 

None of this was great PR for a company who, like Gregory Chart, only beam down events in Edinburgh once in a blue moon. In Underbelly’s case, that is in December, for Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. The biggest extravaganza of course, comes in August for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, when year-round local club complex The Bongo moves out of its City of Edinburgh Council owned Cowgate base in order for Underbelly to parachute in for a month. 

 

The muddy aftermath of East Princes Street Gardens left behind after last year’s Christmas market wasn’t a good look either. Combined with civic concerns about over-tourism, privatisation of public space and a perceived emphasis on festivalisation of the city, a full scale review of the winter festivals and their impact on the city had already been announced by CEC in 2019. Given that the festivals are said to be worth more than £150 million to the local economy, what the report’s future brings remains to be seen. For now, at least, we have the UK’s biggest drone show to see in the bells this year. John Brunner would be green with envy.

 

 

Back Down to Earth

 

But, but, but, but, but!…. This isn’t meant to be some big Yan-like moan calling for all Edinburgh events for Hogmanay in Princes Street Gardens and elsewhere to be wiped out entirely. Just that, like what turns out to be – spoiler alert - Gregory Chart’s final narcissistic folly in The Dramaturges of Yan, they be perhaps a tad less intergalactically overwhelming, and are done with a bit more care.

 

Great things have happened in Princes Street Gardens, let’s not forget, many of them on the admittedly tired looking Ross Bandstand. Leaving aside arguments over the Edinburgh Summer Sessions concerts held there in August – which are nothing to do with Underbelly or any Edinburgh festival programme - as an arena, the Ross isn’t just for Edinburgh’s Christmas or Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. Nor has it been since it was first built in west Princes Street Gardens back in 1935.

 

That was after wealthy retired distiller William Henry Ross bankrolled the new bandstand’s construction, with £3k coming from the local council. This replaced the previous construction, built in 1877, a year after the former private park was opened to the public after being gifted to the city by the Gardens’ former owners, the Princess Street Proprietors. It was they who donated £5,000 to the building of the original bandstand.

 

The opening of the Ross in 1935 saw it host regular concerts by the First Battalion Gordon Highlanders from Redford, who played two sets a day throughout June of that year. In fairly recent times, the Ross was a major venue for the Commonwealth Arts Festival that accompanied the 1986 Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh. 

 

The Games themselves were a political and financial disaster. 32 of the eligible 59 countries boycotted the event due to UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to support economic sanctions on apartheid era South Africa. Much of soon to be disgraced media tycoon Robert Maxwell’s promised financial support for the event never materialised, and the Games were left with a £4 million black hole.

 

 Culturally, however, with a left-leaning local authority putting grassroots artistic provision to the fore, the Ross Bandstand retained an international flavour throughout the Commonwealth Arts Festival and beyond.

 

The Commonwealth shebang kicked off with a large scale concert compered by Robbie Coltrane, and featuring acts including home-grown fringe favourites The Merry Mac Fun Co. the group’s alternative cabaret pastiche of tartan cliché in song, sketches and street theatre, featuring the talents of future novelist Duncan McLean and TV writer/director John McKay, seemed to be everywhere that summer.

 

African bands, Indian bands and Edinburgh bands played at the Ross, all for free. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain did their rendition of Hawkwind’s sci-fi kosmische classic, Silver Machine, in a boho Palm Court cabaret style. Off-kilter indie conceptualists A Sudden Sway played inside a dome as part of a construction called Home is Heavenly Springs. 

 

This retro future statement on suburban new town des-res living came with gaps in the walls for the audience to peer through after pressing one of four buttons to request their selection from a series of one-minute songs. Every Saturday afternoon there was something just as wondrous, all for free.

 

All this quite possibly almost bankrupted the city, but these were the real Dramaturges of Princes Street Gardens. The Ross Bandstand may need an upgrade, but the stalled Quaich Project, with designs on the Ross’ replacement becoming an Edinburgh equivalent of Sydney Opera House, along with some swanky underground visitor centre to go with it, probably isn’t what is needed.

 

 

The Stars Look Down

 

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay too has had its fair share of interplanetary greatness that went beyond Princes Street back when Underbelly was still a baby-sized venture waiting in the wings, while more seasoned dramaturges took flight. Back in 2009, when Edinburgh based Unique Events were still in charge, St Giles’ Cathedral hosted an event called Fragile Pitches. This was an epic sound installation by East Lothian composer Michael Begg with Colin Potter of avant-garde experimentalists, Nurse with Wound. 

 

Fragile Pitches sourced sounds from natural landscapes in and around Scotland, and, in St Giles, manipulated them over several hours to shudderingly trouser flapping effect. With a CD of the event released the following year, this was the sort of thing more likely to play to a handful of folk at an experimental music festival, but which was here given a mass audience at a major civic shindig. 

 

The same year, Edinburgh’s Puppet Lab company had The Big Man, a 26-foot blue construction, parade along the High Street after being led through Scotland’s towns and villages in celebration of the ancient Myth of the Giant. 

 

More recently, and on Underbelly’s watch, street-based artists from Edinburgh companies Circus Alba and PyroCeltica have collaborated with their counterparts from Europe. City wide sound and light spectaculars such as 2019’s Message from the Skies and 2018’s Love Letter to Europe have showcased words and music by the likes of Kayus Bankole from  Young Fathers, Irvine Welsh and Kathleen Jamie, projected onto city landmarks.

 

These sleights of hand - in the flesh and on the street – are unspoken subversions of civic pride that takes it back to its alternative, punky roots. And frankly, putting Edinburgh’s Hogmanay back into the power of the people in that way probably is exactly what is required.

 

All that, however, was when we could still go outside. In the meantime, there is Fare Well. Given the artists involved and the resources behind it, the three five minute online presentations might turn out breathtakingly brilliant. Take a look outside your window, and you might even get to see the Edinburgh equivalent of Gregory Chart and The Dramaturges of Yan – or at least The Dramaturges of Princes Street Gardens - lighting up the skies. Let’s hope they don’t fly too close to the Sun.  

 

Fare Well can be viewed for free at www.edinburghshogmanay.com, December 29th-31st, 7pm.

 

The Dramaturges of Yan by John Brunner is available at all good secondhand book websites.


Bella Caledonia, December 2020

 

ends

 

 

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