I had high hopes for this recession. The clearing of yuppies and trust-fund brats from Manhattan, the bust of mediocre record companies, film houses and television studios which, for the past 13 or so years have kept us swimming in beige. The clearing of yuppies and trust-fund brats from the rest of the world who now watch cable television and pretend they are in Manhattan. No such luck.

Last Monday, I sat with John Calder at a talk with MP Vince Cable, author of The Storm, and not unlike our own Mike Holmes of ONE Magazine, the only writers with the balls to write a preemptive newsflash about the current economic meltdown. The subject of the talk: The Root of All Evil? Morality and Money.

Vince Cable and another panelist, Nic Marks of the New Economics foundation discussed banks and greed, unreasoned lending and unscrupulous hoarding and the ins and outs of human behavior to a crowd of about 100, while the host sat onstage and typed on his handheld twit device.

During the Q&A, Calder asked Cable why he pulls some of his punches in his criticisms of the status quo, and I asked why we discuss banks instead of bankers – and how can we expect these beasts of profit, who’ve been fastracked from a broad education down the slippery MBA road with little or no sense of history, to act or think responsibly in a greater context.

Cable grumbled at Calder, dismissing his Attlean assertion of managed economies (I reckon he has books to sell), but agreed about history and said the first thing he’d do is put history books back into the first-year economic courses, which prove that all upswings in an economy are cyclical – and what goes up comes down every 15 years or so. Oh, the good ole’ days – readin’, writin’, and common sense.

As I made my way through this August, I cautiously watched for evidence of change. Real recession-era change. Perhaps, I imagined, in the tougher economic times people would become friendlier, more concerned about the fabric that connects us as a society to the guy on the other side of the street — not unlike the week after 9/11, before the Guiliani PR machine took over; or stories I’ve heard about the greatness of the human spirit in times of crisis. My conclusion: no change, and either there is no real crisis, or, because of it, people have only gotten socially worse.

Since we now have a generation with no real sense of history or geography, and no perspective of society other than the day they were born at the center of the world, how can we expect any change? In school, they/we’ve been taught that ‘Everyone’s a Winner!’, and if that’s indeed true, there certainly can be no losers. This must be why the stores are packed with hungry shoppers, with credit cards waving for their well-deserved new look of the season. Privileged people turned orange from the fake suntan outside, green from faux security on the inside. In place of real art, beauty, and craft we have a sea of phony celebrities twitting their way to an elusive ‘top’, and nowhere is this more evident than most festivals.

Festival: day or period of time set aside to commemorate, ritually celebrate or re-enact, or anticipate events or seasons-agricultural, religious, or sociocultural – that give meaning and cohesiveness to an individual and to the religious, political, or socioeconomic community. (1)

Give. Meaning. Cohesiveness. Hrmmm. That’s what I thought. That’s what I like to think. But I don’t see it so much these days. Somebody over at the Fringe, er, Edinburgh Comedy Festival, made 5 million pounds on the bulletin book, but the ticket selling machines still weren’t humming correctly. At the book festival: pay your money, get in line, sit 50 minutes, applaud, go buy a book to get an autograph and a thank-you from the author, leave. “Latecomers will not be admitted.”

I may be wrong, but the one thing I’ve observed at festivals from New York to Prague, of film, theatre, music and yes, books is that none actively engage their local communities. Whether films in Tribeca, plays in Philadelphia, or tragedies in Edinburgh — ticket prices soar each year, exponentially. Most venues stand variably empty, while their indefatigably hopeful producers try to coax would-be audience members in with free tickets. The battlecry: “BUMS ON SEATS!!” So much for art. Roving bands of fussy tourists wander the streets and fight like pack wolves over tables at hip joints like Starbucks and Hard Rock, so things’ll be just like home. Yippee McCulture!

Having been fortunate enough to know the first producers of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Conference on the Novel,, I’m constantly amazed by the tales of the bygone gatherings. Real festivals with conversations and dialogs, where the locals packed free houses where artists performed, as opposed to being celebrities. Where theatre, literature and film deposited political themes, questions and controversy in the psyches of the audiences, and things seemed to matter. The good old days.

Nowadays, I don’t think a Beat Poet, Samuel Beckett, Woodie Guthrie or Bob Dylan would see the light of day in this age of Me-the-Celebrity. Where’s the real, sustained opposition to wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? Not in today’s music that’s for sure. Like schools, universities and the arts across the US and UK, so-called festivals are failing the communities they should, at least, inform. Damn straight Socrates, and unexamined life is not worth living, and our bourgeoisie are fat and miserable. For this and other reasons, I’m thinking a name change is in order: from festival to CARNIVALS.

Carnival: A traveling amusement show usually including rides, games, and sideshows. (2)

Eureka! Now that’s more like it. Sideshows – the things we all dream of. This, I think, is a perfect title for the gatherings and events formerly known as festivals. It allows all the superficiality of ‘amusement’ without having to muddy the waters with art, culture or the pursuit of substance.

Last night, I attended one of Jim Haynes (co-founder of the Traverse Theatre) infamous Sunday Dinners, this time a one-off in Edinburgh. He’d been on BBC Radio inviting the whole of Scotland the week before. Jim is known all over Europe for these dinners, where the only requirement is to “eat & have fun”, and, I might add, that there be no strangers. At his atelier in Paris, you can hardly get in Jim’s door on a Sunday night before being asked your name and introduced to at least five people. New people.

As I mingled through the room, I became in front of a couple, inches from my face, who, instead of looking up, tried everything in their power to avoid ‘I’ contact. “Hi, I’m Martin, what’s your name?” Reluctantly, the man gave his name as I forced him to shake hands and then reached for the woman as she attempted to slink away. They weren’t bashful, they were above me.

“Is this your first Jim Haynes party?” I invaded upon the man (mind you, this is in a noisy room full of 80 people).

“Yes.” The man said.

“Well, there are no strangers allowed at a Jim Haynes party” I continued, turning toward the woman.

“You might have trouble getting that to work here!” she said, with a smirk.


Thank God for the other guests who got it – a surgeon from Edinburgh who specialises in correcting young children’s cleft palates; a recent graduate of Strathclyde University with a First in marketing and a new company; a painter from Portobello; and a host of others who I’ll mingle with anytime.

As for the the rest – Let them eat (and choke on) their carnivals.

(1) “festival.” © Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.. 31 Aug. 2009. <>.

(2) “carnival.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 31 Aug. 2009.>.