Fringe benefits

Edinburgh Festival - Bob Flynn takes refuge in a converted bus depot to escape the corporate clamour

Right now, in central Edinburgh, you can't move for miming marionettes and trainee stilt-walkers. Stand still for two minutes, and your face will be painted and you'll be covered in leaflets like the leaves of a strange festival tree left swaying on the Royal Mile. Emergency cultural saturation units are set up and the Fringe is under way - and, yet again, this is the biggest ever year, with 17,000 performances over 23 days.

We are repeatedly told that it is the biggest in the world, the largest arts festival of any kind, an artistically overstuffed August when, for three weeks, Edinburgh becomes the mother of all festivals - Official, Fringe, Film, Book, TV and now Club. But for too long, the Fringe has been inordinately concerned with size. Like an adolescent boy - and, for that matter, most males - it is obsessed with being the largest. But who's counting? And does it matter?

On the face of it, the festival is a wild cultural orgy where staid, pretty Edinburgh lifts her stone skirts and allows herself to get tipsy for a few weeks. But is it really, as many locals believe, a fleeting showcase for legions of London PRs who invade Edinburgh with mobiles bleeping? Well, there's a lot more to the huge international gathering than a chunk of the south-east landing on the Scottish capital. But Edinburgh's council fathers, financial directors and corporate sponsors seem increasingly content to jam everything into one lucrative month, and then resume normal business until the next theme-park Hogmanay bash - the biggest, they insist, in the world. For the rest of the year, Edinburgh is becoming a place where nothing, apart from corporate redevelopment, ever happens.

The capital has gained a parliament, but has lost most of its permanent venues and a number of independent galleries over the past year. Yet recently, it smugly gave the castle over to concerts from Elton John and Lionel Richie. It seems that Edinburgh is happy to embrace safe, corporate, Dome-mentality entertainment. And even the uber-venues of the Fringe, headed by the Assembly Rooms/Gilded Balloon/Pleasance conglomerate, are now vast money-making machines, mainly comedy jukeboxes with a collection of lucrative familiar names on return visits.

But behind Waverley Station - where culture-seeking hordes are currently pouring from the trains - just off the Royal Mile, a rather forbidding, dilapidated council bus depot is the multifunctional home of new artists, and is the liveliest and most adventurous venue in town. It is called Out of the Blue - somehow appropriate for a unique, completely independent hive of studios, workspaces, galleries and a year-round, in-house cafe-bar and venue - the Bongo Club. With its all-embracing mix of avant-garde and entertainment, community work spliced with art work, and regular gigs alternating with the hardest dub reggae club in town, "OTB" has no equivalent in Edinburgh or, indeed, in Britain.

Evolving from an improbably ambitious idea to establish a permanent cross-cultural centre for artists and local community projects, Out of the Blue was founded by Anne-Marie Culhane and Trudi Gibson in 1994. In 1996, it was moved into Edinburgh's New Street bus station, and 31 studios were created. The Bongo Club - named after the Victorian term for "communal revelry" - is now one of the few remaining independent venues in an increasingly sterilised city. It is also the spiritual home of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's splinter group, Mr McFall's Chamber, who are moonlighting from this year's official festival to play Jimi Hendrix numbers and to collaborate with, among others, the Gambian kora player Bajaly Suso.

If any venue is adhering to the historic ethos of the Fringe as the ultimate "open" festival, rather than an army of familiar comics in Edinburgh's Perrier playground, it is the Bongo Club. When the Fringe - conceived as an experimental, challenging antidote to the perceived stuffiness and predictability of the official programme - excitedly announces the festival debut of the "star of BBC1's They Think It's All Over", Lee Hurst, you realise that something has gone wrong. Hurst, by the way, will be slaying them at the brand-new, air-conditioned Edinburgh International Conference Centre. So much for the traditional phone-box venues, which are fast disappearing in the new European Edinburgh.

Out of the Blue's artistic complex is no Lottery-funded black hole, but is determinedly self-funded through profits from the Bongo Club and by leasing studio spaces to 60 artists. Proudly self-sufficient, it is also one of the few organisations to bring its Fringe productions to Edinburgh's forgotten peripheral housing estates and old people's homes. The Fringe as a local community function? Something that is involved in Edinburgh itself? Thought we'd forgotten about that in the melee.

So how is Edinburgh going to recognise this wondrous creation of truly alternative yet accessible artistic endeavour? It is going to demolish it, in order to make way for yet another multimillion-pound (£75m, to be exact) hotel and office complex - a growth industry in the new, gleaming EuroDisney Edinburgh. Out of the Blue has come to the end of its lease and, let's face it, is much too experimental and socially useful to exist amid the call-centres and megalithic finance houses.

The problem lies in the new parliament - not our bickering, faltering MSPs who moved in just over a year ago, but the concentric financial and civic circles that emanate from the seat of political power. Edinburgh is being themed and drenched in the caffeine of a thousand new cafes, clothed in the designer regalia of George Street's elite shops and housed in property that has gone through several pricing barriers. We got devolution, and they gave us another Brussels.

The founders of Out of the Blue were not invited to the first planning consultation for the New Street redevelopment, and they are desperate to find another location to house their brave and viable vision of art as an integral part of everyday community life. No options have been provided by the council or its financial puppeteers, and the New Street complex could be gone by the end of the year. So take a look at the old bus depot for one of the most eclectic programmes in the festival. Climb the stairs to the funkiest venue around, and have the last waltz at the Bongo Club. Out of the Blue is an ongoing cause for the survival of a genuinely alternative arts venue that extends far beyond the Fringe.

Out of the Blue, 6-14 New Street, has extended opening hours of 10.30am-5am during the Edinburgh Festival. For more information, call 0131 556 5204 or visit www.thebongoclub.co.uk

This article first appeared in So, who still wants to be a millionaire?

2000-08-14