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Opinion

John Bird: After the laughs in Edinburgh have died, homelessness will remain

Alex Salmond's Fringe show is a runaway hit. But many at the former Scottish First Minister's show wanted to talk about poverty too

When I left the Dundonald Street apartment lent us for the Edinburgh Festival I got great joy out of washing up with my children, cleaning the kitchen surfaces, puffing up the sofa cushions, tidying the bedroom, and generally making it look as if we had not been there for two days. And then depositing the two sets of keys on a little wooden plate by the door.

I had in the course of making scrambled eggs for both breakfasts splashed egg on to the splash board behind the cooker. That took a bit of removing. And then I had used the wrong implement on the first day, a saucepan rather than a non-stick frying pan, and that took 10 minutes at least to bring it back to pristine.

We walked in the light rain the 20 minutes to the station and then took our train south; everything went like clockwork.

We had achieved our ends. Two days at the wild-looking festival, with crowds blocking seemingly every piece of pavement, and dozens and dozens and dozens of people giving out leaflets for what seemed largely comedy shows. It was as if the world had come to Edinburgh increasingly to laugh. Or where the world’s laugh-makers gathered.

For all of the fun of the fair there is abjectness. Like London, prosperity will bring like magnets the despairing

Aside from some profanities that sneaked into my part of the Alex Salmond: Unleashed show, as his guest, I probably did well. I certainly met an enormous amount of people who were not just there to laugh, but also to listen to Alex, and to talk about homelessness, and poverty. Though this seemed buried under the laughter.

Unleashed: Poverty was also on the agenda at Alex Salmond's stage show

The flat that I stayed in was in what is called the New Town, though it is circa 250 years old. This is to distinguish it from the Old Town that seems to hang off the back of a long-running hill beyond the station and Princes Street. Fifty years ago when I lived in Edinburgh, the New Town was run down. Weeds seemed to fill many gardens. But now it’s spruced up and must be one of the most beautiful urban experiences anywhere in the UK.

Why did I not take that flat offered me by Jane Ball those years ago when she was in love with me and wanted me to stay with her, and having three flats in the New Town, and one on the High Street, was happy to hand a two-bedroom, high-ceiling Georgian gem over to me?

Edinburgh was cheap as chips, and the place wasn’t full of comedians and comedy-seekers and street performers. And walking down Princes Street wasn’t like walking through Croydon on a Saturday afternoon where every shop with some odd exceptions is a high street chain.

The shopping experience might be like anywhere in the British Isles, but at least you have rocks and castles and the finest of fine buildings. At least you have a beautiful tram which weaves through the town making cars secondary road appliances. And then the general feeling of goodwill and joy that festivals bring.

Feeding people on the streets, to me, has always seemed like the most ‘acceptable’ human rights abuse I can imagine

But there’s also the ever-present sight of men and women, and seemingly boys and girls, sitting out and about with their notices of homelessness and poverty. The prosperity with the emptiness, the poverty that seems to accompany prosperity.

For all of the fun of the fair there is abjectness. Like London, prosperity will bring like magnets the despairing. What can we do about it?

Scotland has legalised begging. Is that a solution? I’m not so sure. Better to solve the problem than provide a get-out clause called ‘begging’ and ‘rough sleeping’, is my take. Sorting out our social problems on the streets of our cities has never been a very good answer, because they fail to sort a thing out. Feeding people on the streets, to me, has always seemed like the most ‘acceptable’ human rights abuse I can imagine. It’s an abuse, because we do not break the need for people to resort to street living.

I started my article about the Edinburgh Festival with a boring piece of domesticity; cleaning up a rented flat before leaving it. But in some ways, I wish we could be so mechanical, clockwork and uninspiring over homelessness. I wish we just did our housework differently, so that we would not leave people on the streets. But instead, simply, mechanically provided for them.

And undid the mental cords that caused people to fall on the street. It’s not rocket science, just careful help, and – with it – careful support beyond the streets.

I cannot rest easy, even at a festival and among an ocean of comedy, if we see the disastrous results of poor policy and poor usage of resources that throws up begging as a living.

But then, that’s why out of our early Scottish life 50 years ago came Gordon Roddick’s and my ‘Big Issue’. An endeavour to give people the chance to get out of grief. A staging post away from street life.

More money on education and social services would certainly have a decidedly positive effect on the streets of our cities. But that means going back to Westminster for the fight. For the fight is truly to be waged there.

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