‘ARE you going to see anything at the film festival?” It’s that time already? I haven’t even looked at a programme. Substitute the above sentence with book/jazz/international/fringe and the answer will still be the same. July and the Edinburgh festival season has crept up on me. Once upon a time my calendar would be crammed until September, seeing shows, meeting people and ducking into doorways to dictate a 300-word review before moving onto the next. I tasted the full offering of the various festivals as a poorly paid arts journo, experiencing the city during festival season in a way few people can. These days I’m out of the loop. I rarely write on the subject, so the press releases have all but stopped coming. For the past few years, I’ve relied on recommendations for cultural indulgences. But of course, that relies on having friends with disposable income. Friends who go out and do things. That is surely a privilege in itself.

These days, I have an odd relationship to festival season. It happens on my doorstep – has for the past twelve years – yet I feel disconnected, as many do. I’m at the point in my life where I have the sort of disposable income that makes me the target market, but Christ, it’s expensive. And I cringe at those words because I know how difficult it is to break even for performers — that’s how little of it trickles down to the talent. The festivals generate £280 million for the capital and £313m for Scotland, and is used as a siren call to overseas travellers. Just living here is expensive (the priciest for a weekend break in the entire UK, apparently). And if I can barely afford it, then it paints a pretty dismal picture of who festival season is really for — ce n’est pas pour nous. There’s an incongruity, a dissonance caused by living in one of the world’s finest cities, but barely being able to touch the thing it’s known for.

I take an annual trip to Bruges (at £19 for a flight to Brussels and €14 for the train north, considerably cheaper than a day at the festival). I stay in Hof-van-Steelant in the grounds of a Gothic revival castle on the outskirts, run by two artists-cum-goodlifers. It’s as magical as it sounds, hence the repeat visits. Last time, I chatted to Fons over breakfast while his puckish Weimeraner Ella pressed her wet sponge nose into my bare feet. In full lovesick tourist mode, I confessed my infatuation with the city and he shrugged. “Brugge’s not for us. If you want a real Belgian city, go to Ghent.” So I did. And I got it. Immaculate cobbled streets, medieval architecture, canal tours, the unmistakable waft of melted chocolate from Wollestraat. It’s run for the tourists. Disney without the rides. Echoes of Edinburgh. How frustrating to live somewhere that enchants so many, to make your life in it, whilst everything about it points towards others.

Edinburgh teems with life every summer. It vibrates with the arts – yet, there’s a barrier between it and those who need them most: money. Isn’t it always the way? The beautiful things become the leisure pursuits of the comfortable and the affluent. There is little leftover for those who have more pressing things to spend £15 to £30 on.

I’m struck by how much I’ve needed the arts in the times I could least afford it. I think of my 21st birthday, in August 2008. In a few days’ time I’d be at the funeral of my second child, a sad little cremation where lily pollen stained my jade green jacket. I had to cram something between those days, and where better to distract yourself than the Fringe? I needed to see beautiful things happening. I wanted to know that people could still sing when I couldn’t manage a whisper. I needed costumes and drama and irreverence and laughter. Just to be near it, even if I couldn’t afford to sit through anything.

I was too sad to cry, so the sky did it. I sat on the concrete molars that flank the mile, watching the metronomic thrip of the rain on the pepper-coloured streets whilst performers danced, sang, sheltered, laughed. Everything was grey from my heart to the heavens, but the street was swirling with colour. I could only graze the surface, but it nourished the part that yearned for goodness, hope and affirmation that some day soon I’d know a smile again.

That’s what the arts do – offer confirmation of beauty and consolation when you have lost the ability to see it. When your imagination is broken, we need a proxy to stand in for what we can’t manage.

How many could use these things, live close enough to touch it, but never get in? How many could never picture themselves there?

ONCE upon a time, I couldn’t either. My childhood was far away from this sort of life. Spent in the littoral zone between Manchester and Sheffield, and then a Fife port town. Set against red-brick terraces and harled grey semis, where watching a cat decay in an overgrown verge was entertainment. It was a place art never touched. It couldn’t. It wasn’t for us.

I swing between these places when I think of Edinburgh. How great it is to be so close to creative brilliance, but dismayed at how ringfenced it is. That’s the feeling I got when I saw the announcement of those cherry-picked few chosen to guide Scotland’s new cultural strategy. Those with the most access will set the tone.

But this is Scotland, right? That place where art and culture runs through us like lettering through the rock. Or isn’t that more like the “good” angle we present to others? It’s the watercolour painted for tourists’ cash.

You don’t see it sitting on a lighter-pocked grit bin outside the dockyard Spar. The arts don’t touch austerity-cleansed high streets, aside from old rain-gummed posters on boarded-up shops. This country sells itself internationally as a cultural destination, yet the arts touch so few.

Here, they’re still the playground for the affluent, and in turn, a career in the arts is so much more off limits to the working classes. Those whose art we most dearly need to see if it is to be the mirror that we claim it is.

No. Far too much of what matters in the arts in this country is dictated from the top down. I wonder what our cultural landscape would look like if it was shouted from the ground up? Imagine the ferocity and the verve of work created by those the hardships of society provokes most. Imagine if everyone had access to express themselves in the affective registers the elites gatekeep?

For Scotland’s cultural strategy not to be utterly tone-deaf, opportunity must be central. Access to things that help us make beauty, but also permission for everyone to take refuge in the arts without feeling indulgent or unwelcome. No-one should think “that is not for me”.