Edinburgh has fallen

 

From you.38degrees.org.uk

 

It was announced back in 2013 that the Picturehouse on Lothian Road, the main venue for rock and pop gigs in central Edinburgh, had been bought by big, bland, corporate pub-chain J.D. Wetherspoon and would be transformed into another of Wetherspoon’s big, bland, corporate pubs.  At the time, I lamented on this blog about how Edinburgh’s powers-that-be seemed hellbent on destroying any spaces where music fans could congregate and hear music played in its proper form, i.e. live.

 

I compared the situation in 2013 with how it’d been in the 1990s, when I’d lived in Edinburgh for a wee while: when you could go to gigs at The Venue at 17 Calton Road, “which started trading as The Jailhouse in the early 1980s and spent the next quarter-century hosting bands big and small” but which closed its doors in the mid-noughties; the Cas Rock on West Port, “now a bland glass building that houses, among other things, a Sainsbury supermarket”; and punk-loving pub the Tap O’Lauriston just up the road from the Cas Rock on Lauriston Place, “which was demolished to make way for a Novotel.”

 

Alas, the slaughter of Edinburgh’s gigging spots has shown no sign of abating since Wetherspoon banished live music from the Picturehouse.  The news broke at the end of last year that the nightclub, cabaret and music venue Electric Circus on Market Street is due to be taken over by the adjacent Fruitmarket Gallery, which plans to use the premises to “greatly improve and expand” its exhibition area and boost its “café, library and bookshop.”  It’s depressing to see culture in one of its most egalitarian, communal and spontaneous forms – being in the same room as some musicians giving it their all and sharing the experience with a like-minded crowd – being displaced like this in favour of culture in a far more elitist, moneyed and rarefied form.  (If you’ve ever had a nosey around the Fruitmarket Gallery’s existing bookshop and taken in the topics and prices of the books on sale, you’ll know what I mean.  It’s provides art for the few rather than the many, which is the opposite of the service provided by a good live-music place.)

 

© The Skinny

 

Also due to close – sometime this month in fact – is the Citrus Club on Grindlay Street, whose description on Google Reviews as a “no frills, black-walled dance club and live music venue with an emphasis on indie and retro sounds” chimes with my fond memories of it.

 

Now comes the news that the owners of Studio 24 on Calton Road, which functioned as a nightclub offering ‘eclectic’ (i.e. non-mainstream) music and occasional gigs, have decided to sell up following a long war of attrition waged by local residents complaining about noise levels and the city council imposing expensive soundproofing regulations.  In a statement, they said: “We’re gutted we’ve had to come to this decision, but with years of investing thousands upon thousands in soundproofing and legal fees in order to stay open, alongside complaining neighbours and harsh council-enforced sound restrictions, we feel these problems won’t leave us, with more complaints recently received and no real support from licensing standards officers, therefore threatening our ability to stay open.”

 

What’s particularly annoying is the fact that Studio 24, while admittedly not contained in the most gorgeous building in Edinburgh, was on the site before the soulless glass-and-concrete apartment buildings that’ve sprouted up around it.  The inhabitants of these complain about the noise from the Studio, which begs the question: if you want to live in brand new yuppie apartment with zero noise levels, why move into one that’s been built on a street next to a long-established and much-loved music club?  Shouldn’t you move into one instead that’s been built on a street next to a crematorium?

 

Given that Calton Road would probably be noisy even if Studio 24 wasn’t there – thanks to the trains entering and exiting nearby Waverley Station – I wonder if the noise complaints were a smokescreen for the real gripe, which was that the venue was luring so-called undesirables into the neighbourhood, lowering its tone and lowering potential property prices.

 

I’m depressed to see Studio 24 go because for a decade from the late 1990s, when I lived in Edinburgh, to the late noughties, when I’d still visit the city for a night out, I’d go there if it was hosting a heavy-metal or goth night.  I have to confess, though, that when I last went to a Studio 24 heavy-metal night, the guy at the desk clocked my time-worn features and asked politely if I didn’t want to check out the 1970s rock-nostalgia night being held upstairs instead.

 

Anyway, Edinburgh is now in the seriously embarrassing position of being the capital city of Scotland yet hardly having a decent music venue to its name.  It’s ridiculous that a city that makes such a hoo-ha about being the world’s cultural capital when the Festival and Fringe and a zillion well-heeled tourists set up camp there every August is, for the rest of the year, as musically bereft and barren as one of Simon Cowell’s armpits.

 

So music lovers of Edinburgh, heed my advice.  Your once-proud city has fallen – into the hands of a bunch of suits, nimbies and money-chasing ghouls whose iPods are no doubt crammed with James Blunt and Coldplay songs and whose idea of musical edginess is probably to tuck into a salad in the Hard Rock Café while a paunchy, balding cover band play Hotel California in the corner.  There’s only one thing you can do now.  Pack your bags.  And move to Glasgow.

 

But before you start packing, sign this petition to save Studio 24 on the off-chance it might work.

 

Full moon over Princes Street

 

 

“It’s Chriii-iiistmaaa-aaas!” Noddy Holder of the 1970s glam-rock band Slade famously bellows during the ubiquitous-at-this-time-of-year song Merry Christmas Everybody.

 

Actually, Noddy, I don’t need you to tell me it’s Christmas.  I knew it was Christmas when I woke this morning with my head and body suffering the effects of a lengthy alcohol and food binge the day before on December 25th.  This morning I had that particularly Christmassy feeling of never, ever wanting to see another glass of red wine again.

 

And what Christmas presents had I just received from my family?  Why, no fewer than five bottles of red wine.

 

Anyway, a few evenings ago, I found myself wandering along Edinburgh’s Princes Street and admiring the sight of its Christmas attractions; which formed an bright, colourful and, as the evening darkened, an ever-more jewelled and phantasmagorical spectacle across Princes Street Gardens below.  These included a Ferris wheel, carousel, maze, helter-skelter, rollercoaster, ice rink and miniature train.  Mind you, the most gorgeous feature of the scene was the full moon that hovered above North Bridge, to the right of the Balmoral Hotel’s Victorian clock-tower.  I managed finally to snap a picture of it all, although it was difficult to find a good vantage spot – the best places for taking photos seemed to be crowded with Chinese tourists taking selfies.

 

It feels far removed from how Christmas was regarded in Scotland just a couple of generations ago.  From the 16th century, Christmas’s celebration had been discouraged by the Scottish Presbyterian Church on the grounds that there was no basis for it in the scriptures.  This lack of church approval, it’s said, was what helped to make Hogmanay so popular in Scotland – as there wasn’t really a Christian festival going on in the middle of winter that provided an excuse to knock back a few drinks, you could at least knock them back at the secular end of the old year / beginning of the new one.  Indeed, Christmas Day didn’t become a national holiday in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day, so necessary for sleeping off the effects of that Christmas-Day over-indulgence, didn’t become one until 1974.

 

Well, now that the influence of Presbyterianism has waned, it’s all different.  I’m sure the sight of these glitzy and downright bacchanalian Christmas festivities in Princes Street Gardens would send John Knox, the Scottish Kirk’s beardy, frowny old founder, birling in his grave.  Indeed, he’d probably have drilled his way to China by now.

 

Incidentally, I also noticed that, just in time for the release of the new Star Wars movie, the Walter Scott Monument seems to have acquired its own light-sabre.

 

 

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a tram

 

Here’s something I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever see – one of the Edinburgh trams that finally became operational a couple of months ago.  The other week I was briefly back in Scotland and, after arriving at Edinburgh Airport, at the western end of the new tramline, I decided to take a tram to Princes Street, near the line’s eastern end.

 

 

I’ve written about the Edinburgh tram saga before – about how the project was announced in 2008 and was supposed to be completed in 2011 but took twice as long; how its budget was originally supposed to be 375 million pounds but eventually crept up to a billion; how the whole thing became bogged down in arguments between contractors and Transport Initiatives, the project’s management company, who were embarrassingly ‘relieved of their duties’ in 2011; and how plans to have the trams trundle all the way to Newhaven, north of Leith, were trimmed back to a much shorter route between the airport and York Place, off the end of Queen Street.

 

All told, the Edinburgh trams scheme was, to quote Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, an omni-shambles.  During the run-up to the Scottish referendum on independence, I saw on the websites of (mainly English) newspapers many posts from readers who held up the trams fiasco as conclusive proof that the Scots were way too inept to ever successfully run their own affairs – although the Scottish National Party had always opposed the project while the Unionist parties in Edinburgh Council were the ones who’d pushed ahead with it.

 

But now that Edinburgh has the things, and leaving aside the debate about whether or not they were needed in the first place, how do they actually measure up?  Well, firstly, when I stepped out of the airport terminal building, I was surprised at how far I had to walk to find one.  The airport tram-stop is some way beyond the embarkation point for the shuttle bus that runs to the city centre, and I suspect that the majority of folk who land there, laden with luggage, will continue to take the bus because the trams are just too distant.  Also, I wasn’t impressed by the fact that the ticket machines at the tram-stop don’t accept notes and don’t give change.  And for a five pounds a ride to Princes Street, it’s a tad pricey.

 

For a good part of the journey, as the tram winds its way through the industrial park / retail park / car park periphery of western Edinburgh and halts at places like the Gyle Centre and Ingliston Park and Ride, the cityscape outside is so anonymous that you feel you could be anywhere.  It isn’t until Murrayfield Rugby Stadium looms ahead that you remember you’re in the Scottish capital.  And it isn’t until after that, at Haymarket Station, where finally the tramline enters the middle of the street and the stately architecture of the city centre starts to scroll past the windows, that it finally hits you.  You’re in – wow! – an Edinburgh tram.

 

Here’s a photo of the stop I got off at on Princes Street.  That columned structure visible in the distance beyond the end of the tram is the unfinished National Monument on Calton Hill.  The fact that the city fathers never got around to completing the monument – they gave up on its construction in 1829 – have led some people to dub it ‘Scotland’s disgrace’.  Its presence in this picture alongside the tram is coincidental.

 

 

Fergusson’s Tea Rooms and the Empire Bar

 

 

There is a stereotype about Edinburgh – commonly held by people in other parts of Scotland – which depicts the city as a well-heeled and snooty place, populated by florid-faced middle-aged men who wear Harris Tweed, smell of port and sit in their studies in the evenings writing indignant letters to The Scotsman newspaper complaining about the threats posed to respectable Presbyterian Scottish society by wind-turbines, gay marriage, devil-worship and Alex Salmond (in ascending levels of evilness); also populated by sour-faced middle-aged ladies who wear big hats, smell of sherry and spend all their time plotting their next shopping expeditions to Jenners Department Store on Princes Street; and populated too by clean-cut young men and women with side-partings, white teeth and names like ‘Alastair’ and ‘Aileen’ who don their waxed barber jackets on autumnal Saturday afternoons and go to cheer Heriot’s or Watsonians at the ‘rugger’.

 

Many a Glaswegian person has dismissed Edinburgh contemptuously as being “aw fur coats an’ nae knickers” and boasted that there’s “mair life at a Glasgow funeral than at an Edinburgh weddin’.”  Meanwhile, so snobby are the accents supposed to be in Morningside, the most famously snobby of all Edinburgh’s districts, that it’s said that folk there “think ‘sex’ is somethin’ ye deliver the coal in.”

 

But like many a stereotype, this one is – largely – untrue.  Edinburgh has a sizeable working class population too and this population is celebrated by one of my favourite museums in the city, The People’s Story on the Royal Mile.  The museum is housed inside the Canongate Tolbooth, which from its construction in 1591 until 1848 served as a courthouse and prison, as well as a meeting-place for discussing the affairs of the surrounding Canongate parish.  Because of its significance for the neighbourhood, the front wall of the building bears a memorial to ‘the men of the old burgh of the Canongate who nobly sacrificed their lives in the cause of their country and freedom in the Great War 1914-1918.’  The building was re-opened as a museum in 1954 and following a year’s renovation it re-opened again in 1989 in its current incarnation as The People’s Story.

 

 

The museum is dedicated to the ordinary folk who lived and worked in Edinburgh’s population over the centuries – folk who, because of their ordinariness, tend not to figure much in conventional (Michael Gove-approved) history books or, for that matter, in most museums.  Their recollections about daily life form a big part of the exhibits, as do wall-displays, recreated settings, dressed-up dummies, work-tools, furniture, signs and banners.  In the section of the museum devoted to the traditional trades, I particularly like this display about Edinburgh’s once-extensive brewing industry.  There was a time, well within living memory, when the city’s air seemed suffused with the smell of hops – indeed, I only have to smell hops today and the first thing that enters my head are memories of visiting Edinburgh when I was a teenager.

 

 

Meanwhile, the first time I went into The People’s Story, I honestly thought for a moment that this plaque for the Edinburgh Lodge Office of the Plumbing Trades Union, hanging on a corridor wall, was connected with the little closet door underneath – that the lodge office was behind the door, which was only a few feet high.  Which would have made the members of the Plumbing Trades Union a strange, Hobbit-like collection of people indeed.

 

 

My favourite part of the museum is the room on the top floor, whose theme is the leisure-pursuits of Edinburgh’s ordinary citizens, both younger and older.  There are dummies of three New Romantic-like posers that the information-panel says are representative of the youths who’d hang out at the now-defunct Odeon Cinema on Clerk Street in 1989; though I have to say that I lived around the corner from that cinema in 1989, went to it many times and never saw anyone there dressed like that.  Meanwhile, the leisure-culture of a slightly older generation, from the 1970s, is represented by a durable punk rocker slouched nonchalantly in a corner.  That dummy has now, in 2014, weathered the second wave and third wave of punk rock music as well.  No doubt he’ll weather the fourth, fifth and sixth waves too before they change him.

 

 

In the room’s corner, meanwhile, are recreations of the Empire Bar and Fergusson’s Tea Rooms on Potterow.  Drinking in the bar, explains the panel, are Alex Fraser and Sandy Watt, who are eagerly anticipating the Hearts-Hibernian match being held in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup that afternoon – which is ‘Saturday, March 4th, 1933’.  And on the taped soundtrack that accompanies the display, one of them – I can’t remember if it’s Alex or Sandy – is also moaning about his wife, who won’t allow a drop of alcohol in the house.  At the same time their wives, Lizzie and Elsie, are ensconced in the tea room, which, before it became acceptable for females to drink in pubs, was the social venue of choice for any Scotswoman with the slightest pretension to gentility.

 

 

(In his 1935 travel book Scottish Journey, the Orcadian writer and poet Edwin Muir wrote: “The effect that these places are designed to produce is one of luxury, and the more select of them strive for an impression of adroitly muffled silence, silence being in an industrial civilisation, which is the noisiest known form of civilisation, the supreme evidence of luxury because the most difficult thing to achieve.”  However, he also made this unexpected observation about the Scottish tea room: “Nowhere that I have been is one so bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire.”)

 

I find it reassuring that every time I’ve gone into The People’s Museum over the years, Alex and Sandy are still there, drinking pints and playing dominoes, as are Lizzie and Elsie, contemplating the scones and triangular-cut sandwiches on their plates; and the four are discussing exactly the same things they’ve discussed since 1989.  They’ve become so familiar to me that they almost seem like old friends.

 

There are still a few old-style pubs around, thankfully, but the tea-room seems to be something that’s vanished from daily Scottish life.  Or so you think, until you leave The People’s Story and walk a little further down the Royal Mile and encounter the prim and ornate premises of Clarinda’s Tea Room – no doubt offering its patrons the luxury of silence and, perhaps, a titillating chance to be “bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire.”

 

 

For those who rocked the Edinburgh Picture House, we salute you

 

 

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering along Edinburgh’s Lothian Road and I happened to pass the building formerly known as the Edinburgh Picture House.  Until the end of 2013 it’d served as the Scottish capital city’s only real medium-sized live-music venue – i.e. it was big enough to accommodate bands you’d actually heard of, but on the other hand the gig-going experience didn’t involve you having to position yourself in the middle of a crowd in some football or rugby stadium with the performers visible only as tiny homunculi on a far-distant stage.

 

However, a few months ago the forces of commerce dictated that the Picture House could no longer cut it as a place for live music and it’d be much more valuable to society as an outlet for the giant pub-chain Wetherspoons.  Because if there’s one thing we absolutely need in our lives at the moment, it’s another branch of Wetherspoons.

 

Anyway, it saddened me – choked me up a little, in fact – to see the above-pictured sign hanging next to those closed doors (behind which the interior of the Picture House is currently metamorphosing into yet another warehouse-sized clone-pub).  The sign listed the acts that’d performed in the building during its six-year incarnation as a music venue.  And viewed in its entirety, it was quite some list.

 

Jarvis Cocker, Isobel Campbell, Franz Ferdinand and Rodrigo Y Gabriela.  The Gang of Four, Chic with Nile Rodgers, the Cult and the Red Hot Chili Pipers – that’s the Pipers, not the Peppers.  Mudhoney, Neville Staples, Stiff Little Fingers and Seasick Steve.  Teenage Fanclub, John Cale, Killing Joke, the Damned and the Alabama 3.  Hawkwind, Magazine, John Cooper Clarke, Gil Scott Heron and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  The Fall, Gogol Bordello, Basement Jaxx, Nick Cave, Tinariwen and the New York Dolls.

 

And many, many more – musicians, singers, artists and entertainers.

 

And One Direction.

 

The tomb of capitalism

 

 

By rights, the Edinburgh tomb pictured above should be garlanded with huge, expensive wreaths and floral tributes left by the wealthiest entrepreneurs and moguls on the planet: Roman Abramovich, Richard Branson, Steve Forbes, Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, Sir Ka-shing Li, Vladimir Lisin, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and Mr Burns from The Simpsons.  Mind you, conspiracy theorists might argue that Donald Trump and Mr Burns are actually one and the same person.  You never see them in the same room together, and I suspect that when Trump takes off his toupée he bears a striking resemblance to the shiny-pated billionaire owner of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

 

Interred within this tomb are the remains of Kirkcaldy-born and Glasgow University-educated Adam Smith, who was the granddaddy of modern economics, the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and the first man to really articulate the tenets of the free-market economy, including the roles played in it by competition and self-interest.  Margaret Thatcher was such a fan of Smith’s economic philosophy that she was said to carry a copy of his book around in her handbag.  And she could never fathom why most people in Scotland didn’t like her since, as she berated them whenever she ventured north of the border, the Scots – i.e. Smith – had ‘invented’ Thatcherism.

 

 

Smith’s tomb is found in Canongate Kirkyard, whose gates open onto the Royal Mile, that narrow and ultra-historic thoroughfare in central Edinburgh that scoots down the slope from the castle to Holyrood Palace.  The Canongate area of the Mile, at the lower end, was a separate parish from Edinburgh until the 1800s.  Built in 1691, the church standing in the kirkyard thus provided a place of worship for the people of Canongate, whereas further up the road the parishioners of Edinburgh proper went to St Giles’ Cathedral.  Thanks to the peculiarities of some ancient charters, however, the Parish of Canongate also included Edinburgh Castle on the far side of St Giles.  For that reason many soldiers of the castle came to be buried in the kirkyard.  And at its northern end you’ll find a 26-foot-high granite cross honouring those soldiers, which was erected in 1880.

 

 

Smith is the cemetery’s most famous inhabitant but there are others of note.  Also buried there is the 18th century poet Robert Fergusson.  His poetic career was short-lived and tragic to say the least – he started writing verse at the age of 22 and died two years later in a lunatic asylum – but his example was enough to inspire a young Robert Burns to take up poetry too.  So for that alone, for being the John-the-Baptist figure who paved the way for Scotland’s national bard, Fergusson deserves his place in Scottish literary history.  The stone that commemorates him in the kirkyard was supposedly financed by Burns himself.  Meanwhile, on the pavement outside the kirkyard gates, there’s a rather dandy statue of Fergusson that was put there in 2004.

 

 

Buried there too are the brothers and publishers James and John Ballantyne, who were friends and business associates of Sir Walter Scott.  When the Ballantynes’ business collapsed in 1825, Scott himself was ruined and he spent the next six years, until his death in 1831, sitting at his desk and scribbling book after book in a determined effort to write his way out of debt.  The Ballantyne brothers are honoured by a mere plaque, not by a memorial stone, which no doubt reflects the reduced circumstances their family ended up in.

 

Another businessman with a literary connection buried in the kirkyard is Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, a corn merchant and whisky-supplier.  When Charles Dickens was exploring the kirkyard in 1841, he encountered Scroggie’s grave marker and misread its inscription, which identified him as a ‘meal man’ – i.e. a grain merchant.  Dickens thought it said ‘mean man’ and from this misunderstanding he got the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly central character of A Christmas Carol.

 

The moral philosopher Dugald Stewart lies there, as does the merchant Sir William Fettes, who bequeathed a fortune for the founding of Edinburgh’s poshest school, Fettes Academy.  Among those folk who can claim Fettes as their alma mater are, impressively, the fictional James Bond; and, less impressively, the all-too-real Tony Blair.

 

After Adam Smith, though, the cemetery’s most famous tenant – or reputed tenant – is the unfortunate David Riccio, who was the Italian secretary of Mary Queen of Scots.  Massively unpopular among the Scottish nobles, and rumoured even to have made his royal employer pregnant, Riccio was hacked to death by assassins in front of Mary at Holyrood Palace in 1566.  He’s said to rest under a large stone by the Canongate Kirk’s eastern wall, although this is unlikely – for the simple reason that an Italian Catholic would scarcely have been interred in a Scottish Protestant cemetery at the time.

 

 

The area in front of Canongate Kirk, which borders on the Royal Mile, is impressively gothic-looking at this time of year, with some gaunt trees, some low winding walls and a statue of a figure wrestling desperately with a lion.  It may not be clear in this photograph I took a few weeks ago, but the dark bundle lying on the ground below the tree on the right was actually a dead crow – a truly Poe-esque detail.

 

 

Unfortunately, when you go around the back of the kirk and explore the cemetery’s northern reaches, the surroundings are less picturesque and the atmosphere is less haunting than what you get in other Edinburgh burial grounds like Greyfriars or St Cuthbert’s.  This is due to the modern developments of Yuppie-style apartment buildings that have sprung up or are springing up along its eastern, western and northern sides.  These developments have been sneakily positioned back from the Royal Mile, behind its historic facades, apparently in the hope that any future UNESCO inspectors who come to central Edinburgh to assess whether or not it merits its continuing status as a World Heritage Site won’t notice them.

 

It’s a terrible pity but…  Well, I suppose that’s capitalism for you.

 

Meat is murder

 

 

Yes, the above photograph is not of a doll’s house, but of a doll’s shop – a doll’s butcher’s shop.  This detailed and comprehensive, if a tad gruesome, miniature with its array of hanging cuts of meat of various sizes and carcass-parts, is perhaps my favourite exhibit in the Museum of Childhood, which is another of the durable (and free to enter) wee museums that are dotted along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

 

 

I’m not a fan of childhood per se.  In fact, I’m of the old-fashioned and curmudgeonly opinion that children should be seen and not heard, and I believe that the best way to handle juvenile bad behaviour is not to implement tolerant modern parenting methods but to deal with the little shits in the manner that Roald Dahl dealt with Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  That said, I seem to have a strange fascination with toy museums.

 

In the late 1990s, I can remember visiting a lovely one in Melbourne, Australia, but I can’t find any mention of it now on the Internet, so I have to assume it is no more.  Definitely no more is the London Toy Museum that once operated in Bayswater but was closed down in 1999.  I will always remember it for its astonishing working model of a coal mine, four metres long and three metres high, which had moving lifts and pulleys and some 200 miniature miners toiling within its labyrinthine shafts and tunnels.  Elsewhere in London, Pollock’s Toy Museum off the Tottenham Court Road is still on the go, but it’s rather small.  And there was a charming little toy museum in Valetta, Malta, when I was there a few years ago, but its owner was getting on in years, so it might have pulled down its shutters now.

 

The Museum of Childhood – founded by Patrick Murray, who was both a toy collector and an Edinburgh city councillor – seems to be going strong, happily.  The section of it that invariably draws my curiosity is the first-floor exhibition room, accessible via the spiral staircase on the left just after the entrance lobby and shop.  This room is given over to the display of doll’s houses, miniature shops, toy theatres and a small but eccentric selection of puppets.

 

 

But it’s that tiny butcher’s shop that I always find myself staring at.  I wonder if it was ever actually presented to a child as a toy – and if it was, what on earth was going on in the minds of that child’s parents.  Perhaps in the early 1900s some super-wealthy mogul in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, which was so vividly and viscerally described by Upton Sinclair in his book The Jungle, had it made as a special gift for the little tyke who was his son and heir.

 

 

West Port bookshops

 

 

A few weeks ago I found myself watching, on TV, the 2010 John Landis-directed movie Burke and Hare.  It’s the latest film to tell the story of the notorious murderers who, in the early 19th century, kept the Edinburgh Medical School supplied with cadavers for its dissection tables.  The bodies Burke and Hare supplied, of course, were those of people to whom they’d given some assistance in dying.  The film is pretty silly and shambolic, although it’s hard to dislike a movie whose cast includes Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, David Hayman, Bill Bailey, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Jenny Agutter, Sir Christopher Lee, Paul Whitehouse, John Woodvine, Stephen Merchant and – yes! – Ronnie Corbett.  What I found distracting about it, though, were the numerous references in the script to Burke and Hare’s base on the street of West Port, which stands south of Edinburgh Castle and west of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket.  That’s because when I hear ‘West Port’ I don’t normally think of Burke and Hare.  I think of books.

 

I have fond memories of wandering along West Port and browsing in the second-hand bookshops that seemingly infested the place.  These sold everything from creased and dog-eared paperbacks to bespoke volumes that were worth a small fortune (a fortune by my impoverished standards, at least).  Today my book collection is packed with items – from the back-catalogues of authors like J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, William Golding and Graham Greene – that can be traced to Armchair Books, or Main Point Books, or one of the other establishments huddling on the sides of this narrow and slightly winding street.

 

 

In recent years, however, West Port has seen redevelopment, including the building of a block containing a Sainsbury’s Local on the site of the much-missed live-music venue Cas Rock.  Also, conventional bookshops have been struggling thanks to changed reading habits and to competition from Internet outfits like Amazon and the ever-growing number of charity shops.  (Edinburgh’s Nicholson Street / Clerk Street now has shops run by Barnardo’s and Oxfam that are devoted to selling books alone.)  So whenever I’ve visited West Port of late, I’ve had the impression that the bookselling scene there is not as healthy as it was and its bookshops have been slowly disappearing.  Indeed, a few years ago, I read somewhere that Edinburgh Books (which was then West Port Books) had narrowly escaped being converted into a trendy café.

 

 

The other day when I was in Edinburgh, I thought I’d take my camera, have a stroll along West Port and do a count of the bookshops that are still in existence there.  As it turned out, I found six shops that were open at the time, on West Port and on the adjoining Bread Street, which connects the neighbourhood with Lothian Road.  These were Peter Bell Books, Armchair Books, Edinburgh Books, Main Point Books and Pulp Fiction, plus an antiques / curios shop with a selection of books down in its basement.  Peter Bell Books and Armchair Books are currently half-hidden by a giant truss of scaffolding, so the photographs I took of them were less than stunning.

 

 

Armchair Books is, for me, the very heart of West Port.  A guddle of boxes of super-cheap books on the pavement outside, its walls inside stacked to the ceiling with thousands, if not zillions, of tomes, it is actually two premises – number 72 mostly sells fiction, number 74 next door sells non-fiction.  When I visited West Port the other day, I had no intention of purchasing anything.  But eventually I couldn’t resist popping into Armchair Books, where I subsequently ended up buying Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Spring, J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company and Anthony Burgess’s The Pianoplayers – such is the spell woven by this Aladdin’s-Cave-for-booklovers.  It does seem a bit better organised these days, though.  In times past, the supposed alphabetical arrangement of the books’ authors would lead you on a merry dance, back and forth and into all sorts of awkward nooks and crannies.  Also, the cranky and entertaining notices that used to be stuck on the walls, in which the management expressed its disdain for health-and-safety inspectors – I assume at some point the council criticised the place, with its vertiginously high shelves, for exposing customers to possible death-by-book-avalanche – have apparently been taken down.

 

 

I like to think that West Port is more a state of mind than a geographical locality.  Maybe it’s a state of mind that extends eastwards across the Grassmarket and up Victoria Street and Candlemaker Row, for several more bookshops are located there – making that neighbourhood a sort of ‘West Port East’.  Up Victoria Street is the Old Town Bookshop, which sells a mixture of modern and antiquarian books, plus historical prints and maps, and which has been operating for 35 years.  Lower down the same street is a more recent establishment called the Golden Hare, a rather arty-farty bookstore that also hosts – whoooh! – a ‘poetry-reading circle’.  Meanwhile, as you head up Candlemaker Row, you’ll encounter Analogue Books, selling art and design volumes, the durable wee science fiction bookshop Transreal Fiction, and a law bookshop called Avizandum.  (‘Avizandum’ is a Scots legal term that refers to the private period of consideration that a judge or court give to a case before pronouncing judgement.)

 

 

I should say that not everybody who heads towards West Port is necessarily a mild-mannered, cerebral booklover.  Fittingly in a city that was once home to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, West Port also has a shady and disreputable side.  It is known in some quarters as ‘the Pubic Triangle’ and can claim to have three lap-dancing bars.  One of them is called, appropriately, the Burke and Hare.  Also, there’s a sex shop called Eros on Bread Street close to Pulp Fiction.  Evidence, then, that West Port offers gratification of the flesh as well as gratification of the mind.

 

 

The Rabbie, Robbie and Wally Museum

 

 

It says a lot about changing notions of life-expectancy and longevity that, in many of the tributes and obituaries written in the wake of Iain Banks’ death this year, Banks was considered to have died at the ‘comparatively young’ age of 59.  In facts, Banks’ innings was just two years short of that achieved by Sir Walter Scott who, when he passed away in 1832 at the age of 61, was deemed to have reached a reasonable old age.

 

Meanwhile, Scott at the end of his life seemed positively ancient when compared with the two towering figures of Scottish literature who came immediately before and shortly after him – Robert Burns, who died in 1796 at the age of 37 (from excess, if you believe the unforgiving Presbyterian accounts of his life); and the always-sickly Robert Louis Stevenson, who died in 1894 at the age of 44.  Yes, there was no time for procrastination in that era of Scottish letters – you got your work down on paper as quick as you could, in case the Grim Reaper came knocking soon.

 

Such melancholy thoughts were inspired by a recent visit I paid to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which would be more accurately titled the Three Writers’ Museum, since it deals only with Burns, Scott and Stevenson.  Situated on the Royal Mile in Lady Stair’s Close, which is on the same side as and a little way further up from Deacon Brodie’s Tavern (Deacon Brodie was the outwardly respectable but secretly criminal Edinburgh citizen who may have planted the idea for Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Stevenson’s head), the museum is squeezed into three floors of a narrow corner building whose last private owner was the 5th Earl of Rosebury.  In 1907 the Earl gifted the building to the City of Edinburgh on the understanding that it would be used as a museum.

 

Don’t go to the museum expecting the latest in interactive displays, animatronics, sound and visual effects.  It’s solidly old-fashioned – you read the information on the panels and look at stuff in display cases, which includes Burns’ writing desk and the swordstick he carried whilst employed as an Excise Officer, Scott’s chess set and his boyhood rocking horse (one foot-rest positioned higher than the other to accommodate his lifelong lameness) and the boots that Stevenson wore during the final days of his life on Samoa.  There’s also an eight-foot-or-so model of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, whose presence there seems a bit pointless when a ten-minute walk will take you to the real thing on Princes Street.

 

I have to say I like the austere, no-frills manner of the Writers’ Museum, which seemingly hasn’t changed for a century.  Once in a while, it’s nice to encounter a historical museum whose presentation style is rooted almost in the same era that its subjects lived in.

 

One word of advice, though.  Visit the Writers’ Museum before you visit Deacon Brodie’s Tavern or any of the other picturesque pubs that central Edinburgh has to offer because, with its low doorways and treacherous stone stairs, it’s not a place to negotiate when you’re a bit tipsy.  I cracked my forehead on a stone door-frame coming down from the first to the ground floor and I was entirely sober.  Honest!

 

 

Pub royalty

 

 

There’s a crime novel written by Ian Rankin and featuring Inspector Rebus – I can’t recall its title – wherein Rebus winds up in Edinburgh’s Café Royal minutes after opening time.  Sole punter there, the good Inspector reflects that this is the best time to appreciate the establishment: where there’s nobody else in it and the atmosphere is truly still and cathedral-like.

 

A few mornings ago a friend and I found ourselves wandering about the eastern end of Princes Street just after eleven o’clock, at a loose end, and I suggested testing Inspector Rebus’s claim about the best time to visit the Café Royal.  So we nipped into the ornate 150-year-old pub and ordered a coffee – just coffee, seeing as it was only the back of eleven.  Well, coffee with a wee skoosh of Tia Maria in it.

 

 

I’ve been in the Café Royal countless times before, but either in the middle of the day when folk are coming in to order lunch or in the evenings when the place is packed with a just-finished-work crowd.  Now, having drunk there with the place practically to myself, I’m in agreement with Rebus. While light flooded in beneath the high, compartmented ceiling and alit on an atypically silent and empty but still-gleaming Circle Bar, the experience bordered on the religious.

 

No voices disturbed the serene calm.  Nobody intruded on the view of the murals along the back wall, made of Doulton ceramic tiles, painted by John Eyre and depicting various inventors in the act of inventing or discovering something – for the record, they are William Caxton, Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Peel, George Stephenson and James Watt.  Nor did anyone impede the view of the majestic island bar with its clock-topped gantry, of the comfortable old leather seating alcoves below the windows, of the carved walnut screen that separates the Circle Bar from the adjoining Oyster Bar, of the white marble floor.

 

 

It fries my mind to think that at the end of the 1960s a place this lovely was almost sold to Woolworths, who wanted to turn it into an extension of the store they then had on Princes Street.  Thankfully, the city’s Planning Officer intervened, as did 8700 citizens, who put their signatures on a petition, and instead the Café Royal was given listed status.

 

It’s not perfect, mind you.  For much of the time that I’ve drunk in the Café Royal, the counter service wasn’t anything to write home about, although it seems to have improved in the past few years.  And in the toilets in the basement – after you navigate the low opening at the foot of the stairs with the sign warning DUCK OR GROUSE – they should do something about the water temperature in the wash-hand basins, which for as long as I can remember has been blisteringly, no, skin-strippingly hot.

 

I began with a literary reference to the Café Royal and I shall conclude with another one.  The gantry running along the middle of the island counter doesn’t contain a mirror but, because the bottles are arranged almost identically on the shelves on either side of it, it looks as if it does.  In Iain Banks’ political thriller Complicity, there’s a scene where the boozed-up, down-at-heels journalist-hero Cameron Colley has a panic attack at the Café Royal counter – he can’t see his reflection where he assumes the gantry-mirror to be and he drunkenly concludes that he’s become a vampire.  Thanks to some lengthy sessions in the Café Royal, I’m familiar with that panicked vampire feeling myself.