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.

 

 

Live music dies again in Edinburgh

 

From triplegmusic.com

 

When I lived in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, I didn’t know how lucky I was regarding live music.  At least three venues where I regularly attended gigs at the time have, since then, bitten the dust – victims of the property-development madness that seemed to infect the Scottish capital even more strongly than it infected most other cities in the UK.

 

Most lamented was the loss of 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.  A mate of mine recalls performing onstage there and feeling a surge of pride as he realised that the legendary Bob Mould of Sugar had played and sung on the exact same spot a few days earlier.  By 2006, however, the Venue had closed down; as had the Cas Rock on West Port (now a bland glass building that houses, among other things, a Sainsbury supermarket) and the Tap O’Lauriston just up the road from there on Lauriston Place, which was demolished to make way for a Novotel.  The Tap was a pub specialising in gigs by punk bands and it was there that I saw outfits like the New Town Grunts – whom I’d never heard of before and whom I’ve never heard of since, but who, like the Road Warrior at the end of Mad Max II, “now live on… in my memory.”

 

For a while, the lack of music venues in Edinburgh was embarrassing.  During the Scottish section of their UK tours, reasonably-sized bands would perform in Aberdeen and Glasgow, before making a beeline for the English border and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, bypassing Edinburgh even though the bloody place was supposed to be the capital city of Scotland.  Then a few years ago the situation drastically improved, with the opening of the Picturehouse on Lothian Road.

 

Originally the building had been an Art Deco cinema called the Caley, but it’d enjoyed a previous stint as a live-music venue during the 1970s and 1980s when, under the name of the Caley Palais, it’d hosted gigs by Pink Floyd, Queen, AC/DC, New Order and The Smiths.  In its new 21st-century incarnation, the Picturehouse functioned as a ‘mid-scale’ music venue, i.e. it catered for bands that probably wouldn’t fill a stadium but that were too big for Edinburgh’s other surviving downtown venues, like the Liquid Rooms (still soldiering on at the top of Victoria Street).

 

Although by then I wasn’t living in Edinburgh, I made a point of attending concerts at the Picturehouse whenever I was back in Scotland.  In recent years, I’ve seen there Bat for Lashes, The Charlatans, The Cult, The Damned, The Eels, Mark Lanegan, Johnny Marr, Mudhoney, The Ruts and The Vaselines.  I doubt if any of those performers would have shown their faces in Edinburgh if the Picturehouse hadn’t existed to accommodate them.

 

The beginning of this year saw the bankruptcy of the Picturehouse’s then owners, the music and entertainment group HMV.  However, it transpired that the venue had been acquired by another firm, MAMA and Company, and supposedly it was safe from closure.  This sounded a bit too good to be true.  And indeed, it was too good to be true – for MAMA and Company have just admitted selling the building on to another party that have no intention of retaining it as a live music venue.  This latest owner is none other than the pub chain J.D. Wetherspoon, who no doubt plan to turn it into yet another of their airplane-hangar-like, cheap-drink-and-food outlets.

 

Meanwhile, once again, Edinburgh will go back to being a poor relation to Glasgow in the live-music stakes.  (I know there’s the Corn Exchange near Longstone in western Edinburgh, but it seems to market itself more as a ‘conference centre, banqueting suite and exhibition hall’ these days and few bands seem keen to play there – which isn’t surprising, as the place has all the atmosphere and acoustics of a large concrete bunker.  Also, any time I’ve been there, I’ve had a bad vibe from the security staff.)  It’s a ridiculous situation for a city that every August prides itself on hosting the biggest arts festival in the world.

 

Here’s a link to a petition that’s been set up by music fans in Edinburgh, imploring Wetherspoon to keep the Picturehouse as a live-music venue.  Feel free to add your name.

 

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/jd-wetherspoons-keep-edinburgh-picture-house-as-a-live-music-venue

 

Honest Abe in Edinburgh

 

 

I didn’t know it until I was wandering around Calton Hill the other day, but Edinburgh actually boasts a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.  Lincoln, of course, was the man who delivered the Gettysburg address and preserved the American Union during the Civil War, and he’s surely a contender for the title of Most Awesome US President Ever.  (Not that he’s had much competition for that title recently.)  Honest Abe’s statue is to be found in the Old Calton Cemetery, the entrance to which is on the opposite side of Waterloo Place from the entrance to Calton Hill itself.  He stands magisterially atop a memorial to Scottish-American soldiers while the clock-tower of the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street is just visible in the background.

 

Standing next to Possibly-the-Greatest-President-Ever in Old Calton Cemetery is the cylindrical mausoleum of Possibly-the-Greatest-Philosopher-Ever, David Hume – the 18th-century Edinburgh thinker who rejected causality, claimed that God’s existence could neither be proved nor disapproved and argued that morality was based upon man’s benevolence rather than upon reason.  Clearly, Mr Hume still has at least one admirer in Edinburgh, because when I was there I noticed that the bolt-and-padlock of his mausoleum’s door had been decorated with a cluster of violet flowers.

 

 

The other inhabitants of Old Calton Cemetery are less illustrious than David Hume, but some of them were notable figures in their day.  It is the resting place, for example, of Thomas Hamilton, the architect who designed the Royal High School building a little further up the road, which was once earmarked to house Scotland’s new devolved parliament – it would have spared the Scottish political establishment an awful lot of expense and embarrassment if they had put the parliament in the Royal High School, rather than in the white elephant that ended up being built, massively over-budget, at the bottom of the Royal Mile.  Hamilton was also responsible for the Martyr’s Monument, the obelisk that rises from the centre of the cemetery, erected in honour of the members of a universal suffrage group called the Friends of the People, who were persecuted in 1793.

 

 

Also interred there are the publishers William Blackwood, founder of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which during its 163-year history published contributions by the likes of James Hogg, Thomas De Quincy, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and John Buchan; and Archibald Constable, who was involved in the Ballantyne Press, the company whose collapse in the 1820s bankrupted Sir Walter Scott.  And the cemetery contains the remains of classical and historical painter David Allan, who at one time was likened to a ‘Scottish Hogarth’ (although he certainly wasn’t the satirist that Hogarth was).

 

 

Allan’s visage, carved on his tombstone, adds a decorative flourish to a graveyard that is, on the whole, rather austere-looking.  However, it is spectacularly situated, with Calton Hill to the north and the skyline of the Old Town to the south.  And at its there’s a striking alleyway lined on either side with hulking stone sepulchres.

 

 

If you follow the tomb-flanked alleyway to near its bottom end, you’ll find this mausoleum for a certain Robert Burn.  That’s Robert Burn, not Robert Burns, although the inscription mentioning ‘twelve children’ brings to mind the famously promiscuous ploughman-poet (who’s actually buried in Dumfries).  At the sides of the entrance to Burn’s tomb, these cowled faces stare blankly and disturbingly from the stonework.

 

 

Another feature of the cemetery that is uncharacteristically decorative is the headstone on the left-hand side of the entrance that, on its crest, bears the name of Captain John Gray. Mention is made too, down the stone below, of Elisabeth Wilkie, Thomas Gray and Michael and John Swan.  It also features a sturdy-looking galleon, sculpted near the top, while lurking on either side of the inscriptions are two of the most grotesque skeletal figures to be found on any Edinburgh headstone.  And on its back there’s a Masonic-looking carving that resembles a compass straddling a gallows (or a turned-around Freemason’s square).

 

 

I read somewhere that Captain Gray placed the headstone in the cemetery in memory of his parents, but I haven’t been able to find out why some visitors feel obliged to add to the pile of coins nestling on its summit.  Is it a Masonic custom?  Perhaps somebody out there could enlighten me?

 

Scotland’s disgrace

 

 

If you’ve been in Scotland recently, you’ve probably noticed that there’s an important referendum coming up.  Next September, Scots will either vote ‘yes’ to become an independent country or vote ‘no’ to remain a part of the United Kingdom.  You’ve also probably noticed that many grim, nay, apocalyptic warnings are being made by supporters of the ‘no’ option, which are then magnified by the headline-writers of Scottish newspapers like the Scottish Sun, the Daily Record, the Scottish Daily Mail, the Scottish Daily Express and the Scotsman (none of which, incidentally, are owned by Scots), about what will happen if Scotland goes for independence.

 

Lately, I’ve seen bloodcurdling predictions that food prices will ‘soar’ in an independent Scotland (as if food prices, and utility prices too, haven’t already soared in the UK these last few years).  I’ve seen warnings too that an independent Scotland will immediately be booted out of the European Union because the Spanish won’t like us.  (This was enthusiastically reported by right-wing newspapers who normally hate the EU and normally portray the Spanish as being the sort of workshy, subsidy-dependent southern Europeans who symbolise everything that’s rotten in the organisation.  But I suppose the moment they slag off the idea of an independent Scotland, they become wise, good Spaniards.)  It’s even been reported that in an independent Scotland, people will – horror! – no longer be able to see their favourite television programmes, like Coronation Street and Doctor Who.  (This came as a shock to me, as I’ve seen Doctor Who on TV in places as far afield as Romania and Thailand.  But maybe Romania and Thailand would be beacons of wealth and culture compared to the hellhole that an independent Scotland would be.)

 

I’m sure that as the referendum draws nearer, the warnings will become even direr.  How can we be sure that in an independent Scotland the crops won’t wither in the fields, the children won’t starve on the streets and Arthur’s Seat won’t erupt and bury Edinburgh in lava?  Meanwhile, any half-wit who voices an anti-independence opinion will be treated in the newspapers as having uttered an unassailable truth.  Boris Johnson only has to announce that during the night he had a dream in which he saw an independent Scotland visited by a Biblical plague of boils; and the Scottish Daily Mail will no doubt report it with the headline: EXPERT CASTS DOUBT ON HEALTH CARE IN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND.

 

What these doomy warnings are doing, in fact, is tapping into and exploiting the well-observed, well-recorded and well-discussed phenomenon of the ‘Scottish cringe’: an age-old inferiority complex among Scottish people that has them believe their country isn’t just rubbish, it’s at least fifty shades of rubbish.  And I have to admit there are a few pieces of evidence to support the notion that Scotland is a mighty embarrassment.

 

Politically, there was the fiasco of the Scottish Parliament building, which was constructed between 1999 and 2004.  Originally supposed to cost £109 million, it ended up with a price tag of £414 million, nearly three times as much, which caused much gnashing of teeth and cries of “Can’t we do anything right?”  Meanwhile, in the sporting world, there are the Scottish national football team’s woeful attempts to make an impression on the World Cup competition, dating back to Ally Macleod’s squad in the 1978 tournament in Argentina – Ally and co went with high expectations and then were humiliated by the humble likes of Peru and Iran.  (Scotland did manage a 1-1 draw with the latter, but it was only thanks to an own goal by Iranian centre-back Andranik Eskandarian.)  On the media front, the fact that Scotland’s most famous newspaper is the Sunday Post, a publication seemingly unaware that society has developed beyond 1934, surely induces cringes.  And you only have to mention the words ‘Scottish cuisine’ to an outsider for that outsider to sneer and respond: ‘Deep-fried Mars Bar!’  And the Scottish entertainment scene has been rife with figures who’ve made Scots want to moan in despair and bury their heads under the nearest cushion, including Sir Harry Lauder, Andy Stewart, Lulu, the Bay City Rollers, Sheena Easton, Wet Wet Wet, Ian and wee Janette Krankie…  But I can’t go on.  My hands are shaking and tears are rolling down my face.

 

For me, however, there is one Scottish embarrassment that looms far larger than all the others.  It is monstrous in size, is fixed permanently in stone, has survived for nearly two hundred years and stands in plain view of many parts of the Scottish capital.  I’m talking about the National Monument, which occupies a prime position on Calton Hill in central Edinburgh.  Ostensibly built to honour the Scottish soldiers and sailors who’d died in the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815, this was clearly also a vanity project for Scotland generally and for Edinburgh in particular.  The fact that it was modelled on the Parthenon in Athens suggests that the capital was in the middle of an early rebranding exercise.  No longer was it content to be seen as the crowded, smoky, sewage-splattered and stinky ‘Auld Reekie’ of yore.  Rather, it was going for the more cosmopolitan title of ‘the Athens of the North’.

 

To be fair, Scotland and Edinburgh had reason to feel good about themselves at the time.  Following some rocky experiences in the late 17th century / early 18th century, including the failed Scottish attempt to establish a colony at Darien in central America (which would be the country’s biggest disaster on Latin American soil until Ally Macleod’s World Cup campaign) and 1707’s Union of Parliament, when Robert Burns would have you believe the Scots were ‘bought and sold for English gold’, the later 18th century saw an unexpected Scottish renaissance.  Suddenly many areas of science, art, economics and philosophy were being heavily influenced by brainy Scots such as Robert Adam, Thomas Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Lord Monboddo, Henry Raeburn, Thomas Reid, Sir Walter Scott and Adam Smith.  Meanwhile, Edinburgh had seen the development of its New Town, which today surely ranks as the most gorgeous and extensive district of Georgian architecture in Britain.

 

When you approach the National Monument on Calton Hill, you see eight Grecian columns standing along its front, two more columns standing at either side… and that’s it.  The structure doesn’t have a back.  It’s truncated, incomplete, unfinished.  Yes, work on the National Monument came to a halt in 1829 because the project ran out of money – and the part of it that was left standing was soon dubbed ‘Scotland’s disgrace’.  To me, it has the effect of symbolising a nation’s neurosis.  Scotland, this laughably half-built, faux-Greek monument seems to warn, don’t get ideas above your station.  Don’t get too big for your britches.  Ken your place.  Don’t think you’re good because, in truth, you’re a bit rubbish.  Someone – possibly Tom Stoppard – made a famous jibe about Edinburgh not being so much ‘the Athens of the North’ as it is ‘the Reykjavik of the South’, but as far as I know Reykjavik doesn’t have an architectural symbol of incompetence on the same, hulking scale as this on display in its town centre.

 

There are lots of cool things to see up on Calton Hill, such as the City Observatory, the Donald Stewart Monument, the Nelson Monument and a rather natty cannon whose barrel is pointed in the direction of Princes Street.  Sometimes I wish somebody would turn that cannon around, though, and use it to lob a few shells in the direction of the National Monument, Scotland’s disgrace, and reduce the bloody thing to rubble.  Then the Scots could get on with the job of building a better country for themselves (inside or outside the United Kingdom) whilst being prey to fewer doubts about their own worth and abilities.

 

 

St Cuthbert’s — tombs with a view

 

 

Of the world’s graveyards, St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh surely ranks high amongst those with great views.  Located at the western end of Princes Street Gardens, below the level of Princes Street itself, its southeastern corner gives visitors a spectacular eyeful of Edinburgh Castle as it nestles atop the rocky crag at the city’s heart.

 

Nonetheless, the main St Cuthbert’s entrance on Lothian Road is easily overlooked by the crowds as they bustle between such Lothian-Road cultural attractions as the Usher Hall, Traverse Theatre, Picture House and Filmhouse Cinema and the deluxe (I’m being ironic) shopping experience offered by Princes Street.  If anyone notices the graveyard at all, it’s usually because of the watch-tower jutting above street-level at its southwestern corner, constructed in 1827 to guard against body-snatchers wanting to remove its recently-interred inhabitants to the dissection tables of the Medical School.  At this very moment, the tower is available for rent and is being advertised as ‘three-to-four person office space’.

 

 

The current St Cuthbert’s Church, which is at the end of a pretty tree-and-streetlamp-lined path running through the graveyard from some steps at its Lothian-Road side, isn’t a particularly old structure.  The main building, designed by Edinburgh architect Hippolyte Blanc, who was prolific both in designing Gothic-revival churches and in restoring historic buildings, was completed in 1894 after the previous building there was deemed to be unsafe.  The steeple, however, dates back to 1789.  The base of the steeple’s western wall features a striking, if slightly melodramatic, memorial to the Presbyterian clergyman and writer David Dickson, who was senior minister at St Cuthbert’s from 1827 to 1842.

 

 

St Cuthbert’s might be able to claim one Edinburgh historical record, though.  A chapel is said to have existed on the site since the 9th century, which make it the city’s oldest place of Christian worship.

 

The graveyard is interesting because it’s been shaped by the same historical forces that shaped the city around it.  Its oldest section lies to the southwest and this wasn’t sealed off from the adjoining countryside until the end of the 16th century, meaning that livestock were free to wander in and graze among the tombs.  The northern end of the site, meanwhile, was a bog at the end of the Nor Loch, the notoriously toxic body of water that once extended along the northern slopes of Edinburgh’s Old Town and acted as a receptacle for all the sewage that flowed down them.  The bog was finally drained in the late 18th century and the area became additional burial space.

 

The creation of Waverley Station a half-century later saw a railway tunnel dug under the graveyard’s southern side and required many buried remains to be moved.  And when Lothian Road was widened in 1930 to become the important thoroughfare it is today, its eastern side had to be expanded over the graveyard’s western edge – the road’s eastern pavement is supported by stone columns, so that most pedestrians use it unaware that there are buried cadavers a couple of yards directly below their feet.

 

I like St Cuthbert’s because it contains some of the most elaborate and baroque-looking headstones in the city.  It even has a few vaults, although these aren’t as numerous or as grand as those in the more famous Greyfriars Kirkyard and they’re mostly in poor repair.  I’m particularly fascinated by the combination of cuteness and the macabre displayed on this headstone, where a pair of cherubs flank a standing, splayed-handed skeleton.  But whatever happened to the poor skeleton’s head?

 

 

Among the more celebrated denizens of St Cuthbert’s graveyard are John Napier, the Scottish physicist, mathematician and astronomer who invented logarithms and popularised the use of the decimal point in arithmetic; George Meikle Kemp, the designer of Thunderbird 3, sorry, the Sir Walter Scott Monument, the most eye-catching structure along Princes Street; and Thomas De Quincy, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which was considered a rather racy book in its day, although I have say I found reading it a very hard slog indeed.

 

 

Greyfriars Kirkyard — minus the silly wee dug

 

 

Nearly a quarter-century ago in Edinburgh, I worked occasionally in a shop that sold art books.  I got the job through an old schoolmate of mine, Roger Small, who worked there regularly but needed someone to fill in for him on the odd afternoon.  The shop looked somewhat out-of-the-ordinary.  It stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, met Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket; and because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it was weirdly tapering and triangular in shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I spent working there in Roger’s place I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since vanished and the premises are occupied by a pizzeria now, so I guess I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.

 

On my first afternoon there, having briefed me about everything else in his shop, the owner reached over to the counter, where there was a pile of flimsy, softcover books – untypical of the shop’s stock of big, handsome, hardback tomes about the fine arts.  He lifted one with a sheepish, embarrassed air, as if he was about to show me a secret batch of pornography.  The cover of the book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was illustrated with a picture of a small, hairy and scruffy animal.  “If a coachload o’ tourists roll in,” he said, “ye can flog them some copies o’ this book aboot the silly wee dug.”

 

That silly wee dug was Greyfriars Bobby, whose statue stood a few yards beyond the end of the shop at the very corner between George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row.  Bobby was, and still is, famous for being the ultra-loyal Skye terrier who, in the 19th century, belonged to a police constable called John Gray and then, after Gray died, spent every night of the following 14 years sleeping on his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard – the entrance to which stands across Candlemaker Row from his statue.  The story of wee Bobby’s loyalty to his master has made him both a Scottish icon and a historical canine superhero, the subject of a couple of movies (including an inevitable Walt Disney one in 1961) and an enduring tourist attraction.  When I walked past my former, now-pizza-filled workplace a few weeks ago, a squad of people were crowded close to the diminutive statue, clicking pictures of it with cameras and phones.

 

(c) STV

 

But recent research has suggested that the legend of Greyfriars Bobby is, frankly, a load of guff.  In 2011 Jan Bondeson, a Swedish academic based in Cardiff, produced convincing evidence that the dog alleged to be Bobby was really a stray that’d become a ‘graveyard dog’ – back then it was common for dogs to inhabit cemeteries, surviving on morsels given them by groundskeepers, mourners and visitors.  When James Brown, the Greyfriars sexton at the time, began to embellish his yarns about where this particular little dog had come from, making out that it kept watch over its old owner’s grave, there was a surge in the number of visitors coming to the kirkyard – and stopping for a bite at a local restaurant run by one John Traill.  People, Brown and Traill realised, wanted to see this remarkably loyal wee beastie.

 

With the sexton getting extra tips and the restaurateur getting increased custom, it was in both their interests to keep the tale going.  It seems likely that after nine years the original Bobby died and, to maintain the flow of visitors and visitors’ cash, they found a new dog, substituted him for the old, deceased one and passed him off as Greyfriars Bobby for a further five years.  Bondeson said his suspicions were initially stirred by the claim that Bobby had guarded John Gray’s grave for 14 years – Skye terriers are a breed of dog that normally don’t live longer than twelve years.

 

So the Greyfriars Bobby story was a myth, one pitched at gullible tourists with the intention of parting them from their money.  Thank heavens such unsavoury practices don’t occur anywhere else in Scotland.  Not at Loch Ness, for example.

 

You can see Greyfriars Bobby’s own grave in the kirkyard today – presumably the grave of the second Bobby, as I imagine the original was buried somewhere less conspicuous.  You can also see the graves, beside one another, of his supposed master John Gray and of the crafty old sexton James Brown, whose headstone bears the epitaph, ‘Friend to Greyfriars Bobby’.  ‘Show-business agent and publicist to Greyfriars Bobby’ might have been more appropriate.

 

Greyfriars Kirkyard deserves to be better known for things other than Disneyesque dogs.  Imposing and atmospheric, it’s one of the few tourist sites in Scotland worth visiting when the weather is cold and dreich (as it often is on 364 days of the year) because then it acquires a memorable bleakness and gloom worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story.  With its crowds of headstones and obelisks, coloured in dark, lugubrious hues and sometimes leaning at tipsy angles, and with its memorial stonework, much of which is adorned with sculpted skulls and crossbones, prancing skeletons, sinister figurines and psychotic-looking angels, it’s no surprise that the kirkyard is a fixture on the itineraries of Edinburgh’s lucrative ghost tours.

 

 

The southern end of Greyfriars has a population of vaults and sepulchres, some positioned right up against the back walls of the houses standing along its perimeter – a feature that once prompted Robert Louis Stevenson to marvel that “only a few inches separate the living and the dead.”  I’ve often wondered myself if the living residents of those houses are troubled by their knowledge of the deceased residents of the structures just on the other sides of their walls.

 

One mausoleum you’ll find there is that of George Mackenzie, who became Scotland’s Lord Advocate in 1667.  He set about the persecution of the Scottish Covenanters, who’d incurred the establishment’s wrath by defying the Stuart kings’ attempts to meddle in and ‘Episcopal-ise’ the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, with such sadistic enthusiasm that he earned the nickname ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’.  The irony is that, in the kirkyard, Mackenzie’s tomb stands just yards away from an enclosure known as the Covenanters’ Prison, where over a thousand Covenanters were incarcerated in appalling conditions for four months in 1679.  Many perished and the little prison has since been dubbed ‘the world’s first concentration camp’.

 

The mausoleum of the bloodthirsty Mackenzie has a reputation for being haunted.  Supposedly, after it was broken into by a homeless man desperate for somewhere to spend the night in the late 1990s – the sort of activity that in horror movies is guaranteed to raise an evil and unforgiving spirit from its slumber – there have been incidents of poltergeist activity in the vicinity, with visitors being subjected to buffeting and battering from unseen but obviously malevolent forces.  Wikipedia claims that during the past two decades Greyfriars Kirkyard has seen 350 such supernatural occurrences.

 

For the sake of objectivity, I should mention that I have drunk a pint in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar with a guy, connected with the city’s walking tours, who claimed that the Mackenzie poltergeist story was an utter sham.  It was a sham, he insisted, because he invented the story in order to get more people signing up for the tour he ran at the time.  Then the story was ‘borrowed’ by another tour company, who hyped it up to the point where Greyfriars Kirkyard was being visited by crews from TV shows like Scariest Places on Earth and Extreme Ghost Stories.  So, when it comes to spinning a far-fetched yarn that’ll lighten the wallets of visiting tourists, those folk around Greyfriars Kirkyard clearly have form.

 

 

Running through the eastern part of Greyfriars Kirkyard is a remnant of the old Flodden Wall, which Edinburgh’s flustered population erected after the Battle of Flodden in 1513 – the English had inflicted such a disastrous defeat upon the Scots that it was feared an English army could appear on the city’s doorstep at any time.  Now the roofs, chimneys and turrets of nearby George Heriot’s School rise beyond this surviving section of the wall.  George Heriot, the 16th / 17th century goldsmith who established the school, isn’t buried in the cemetery – he lies in St Martin-in-the-Field in London – but the founders of two other prestigious Edinburgh schools, George Watson and Mary Erskine, are.

 

 

Among the other famous tenants of Greyfriars Kirkyard are architect James Craig, who was responsible for the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Captain John Porteous, captain of the Edinburgh Town Guard, whose death at the hands of a mob in 1736 became a key incident in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of Mid-Lothian 78 years later; and the notoriously dissolute Colonel Francis Charteris, who was the inspiration for characters in some of William Hogarth’s paintings.  Nicknamed the Rape-Master General for the sexual assaults he carried out against his female servants, and allegedly an early member of the Hell-fire Club, Charteris was so hated that, during his funeral, his coffin was attacked while it was being transported to the kirkyard.  His interment was probably no more dignified for it’s said that dead cats were flung into his grave.

 

Greyfriars is also the resting place for a brace of literary figures, including the legendary Gaelic bard Duncan Ban MacIntyre, who for the 88 years of his life was illiterate and had to commit all his works to memory; the 18th-century poet, and wig-maker, Allan Ramsay; Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling; and William McGonagall, who is probably Scotland’s second-most famous poet and certainly its first-most terrible one.

 

Affectionately remembered for such versification as ‘…the stronger we our houses do build / the less chance we have of being killed,’ McGonagall was born in Dundee but died a pauper in Edinburgh in 1902.  He was buried here in an unmarked grave, although a plaque now commemorates him with the lines ‘I am your gracious majesty ever faithful to thee / William McGonagall the poor poet that lives in Dundee.’  Before the plaque was put up, the kirkyard also contained a bench that was dedicated to the poet’s memory.  It bore the following inscription – the lines weren’t, I think, penned by McGonagall himself, although they look like they could’ve been: ‘Feeling tired and need a seat? Sit down here and rest your feet’.

 

Goodbye to Banksy

 

Unfortunately, for the umpteenth mysterious time, this blog exceeded its bandwidth in June.  The June malfunction irked me particularly because it happened just one day before Scottish novelist Iain Banks died from the gall-bladder cancer that he’d been diagnosed with only two months earlier.  This prevented me from posting a tribute to him – until now.

 

Banks became a big thing for me – and for many people like me – when he found success, fame and a certain notoriety with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984.  This was because he seemed to tick a lot of important boxes.  Like me and the crowd I hung out with, he came from a Scottish background, so we were familiar with many of the places he wrote about.  Like us, his politics were left-of-centre, with a leaning towards Scottish nationalism because independence seemed the best way to avoid being saddled with those right-wing Tory governments whom very few people in Scotland voted for.  And like us, he was obviously into literature, but he was also into some strange, off-beat writers whom stuffy literary critics would dismiss as being too ‘genre’ for serious consideration – Mervyn Peake, Brian Aldiss, M. John Harrison, etcetera.

 

You could argue that Alasdair Gray had blazed the same trail a few years earlier with his 1980 novel Lanark, but there was one important difference.  Gray had been a young man in the 1950s.  Banks, like us, was clearly of the 1980s.  (Like it or not – and we did not – Banks and us, his readers, were Maggie Thatcher’s children.)

 

 (c) Abacus

 

The Wasp Factory made an immediate stir with its blackly funny plot about Frank Cauldhame, a maimed delinquent living in a remote part of Scotland, who amuses himself with the shamanistic killings of insects, seagulls, rabbits and young children.  In quick succession Banks followed it with Walking on Glass, which showed the influence of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; The Bridge, a paean to both the Forth Rail Bridge and to Gray’s Lanark, with a healthy dose of the J.G. Ballard short story Concentration City mixed in; and in 1987 Consider Phlebas, the first of many epic outer-space novels about an interstellar anarcho-utopian society called the Culture.  The Culture novels were attributed to Iain M. Banks, a move by his publisher to help fans of ‘serious’ mainstream fiction and fans of science fiction distinguish between what was what in his oeuvre.  At the time, the speculative fiction magazine Interzone remarked that it was delighted to see Banks at last ‘come out of the closet’ as a sci-fi writer.

 

In August 1987 Banks was scheduled to appear on a discussion panel at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  Around the same time I’d agreed to edit the latest edition of a small literary magazine called Alma Mater, published by some fellow-students at the University of Aberdeen’s English Literature Department.  Dr Isobel Murray, who’d been my tutor at Aberdeen for the past year, was chairing the Book Festival panel and I used my connection with her to persuade Banks’s agent to let me interview him after the panel, for Alma Mater.  (I later apologised to Dr Murray for so brazenly using her name as a calling card.)

 

The discussion panel, which I attended, produced its share of sparks.  In addition to Banks and Murray, it featured the Glaswegian crime writer Frederic Lindsay, whose 1983 novel Brond had been recently made into a TV series, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring a very young John Hannah.   (By a sad coincidence, Lindsay died this year just ten days before Banks did.)  And the panel was completed by another Glaswegian, Ronald Frame, author of the recently-published novel Sandmouth People.  It might be unfair to say that the tweedy Frame was a young fogey at the time, but he certainly gave the impression of being one.  When somebody in the audience asked the authors about their views on self-censorship, he said pompously: “I would never include anything I might regret in five years’ time.”

 

Banks immediately spluttered, “But those are the best bits!”

 

Afterwards I met up with Banks and a couple of his friends and conducted the interview in a pub in Edinburgh’s Rose Street – I think it was either the Kenilworth or the Auld Hundred.  Banks, who proved to be a gregarious and instantly-friendly Fife man, spoke into the mic of the clunky tape recorder I’d bought with me, transferring his voice onto a crackly cassette tape.  (Like just about everything else I possess, that tape now resides inside a cardboard box somewhere in my Dad’s attic.)

 

I asked him about the hostile reception that The Wasp Factory had received in some quarters.  (The Irish Times had described it as ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’.)  Banks had been surprised by this.  He’d expected some flak from animal rights groups, but not from the critics.  He’d learned that one reviewer who’d blasted the book as ‘the literary equivalent of a video nasty’ also worked in the Conservative Party office in London, which pleased him no end – offending that guy had been an honour.

 

I also asked him about his fondness for peppering his novels with references to the popular culture of the time.  In The Bridge, for example, just before the car accident that sets the surreal plot in motion, the hero slots a copy of The Pogues album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash into his car stereo.  Wouldn’t that make the books look a bit dated after a few years?  “Yeah,” he agreed, “it’ll date them.  But what the hell?”  He believed that characters living in a particular time and particular place would be influenced by the current popular culture, so he didn’t see why he should shirk from mentioning whatever music, books, films and TV programmes were fashionable at the moment.

 

(c) Abacus

 

Then I quoted Brian Aldiss at him – Aldiss had famously said that all good science fiction hovers at the edge of being something different from science fiction.  Banks agreed with that, sort of, but he also disagreed.  Enthusiastically, he told me how Consider Phlebas came with all the trimmings of a traditional Isaac Asimov / Robert Heinlein space epic: giant spaceships, laser cannons, inter-planetary battles.  He didn’t want it to be different from people’s normal perceptions of science fiction.

 

Did he, I asked finally, worry about being pigeon-holed — being pigeon-holed twice over, with one half of the world viewing him as a ‘Scottish’ author and the other half viewing him as a ‘sci-fi’ one?  Not at all, he said.  He was quite at ease with being regarded as Scottish.  And being seen as a sci-fi author didn’t bother him either, since science fiction was an ‘old love’ for him.

 

From Rose Street, we moved on to Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar in Candlemaker Row, just behind the statue of the famous Edinburgh terrier who’d spent 14 years in the adjacent cemetery guarding the grave of his dead master.  Poor wee Bobby, I remember musing, wouldn’t have lasted long if he’d been a character in The Wasp Factory.  By then a good number of pints had been drunk and the conversation had descended somewhat from the lofty heights of literary discussion.  I recall talking to Banks about Arthur Montford, the lugubrious Scottish TV football commentator famous for his eccentrically patterned sports jackets and for his catchphrases that included ‘What a stramash!’ and (uttered all too often) ‘Disaster for Scotland!’  At another point, somehow, we got onto the 1966 Hammer horror film Dracula Prince of Darkness.

 

The next issue of Alma Mater, containing my interview with Iain Banks, was published later that year.  A series of cock-ups by the typesetter meant that it looked pretty ropey, though thankfully the pages featuring Banks were okay.  The following year, I heard that Banks would be making an appearance at Edinburgh’s Science Fiction Bookshop in West Crosscauseway (now long-since vanished) and I went along to give him a copy of the magazine.  To my surprise, he remembered me and enthused about the mini-pub crawl we’d done that day: “That was a good afternoon!”

 

(c) Brown, Little

 

After that I read several more Banks novels: Espedair Street, Canal Dreams, The Crow Road, ComplicityThe Crow Road, his stab at writing a sprawling eccentric-family saga, is the book that everyone talks about, although I have to say that it’s not one of my favourites.  Sure, it has one of the best opening lines in modern literature (“It was the day my grandmother exploded”), but as with most other sprawling sagas about eccentric families, I find it too contrived for its own good.

 

On the other hand, I think Espedair Street, which is about a hapless rock musician who’s found fame, fortune and much unhappiness and is now trying to live anonymously in a rough part of Glasgow, is marvellous.  It’s certainly the warmest Iain Banks book I’ve read.  If I had to identify my all-time favourite novel about rock ‘n’ roll, in fact, it’d be a toss-up between this and Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss.

 

And I like Complicity, which welds a serial-killer plot onto Banks’ immense distaste for the corruption and inequalities of the recently-ended Thatcher era.  Much of it is set in Edinburgh, where scuzzy journalist-hero Cameron Colley boozes in a series of pubs ranging from the upmarket Café Royal on West Register Street to the desperate, late-opening Casbah in the Cowgate.  By then I’d lived in Edinburgh and I knew Colley’s haunts well.  I’d even had an experience similar to one he has in the Café Royal, when he stands in front of the bar’s gantry (which doesn’t contain a mirror although it looks as if it does) and in a drunken panic he believes himself to be a vampire.

 

(c) Brown, Little 

 

After Complicity, however, I stopped reading Iain Banks, probably because by then there were just too many young Scottish writers competing for my attention: Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, James Robertson.  (Banks’s success in the 1980s, of course, had helped pave the way for all these newcomers.)  Looking at his bibliography, up to the posthumously-published The Quarry, I see there are some 20 books of his, including the entire Culture series, that I haven’t read yet.

 

I definitely have some catching-up to do when I get back to Scotland.

 

Tramnation

 

I’ve always like cities that have tram systems – although I didn’t actually see a tram until I was 17 years old.

 

At the time, I’d just finished working as a grape-picker in a vineyard in French-speaking western Switzerland and was using my earnings from the grape-harvest, such as they were, to travel around the rest of Switzerland and then around Germany.  The trams I saw clanging and clunking down the streets of Basel, Bern, Zurich, Munich, Heidelberg and Bonn, with their wheels trundling along rails set in the asphalt and cobbles, and their trolley poles skittering along overhead wires, looked positively Victorian to me.  Yet in terms of comfort, they were a pleasure to ride on – especially compared to the city buses I was familiar with in Edinburgh, which were noisy, smelly and covered in grime.  Indeed, while I dreamily wandered about those Swiss and German cities and watched the trams rumble by, I was lucky on more than one occasion that I didn’t wander too close to them and get ground into their rails.  Yes, I was so wet behind the ears in those days that I was practically equipped with gills.

 

Since then, trams have been a feature of several cities I’ve lived in and a feature of other cities I’ve visited that made a big impression on me: Prague, San Francisco, Istanbul…  In Australia, Melbourne felt to me more like a ‘proper’ city than Sydney did, possibly because of the majestic street-cars that glided through its thoroughfares.  When I briefly worked in Dublin in 2004, the city had just had its first tram-line installed, from St Stephen’s Green to Bride’s Glen, and everyone I spoke to was as pleased as Punch about it.  The Dublin tram system is called the ‘luas’, which is an Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘speed’.

 

Even the Japanese city of Sapporo, where I lived and worked in the 1990s, had a tram system.  Known as the ‘Shiden’, it was a tiny affair, confined to eight kilometres of track that ran between the inner-city district of Susukino and the bottom of Mount Moiwa on the city’s south side.  It looked its age too – it’d started operations in 1909 – but public affection for it had prevented the city authorities from ever scrapping it.  What I remember most about Sapporo’s Shiden was that in the evenings you could hire it out and hold a party on board it.  You could enjoy the trundling run from Susukino to Mount Moiwa with a giant barrel of ice-water and beer-cans in the middle of the coach and a bunch of drunkards packed into the seats around you.  But that was the 1990s – maybe Japanese Health and Safety culture (if such a thing exists) has now consigned those drunken tram parties to history.

 

And in Tunis, where I live at the moment, what redeems the downtown area of the city for me is that, despite the piles of uncollected rubbish and the fetid-smelling sewers, you are liable at any moment to see a stately, green-painted tram go cruising along the French-colonial streets.  (Invariably, there’ll be a couple of truanting schoolboys traveling for free by sitting on the coupling pin at the back of the last coach.)

 

In the United Kingdom, however, we do things differently.  Whilst city-dwellers in other countries have retained their tram systems into the 21st century, we began the process of dismantling ours in the 1930s.  This was done with the encouragement of the automobile and oil industries, who assured British governments that as soon as the way was cleared for mass car ownership, life would be clean, uncluttered and utopian.  Actually, the axing of the tram networks caused a public outcry as loud as that which greeted the slashing of Britain’s rail system in the 1960s (done under Lord Beeching, who was the Freddie Krueger of British transport history).  But with both trams and trains, the country’s politicians assumed that they knew best and what the people thought was ignored.

 

Glasgow’s GCT network was the final one to go, in 1962.  After that, the only surviving British tramway was in Blackpool.

 

However, recent years have seen something of a comeback for trams in Britain, with new lines being installed in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Croydon.  And I was pleased, initially, when in 2008 it was announced that work had begun on a new tram system in Edinburgh, which would link the city airport in the west with Leith and Newhaven in the east and run along Princes Street in the centre.  There was something appealingly steampunk in the idea of trams operating again in the city of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I could easily picture them trundling along Princes Street between Jenner’s Department Store and the Sir Walter Scott Monument, with Edinburgh Castle on its crag forming an ornate backdrop.

 

Unfortunately, as any Edinburgh-er will tell you, the saga that has unfolded since 2008 has been the stuff not of fantasies, but of nightmares.  Supposed originally to have been up-and-running in 2011, the Edinburgh tram system isn’t due for completion now until 2014.  Its budget, meanwhile, has rocketed from an initial estimate of 375 million pounds to over a billion.  And the project has been bedevilled by disputes between contractors and the management company, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, which was finally relieved of its responsibilities in 2011.

 

The Edinburgh public has been subjected to endless inconvenience around the city centre, where tramline excavations have disrupted transport (and been a continual blot on the cityscape).  The Scottish government, now run by the Scottish National Party, inherited the project from the previous administration, has been wildly unenthusiastic about continuing it and would’ve scrapped it if they hadn’t been outvoted on the matter in the Scottish parliament.  Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has announced his intention to hold a public enquiry into the Edinburgh trams debacle in the near-future.

 

Meanwhile, as costs have mounted, the planned tramline has been gradually whittled away.  No longer will it go to Newhaven, but it’ll stop in St Andrew’s Square just off Princes Street.  Indeed, it was mooted for a time that the line should be curtailed at Haymarket Station, far short even of Princes Street.  Speculation among original tram enthusiasts (who these days seem to be thin on the ground) that the network might be extended to the north and south of the city, with future trams rattling away to places like Granton and Newcraighall, now sounds like pie in the sky.

 

So how did the Edinburgh trams project go so catastrophically off the rails, before anything had actually started running on those rails?  Alex Salmond claims that he knew ‘in his water’ – Alex Salmond’s water, incidentally, is not an image I want to carry around in my head – that the scheme was a bad idea, because it involved making too many excavations in a historical city where the soil is cluttered with relics from past eras.  In a perceptive article for the Scottish Review of Books, accessible at http://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/index.php/back-issues/volume-six-2010/volume-six-issue-four/367-the-route-to-nowhere-georgie-rosie, the learned Scottish journalist George Rosie describes workers encountering “100-year-old water pipes, cables from the previous tramway, the remains of a Carmelite priory and a leper hospital, a Victorian water culvert running under Princes Street and more than 300 long-dead corpses lying under Constitution Street in Leith, some of which had lain there since the end of the fifteenth century.”

 

In fact, Rosie sees the problem with the project as being part of a wider narrative.  Scotland’s industrial sector – which a couple of generations ago could have lain those tramlines and knocked out all the trams needed in the space of a few months – has declined nearly to a state of non-existence and the Edinburgh project has had to draw on engineering and consultancy companies from Spain, Austria, the USA, Germany and France.  A Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together components from two continents, it’s perhaps surprising that more things didn’t go wrong with the scheme.

 

I was in Edinburgh two months ago and such was the scale of the tram-works in St Andrew’s Square and on Princes Street that the city centre looked like Beirut, circa 1982.  Let’s hope that the place looks slightly less apocalyptic when the crowds arrive for the Edinburgh Festival next month.  Here are a few photos:

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Iain Rankin must be kicking himself that he ended his Edinburgh-set series of crime novels featuring Inspector Rebus back in 2007.  If he’d extended the series a little longer, he’d surely have had material for one more novel – one where Inspector Rebus had to investigate irregularities in the Edinburgh trams project and found himself embroiled with dodgy contractors, corrupt local politicians and financial embezzlement and wheeling-dealing on a scale not seen since Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.