Old man shouts at Edinburgh

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I spent a total of two years living in Edinburgh, one year at the end of the 1980s and the other at the end of the 1990s.  And although I have lived in other cities for similar or longer periods (Aberdeen, Sapporo, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Pyongyang, Tunis, Colombo), Edinburgh is the place I name if anyone asks me what my ‘home-city’ is. 

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I was originally a rural dweller rather than an urban one.  My dad was a farmer and, during my adolescence, I lived on a farm on the edge of the town of Peebles, population 8000.  However, Peebles is just one hour’s bus-ride from Edinburgh, and I soon got into the habit of making regular visits to the city to get those cultural experiences that weren’t available in a wee country town: browsing for hours in the (now-defunct) Science Fiction Bookshop on West Crosscauseway near the campus of Edinburgh University; spending more hours browsing in second-hand record shops; and stuffing myself with foreign food that wasn’t Italian or Chinese.  (Those were the days before Peebles acquired its excellent Indian restaurant, the Prince of India.)  Maybe it’s those distant but fond memories that, more than anything, make me think of Edinburgh as ‘my’ city.

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A few weeks ago, I was back in Scotland and, as is customary during my visits home, I hopped on the bus and went to ‘my’ city several times.  I expected, as ever, to notice a few changes.  After all, the world’s truest maxim says: “Everything changes except the law of change.”  And I expected, as ever, to be unimpressed by most of those changes.  It’s also a sad fact that as human beings grow older, they tend to become less tolerant of change.  However, even as an ageing person in an ever-changing world, I feel I am justified this time in shaking my head, waving my fist and shouting: “Edinburgh, what the hell are you doing?”

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Here are some reasons why.

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1. They’ve cut down the trees next to the Scottish National Gallery.

Yes, that attractive strip of sloping parkland hemmed in by Waverley Bridge, Princes Street, the Mound and the railway tracks leaving westwards from Waverley Station, and whose perimeter is dotted by such landmarks as the Scott Monument, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery, has been pulverised.  As the photo at the top of this entry shows, the trees that used to stand there have gone and the area is now a basin of unappealing grey-brown slag with a couple of JCBs howking around in its squalor. 

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This devastation, sorry, revamp, has been carried out at the behest of the National Galleries of Scotland organisation, who want to “create a new, sloped path that will make the gardens and gallery fully accessible to people with mobility impairments, prams and pushchairs.”  They’ve promised to plant saplings to replace the felled trees, though obviously these won’t reach the size and gorgeousness of their predecessors till after I’m dead and gone.  I notice, by the way, that the site of this work is also the site of Edinburgh’s annual Christmas fair.  And if I was a wee bit cynical (which, of course, I’m not), I’d suspect that the real reason for getting those pesky trees out of the way is so that they can shoehorn more rides and stalls into the fair every December / January and wring even more money out of it.

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2. They’ve stuck an architectural horror in the corner of St Andrew’s Square.

The corner formed by South St David Street and the southern side of St Andrew’s Square, once home to the B-listed Scottish Provident building – ‘B-listed’ apparently doesn’t carry much weight in Edinburgh these days – is now occupied by a gruesome new structure containing branches of the likes of TK Maxx and Wagamama.  There’s something positively indecent about how it flaunts its blingy frontage at poor old Jenners Department Store across South St David Street.  When I first laid eyes on this horror, I had to retreat into a local hostelry (the Abbotsford) and down a pint to recover from the shock.  And it was in the pub that I took out my notebook and penned this description of the beast: “its vertically-slatted façade looks like a wall of razor blades fiendishly designed to cause mayhem and mutilation in a Saw movie.” 

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3. It’s gone all Airbnb.

Airbnb short-term lets are everywhere in modern Edinburgh.  Recent figures suggest that the city contains 10,000 of the things, which works out at one Airbnb per 48 inhabitants.  This leads to problems like anti-social behaviour – I’ll bet half the renters are hen and stag parties – rising rents and property prices, loss of housing supply and the general ‘hollowing out’ of communties.  Walk around the Grassmarket, for example, and you find so may Airbnb lockboxes in view that it looks as if a plague of giant metallic woodlice has descended from outer space, and they’ve attached themselves to the doorposts and started eating the woodwork.

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I’ve heard people say with weary resignation that it can’t be helped.  This is Edinburgh, which has always been a touristy city and where accommodation has always been expensive.  But why make a bad situation even worse?  With my perennially shaky finances, I can’t imagine myself being ever able to live in the city again. So your loss, Edinburgh.

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4.  Edinburgh’s record shops are dying out.

I’ve lamented previously on this blog about the disappearance of Edinburgh’s live-music venues – my pessimistic conclusion was that the city was becoming ‘as musically bereft and barren as one of Simon Cowell’s armpits.’  Now it looks like it’ll not only be impossible soon to hear live music performed in Edinburgh.  It’ll be impossible too to buy music in physical form there.

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Before my return to the city, I’d heard the sad news that one of my all-time favourite second-hand record shops, Hog’s Head Music on South Clerk Street, had closed down.  I thought that I could at least console myself by going to Coda Music, the excellent world and folk music record shop at the top of the Mound.  Imagine my horror when I nipped down to Coda Music from the Royal Mile, came around a corner and was confronted by another derelict property with a notice in its window from the shop’s owners, announcing that they too had decided to call it a day. 

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Now I can’t rant at venal and short-sighted city planners and local politicians about this one.  The disappearance of these shops seems down to two simple and unavoidable reasons.  Firstly, of course, most people these days purchase their music online – something that did for the Hog’s Head.  Secondly, these places were run back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by music-loving young Turks who, by 2019, are getting rather long in the tooth.  And I doubt if there’s any up-and-coming new generation willing to take the businesses over from them. In Coda’s case, the owners reported that the shop was still enjoying a good trade, but they’d reached an age where they just wanted to stop working and enjoy some retirement.

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At least the small but durable Record Shak at 69 Clerk Street is still operating.  With admirable disregard for modern trends in sound technology and listening habits, it even continues to sell cassette tapes.  For how much longer, though?

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5. They’ve knocked down the St James Centre.

Okay, this is one thing I don’t feel sad about.  For more than 40 years, the St James Centre’s brutalist architecture made it not so much a carbuncle as a cancerous tumour on the face of central Edinburgh.  Now it’s gone.  Tower cranes loom over the site where the building once stood, looking like skeletal buzzards picking at its collapsed, unloved, concrete-y carcass. 

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But of course, this being 21st century Edinburgh, the powers-that-be couldn’t miss the opportunity to replace the loathsome-looking St James Centre with something even more loathsome-looking.  Et voilà.  We are getting a new – the sound you hear is my heart sinking – ‘shopping and retail’ complex with a 214-room hotel as a showcase feature at its centre.  The unusual outline of the proposed hotel has caused local people to dub it ‘the Golden Turd’.  (Anywhere else in Scotland, it would be called ‘the Golden Jobby’.  But as this is Edinburgh, the posher word ‘turd’ is preferred.)  Actually, looking at computer simulations of the thing, I think it resembles something even less appetising than a turd.  It looks like a turd with a giant, just-extracted-from-someone’s-arse tapeworm wound around it.  Yummy.

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(c) Laing O’Rourke

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