“This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”
Alexander McCall Smith
Being back home has given me the opportunity to get to know my “home” city again. After nine months of telling people I’m from Edinburgh and talking about just how great it is and how much there is to do there it’s a welcome change to actually get to sample this rich cultural tableau I’ve been going on about so much.
I’m actually not from Edinburgh itself, but a village about 16 miles away, although technically I was born there. I spent many days in town as a girl, trailing Princes Street’s selection of shops…Littlewoods, Jenners, BHS and Marks & Spencers seem to stick in my mind, probably because they had coffee shops which were essential to any shopping trip uptown with my family. When I was a teenager I wandered about the old town, hanging out with all the cool alternative kids on Cockburn Street, wandering down to visit Armstrongs on the Grassmarket and down the South Bridge too.
Despite all this, I feel like I’m more of a Glasgow girl, although I might not have the accent to prove it. I know the streets, where I’ll find which shop (that sounds as if it could be grammatically incorrect…), where all the good bars/clubs are, where’s good for live music, where all of the second-hand bookshops are, and also, where the nearest Greggs is.
In Edinburgh I feel at a loss. Greggs are few and far between which is rather distressing when you’re used to there being one, or even two on every street. I’ve still to go on a full night out in Edinburgh so my pub knowledge is far below par, and I needed to google to track down the second-hand bookshops. Although to be fair I probably did that at one point for Glasgow too, even though now it seems I walk to them so naturally. Hmm…. Anyway, I have been getting to know Edinburgh again. And it feels goooood.
Last week I went into town and found the castle surrounded by clouds and the haar creeping through its streets. Walking through the mist just adds something to the city, a a certain mystery and the feeling that you’re in another time. I got lost on my way to Fountainbridge and was redirected by a couple of lovely gents and eventually found my way. After this I headed for the West Port (following a google maps image I had tried to burn to my memory) and felt rather lost again but decided to trust my instincts. My first stop was Edinburgh Books, who have an impressive collection but high shelves that I coudn’t reach so it made browsing a bit more difficult. For some reason I don’t like asking staff in independent bookshops if they have something, because if I don’t like the price I still feel compelled to buy it. I guess it’s because it’s their shop, and not the shop of some big high-flyer they’ve probably never met. It’s nice though, when you buy something, the money’s actually going to the person you’re talking to. So much more personal. I had my booklist in hand and bought one book there, an old edition of The Young Visiters [sic] by Daisy Ashford with an introduction by J.M. Barrie which apparently caused a bit of controversy. The book was written by Ashford as a nine-year old and the public suspected that Barrie had actually written it himself and passed it off as Ashford’s. Not really sure what would’ve been in this for him though… I bought this, and an Edinburgh Books bag with their mascot on the front of it, a water buffalo named Clarence. I assume (though I should never really assume because it just makes it clear to me that I am completely ignorant) that Clarence is some kind of stuffed head sticking out of a wall somewhere in the bookshop, although I forgot to check at the time. Silly me, will need to go back for another visit!
Next it was on to my next bookshop, this one called Armchair books. It’s split into two shops, each with different categories but I really came up with nothing in either shop. Next I moved on to another shop but it was filled with Scottish books and a hotch potch of other books which I didn’t have the energy to browse through. The owner was friendly though and answered my questions about foreign language fiction bookshops in Edinburgh. It turned out there was one next door. The collection wasn’t too bad but they didn’t have what I was looking for so I left the last of the bookshops and wandered down to the Grassmarket. Went back to Armstrong’s and had a browse about, and as usual, spent ages looking and didn’t try or buy a thing, so went up the West Bow, past the cheese shop and into one more bookshop. It’s a nice little one, but very little and didn’t take me long to see there was nothing to interest me.
The West Bow brings you out facing the National Library of Scotland (NLS). I had been thinking about going here for a week or so to do some research for my dissertation and decided to wander in, have a look about and get myself registered. The NLS is a legal deposit library, able to request a copy of any book published in the United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland for its collection. I wanted to go upstairs to the reading rooms but decided against it – having to put all of my things in a locker just to have a look seemed like too much effort. Instead I took to walking around the collections downstairs. The first one is a pretty good exhibition called Golf in Scotland. It’s not my kind of thing but was interesting all the same, well-timed too with all of the visitors for the Scottish Open that had been taking place at the Old Course in St. Andrews. Oh, something that I really liked about the exhibition was the guard…instead of looking bored and watching people amble about, he was reading some really intense looking reference book, and was really engrossed in it. Nice to see that in a library! Completely irrelevant (erroneus!!) but anyway, the next exhibit was what I really wanted to get to.
It’s called the John Murray archive, after the publishers who left their vast collection to the NLS. The room is dark and there are lights dancing like fireflies and landing on a table in the centre of the room. It felt magical. The lights were actually words and as I stood next to the table they came together to write The Publishing Machine. I touched the table and it invited me to create my own novel. I gave my book a title from the choice of words I was given – The Love of Murder. I gave my book a cover, a colour scheme, a font, a genre, writing style, an expected audience and how I planned to market my novel. All the time the words circled round the table and pictures slid in from the sides. Apparently my novel was a huge success. I walked away from this table in a kind of haze.
Dotted about the room were big cylinders that looked like something out of a sci-fi film. Except they were filled with relics of writers, different pieces of clothing or items that reflected a bit about their life and writing. There was Jane Austen, Lord Byron (one of his artefacts was a turban), David Livingstone and Charles Darwin (the only thing I remember from his items was a beard, although to be said it’s only natural that that would be the thing I would remember!). In front of the cylinders there were interactive stands, shaped like big hardback books. You touched a photo of one of the items in the cylinder and it gave you an explanation of it’s importance. Darwin’s beard was significant because the portrait of him as the man with a long white beard is so well known throughout the world.
Stepping out of the John Murray archive left me feeling a little giddy. I was in there alone for fifteen minutes or so until a man in his fifties came in and I remember us smiling idiotically at each other, there is definitely something about that room. Oh and another thing, there is a section where you are invited to write to one of the authors from the archive and they are posted on the wall, sheets of paper covered in words, interacting with the authors who are represented in the room. Quite magical.
I feel like I am successfully revealing myself as rather addicted books and the literary world, not to mention a love of libraries. (I am off to the library today for the third time this week…and I have visited a total of seven bookshops, as well as several charity shops to browse their book sections…) Despite all this, my trip yesterday to Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum was incredibly boring. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood but I couldn’t be bothered to appreciate it. It seemed pale in comparison to the John Murray Archive. It’s basically filled with manuscripts, relics and articles of the three pillars of Scottish writing: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. The building was what they call “quaint”, although that’s not to say I didn’t like it, just don’t really like that word, reminds me of American tourists describing their image of Scottish towns and villages for some reason. It sounds condescending, almost. I was rather sad that it bored me so much, I’d expected it to be much more interesting but you can’t have it all, eh? The area around the museum is much more interesting actually, the paving stones engraved with quotes by Scottish writers and makars (Scots poets).
Edinburgh’s literary history is vast and expanding still. Every year the Edinburgh Book Festival attracts writers from all parts of the world, although I’m not really in the mood for talking about this festival as they didn’t want to emply me which makes me feel a blue mixture of sadness, rejection and despondency. I digress.
It’s listed as a UNESCO City of Literature and there’s much more to find than what I have stumbled across. Can’t wait to find more…