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44 Scotland Street

9 Jul

It’s two in the morning. I turn morosely to the clock and then turn back again to the bookshelf. Sleep is eluding me and it’s all my fault.

You see I’m one of those idiotic individuals that leaves all of their packing to the very last minute. I have a plane to catch in five and a bit hours and in that time I have to hunt down my passport (my passport, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, is a master of disguise and deception) rustle up a few pairs of clean boxer shorts and most importantly I have to select a novel to dive into whilst I’m away. I’m going to Italy for the week – yes, very nice – but time is running thin here in Scozia and on second thoughts forget the pants – the book is more important.

I scan the miniature skylines of my bookshelf, which has three shelves, of which I am currently a little way through the second. ‘My Second Shelf’: I have always thought this would be a very suitable title for a candid biography of Sean Connery. (Have I really always thought that? – or is this just my sleep deprived brain throwing out maudlin miscellany? You are a very naughty brain, now go to bed!) Right, to work.

So what have we got to play with here; let’s see now dum di dum di dum the Americans are always good for a romp aren’t they – Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway maybe, Bret Easton Ellis. Possibilities, all possibilities. I’m off the Russians at the moment so Fyodor and his mates can all breathe a sigh of relief. There’s always Martin Amis I suppose; I still haven’t read Lionel Asbo yet – but there are whispers that he’s on the wane. Ooh – Muriel Spark, very tempting, always full of surprises. And Orwell, mmm, Orwell … – or, well, I suppose I could just pack in the search now, get some sleep and pick up a copy of 50 Shades of Grey at the airport. Good thinking.

I decide in the end, after much head-scratching and befrazzlement to plump for an old favourite, a very special and witty novel called 44 Scotland Street by Alexander Mcall Smith. I had always meant to reread this Edinburgh-rich book and I decided that now was the time.

A moment please: one never remembers exactly what happens in a novel after putting it down. Months or years later there is only an afterglow of love or laughter, or sadness perhaps, contempt in some cases, indifference in others. And as I slipped out this book from its cosy nook on my second shelf and flicked though it (remembering suddenly the lovely Ian McIntosh illustrations that punctuate its inviting bite-sized chapters) it was as if a friend’s calm hand had fallen upon my shoulder. You’re going to enjoy this, remember? said the ghostly voice accompanying that ghostly hand.

Mcall Smith is something of a polymath. You could say (or you might say) our nations equivalent to Stephen Fry (although in my opinion a good deal less relentlessly telivisionified than old Melchy). He was born in Zimbabwe and educated there and in Scotland; and for many years he was Professor of Medical Law at The University of Edinburgh and a member of a number of national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. His books include works on medical law, criminal law and philosophy, as well as numerous books for children, collections of short stories, and novels. He has lectured at various universities in Africa, including Botswana, where he lived for a time. His big break as a novelist (the vocation to which he commits most of his time these days) was The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency – a lighthearted novel of ratiocination set in Botswana starring the inimitable and much loved Mma Ramotswe. He has since written an entire series of novels devoted to Mma Ramotswe and her milieu.

So what is it I like about 44 Scotland Street then? For this is just one of a brace of popular novels that Mcall Smith has published in the last decade – he writes something like four or five books a year. Talk about prolific. I hum and ho about a weekly blog post.

Well one of the things I admire about this book is that its first public airing was as a serial novel published in daily installments in the Scotsman newspaper. This just strikes me as a fantastically clever idea – to enliven the old tradition of serialisation. And what the daily installment format means is that when inserted between two covers the novel qua novel is eminently digestible. It is the literary equivalent of the platter that Angus Lordie (the novel’s resident painter and roué) presents his guests with before the climactic scene in which the provenance of a curious painting is revealed:

He welcomed his guests with a tray of devils on horseback and small oat-cakes on which thick-cut slices of smoked salmon had been balanced. Then there were crackers of boiled egg, ersatz caviar, and small circles of mayonnaise. All this was provided in generous quantities.

This bite-sized quality that 44 Scotland Street possesses has returned to my reading life at just the right moment. I have just come off the back of a month long tête-à-tête with Vladimir Nabokov’s great masterpiece Lolita, which – to continue along the line of culinary metaphors – felt rather like sucking on an everlasting gobstopper; incredibly sweet, exasperating at times and of course, difficult to stomach.

44 Scotland Street is set in Edinburgh’s New Town, which as the blurb on the back of my edition explains is ‘a busy bohemian corner of Edinburgh, where the old haute bourgeosie finds itself having to rub shoulders with students, poets and portraitists’. Add to this mix a narcissistic philandering estate agent, an incredibly pushy mother with more than a passing interest in Kleinian child psychology and a host of other oddballs and innocents and you have the recipe for what is, I think, a brilliant and mercenary exercise in social comedy. This is undoubtedly a humane and sensitive book, but it is also a quiet indictment of certain distasteful elements in Edinburgh society, hypocrisy, snobbery, ageism; forms of ‘poshlost’ as the Russians might say – a word in which pretentiousness and philistine vulgarity join hands.

The central conceit in the novel is the idea of the shared living space, shared, of course, by people who don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything. The living space in question is a smart address on Scotland Street. Although the action in the novel is by no means limited to this elegant locale. Thus we are taken to places as diverse as the South Edinburgh Conservative Association Ball at The Braid Hills Hotel, the novelist Ian Rankin’s house in Morningside and, spectacularly, the system of abandoned railway tunnels that lie hidden beneath the city.

We are introduced into this world via Pat – a twenty year old on her second gap year and a source of some worry to her parents. When she is accepted as a tenant at number 44 she isn’t sure how long she’ll last. This is mainly down to Bruce, her narcissistic  flatmate, an estate agent, who is all but unbearable at times and yet infuriatingly handsome. Downstairs lives Domenica Macdonald, a sort of worldly wise Edinburgh grand dame and next door to her the insanely pretentious Irene whose precocious five year old Bertie is in therapy after setting fire to his daddy’s copy of the Guardian.

One of the things that this book gets absolutely spot on in my opinion is the way that its characters are ultimately the centre of their own worlds. We are all fascinated by our own lives, our own stories, we are all looking out for no.1.The narcissist is but an extreme example of this. And the clash of these separate worlds, each with their own rules and shibboleths, makes for great comedy in the right hands. And also great poignancy:

For a moment neither spoke, as each felt sympathy for the other, as the same conclusion – quite remarkably – occurred to each: here is a person, another who is so important to himself, to herself, and so weak, and ordinary, and human as we all are.

44 Scotland Street is a good book. I’m glad I picked it up again. But one last thing. I can’t help thinking that in one of the future novels in the series (there are a few volumes now) perhaps there might be space for a plucky young journo working for an Edinburgh lifestyle magazine? Now there’s an idea…

What did Edinburgh mean to Charles Dickens?

12 Jun

This year (2012) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the celebrated English novelist of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and more than a dozen other major novels, numerous plays, nonfiction books, individual essays and articles.  Dickens was a kaleidoscopic storyteller; at once a moralist, a slapstick comedian, a mystery writer and a romantic. He evoked the diverse (often bleak) lives a host of Victorian Englanders with acute sensitivity and humour.  But fret not – you haven’t suddenly stumbled into planetlondon.wordpress.com by mistake. It just so happens that Charles Dickens had a special relationship with Edinburgh – despite not actually setting any of his stories here. It’s a tale of two cities, if you like.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth in February 1812, the son of an itinerant Navy Clerk. The early part of his upbringing was relatively stable by Victorian standards; by the time he was six or seven the young Dickens was already a voracious reader. But during 1821, when he was only nine, his family fell into financial difficulty and were obliged to move into shabby lodgings in London’s East End. The situation deteriorated further when his father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens was then forced to abandon formal education and take up work in a blacking factory, putting labels on bottles with hundreds of other child labourers. This was the darkest period of the author’s life – in later years he refused to talk about it – yet undoubtedly it provided him with a great deal of material for his fiction.

After this difficult period, Dickens’ fortunes improved somewhat. His father was eventually released from prison allowing Charles to go back to school and resume his studies. Still, life certainly wasn’t easy. On leaving school he took a dreary job copying out documents by hand in a solicitor’s office before beginning his writing career as a news reporter. But it would take a fortuitous Edinburgh connection to turn this little known cub reporter into a hot literary prospect: George Hogarth.

As a young reporter Dickens was sent up and down the country, his first visit to Edinburgh was in 1834 to cover a political dinner. But it was back in London that he would meet George Hogarth – a man very much involved in the intellectual and cultural life of Edinburgh. Hogarth had studied law at the University of Edinburgh and had gone on to practice for a number of years (Walter Scott being one of his clients) before upping sticks and moving down South, where he began a new career working in the newspaper industry. He rose to editor of the Evening Chronicle where he would publish some of Dickens’ first original work, which was later collected in the book ‘Sketches by Boz’ (Boz was Dickens’ penname at this time). The book was an immediate success. The two men became good friends and Dickens would go on to marry Hogarth’s daughter Catherine in 1836, further cementing their relationship. Charles and Catherine had ten children together but the marriage eventually turned sour twenty years later after Charles was accused of infidelity.

As Dickens reached his mid twenties Pickwick Papers appeared, making him a household name. Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby soon followed. When he visited Edinburgh for a second time in 1841 there was a real buzz – here was a bonafide literary celebrity. He attended a public dinner with 250 of the Edinburgh literati, many of them old connections of George Hogarth. During the visit he was presented with a ‘Burgess Ticket’ and given the freedom of the city. Dickens kept his Burgess scroll in his study for the rest of his life – it is now on display in the Museum of Edinburgh. During that visit he told his adoring public:

“I believe I shall never hear the name of the capital of Scotland without a thrill of gratitude and pleasure. I shall love while I have life her people, her hills, and her houses, even the very stones of her streets.”

In spite his fondness for Edinburgh he was greatly moved by the poverty of the Old Town, particularly the suffering of young children. He describes a trip to the Old Town in which he saw “more poverty and sickness in an hour than people would believe in, in a life”.  The deplorable living conditions in the tenement slums shocked him: “in an old egg box which the mother had begged from a shop lay a little, feeble, wan sick child. With his little wasted face, and his bright attentive eyes, I can see him now, as I have seen him for several years, looking steadily at us.” These specific recollections would bolster his campaign to raise funds for the opening of The Great Ormond Street hospital for sick children in London.

Now although Edinburgh didn’t appear in the novels of Charles Dickens (or barely at least, there are one or two scant episodes) a stroll through the city is said to have provided the author with inspiration for one of his most enduring characters: Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The story goes that Dickens was walking through Canongate Churchyard on one of his visits to Edinburgh when he spotted a grave bearing the inscription ‘Ebenezzer Lennox Scroggie – Mean man.’ A dour Scottish sign-out if ever there was one. In fact the author had misread the inscription which actually said ‘Meal Man’. Scroggie was a corn a merchant and also the influential economist Adam Smith’s nephew. The irony is that by all accounts Scroggie was a bit of rogue – nothing like the icy Scrooge. One account tells us that he was expelled from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for putting his hand up a lady’s skirt. Let’s hope her name was Carol.

Edinburgh also furnished Dickens with many of his closest friends, all influential historical figures themselves; the judge and literary critic Lord Francis Jeffrey, the novelist and historian Thomas Carlyle and the great judge and civic campaigner Lord Henry Cockburn. So let’s see… a wife, a book deal, a few spectacular dinners, a host of influential friends. No wonder Dickens was fond of the city. Although he didn’t like the Scott monument very much – the homage to his great novelistic forbear – he called it a ‘failure.’ Make of that what you will.

Hidden Edinburgh: The Craigentinny Marbles

9 May

It’s not everyday you come across a grand monument incongruously surrounded by bungalows (think of the Arc de Triomphe dropping into Barnton, or the Collossus being rebuilt on Dalkeith Road). This really is a strange sight for even the most hardened sightseer. And just think about it – how would it feel if you walked out of your door each morning to be greeted by the grandeur of classical sculpture? Probably pretty great. Well, if you are on the lookout for this kind of thing it might well be worth your while taking a trip up to Craigentinny for a look at the ornate grave of William Henry Miller, also known as The Craigentinny Marbles.

And what’s more, if you like a bit of mystery with your marbles then you’re in the right place. The details of Miller’s burial arrangements, and the speculation surrounding his life and death are extremely bizarre…

The Miller mausoleum is designed in the style of a tomb on the Appian Way in Rome. It was designed by David Rhind and completed in 1856, in open fields on the Craigentinny estate, to the north of the Edinburgh Portobello road, between Piershill and Portobello. On either side of the enormous structure two stone carvings depict epic scenes from the bible. These were carved by Alfred Gatley, an eminent Victorian sculptor,  and fixed to the north and south sides of the monument in 1867. Strangely enough the sculptures are not actually marble at all – they picked up their name from the resemblance they bear to the bas-relief sculptures on the Elgin Marbles which are held in the British museum in London.  The tomb marks the last resting place of William Henry Miller who was at one time a prosperous landowner and member of Parliament for Newcastle under Lyme. Miller inherited Craigentinny house and estates from his father but spent much of his life in England.  It is clear, however, that he had a strong affinity with Edinburgh for it was here that he decided he wanted to be buried. And for the sort of lavish arrangement Miller had in mind you really have to plan ahead.

In his lifetime Miller was a renowned collector of books, one of the great collectors of his age infact. He amassed a library that included six books from William Caxton’s press and was unrivalled among other private libraries of the time for the number, rarity, and condition of its examples of early English and Scottish literature. His pedantry in regard to book collecting was legendary. He became known as ‘Measure Miller’ after his habit of carrying around a ruler to measure the exact size of copies of books before deciding whether or not they would enhance his collection.

Miller died without heirs in 1848 at his estate in Craigentinny after a short illness, he was sixty. His opulent burial arrangements would cost £20,000, a staggering amount of money at that time. Yet it was not merely the cost of his entombment that aroused the public interest. Details of his last will and testament began to circulate around Edinburgh. Miller’s will stated that he should be buried at the bottom of a 40ft stone lined shaft beneath a giant monument, and that on top of his coffin should be placed a heavy stone slab. The town was full of gossip.

The book Old & New Edinburgh, published in 1890, documents that during the time between Miller’s death and his eventual burial people began to think he might have been posing as something he was not:

  “… he was averred to be a changeling – even a woman, a suggestion which his thin figure, weak voice,  absence of all beard and some peculiarity of habit, seemed to corroborate”

It was suggested that Miller, who had never married, had been an adopted female orphan who throughout his life had cunningly disguised himself as a man. And not only had little William been masquerading as a man, but he had used his newfound gender to get all the way to the highest office in the land. Thus his burial arrangements were thought to be a way of ensuring that this secret stayed a secret for ever more.

Absence of all beard or not I think that you’ll agree this all seems a little farfetched. The man was an MP, a figure of public prominence, you would think at least one of his colleagues or constituents might have smelled a rat, confronted him in the local Turkish baths etc. It is true that he was a notoriously private man – rarely allowing anybody to inspect or study his book collection  – but in no way can he be said to have shied away from public life, having run for election seven times.

The most likely explanation for Miller’s esoteric burial arrangements, and the one that is generally accepted, is that his tomb was designed as a way to deter body snatchers. Edinburgh was still recovering from the Burke and Hare scandal a few decades before – and the city still had a tricky problem getting rid of those pesky grave robbers. So, providing one had the requisite funds (which Miller certainly did) it probably seemed like a good idea to bury yourself deep underground where nobody could get their hands on you. Makes perfect sense to me.

For a long time after Miller’s death the monument above his remains stood bare. When the two panels were finally fixed to the mausoleum in 1867 they were described in the press as: ‘the most remarkable pieces of sculpture executed during this century.’ Why not take a trip to Craigentinny for a look and see if you think they were right. (Grave robbers not welcome).

Looking Out For The Edinburgh Skyline: The Cockburn Association

16 Apr

The Cockburn Association is one of the oldest architectural conservation organisations in the world. Also known as The Edinburgh Civic Trust it has been working to protect and improve Edinburgh since 1875. The Association works closely with developers, architects and other organisations to influence and guide the character of new development and to encourage the re-use and restoration of existing buildings to meet today’s needs. By encouraging certain architectural developments and firmly denouncing others, the Association aims to bring together tradition and innovation in a way that celebrates Edinburgh’s distinctive civic heritage.

Edinburgh is a living city and we encourage the creation of tomorrow’s heritage –  just not at the expense of the wonderful historic environment that underpins our economy and makes Edinburgh one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The Association was named after Lord Henry Cockburn, a prominent Edinburgh figure in the nineteenth century who campaigned to protect the beauty of the city. Cockburn was educated in Edinburgh and entered the Faculty of Advocates in 1800, eventually becoming a judge in 1834. As a member of the famous Speculative Society, along with Walter Scott and Frances Jeffrey, he rubbed shoulders with some of the heavyweights of the Scottish Enlightenment. His opinions on how developments in the city should be undertaken continue to inform how the Association operates to this day. A glance at his Letter to the Lord Provost on the Best Ways of Spoiling the Beauty of Edinburgh (1849) reveals how Cockburn felt about the uniqueness of the city:

It is our curious, and matchless position, our strange irregularity of surface, its    picturesque results, our internal features and scenery, our distant prospects, our various and ever-beautiful neighbourhood, and the endless aspects of the city, as looked down upon from adjoining heights, or as it presents itself to the plains below. Extinguish these, and the rest would leave it a very inferior place.

Since 1875 the Association has played a key role in saving some of the city’s most cherished landmarks. During the early part of the twentieth century for example, as part of the George Street Tramway scheme, developers attempted to have the statues of King George IV, William Pitt, and Dr Chalmers removed. Members of the Cockburn Association were up in arms pronouncing that

the presence of these statues is of high aesthetic value to the city by adding dignity, richness and historical interest to a street which forms a dignified and worthy   memorial to the genius of a past generation of citizens.’

The proposal was eventually rejected. It is difficult to imagine anyone having the audacity to attempt such a scheme today.

Equally contentious was a proposal to redevelop The Cafe Royal into an extension of Woolworth’s in the 1960’s. This popular and iconic bar was duly championed by the Association which demanded urgently that

            ‘Continued pressure will be needed to persuade the Planning Committee to refuse permission for redevelopment on any terms or (better still) to bring about the withdrawal of this proposal for the destruction of a building of outstanding value in design, craftsmanship and townscape, which is also an important institution in the life of the City.

So if you enjoy a drink at this cosy little haunt on a Friday night, perhaps you should toast one to the Cockburn Association.

Other historic campaigns include a push to save the cobbles on the Royal Mile, appeals to improve the aesthetic appeal of Waverley Station, a move to preserve the open space in the Meadows and encouraging the opening of Inverleith Park. Indeed it would seem that no significant civic development in Edinburgh escapes the inquisitive eye of the Cockburn Association.

In more recent times the association has been particularly concerned with sustainable plans for regeneration. Many of the proposed plans for development in the so called ‘Caltongate’ area, for example, a world heritage site, were rigorously opposed with the support of Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage. Plans to build a hotel and conference centre and create new roads which involved demolishing listed buildings, among other developments, were strongly opposed. One of the major arguments against these plans was that they did not fully reflect the unique historic character of the Old Town, which is, the Association argues, a natural marketing tool for Edinburgh. Only a development that respects and cherishes the Old Town’s unique architectural heritage would suffice.

The Royal Mile acts as a main artery for the city: narrow closes and wynds flow left and right, towering buildings rise on either side, and slope sharply downhill. This ‘herring bone’ pattern has been established over many centuries, and makes a powerful and lasting impression. This historic scale, pattern, and architecture must be used to set the parameters for development.’

Debate over the Caltongate area is still ongoing.

Another landmark campaign in recent years has been the Save Our Skyline project that in 2009 saw the Association successfully oppose a 17 storey hotel being built in the Haymarket area. The site around 189 Morrison Street would have been markedly altered by a building of immense proportions; so big indeed that it would have reached the height of Edinburgh Castle’s battlements. Members of the association were anxious that allowing a building on this scale to be built in the city centre would set a dangerous precedent for the future. A public enquiry was held and eventually Scottish Ministers refused planning consent for the hotel with the association playing a pivotal role:

The details of the scheme and the reasons the City gave for approval would not   have been tested, or subjected to the truly independent judgment of a Reporter if the Cockburn Association had not participated fully in the Public Local Inquiry.’

Since 1991  the association has organised an annual Doors Open Day in which members of the public get a chance to explore some of Edinburgh’s important and architecturally exciting buildings for free. The process of selecting buildings takes place in May each year. You can find details about this and other events on the Cockburn Association’s website.  They are also on twitter and have a facebook page.

As an independent charity The Cockburn Association relies on private donations, members’ subscriptions and legacies to survive and achieve its goals. It receives no core funding from the City of Edinburgh Council or the Scottish Government or its agencies. With this come both advantages and disadvantages but the association rightly celebrates its autonomous position:

We believe that our truly independent status gives us a unique and unbiased platform to comment on planning, civic amenity, heritage, transport and  environmental matters in Edinburgh and to help raise popular interest and     awareness of these issues.’


The Edinburgh Police Box

8 Apr

 Listed Building, Coffee Shop, Miniature Gallery, Time Machine

On the Royal Mile there is a castle, a cathedral and a courthouse – and down the bottom end somewhere there’s an old palace and a new parliament. There is also a police box. Funny that isn’t it – I never notice it either. There is also one on Princes Street, on the Grassmarket, The Mound, Heriot Row, Rose Street, Lauriston Place, Dean Terrace … you get the picture. So commonplace are these wee blue boxes around the streets of Edinburgh that they seem to trick the viewer into passing them by as one would a bus stop or a row of parking meters, completely unnoticed.

Now this just won’t do. Concealed within those four small walls the Police Boxes of Edinburgh offer us a compelling slice of history. They remind us of a time when every corner of the city had its own beat bobby who worked from a box at the end of your road. And we’re not talking Dixon of Dock Green here – these guys were real policemen with a real job to do. They were the men at the front line, so to speak, between the public and the police stations. The boxes remind us of a time when domestic phones where uncommon and the public needed assurance of prompt help from the authorities.

The first police boxes appeared in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century. They were little more than a hexagonal phone-stand with a signal lantern on top to alert officers that they were being hailed by the local station. The telephone had only been invented a decade or so earlier and the police were quick to see the benefits of this revolutionary communication device. Edinburgh’s boxes came a little later on, around 1930.  They were designed especially to complement the city’s neoclassical architecture by the architect Ebenezer James MacRae. Macrae designed many public buildings (housing, schools etc) and was a well known architectural conservationist in the immediate pre-war period.

Inside the boxes police officers had only a little bit of room to work with, enough for a sink, a kettle, a chair or two. On winter nights they might warm up with a one bar electric fire or an old oil heater. On night-shifts, officers carried round a battery hand lamp and the beat keys and reference book which gave them access to properties to check the security and contact the owners if something was amiss. The boxes doubled up as a handy place to lock up unruly drunks found causing trouble after dark. Unfortunately what the boxes didn’t have was a loo. It is said that each policeman was armed with a bottle of bleach and that when it came to it (particularly in residential areas) he had to do his business in the sink. One rather grotesque story I stumbled across was that during the 1970’s when women officers began working from the boxes a rumour began circulating that one unlucky lady had broken the sink! Although if The Sweeney is anything to go by, perhaps this was just a smutty office wisecrack from a macho male copper.

In total 142 boxes were installed in Edinburgh, of which about 75 remain – sadly in various states of disrepair and neglect. They are substantial cast iron structures (in other locations they were made of concrete) and appear to have been made at Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, which was once one of the largest ironworks in Europe. Much like the Police Boxes though, this powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution is now a thing of the past. After 223 years, the company became insolvent in 1982.

As police officers began to be issued with personal radios in the 1970’s the Police Boxes were eventually phased out. This happened across the UK. From being an omnipresent sight on Britain’s streets they promptly disappeared. In London there were almost 700 at one time (so it’s not surprising that a certain timelord chose it as the design for his intergalactic time machine) now there are only a few left, scattered around various museums. One of the most novel things about these miniature police stations is that for each British City there was a different design. Edinburgh is unique in that it kept a large number of its boxes in the spirit of architectural heritage.

It is something of a shame then that many of our Police Boxes are now covered in flyers and graffiti, their paint faded and flaking. This isn’t the case throughout Edinburgh though, particularly in the wealthier areas of town where many of the boxes seem to be very well taken care of, take the Heriot Row box for instance.

Some of the boxes have even been bought up and revitalised by businesspeople and social groups. Many of you will be familiar with the Police Box Coffee Stands dotted around the Edinburgh University area. This is a great little idea (a doff of the cap to the old beat bobby and his cup of tea) and a money-spinner too. What’s more the police box at the corner of Drummond Street and The Pleasance has been turned into a miniature art gallery for exhibitions, performances and installations. ‘The Wee Blue Box’ group organises for artists to come in every few months and redecorate. It’s quite a surprise walking down and seeing it for yourself. I’ll bet many of the festival goers on their way down to the pleasance this year turned their head for a second take. One artist, Malcolm Irving, has actually published a book of photographs of the city’s Police Boxes. The pictures are all taken with an old camera, and film that isn’t made anywhere anymore, playing on the idea of obsoleteness and decay.

So if you’re walking through Edinburgh and you catch a glimpse of one of these little structures (and no doubt you will) spare a thought for the old policeman freezing the night away, cherishing his cup of tea (and of course his bleach bottle) a long long time ago.

Cabinets of Curiosity

3 Apr

The Reopening of The National Museum of Scotland

Perhaps, like myself, you visited The National Museum of Scotland as a child – and gaped upwards in wonder (or terror!) at lions and elephants, Egyptian sarcophagi and the fossilised remains of prehistoric monsters. Or perhaps you once ran in for shelter on a rainy day, and then stayed for an entire afternoon – throwing a few thoughtful pennies into the fishpond on your way out.  Certainly a great many Scots and international visitors alike share cherished memories of this incredible building and its astonishing menagerie of curiosities.  Last year saw the reopening of the 150 year old museum on Chambers Street after a three year, £47.4 million redevelopment project.  I went to have a look around the revitalised museum to see if all of that  childhood curiosity was reignited.

              It goes without saying that each time you turn a corner in Edinburgh’s city centre you are greeted with buildings of quality, both historic and modern. But even in a place where so many grand structures are vying for your attention the National Museum is a stand out;  the grand steps, the formidable stone edifice, the gigantic windows make a remarkable impression – and that’s just the outside. As you climb up the steps and enter inside you step into the Grand Gallery, a monumental space, reminiscent of a vast birdcage, which even on dull days is filled with spectral light. As a result of the extensive building renovations visitors can now also enter at street level, down into a cavernous stone entrance hall, six tennis courts wide, which was previously used as a storage facility. The contrast between these two atmospheric spaces is fascinating, an exhibit in itself, and the work put into realise the new and improved design truly staggering. During the renovation of the lower level of the museum around one million items were moved from Chambers Street to the National Museum’s collection centre in Granton – which gives some idea of the scale of the task.


What is apparent when you look at the figures – 16 new galleries, 13,000 square metres of new public space, £47.4 million spent – is that this really is a once in a lifetime transformation: the most significant redevelopment to the museum in over a century.

The Grade A listed building has enjoyed a rich and varied history. It was designed by visionary engineer Captain Francis Fowke, architect of the Royal Albert Hall, and local architect Robert Matheson in the aftermath of the Scottish Enlightenment. Originally established as the Industrial Museum of Scotland in 1854, it was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition.

The foundation stone was laid 150 years ago, in 1861, and the east wing was opened in 1866 by Prince Alfred, by which time it had become the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. By the building’s jubilee in 1904 it had become the Royal Scottish Museum. And in 1998 the building was extended, to tell the country’s history from earliest times to the present day. This latest development creates a newly integrated and international National Museum of Scotland in the heart of Edinburgh – a pivotal step in a long tradition of evolution.

One notable casualty of the new development that I have to mention though is the museum’s beloved fish pond, which has been removed to utilise the central space in the grand gallery.  But don’t be alarmed: I have been assured that no fish were harmed (or, indeed, pan fried) during the project; they were all safely whisked away to a new home in England.

While some old moaners (like me) may bemoan the disappearance of the fishpond, new visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the ‘Window on the World’, an eighteen metre tall installation that spans from the bottom of building right up to the rooftops. This is now the largest single museum installation in the UK. The ‘Window on the World’ is essentially an enormous cabinet that showcases extraordinary objects from across the collections of the National Museums of Scotland. The idea relates to the 19th century and the gentlemanly pursuit of a assembling a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. In their country houses, men of wealth and taste would put together collections of rare and exotic objects from all corners of the world for the pleasure of themselves and their guests. Riffing on this idea of miscellany and assortment the museum curators have fashioned an opportunity to illustrate in fantastic, iconic style what a diverse collection they have at their disposal; something in the region of four million objects. Thus we look up and find a 1930s gyrocopter, a girder from the Tay Bridge and the enormous jaws of a sperm whale inscribed with ornate ‘scrimshaw’ artwork sitting quirkily side by side.

Moving down from the ‘Window on The World’ the eye catches the Grand Gallery floor, which is a masterpiece of gravitas and understatement. Just five or six objects stand in the huge space  including a lighthouse lens by David Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis), a statue of James Watt which used to be in Westminster Abbey and the 3 metre-high skeleton of a prehistoric deer.

Other highlights include the Discoveries gallery in the centre of the building – another major architectural feature – which provides a dramatic new home for one of the Museum’s most popular exhibits, the Millennium Clock. Opening up long-forgotten archways, this space draws visitors through to the exhibitions and an expanded three-storey Learning Centre, which features new studios, event spaces and an upgraded auditorium. A series of balconies, walkways and escalators improve visitor circulation and provide dramatic views, both of the architecture and the displays. Here you will be able to find the world’s oldest surviving colour television, developed by John Logie Baird and a fossilised tree slice collected by John Muir from the Petrified Forest National Park.

The extensive vision of this development is breathtaking, and like all of the world’s great museums it would take many many visits to take it all in. Plenty then to reawaken those childhood memories. Kids and adults alike will do well not to be spellbound by it all.

The £47.4 million redevelopment, has been jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£17.8 million), and the Scottish Government (£16 million), with a further £13.6 million from private sources.


To Edinburgh with Love

31 Mar

Last summer a set of dazzling paper sculptures began popping up at strategic locations all over Edinburgh. The story took off on twitter and eventually on news sites around the world. As more and more of these incredible objects appeared an irresistible puzzle began to unfold.

What makes a good mystery story? Well first of all you need a great setting (Edinburgh would suffice). Then if you can cobble together a cast of compelling characters, throw in a few twists and maybe a murder or two you’re already half way there. What about a whodunit using Edinburgh’s literary establishment as the canvas? The culprit – a renegade artist – would leave clues scattered around the city, intricate sculptures handcrafted from Scottish novels and poems. That might just work: ‘The Strange Case of the Paper Sculptures’.

Oops. I’m afraid that’s already been done. Pity. But before we go any further there was no murder involved, unless, that is, you take into account several books being snipped up and rearranged into sculptures. Just a little mild bookicide then.

It all began in March last year when staff at the Scottish Poetry Library stumbled across a sculpted tree – later dubbed The ‘Poetree’ – left anonymously on a table in the library. It was an object of rare beauty and considerable craftsmanship. A note left by the tree, addressed to the Library’s twitter account @byleaveswelive read:

‘It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.… … We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)’

The whole thing was baffling. Local news picked up on the story quickly and tried in vain to establish who had created this little masterpiece. But nobody knew where it came from, nor was anyone forthcoming with information. And it turned out that this was just the beginning.

In late June a similar piece was discovered at the National Library of Scotland sculpted from a copy of Ian Rankin’s novel Exit Music. It depicted a gramophone sitting atop  a tiny coffin – which quietly ushered in a recurring theme in these anonymous works: anxiety at the potential death of Scotland’s creative heritage. As the artist’s note read: ‘A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. (& against their exit)’. Rankin’s work would also become a running theme in the sculptures, echoing the mystery at the heart of their creation.

Then it was the Filmhouse’s turn to receive a gift. This time it was a tiny cinema scene with filmgoers watching a big screen as men and horses gallop out of it towards them. A remarkably complex piece. One of the audience is even a tiny Ian Rankin holding a tiny little pint of Deuchars.

By this time every institution in Edinburgh with some kind of literary connection was expecting to find a little something in their midst. Our anonymous artist (‘the Banksy of Books’ or ‘Booksy’ as the Gaurdian wryly dubbed them) did not disappoint. Pieces appeared at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, The Edinburgh Book Festival, The Central Library, The National Museum of Scotland, The Writer’s Museum and finally the last piece was deposited back at The Scottish Poetry Library, where it all began, with, intriguingly, a note. A goodbye note, as it turns out, in which the artist revealed that she is a woman:

Some had wondered who it was, leaving these small strange objects. Some even thought it was a ‘he’! ……. As if!’

She writes that the entire enterprise was:

A tiny gesture in support of the special places…..

and that the poetry library was close to her heart:

here, she will end this story, in a special place … A Poetry Library ….. where they are well used to “anon”.’

What is remarkable about these sculptures is that each piece is as esoteric, beautiful and as lovingly created as the last. The ‘Poetree’ with its message of renewal and rebirth is certainly a standout but I really can’t pick a favourite!

There has been some discussion of an exhibition of all the pieces together but for now you can see many of them on display in the places that they were dropped. I recommend a visit. Perhaps we will never know who the artist was that so modestly distributed her works around Edinburgh last year. But does this really matter? Wouldn’t that dispel the magic ?

If you are looking to find out more you can find a copy of the mystery artist’s letter in full and a very detailed narrative of the events online at http://thisiscentralstation.com/featured/mysterious-paper-sculptures/

17 Danube Street: What Your Parents Never Told You…

28 Mar

Once upon a time, in the quaint, genteel little neighbourhood of Stockbridge, there was a brothel. And this brothel, located as it was in an elegant terraced house on Danube Street was, you might say, rather well disguised. It was owned and looked after by a lady called Dora Noyce, who didn’t actually care for the term ‘brothel’ – she preferred her house described as a ‘YMCA with extras’. This infamous Madam, her hush-hush House of Leisure and what her customers got up to there are surely among some of the worst kept secrets in Edinburgh.

             But for those of you who aren’t in on the gossip here are the pertinent facts. 17 Danube Street threw open its doors shortly after the close of the Second World War and kept them open until the late seventies, when Dora Noyce passed away at the age of 77. Noyce herself was, outwardly at least, a prim and prudish individual, always neatly dressed and always ready with a dry apercu for the authorities. When the police dropped in to raid the house it is said that she would regularly greet them with the words ‘business or pleasure gentlemen?’ At election time she would plaster Conservative party posters in her windows. She wore pearls to her court dates. And when out buying nibbles and wine for her guests at the little independent shops in Stockbridge, she would say, if asked, ‘one should always support one’s local businesses.’

Her smart appearance and Morningside manners belied a much harder upbringing. Noyce was born Georgie Hunter Rae on Rose Street in 1900, then a poverty stricken area where drink and disease were rife. Her father plied a fairly lowly trade as a cutler. She worked for some time as a call-girl herself before opening the Danube street business, perhaps seeing the moneymaking potential in catering for the needs of serviceman shortly after the end of a war. Indeed, it is said that when the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy had weighed anchor in the Firth of Forth, Danube Street made a staggering £4000 in one night. Soldiers were reputedly queuing all the way down the street and round the corner – until eventually the ship’s commanding officer ordered the brothel strictly out of bounds to his men.

On the hunt for more information about this notorious Madam I arranged to go for a walk around Stockbridge with Tom Wood, former Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police. Now retired, Mr Wood works in an advisory role for the government, but back in the seventies he was a young beat bobby in Stockbridge – during the final years of Dora’s occupancy at Danube St. Who better to talk to then about this risqué chapter in Edinburgh’s past and, indeed, the sex industry in Edinburgh more widely?  He explained to me that in those days he worked from the (now obsolete) police box on Dean Terrace, which is where we arranged to meet.  How very cloak and dagger I thought to myself, it couldn’t get much more Rebus than this!

I met Mr Wood and we walked towards the house in beautiful Spring sunshine. He talked fondly of his days in Stockbridge, he had grown up there and still had quite an affinity with the place. He told me that it had changed a great deal since the seventies; then it was a grittier, less refined area, with quite a diverse immigrant population. He had known Dora back then and had had dealings with her (in a strictly professional capacity of course!) and he told me that she was quite the character.  You would see her buzzing about to local shops and she would always be polite and courteous. She had real wit. Her perennial quip was that she did her best business during the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland!

As we approached the blue door at number 17, we stopped and discussed in more detail how the house had operated. There were two floors, of which Dora owned both, however she would sublet the basement flat to her girls, which was split into small cubicles. She would have about 15 regular girls at any one time and as much as a further 25 for busy spells. Dora would greet guests at the door of the upstairs flat and entertain them with glasses of wine. The upstairs flat, said Mr Wood, was better regulated and was never much trouble, the sublet cubicles downstairs however were more of a nuisance to the authorities but a good deal more lucrative.

Mr Wood is a noted authority on police perspectives on prostitution and he speaks with a great deal of insight on the subject. First of all, he said, you have to remember that despite her legendary status Dora was still a criminal and what she was up to was illegal. But regardless of this, Dora was able to strike up a working relationship with the local police, even senior detectives,  on the tacit basis of course that Danube Street would be raided every six months or so. Dora would supply the police with whatever information about the criminal underworld that came her way, and in return the police were lenient with her.

In the course of our discussion I began to appreciate that this was an entirely pragmatic approach to a very tricky problem. Mr Wood talked of a live and let live approach, with limits, naturally. You can either ignore the sex industry, he said, which is silly; try to suppress it, which is impossible; or recognise it and try in whatever way you can to regulate it. When Danube St was the centre of the sex trade in Edinburgh, he said, at least the authorities had a good grasp of what was going on and who the main players were. After Dora died and as things started to move into Leith and elsewhere, it became difficult to keep track. Crime linked to the sex trade became a big issue throughout the eighties, accompanied by a pronounced rise in the spread of sexual diseases. Dora’s girls had all received regular medical examinations.

It is amazing to think that Dora Noyce was charged over 40 times for living on immoral earnings and that she only spent a very small amount of time in prison. Her last prison term was for four months in 1972 at the ripe old age of 71. Remarkably, local councillors took more complaints while she was in jail because her business simply was not as well managed without her.

After her court appearances you could find Dora in Deacon Brodie’s on the Royal Mile talking up a storm to the press. She was a canny self advertiser. ‘Just remember to get the name and address right’ she would say to the eager journalists, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity in my profession.’

So now you know the tale of the Stockbridge house of leisure and the formidable lady who ran it. Shocking: I’m sure you will agree. It is quite possible that you’ll never look at Danube Street in the same light ever again. Having said that, something like this, something a little outré, is that not what gives a place its real charm?

The Secret Life of Edinburgh’s Bookshops

27 Mar


Edinburgh, blog, Scotland, books

Armchair Books Interior (Boon Low – FlickrCC)

Edinburgh is full of interesting parallel worlds. One of the most interesting is the city’s collection of second-hand and antiquarian bookshops. Whether dotted around side streets, cosied up beneath a row of townhouses or couched defiantly beside a Waterstones or a Blackwells, you can stumble across one of these little gems almost anywhere in Edinburgh. But early risers beware: life in this world usually begins at around 11 o’clock, and often on a Tuesday.

Edinburgh, books, Scotland, travel, best bookshops

Armchair Books (Katherine – FlickrCC)

Avid bookworms might usefully begin their search for a bargain in the West Port, also known as ‘Edinburgh’s Soho’, a narrow street just up from the Grassmarket. The West Port boasts an impressive six bookshops and a bookbinder should you ever need to smarten up that ageing first edition of Shakespeare hidden away in your attic. Browsing these shops reveals that each has its own distinctive character, not to mention a diverse selection of books both ancient and modern. Definitely worth a look is Armchair Books; two narrow, charmingly ramshackle shops side by side.  Before entering be sure to have a quick glance at some of the quirky messages that staff have left on the window: ‘If this shop is locked & you would like to get in just ask next door. If, however, you are too cowardly to ask, then slink away, defeated by life once again’. This shop has a great collection of general fiction in some lovely hardback editions and the staff are always pleasant. As a go-getting student I once picked up a very nice (and very large) three volume copy of Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu here for an incredibly reasonable price. Perhaps I’ll get round to reading it all one day.

Edinburgh, books, bookshop, Scotland

Edinburgh Books Interior (Laddir Laddir – FlickrCC)

Across the West Port from Armchair Books sits Edinburgh Books, reputedly the largest second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh. This shop has a large collection of Scottish titles (including some great modern first editions) and has been a landmark for booklovers for almost twenty years. While browsing through military history books, theology books, antiquarian titles and all sorts of other things here you will undoubtedly come across ‘Clarence’, the head of a gigantic water buffalo that rests quietly on the top shelf overlooking the front room. You sense that the people who work here must have a real sense of humour.

As one might expect there are a number of popular second-hand and independent bookshops situated near The University of Edinburgh. Till’s Bookshop, tucked away at the east end of the Meadows, was established in 1986 and has since then become an institution for generations of students. The Edinburgh University Student Survival Guide states resolutely that Till’s is ‘possibly the best second hand bookshop in the world. Words can’t describe the wonders kept in this beautiful shop.’ Till’s is very well organised and has a section for just about everything from popular music to personal development. Science fiction fans will revel in the shop’s large collection of fantasy titles. Till’s is open seven days a week and on cold days the coal fireplace in the back of the shop makes the place all warm and cosy.

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Tills Bookshop (James Morrison – FlickrCC)

Southside Books on South Bridge is another independent bookshop popular with the student population. A few doors down from Blackwells, this shop’s stockpile of used textbooks and non fiction has tempted in many a scholar in the throws of penury.  One can find more general fiction here too in a variety of genres. Southside Books has that sense of organised clutter that any good second hand bookshop should aspire to. You never know quite what crinkly tome you’re going to stumble upon next.

Heading in the direction of Leith Walk and the New Town you can find yet more offbeat little shops to sate those literary urges. McNaughtan’s Bookshop on Haddington Place was established in 1957 and as such has a pedigree unrivalled by other Scottish businesses of its kind. Founded by a former major in the British army and his wife McNaughtan’s quickly achieved an enviable reputation for an interesting and varied stock at reasonable prices. This shop has much antiquarian material of Scottish interest for the collector and also its own art gallery. I would certainly recommend a visit. But keep your eyes peeled; McNaughtan’s is tucked just below street level and is quite easy to wander past without noticing!

Bookshops, books, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh (CleftClips – FlickrCC)

Going via Broughton Street towards Stockbridge you might come across Broughton Street Bookshop. This shop, which used to be called Broughton Books, was recently reopened and further adds to the bohemian feel of this area. It is well organised with plenty of fiction in good and not so good condition – but a little fraying at the edges gives a book a bit of character. Broughton Street Books is run by a young man called Brian Rafferty who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and a percentage of the profits are donated to the National Autistic Society.

If your bags are not full of books by now you might want to end your trail in Stockbridge where along with second-hand bookshops there are a host of charity shops with great (and often very cheap) selections. Second Edition on Howard Place is a nice little place to browse on a Saturday afternoon after a stroll down the Water of Leith. It has a great selection of Edinburgh related material and also a good quality general stock. Nearby Raeburn Place is Edinburgh’s charity bookshop hub with Oxfam, Shelter and the St John Association Charity Bookshop all catering for local readers. The latter of these is probably the one really worth visiting if looking for rare and antiquarian titles.  All proceeds from this shop go to help a number of good causes in Scotland and elsewhere such as holiday and residential accommodation for disabled, elderly or infirm people.

So what are you waiting for? This list is by no means exhaustive (honorable mentions go to Elvis Shakespeare on Leith Walk and Deadhead Comics on Candlemaker Row). Your own trail could well lead you to discovering other literary treasure troves. Go and have a peep into this intriguing side of the city, you’ll not be disappointed.

Edinburgh, books, bookshop, Scotland

Old Town Books Sign (Raphael Chekroun – FlickrCC)