+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Edinburgh’

A blast from the past

Or, digging out some old words

As it’s New Years Day, time for a new start and all that, I’ve … er … done what I said I was going to do back in November, and started to pull out posts from my previous blog, of twenty years ago, edit them and post them on here.

In my mind, this blog and that blog are effectively equivalent, so it’s strange to realise that I only kept that site going for two or three years or so. Compared to the not-quite-one-thousand posts on here, the old blog was hardly anything. Nevertheless, I still think it’s worth copying over some of the highlights, not that any of the handful of posts moved so far count as highlights. So far I’ve done March 2002, starting from the start, but starting a project is half the battle if you ask me.*

In the meantime, while I do more editing, there haven’t been many photos posted on here lately. So here’s one I uncovered on the old hard drive, from the Edinburgh period of my life. Going by the filename, this was taken in the Holyrood Tavern, which dates it to around 2003, before it changed hands and most of the regular clientele moved over to the Auld Hoose instead. I hope none of the people in the photo mind; but they’re probably a bit too blurry for a stranger to recognise them anyway.

Inside the Holyrood Tavern

Happy New Year!

* The Plain People Of The Internet: Is that why you never finish any?

Ahead of the curve

On never really understanding the popularity of something

It’s shaping up to be another quiet month on here. December is the tiredest month, after all: next week it’s Christmas itself, last week it was the office party, and in between I am at home worrying whether all the presents will get delivered in time. Time, then, to pull another old post from the backlog of drafts and get it into some sort of shape.

On Twitter over the past couple of years, it seems as if some arguments or some topics seem to come around, be propelled back into the spotlight, on a very routine and predictable schedule. An example in point: the multimillionaire writer Joanne Rowling, who seems to be unable to avoid the temptation to say controversial things on the internet which seem to have alienated huge swathes of her previous fanbase. As I said, Rowling is a multimillionaire, multimillionaires can afford expensive lawyers, and as such I am carefully stepping around the things she has said—which I, personally, have found genuinely very offensive—without describing or repeating them. In any case, offensive words are best left to wither away and drift off unheard into the wind.

The point of this post, though, is to write more about Rowling’s work than her political beliefs. It’s to say, out loud, something I’ve hinted at on here before, but never actually said out loud for fear of offending people. A dark secret, you could call it. I don’t have to go around throwing Potter merchandise or books in the bin, because I’ve never really thought Harry Potter was very good.

There, I said it. Harry Potter was never actually very good. I’ve kept quiet about this because I’ve had various close friends who, absolutely, adored it. My ex-partner H, for example, who had me take her to a midnight book launch event for the final book. Or Colleague Em, who I went to see one of the films with. I’ve still never seen all of the films, but did like their aesthetic* and did somewhat admire the way they turned a sow’s ear into, maybe not a silk purse, but something much more focused and better-structured than their source material.

My first memory of Harry Potter, the book series, is of seeing displays of the books in Waterstones in Edinburgh, back when the cover of the first was a slightly cartoonish drawing showing a steam train next to a modern InterCity one, so you can understand why it piqued my interest. I didn’t really find out what it was about, though, until a year or two later when the hype machine had started to kick in, and you started to see newspaper articles about how adults were furtively reading this “children’s book” on their morning commute. Part of that machine, you might have heard, was the whole story that she wrote the first book sitting in cafes in Edinburgh whilst living as a penniless single mother.

It was at this point I started to become wary. Back then, these stories often didn’t just talk about generic “Edinburgh cafes”. They talked about one specific cafe, Nicolsons, on the corner of Nicolson St and Drummond St. I knew it well: I spent four years studying within a stone’s throw of it, some of those years living within a stone’s throw of it too. I say “I knew it well”: I mean, I walked past it several times per day, and if you’d asked me directions to it, I’d have done fine. I went in it exactly once, the whole time I lived in Edinburgh, because when I lived there, it was the posh cafe in the area. It was the one that gave you mini doughnuts when you ordered a hot chocolate. It was certainly not one I could afford to go to very often. If I wanted to eat out I’d go to the City Restaurant,** or to a greasy spoon in Nicolson Square where I once received an unexpected shower from a sudden leak in the ceiling above me. If I wanted a coffee, I’d go home. Nicolsons? Too expensive for a student, even one with a grant and a part-time job. So I’ve always been somewhat suspicious.

Only today, as it happens, doing background reading for this blog post I discovered that Nicolsons belonged to someone in Rowling’s family at the time, and all of a sudden the story, or rather the promotion of the story, begins to make a little sense. I didn’t know that back at the time, of course; and a year or so before I left Edinburgh Nicolsons closed and was replaced with a Chinese restaurant. Other Edinburgh cafes picked up the mantle of claiming to be “the place where Harry Potter was written,” much as almost every town in Britain has a “Charles Dickens slept here” plaque if you look hard enough.

Aside from the whole question of where it was written, and how genuine that story was—which is somewhat irrelevant to the content of the books themselves—I was left entirely cold by descriptions of the story. Now, I can understand reading (or writing) books about magic. I can understand wanting to read P G Wodehouse, or to an extent even Enid Blyton.*** I was baffled by the concept of somebody wanting to write a school story in the modern, forward-thinking and progressive 1990s. Particularly a school story in which the boarding school itself was the place of safety, of order and authority, and of home. A book that posits that setting must surely be a deeply reactionary, conservative book, whichever political party the author is giving money to. Without ever reading the book, I already knew that much. As we’ve seen over the twenty-something years since, it turned out to be right.

You can see echoes of Rowling’s recent behaviour early on, in her response to whether or not it made sense for Kings Cross station to have a Platform 9 3/4, when at Kings Cross—like most large UK stations off the top of my head—platforms 9 and 10 face each other across a pair of tracks, rather than being back to back. From memory: her response was that she’d been thinking of Euston, from a time in her life when she regularly caught the train from there to Manchester. Which is fair enough, except that at Euston platforms 9 and 10 also face each other across a pair of tracks; and they’re only used by the local trains to Watford.**** It seemed odd at the time to double down rather than admit to a mistake or—as you might expect an author to do—admit to inventing something fictional in which the details don’t need to be strictly real and parallel with the real world. Nowadays, it seems more characteristic.

Harry Potter was an important part of many of my peers’ formative years. They—the ones that are my friends, at least—have distanced themselves from Rowling’s politics, and have learned to detach the art from its creator, much as I try to listen to the music of The Smiths without thinking of the politics of the lyricist. I don’t feel any pride in always being a wee bit suspicious of it, or in spotting these holes early on. Nevertheless, it does give me a slight advantage. Never having been fully into it, I don’t have to dissociate myself from it now. That’s something, I suppose.

* although A Series Of Unfortunate Events did the same aesthetic, better.

** Everyone who has lived on the South Side knows the City Restaurant; it’s an institution, although when I arrived in Edinburgh there were people who genuinely told me it just hadn’t been the same since they changed the chip fat in 1995.

*** I should add, I’ve never read any of Blyton’s “school stories”; the Famous Five books are all “what we did in our holidays” stories. I wondered even at primary school age, if you counted up the number of Famous Five books and the number of school holidays you get per year, surely they must be into their twenties by the end?

**** Edinburgh didn’t even really have a platform 9 back when Harry Potter was being written, in case you were wondering if that was the source. Back then, the only platform numbers under 10 were 1 and 7, a relict of the way train services eastwards and southwards from Edinburgh had been cut back in the 1960s. The track for platforms 8 and 9 survived, as little stubs used in the daytime to store the engines used by some of the overnight sleeping car trains to the north of Scotland which split or joined portions in Edinburgh in the middle of the night.

The past is a foreign country

Or, some news about a legend.

Back in the mists of time…

…oOo…oOo…oOo… wavy dissolve effect …oOo…oOo…oOo…

…I lived in Edinburgh and worked for a little 3-person tech firm, out of this guy’s study in his family house. And one day, he said to me:

Do you know the secret Armenian restaurant?

He described a building I’d walked past many times, tucked into a corner between the road and the railway lines near Abbeyhill Junction. As he described it, I recognised it immediately, because I walked past it on my route to and from the supermarket. It was, it turned out, something that sounded almost too magical to be true. A secret restaurant. It didn’t advertise, didn’t have a sign, didn’t send out flyers or list itself in the phonebook. If, however, you did somehow find its phone number from a friend-of-a-friend, and if the owner answered and felt like opening and thought you might be a good guest, you were given a booking, could come along, and enter a dark candlelit room where you would feel you were at an Armenian family party for the evening. The owner would cook all the food, then come out and meet everyone and talk to you and make sure he liked you. Like something from a fairy tale, strangely magical and otherworldly, and where the hosts might suddenly turn against you if you weren’t careful or said the wrong thing.

My boss had never been. He didn’t actually have the magic phone number himself, he just knew people who did, it was only really word of mouth that the place even existed. The building was solidly real, though, in Victorian red brick and with a boldly-painted Cyrillic sign above its archway. Whenever I walked past the gates were always firmly closed, the paint peeling and the building slowly fading, with buddleia bursting from parts of the brickwork.

I’m sure I could, if I’d dared, got hold of the number. My boss certainly could have done; he had a wide range of contacts from a broad range of social circles and scenes. Even if I had, I’m not sure I would have dared try to get in. I was a different person back then, much less brave than I am now. Besides, the story is so perfect, I would in some ways rather not have known if it was real or not.

Well, it was real. Someone at BBC Scotland has written an article about it.

It’s quite a sad story, the end of it at least. It’s interesting to know, though, that in some ways the secret Armenian restaurant has had a huge influence on Edinburgh, and on the Edinburgh culture scene. Given that the story has always stuck in my mind, too, it’s probably had a big influence on me in one way or another over the post-Edinburgh parts of my life. It’s almost like an urban fantasy. Sometimes, maybe, the land of faery can exist, or at least something approximating it.

Scenery

In which we discuss “Halting State” by Charles Stross

This month I have mostly been reading: Halting State by Charles Stross, a near-future techno-thriller set in an independent Scotland, ten years or so from now. It’s a very good book; I recommend it; full of where-tech-might-be-going extrapolations. When reading it, though, I couldn’t help thinking: I have a bit of an advantage on the average reader.

It’s set in Edinburgh, you see, where Stross lives and where I used to live; and just about all the locations in the book are real locations. There’s the city mortuary, for example; an inconspicuous 1970s flat-roofed building built of dark shiny engineering brick, at one end of the Cowgate. I can picture it exactly in my head, because I spent four years in the university buildings which overlook it. The characters retreat to the pub over the road from the mortuary: when I was a first year, we’d go in there every Friday afternoon.* A few years later, on my way to work, I used to walk past a flat that gets raided by the police near the start of the book; and I always wanted one of the little houses in the Colonies where one of Stross’s protagonists lives.

I’m sure it’s a very good book even if you don’t know all this; but if you don’t, you probably won’t realise just how well-researched it is. Every location is realistic, because every location is real; and the science fiction becomes real too.

* all Edinburgh residents will have noticed a small geographical mistake in that section, actually: he gets one of the street names wrong.

Cemetery Gates

In which we find Bouch’s grave

From the recent search hits: “sir thomas bouch blog”. Somehow, I doubt Sir Thomas Bouch is likely to have a blog. For one thing, he’s dead.* Secondly, he was always more interested in building railways than writing about them, or about anything.

If you’ve never heard of him: Thomas Bouch was an English railway engineer, and some of the time he was a rather good engineer. Some of the time. He built the highest railway in England, the South Durham & Lancashire Union,** and with it the highest railway viaducts in England. He also invented the first modern train ferry, on the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee railway, which would otherwise have been in two separate parts.*** Unfortunately, he was also rather fond of cost-cutting, building routes on the cheap, and that led to his downfall and infamy. He’s now best known for building the Tay Bridge – the one that fell down. There’s even an urban myth that the word “botch” is derived from his name. It isn’t, of course, but the rumour is hardly good for his reputation.

One day, a few years ago, I was ambling around the west end of Edinburgh. Away from all the expensive tenements,**** there’s a picturesque gorge, with a river running through the bottom, wooded sides, and grand buildings poking out from behind the trees: the back of Donaldson’s College, and the National Gallery of Modern Art. If you go up through the art gallery grounds, as I did, and through past the Dean Gallery, you can wander through the Dean Cemetery. Doing so, I randomly found: Bouch’s grave.

It’s a very bare, imposing grave. A bust of the man; the name “BOUCH”, nothing more, and the dates. It’s a very nice spot to be buried in.

* although this isn’t necessarily a bar – Sam Pepys manages it. Geoffrey Chaucer used to have one, but is now largely on Twitter.

** It closed in the early 1960s. The A66 road roughly follows its route, and runs closely parallel to it at Stainmore.

*** It was originally two separate railways, one in Edinburgh, one in Fife, which merged.

**** think Shallow Grave

Etymology

In which we discover something wrong on the internet

Last night, on TV, I was idly watching a documentary, Real Men, about the maintenance of the Forth Bridge. Rather interesting it was, even if the risks were a bit overstated sometimes.* One thing, though, puzzled me. It started off, as you might expect, with the history of the bridge: in the 1870s construction had begun on a Forth Bridge designed by Sir Thomas Bouch, previously responsible for designing the train ferries the bridge was to replace. In 1879, though, Bouch’s Tay Bridge collapsed catastrophically, so work on his Forth Bridge was stopped.

What puzzled me was: according to the narrator, the collapse of Bouch’s bridge is the origin of the phrase “a botched job”. Now, surely, that can’t be true. It has to be nonsense. According to my copy of the Concise Oxford, “botch” goes back to Middle English. It’s always meant roughly the same thing, I assume. There’s no way an event in 1879 can have created a phrase, when the word itself had been around for several hundred years beforehand. Can it? Wikipedia, and an awful lot of other websites, say that “bodge” and “botch” are both derived from Bouch’s name, even though “bodging”, as a type of carpentry, has been around for centuries. Does anyone have a copy of the full Oxford Dictionary to hand?

* “with High Speed Trains thundering past them” said the narrator. Well, yes, technically – but as far as I remember, from when I was a Fife commuter, they’re not going any faster than 50mph as they go across the bridge.

Update: in the comments on the original post, Greig left the following comment:

Does this help?

botch, n.2 SECOND EDITION 1989

(b{rfa}t{sh}) [f. BOTCH v.1 (Sometimes indistinguishable from fig. use of the prec.)]

  1. A botched place or part, a flaw or blemish resulting from unskilful workmanship. 1605 SHAKES. Macb. III. i. 133 To leaue no Rubs nor Botches in the Worke. 1645 MILTON Tetrach. Wks. 1738 I. 244 Let it stick as a notorious botch of deformity.

  2. fig. a. A clumsy patch; a meaningless or unsuitable word added for the sake of rime or metre. 1693 DENNIS Impart. Critick iii. 25 Every Epithet is to be look’d upon as a Botch, which does not add to the thought. 1707 SWIFT On Union Wks. 1755 IV. I. 283 By way of botch She piec’d it up again with scotch. 1780 WESLEY Wks. (1872) XIV. 341 In these Hymns there is no doggerel, no botches. 1861 A. BERESFORD-HOPE Eng. Cathedr. 19th C. 220 The difficulties of accommodation are honestly recognized and boldly grappled with, not by botches and makeshifts.

{dag}b. A mark like a clumsy patch, a blotch. Obs. 1715 Lond. Gaz. No. 5365/4 The other 4 [Sheep] cropt on the Right Ear, and a black Botch on the Left Hipp.

  1. a. A bungled piece of work. So botch-work. 1648 HERRICK Hesper. I. 104 Learne of me what woman is, Something made of thred and thrumme; A mere botch of all and some. 1845 LD. CAMPBELL Chancellors (1857) III. lvi. 130 When the writer tries to be light and airy, we have such a botch as might have been expected. 1870 HAWTHORNE Eng. Note-bks. (1879) I. 187, I have made a miserable botch of this description. 1876 HAMERTON Intell. Life II. ii. 406 Vastness of the interval, that separates botch-work from handicraft.

b. fig. 1864 E. A. MURRAY E. Norman I. 159 The men were not to be trusted, most of them being convicts, or ‘botches’ of one kind or other.

  1. a. = BOTCHER n.1 dial. 1855 Whitby Gloss., A Botch, a cobbler.

b. = BOTCHER1 3. dial. and colloq. 1829 J. KENNEY Illust. Stranger II. i. 24 Some botch of an embalmer, who had not done justice to Your princely remains. 1868 J. C. ATKINSON Gloss. Cleveland Dial. 59 He’s nobbut an aud botch. He’s mair lahk t’mar an t’mend.

botch, v.1 SECOND EDITION 1989

(b{rfa}t{sh}) Also 4 bocchyn, 5-6 botche. [ME. bocche-n, of uncertain etymology: having apparently no original relation to BOTCH n.1, though the words may have subsequently influenced each other. Prof. Skeat suggests for the vb. a LG. origin, comparing MDu. butsen, (1) to strike, beat, (2) to repair (Oudemans), app. related to Du. botsen to knock, dash, Ger. dial. butschen, butzen to strike, knock; according to Franck an onomatop{oe}ic word of echoic origin. But the sense ‘repair’ in Du. butsen seems to be recent, while in English it appears in Wyclif: also there is no sense ‘knock’ in English, so that connexion with the continental words is very doubtful. Perhaps the Eng. word is an onomatop{oe}ia related in its genesis to ‘patch’; cf. Ger. batzen to patch. See BODGE.]

  1. trans. To make good or repair (a defect, damage, damaged article); to patch, mend. Now only: to repair clumsily or imperfectly. Often with up. 1382 WYCLIF 2 Chron. xxxiv. 10 That thei enstoren the temple, and eche feble thingus thei bocchyn [1388 reparele alle feble thingis]. 1530 PALSGR. 461/1, I botche or patche an olde garment..I have botched my hosen at the heles. 1551 ROBINSON tr. More’s Utop. (Arb.) 69 Sicke bodies..to be kept and botched up. a1680 BUTLER Rem. (1759) II. 200 He does not mend his Manners, but botch them with Patches of another Stuff and Colour. 1863 FAWCETT Pol. Econ. IV. ii. 535 Botching and patching each single tax.

b. absol. To do repairs; to patch clumsily. 1580 TUSSER Husb. (1878) 166 Cobble and botch, ye that cannot buie new. 1730 SWIFT Dan Jackson’s Pict. Wks. 1755 IV. I. 249 At last I’m fairly forc’d to botch for’t. 1815 SCOTT Guy M. xxi, I labour and botch..and produce at last a base caricature. 1865 [see BOTCHING vbl. n.2]

  1. To spoil by unskilful work; to bungle. 1530 PALSGR. 461/1 To botche or bungyll a garment as he dothe that is nat a perfyte workeman. 1663 PEPYS Diary 26 Apr., Tom coming, with whom I was angry for his botching my camlott coat. 1850 BLACKIE Æschylus I. 293 This chorus seems hopelessly botched..and all attempts to mend it are more or less unsatisfactory. 1858 HAWTHORNE Fr. & It. Jrnls. I. 292 The greatest bungler that ever botched a block of marble.

  2. fig. trans. To put or stitch together clumsily or unskilfully; to construct or compose in a bungling manner. Often with up, together. 1561 T. NORTON Calvin’s Inst. III. v. (1634) 319 Augustines booke of repentance..botched of good and bad by some scraper together. 1678 CUDWORTH Intell. Syst. I. iv. 411 An ill-agreeing Drama, botch’d up of many impertinent Intersertions. 1768 TUCKER Lt. Nat. II. 124 One or two of Horace’s purple rags botched together with coarse seams of abuse.

b. To add as a patch. 1589 Pappe w. Hatchet (1844) 39 Botching in such frize iestes vppon fustion earnest. 1656 [see BOTCHING vbl. n.]

Saturday

In which a song reminds me of Scotland

…is one of my favourite cosy, romantic songs. It’s by The Clientele, and it goes something like:

The taxi lights were in your eyes
So warm again, St Mary’s spires
The carnival was over in the rain
And on and on, through Vincent St
The evening hanging like a dream
I touched your faith*
And saw the night again

When I lived in Edinburgh, I thought it was a song about the city. After all, the Clientele did record one song almost definitely set in Edinburgh,** and it has both a St Mary’s Cathedral (with distinctive spires)*** and a Saint Vincent St. Glasgow, though, has both too.

And in your arms, I watch the stars
Ascend, and sleep
The loneliness away for a while
Your fingers wide and locked in mine
I kiss your face, I kiss your eyes
Until they turn to me and softly smile

Edinburgh or Glasgow, I wish I was up in Scotland this weekend. I’m sure I will be again soon.

* Until writing this post, I thought it said “I touched your face”. Listening very carefully just now, for the first time I realised it’s actually “faith”.

** A B-side called “6am, Morningside”

*** Actually, it has two St Mary’s Cathedrals, just to confuse people. One of them, the Episcopalian one, has three distinctive spires that are a major city landmark, especially when you look down the length of Princes St. The Catholic one, on the other hand, is tucked away inconspicuously behind a shopping centre.

Beltane

In which we wonder where religions come from

The big problem with three-day weekends* is that you start wishing they were four-day ones.

I didn’t do much for the May Day weekend. Lazed around in the house, then on Monday popped out to York for the day. As it was May 1st, I automatically thought of Edinburgh, and the raucous, fire-whirling Beltane celebrations on Calton Hill.

The Beltane celebrations are very popular in Edinburgh, largely with students and tourists who leap at the chance to do something Celtic, Spiritual and Traditional. The last of those, of course, is rubbish: Edinburgh Beltane is an entirely modern event, with no connection to some ancient mystical past. That doesn’t mean it isn’t religious and spiritual, of course – we all make our own religions, even if we don’t realise it. Although most of the performers are interested primarily in giving a performance, there are a few pagans among the Beltane organisers who see it, personally, as a religious ritual. They are the ones who, if the Christian Fundamentalist wing of Edinburgh Council succeed in getting it blocked,** will sneak away for a private ceremony in a quiet field somewhere, without the fire jugglers and drunken students. In fact, many of them already do.

As I said, we all make our own religions. Back home on Monday, I said a quiet and submissive prayer to the Goddess. Not because I believe she exists, but because I believe she might; and you never know what other gods were listening at the time. It’s always nice to think you’re receiving a bit of spiritual guidance, whether it comes from the supernatural world or not.

* apart from them being largely bunched together, as Diamond Geezer has described.

** No, really – there is a small-but-significant Christian Fundamentalist faction in Edinburgh Labour Party, who constantly do their best to block what they see as a Satanist festival. I used to know someone who was closely connected with the Beltane Fire Society, which is how I know all this – although it might be a few years out of date now.

Italian cuisine

In which we talk about poverty, diet, and the deep-fried pizza

I often don’t agree with the writing of Julie Bindel, the left-wing feminist who apparently believes that everyone should have full control over their own body, unless they were born male, or want to prostitute themselves. Today, though, I thought she was along the right lines when she wrote about diet and classism: it’s easy to criticise poor people for being unhealthy, when they don’t have the time or the money to eat well.*

She falls down, though, by jumping on something that’s a common Scottish stereotype. The Deep-Fried Mars Bar.

Having lived in Scotland, I can assure you that hardly anybody actually eats these things. They do exist, usually in about one chip shop per city. I’ve had one myself, from Pasquale’s in Edinburgh.** I’ve had one. That’s my point – nearly everybody who has had one, has only had one, just to try.

Everyone in England thinks the Scots survive on the things, but hardly anyone down here has heard of something that’s almost unhealthy, but far more common. The deep-fried pizza. Hard, greasy, fat-soaked, they sound just as horrible but they do exist. They’re real. People eat them regularly. People live on them. People get fat on them; they’re more than just part of a national stereotype.

* And this isn’t a new problem, of course: the British government originally brought in compulsary school PE lessons because they were worried about the poor health of Army recruits. That was during the Boer War.

** I’m not sure if Pasquale’s is still there – it was on Clerk St, near the old Odeon, and opposite the greengrocer’s that’s now a vintage clothing shop.

Stereotypical

In which Boris Johnson might help perpetuate a stereotype

According to yesterday’s Observer, Boris Johnson is planning to stand for election as Rector of Edinburgh University.*

I’m not among the relevant electorate, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Aside from the fact that he can hardly spend much time on the job, it’s hardly going to do very much for the university’s reputation. Edinburgh is already known as the university for posh, rich English kids who aren’t bright enough for Oxbridge; voting for someone who carefully cultivates a reputation for being posh and bumbling is hardly going to help.

* I’m quite pleased that I managed to avoid the cliché of adding “…is planning to follow in Gordon Brown’s footsteps by…” Aaargh, damn, I’ve spoilt it now. At least Brown’s Rectorship had a lasting effect: he annoyed the University management so much that they banned students from standing for the post.